How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans

How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans

John killerlane - October 8, 2018

As the United States Government sought to develop its economy after independence, the “Indian Question” posed a significant challenge to American expansionism. As the cultural landscape transformed so too did Native American policy during the one-hundred-year period after independence. Early expressions of good faith towards Native Americans and respect for their property rights quickly came under pressure as the population grew.
Native American tribes located in the southeast found themselves being removed to allow for white settlement of their lands. As western migration intensified, competition for land and resources led to a series of devastating wars, known as the Plains Wars, between the Native American tribes and the United States Army. This list will look at the events which led up to these wars and how American expansionism and governmental policy towards Native Americans were key contributing factors.

How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans
Northwest Territory 1787.


1. Early U.S. Government Native American Policy

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was one of several ordinances enacted by the United States Congress for the incorporation of the Northwest Territory into the Union. The Ordinance outlined the governance of the territory and in Article 3 made special mention of respecting the liberty, rights, and property of the indigenous people of the United States. This policy was later enshrined in the Act of August 7, 1789, as one of the first declarations by the U.S. Congress under the Constitution.

“The utmost good faith shall always be observed toward the Indians, their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity shall from time to time be made, for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them.”

How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans
Benjamin Hawkins (1754-1816) along his plantation along the Flint River in Georgia with Creek Indians.

2. Indian Commerce Clause of the Constitution and the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act

In 1789 the Indian Commerce Clause is added to the U.S. Constitution. It states that “Congress shall have the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” The clause is recognized as the “principal basis for the federal government’s broad power over Indians.” Indian agents are placed under the jurisdiction of the War Department. Their primary role is to liaise on behalf of the government with Native American tribes and to negotiate treaties with them.

In 1790 the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act is passed. The overseeing and regulation of interactions and trade between Indian and non-Indians is placed under federal rather than state control. The Act also establishes the boundaries of Indian territory, guarantees the protection of Native American land from non-Indian aggression and makes injuries against Native Americans by non-Indians a federal crime. It allows for tribal resolution to conflicts between different tribes within Native American territory. These Acts are renewed periodically between 1790-1834.

In 1824 the Indian Office is established by the Secretary of War which later becomes the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1849.

How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans
Map showing territory included in Louisiana Purchase with U.S. President Thomas Jefferson (left) and Napoleon Bonaparte (right).

3. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 – A plan for a Permanent Indian Frontier

On February 18, 1803, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Benjamin Hawkins, a former U.S. Senator and then Indian Agent. Jefferson expresses his view that he believes that the traditional practice of hunting was no longer meeting the subsistence needs of the Native Americans and that a more widespread adoption of farming and household manufacture was “essential (to) their preservation.” By adopting traditional subsistence methods employed by white settlers, such as farming, Jefferson believed that it would “enable them to live on much smaller portions of land,” which would, in turn, free up more land for white settlers.

Jefferson envisions a trade of land for goods which the Native Americans require and believes that it is in the Native Americans interest to intermix with white settlers as they are in a more dangerous and insecure position living separately and independently. This assimilationist view would become official government policy later in the nineteenth century but in the first half of the century, segregation and removal was the prevailing policy.
An example of the policy of removal and segregation can be found in a message by President James Monroe to Congress in 1825. Monroe discusses extinguishing Native American title to land in Georgia and the removal of tribes to allow for white settlement. Monroe states that “experience has clearly demonstrated that in their present state it is impossible to incorporate them in such masses, in any form whatever, into our system.” Therefore, the removal of these tribes in Georgia, Monroe feels, will “shield them from impending ruin.”

The purchase of Louisiana from the French in 1803 would facilitate the removal of tribes located in the east to lands west of the Mississippi. Jefferson envisioned most of this newly acquired territory as a Permanent Indian Frontier west of the Mississippi River. As historian Gregory H. Nobles put it, “implicit in that plan was the assumption that some native peoples would have to move – or be moved – so that the citizens of the United States could inhabit all the lands to the east of the Mississippi without competition or conflict.”
On March 26, 1804, the U.S. Government gave official notice to the tribes located east of the Mississippi River to move to lands located in the west. In 1821, the U.S. government began moving the “Five Civilized Tribes” of southeast America – i.e. the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Choctaw, and Chickasaw tribes. This process would intensify following the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans
Chief Justice John Marshall.

4. Johnson v McIntosh Supreme Court Decision 1823

This case centered around the right of Native Americans to sell their land to private citizens. In 1775, Thomas Johnson and other private British citizens purchased land from the Piankeshaw tribe. When Johnson died his heirs inherited his land. Then, in 1818, William McIntosh purchased 11,000 acres of land from the U.S. government which was the same land that Johnson had bought from the Piankeshaw. This led to Johnson’s heirs suing McIntosh over ownership of the land.

Chief Justice John Marshall ultimately ruled that Native American tribes did not have “absolute title to their lands, but a lesser interest known as right of occupancy” The U.S. government “held exclusive right to obtain Indian land title either by purchase or conquest.” The Piankeshaw, therefore, had no right to sell land to private citizens and thus the sale to Johnson was illegal and invalid.

The case was the first of three Supreme Court rulings by Chief Justice John Marshall in a nine-year period known as the Marshall Trilogy. In the third case of the trilogy, i.e. Worcester v Georgia in 1832, Chief Justice Marshall recognized the Native American tribes as being “undisputed possessors of the land, from time immemorial.”

“The Indian nations had always been considered as distinct, independent, political communities, retaining their original natural rights, as the undisputed possessors of the land, from time immemorial. The settled doctrine of the law of nations is, that a weaker power does not surrender its independence—its right to self-government—by associating with a stronger, and taking its protection. A weak state, in order to provide for its safety, may place itself under the protection of one more powerful, without stripping itself of the right of government, and ceasing to be a state.”

How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans
Trail of Tears.

5. Indian Removal Act of 1830 marks a change in U.S. government policy toward Native Americans

On April 7, 1830, President Andrew Jackson submits a bill to Congress which calls for the relocation of tribes situated in the east to lands west of the Mississippi. The passage of the Indian Removal Act on May 28, 1830, marks a significant shift in governmental policy towards Native Americans. The Act authorizes the president to grant tribes unsettled and undesirable prairie lands in the west in exchange for sought-after Native American land, particularly in the southeast.

While a number of northern tribes are peacefully relocated, some tribes, particularly the “Five Civilized Tribes,” i.e. the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Choctaw, and Seminole refuse to trade their cultivated lands for less desirable land in the west. Many Native Americans belonging to these tribes had “homes, representative government, children in missionary schools, and trades other than farming.” The refusal of these tribes to leave resulted in the government forcibly removing them from their land. Approximately 100,000 Native Americans, many in manacles, were marched westward during the 1830s. An estimated 25,000 died en route during the removal process.

The Indian Removal Act had particularly devastating consequences for the Cherokee. Despite the Supreme Court rulings of 1831 and 1832 which stated that the Cherokee were entitled to remain on their land President Jackson sent in the Army in May 1838 to remove approximately 16,000 Cherokee from their land in Georgia. 1,500 die while imprisoned in camps for the summer. The surviving Cherokee are then marched 800 miles to Oklahoma along the “Trail of Tears.” Approximately 4,000 Cherokee died during the removal process.
The refusal of the Florida-based Seminole to be relocated leads to the Second Seminole War which lasts from 1835-1842. It is one of the most expensive and longest wars fought by the U.S. Army. 1,500 men are killed and $40-60 million is spent which was more than the entire allocated budget for Indian removal.

How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans
Man panning for gold.

6. The California Gold Rush of 1848 results in an influx of gold prospectors through and into Native American territory

In early 1848 a carpenter from New Jersey named James Wilson Marshall who was building a sawmill in Coloma, California, discovered gold in the American River. News of this spread and sparked a gold rush resulting in tens of thousands of gold prospectors flocking to California in search of their fortune. Approximately 40,000 headed west along the California Trail but few made the fortune they had hoped for. The sudden influx of Anglo-American settlers passing through and settling on Native American territory heightens tensions between the two groups and leads to conflict. In 1850 California passes the Indenture Act which effectively allows for a form of legal slavery of indentured Indians by non-Indians. During this time the practice of kidnapping Indian children and their subsequent sale as apprentices becomes widespread. In 1853 the Indian population is forced onto military reservations. In 1849 approximately 150,000 Indians lived in California, but a “combination of legal slavery and near genocide” reduces that number to just 30,000 by 1870.

How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans
Treaty of Fort Laramie, 1851. Sutori.

7. The Concentration Policy: The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 establishes separate territories for each tribe

At Fort Laramie in 1851, the government proposed creating separate territories for each tribe, thereby isolating them from each other, and allowing for white settlement on their ceded lands. However, many tribal leaders would not accept the idea of living on reservations and those who did agree did not fully represent much less control all of their people. Despite surrendering their lands to Euro-American settlers continual encroachment onto reservation land would lead to a series of wars which spanned from the early 1850s to the 1870s, collectively known as the Plains Wars. While the resolution of the first phase of the Plains Wars lay in the treaty-making process the Indian wars of the 1870s would be resolved entirely by military enforced confinement onto reservations. As General Sherman put it in 1868, the United States policy was “peace within their reservations and war without.”

How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans
The Homestead Act was passed in 1862 to encourage western migration and settlement.

8. The passage of the Homestead and Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 promote western migration and settlement

Victory over the Confederacy allowed the government to press on with its policy of developing the economy of the western half of the United States. The process had already begun during the Civil War with the passage of a couple of crucial acts. On May 2, 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act to encourage western migration and settlement. Homesteaders could purchase 160 acres of land for $1.25 an acre after six months residence or for just a $30 registration fee if they were willing to make a five-year commitment.

To facilitate this migration Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act on July 1, 1862. It made huge cash subsidies and grants available to private companies to lay train tracks to connect the western states to the rest of the country. This process was completed on May 10, 1869, when the Union Pacific railroad company who had started at Omaha, Nebraska, and the Central Pacific railroad company, which had begun construction at Sacramento, California, joined their tracks in Promontory, Utah.

How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans
Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Nathaniel G. Taylor.

9. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs proposes the establishment of two large reservations to facilitate safe western migration for white settlers

It was becoming clear to the government that in order to facilitate western migration, the Concentration policy would have to redefined if it was to succeed. Nathaniel G. Taylor, the newly appointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs, proposed a possible solution to the Indian question in 1867. Taylor advocated the establishment of two large reservations for all the tribes of the plains, one south of Kansas, the other north of Nebraska. With the tribes confined upon the two reservations, the area between would allow for the safe migration of white settlers heading westward.

In October 1867 a seven-man “peace commission” which included Commissioner Taylor and General Sherman met with representatives of the southern plains tribes – the Kiowas, Kiowa-Apaches, Comanches, Southern Cheyennes, and Arapahos – at Medicine Lodge, Kansas. In exchange for the cession of their lands and consent to live peacefully on reservations, tribes would be allowed to continue to hunt buffalo off the reservation and would receive annual allocations of food and supplies for thirty years. Most of the major leaders of the southern plains tribes signed the treaty.

Negotiations with the northern tribes would not be as straightforward. Only after the government had agreed to close the Bozeman Trail, (the main route for whites to the Montana goldfields, but which also passed through the Sioux’s prime buffalo-hunting ground) and to dismantle all the forts that protected it, would Red Cloud, the leader of the Oglala add his signature to the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. Others, such as Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Chief, refused to recognize the right of the government to confine their people upon reservations. Sitting Bull, in fact, described Red Cloud and the other leaders who signed treaties with the United States as “rascals…[who] sold our country without the full consent of our people.”

How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans
General Philip Sheridan.

10. The United States Army engages in “Total Warfare” against the Native Americans.

Peace on the southern plains would not last long however as restless warriors of the Southern Cheyenne carried out raids on the villages of their traditional rivals, the Kaws and the Pawnees. When Thomas Murphy, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, withheld arms and ammunition guaranteed to the Southern Cheyennes under the Medicine Lodge Treaty in an attempt to quell the violence the warriors vented their frustration on white settlers, killing fifteen. This violation provided Generals Sherman and Sheridan with the opportunity to engage in the “total warfare” which would characterize the military’s brutal response to Indian resistance that would continue until the 1880s. Rather than confining engagements solely to those warriors responsible, the Army carried out a devastating series of raids on Southern Cheyennes encampments, killing women and children, and destroying food supplies and horses in order to make life as difficult as possible for the surviving Cheyennes. Sheridan’s notorious statement that “the only good Indians I ever saw were dead,” appeared to shape the philosophy of his winter campaign of 1868-1869.

How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans
President Ulysses S. Grant.

11. President Grant seeks a peaceful solution to the Indian Question.

The army’s actions were met with loud public outcry. In January 1869, president-elect Grant informed a delegation of Quakers that his administration was prepared to pursue a peaceful solution to the Indian Question. Grant told them that if they “could make Quakers out of the Indians it would take the fight out of them.” Although Grant favored a peaceful solution to the Indian Question his determination to see the Concentration policy succeed ensured that the use of force would be used wherever peaceful means failed – “those [Indians] who do not accept this policy will find the new administration ready for a sharp and severe war policy.”

Soon after taking office Grant met with Christian reformers in Philadelphia on the 20th March 1869 and again in the White House four days later. The reformers, led by William Welsh, urged the president to allow Protestant denominations and humanitarian groups to supervise the Indian service and advise the government of federal Indian policy.
On the 3rd June 1869, Grant established the Board of Indian Commissioners to advise the Secretary of the Interior and the commissioner of Indian Affairs regarding Indian policy, as well as overseeing the appointment of Indian agents. Grant’s attempt to place the Indian Bureau under the War Department was later blocked by Congress. Grant appointed his aide-de-camp during the Civil War, Ely S. Parker as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Parker was of Iroquois descent and to the president was the personification of what the Concentration policy could bring about.

How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans
Indian Appropriation Act.

12. A major shift in policy by the U.S. government brings an end to the treaty-making process with Native American tribes

An increasing number of Congressman had protested against the policy of negotiating treaties with Native American tribes to resolve conflicts. Sufficient pressure resulted in a shift in governmental policy and the passage of the Indian Appropriation Act on March 3, 1871, which declared that “hereafter, no Indian nation or tribe would be recognized as an independent power with whom the United States may contract by treaty.”

The Indian Appropriation Act brought an end to over two and a half centuries of negotiating treaties with Native American tribes which had begun in 1607. In the period 1607-1776, at least 175 separate treaties had been negotiated between the tribes and the British. From 1778-1868 the U.S. Government had ratified 371 treaties with Native American tribes. With the passage of the Indian Appropriation’s Act, future Native American policy would be determined by the passage of Congressional statutes or executive orders.

How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans
Buffalo were hunted to almost extinction during the 1800s.

13. White buffalo hunters on Native American land increases tensions between the two groups.

War would again break out on the southern plains in 1874. Under the terms of the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867, the Cheyennes, Arapahos, Kiowas, Comanches, and Kiowa-Apaches were assigned to two reservations in the western part of the Indian Territory. Although each tribe was promised annual allocations of food and other supplies from the government, these supplies were only ever intended to supplement the hunting of buffalo on the lands to the south of the Arkansas River. Stipulated in the treaty itself was the right for the Indians to hunt “so long as the buffalo may range thereon in such numbers as to justify the chase.”

White hunters using high-powered repeating rifles had effectively exterminated the buffalo population on the central plains by the mid-1870s. The slaughter of buffalo reached its peak in 1873-1874 when an estimated seven and a half million were killed. Were the new settlers to continue on hunting as recklessly as they had done on the central plains then the inevitable extermination of the buffalo on the lands surrounding the Cheyenne-Arapahoe Reservation would threaten the very existence of the Indians themselves. Not only would the white hunters be killing their main source of food they would ultimately be confining them exclusively to their reservations where they would be completely dependent on meagre government supplies that often arrived late or sometimes not at all.

How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans
General William T. Sherman.

14. General Sherman orders General Sheridan to take action to quell the Indian uprising

Responding to white encroachment onto reservation land Southern Cheyenne and Comanche warriors swept across the two-hundred-mile radius of the reservation attacking settlers, travelers as well as army parties. General Sherman ordered General Philip Sheridan in to quell the uprising. Adopting the same brutal strategy as he had used in the winter campaign of 1868-1869, Sheridan embarked on another winter campaign of total warfare targeting, not just the warriors themselves but the entire Southern Cheyenne and Comanche population. Surrounding the tribes on all sides Sheridan commanded a five-pronged attack which moved inwards burning encampments as they encountered them. In order to maximize the devastation and inflict as much suffering as possible, all food, animals, and weapons were destroyed.

Some Southern Cheyennes managed to evade the army and join the Northern Cheyennes at the Red Cloud Agency. The remainder, exhausted and hungry from the relentless pursuit had no alternative but to surrender at Fort Sill. On the 13th March 1875, to prevent any further uprisings, Grant ordered that seventy-four leading warriors of the southern plains tribes be sent to Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida. Once again the Red River War highlighted that the army was willing to carry out the Concentration policy by whatever means necessary.

How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans
Painting depicting Native American warriors on horseback.

15. Tensions rise between the Sioux and the U.S. Government

Peace on the northern plains would not last long either. Under the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, the Sioux had been granted land in the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming. The treaty also permitted the Sioux to hunt buffalo outside the Great Sioux Reservation in the Black Hills and Powder River Country. In 1872, the Northern Pacific Railroad announced that it intended to lay a track north of the Great Sioux Reservation from Bismarck to the Yellowstone River valley.

The Sioux opposed the plan from the start. Apart from passing through their main buffalo-hunting range, the Sioux were well aware that a railway line would mean the arrival of more white settlers into the region. Two government officials were sent in 1873 to try and persuade the Sioux to allow the railway lines construction. The Sioux would not budge. The Northern Pacific would not take no for an answer. In June surveyors began mapping the route under army protection. With construction due to commence in the spring, Sherman, aware of Sioux opposition, was already drawing up plans for war. War was averted, albeit temporarily when Northern Pacific went bankrupt before construction could begin.

How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans
Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, commanding officer of the Seventh Cavalry.

16. Blacks Hills and Custer’s Last Stand

General Sheridan argued that a fort should be constructed in the Great Sioux Reservation so that the army could protect future railroad construction as well as subdue any Sioux attacks on white settlements. The site for construction of the fort was the Black Hills, a place sacred to the Oglala Sioux. Sheridan sent George Armstrong Custer and ten companies of the Seventh Cavalry to the Black Hills in the spring of 1874 to find a suitable location to construct the fort. While in the Black Hills, Custer found gold and sent word back to Washington. The news spread, sparking a gold rush to the Black Hills. The tribes of the northern plains, particularly the Sioux, were furious with this encroachment on their ancestral lands. In September 1875, the government offered the Sioux $400,000 a year to lease the Black Hills from them, or $6 million to buy the land outright. Predictably the Sioux refused the offer. The government decided to use this opportunity to punish the off-reservation Sioux. All Sioux, Northern Cheyennes, and Arapahoes, who were not within the boundary of the Great Sioux Reservation by the 31st of January 1876 would be considered hostile and therefore at war with the United States.

Sitting Bull summoned ally tribes to his camp at Rosebud Creek and by the time Custer and the Seventh Cavalry arrived at the Little Bighorn River, the Indians numbered in the tens of thousands. Custer’s famous Last Stand on the 25th June 1876, represented the last decisive victory for Native Americans in the Indian wars. As the Sioux and Cheyennes celebrated the victory convinced that they had successfully repelled the military Sheridan began preparing for yet another devastating winter campaign. The defeat of the Sioux in 1877 brought about what Grant’s Peace Policy had failed to do, the end of the most powerful tribe’s resistance to the Concentration policy.

How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans
Sitting Bull.

17. The Native Americans’ “ultimate undoing”

The army fought a series of smaller wars with other Indian tribes throughout the 1870s. Against the Nez Perces in Idaho, the Utes in Colorado, against the Bannocks, Shoshonis and Paiutes in Nevada and eastern Oregon, but all suffered the same fate as the Sioux. According to historian William T. Hagan, the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 and the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 “provided the framework for the Indians ultimate undoing.” By consenting to the cession of most of their land for peace, and theoretically if not practically agreeing to begin farming and sending their children to mission schools, Hagan believes that the Native Americans had unwittingly sealed their fate.

The second phase of Indian wars that occurred during the 1870s resulted not only from white encroachment upon lands guaranteed to the Indians by treaties negotiated in the late 1860s but the resistance of certain Indian factions to reservation life. Some, most notably, Sitting Bull, would not accept the right of the government to confine his people to reservations. Indian resistance was met with an even greater determination by the army to enforce the Concentration policy.

How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans
Senator Henry Dawes. wikipedia

18. The Dawes Severalty Act

Also known as the Dawes General Allotment Act and named after its sponsor Senator Henry Dawes. The purpose of the Act was to essentially make farmers out of the Native Americans by dividing reservation land amongst individual tribesman so that they could begin farming on their plots of land. The Act allowed for the allocation of 160 acres per head of household and 80 acres per each unmarried adult. The U.S. government held the land in trust for twenty-five years, after which the owner won full title and citizenship.
The Dawes Severalty Act turned out to be a disaster for Native Americans. After the allocation of land to the relevant members of each tribe, the land deemed “surplus” was then made open to the public to purchase. Tellingly, it was only after this amendment was made to the original bill that the Act received enough votes to pass the Congressional vote. The Dawes Act resulted in 138 million acres or two-thirds of reservation land owned by Native Americans in 1878 being purchased by non-Indians by 1938.

The Dawes Act also had a detrimental effect on the social structure of the tribes so much so that reservation life became “characterized by disease, filth, poverty, and despondency.” Many previously nomadic tribes struggled to adapt to a sedentary agricultural way of life.

How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans
Wovoka, originator of the ill-fated second Ghost Dance movement.

19. Wovoka, The Ghost Dance, and Wounded Knee

Wovoka was the son of an assistant to the original Ghost Dance leader of the 1870s. In 1889, Wovoka claimed that he had fallen into a trance, during which God appeared to him and told him that within two years that the white man would disappear and that all of their Native American ancestors would rise from the dead and the buffalo would once more fill the plains. Wovoka told his followers that in order for this to happen Indians must remain peaceful and perform a ritualistic “Ghost Dance” at each new moon.

Wovoka’s message spread among the different tribes and his status elevated to that of a messiah. Wovoka’s teachings were adopted by many tribes but most notably by the militant Sioux. Wovoka’s growing influence began to alarm not only white settlers but also the U.S. Government who feared that Sitting Bull might use Wovoka’s influence to instigate an Indian uprising. On December 15, 1890, Indian Agency policemen attempted to arrest Sitting Bull. A scuffle ensued and shots were fired and Sitting Bull, one of the most prominent Indian leaders of the 19th century was killed.

Two weeks after Sitting Bull’s death, a Native American Chief named Big Foot, a Miniconjou leader led approximately three hundred Lakota Sioux to the Pine Ridge Reservation. When they were intercepted by the Seventh Cavalry, Custer’s old unit, they were technically considered “hostile” as they were off their reservation. Big Foot and the rest of his tribe surrendered peacefully to the Seventh Cavalry on December 28, 1890. While encamped at Wounded Knee Creek a scuffle broke out over a young brave’s new rifle. A shot was fired and in the chaos, a soldier was shot. The soldiers, accompanied by machine guns, open fire on the largely disarmed and practically defenseless Sioux. Those that tried to escape were pursued and killed. When the massacre ended, 144 Sioux lay dead, including 44 women and 16 children. They lay unburied until the Army returned the following Spring when the weather improved to bury the dead in mass graves.

How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans
Native American children were sent to boarding schools in an attempt to “Americanise” them.

20. Americanization – the attempt to “kill the Indian to save the man”

As historian Gregory H. Nobles put it, “also buried in those mass graves was the last vestige of significant resistance to the government’s Indian policy in the nineteenth century.” Historian Philip Weeks describes the policy of “Americanization” as the “third solution advanced (by the United States Government”) in the nineteenth century – the first being the policy of Separation which led to the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the second being the policy of Concentration which sought to confine tribes on reservations.
The Dawes Act effectively was the means of “Americanizing” or “civilizing” the Native American population by encouraging them to abandon their traditional ways of life and to adopt more American methods of subsistence, such as farming individual plots of land. Education was another method deployed by the government to “kill the Indian and save the man.” By 1900 thousands of Native American children were studying in boarding schools which forbade them from speaking their own native languages and even made them give up their Indian names.

“Americanization” remained the official Native American policy of respective federal governments until the 1930s, when John Collier, who was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Indian Commissioner, declared the policy a failure.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Hagan, William T. How the west was lost, in F. Hoxie-P. Iverson, eds., Indians in American History: An Introduction (Harlan Davidson, 1998).

Nobles, Gregory H. American Frontiers, Cultural Encounters and Continental Conquest, (New York, Penguin, 1998).

Prucha, Francis Paul, The Great Father. The United States Government and the American Indians, (University of Nebraska Press, 1986).

Utley, Robert, The Last Days of the Sioux Nation (Yale University Press, 1963).

Weeks, Philip, Farewell, My Nation: The United States and the Indians, 1820-1890, (H. Davidson, 1990).

“Indian policy (from United States). David A. Nichols. American History. Oxfordre.

“Native American Timeline of Events.” Kathy Weiser, March 2017.

“Johnson v McIntosh – Impact”

“Johnson & Graham’s Lesse v McIntosh.”, 23 August 2018.

“Indian Removal Act.” Encyclopaedia Britannica from Standard Edition. (2018).

“Tribal Sovereignty.”

“Indian Resources Timeline.”

“Native American Policy.” Gabriela Mercado,

“Northwest Ordinance; July 13, 1787.”

Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Hawkins, February 18, 1803, from The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes. Federal Edition. Collected and Edited by Paul Leicester Ford.”

President James Monroe, in an 1825 message to Congress in Native American Voices: A History and Anthology, ed. Steven Mintz (St. James, New York: Brandywine P, 1995) 111-112.