The Indian Wars in the area of the present-day United States began in 1540 when the conquistadors of Francisco Vazquez de Coronado clashed with Zuni warriors of the pueblo of Hawikuh. The wars ended three and one-half centuries later, in 1890, when U.S. cavalry troops almost wiped out Big Foot's (1825-90) band of Sioux at Wounded Knee. These two events and the numerous clashes in between were part of the continuing struggle for possession of North America. Warfare was but one instrument of conquest; diplomacy, trade, disease, and assimilation also played significant roles. Warfare, however, was a constant theme, one central to understanding the conquest of the continent.
Colonial Indian Wars
Almost continuous Indian warfare marked the colonial experience in North America. Spain established outposts in the area of the Rio Grande early in the 17th century with a major aim of converting the Pueblo tribes to Christianity, a program severely retarded by the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680, which drove all Spaniards from the province for 12 years. In the East, English settlers also provoked uprisings as they began to spread inland from the Atlantic Coast. A bloody outbreak in Virginia in 1622 was followed by the Pequot war in New England in 1636-37. In most of the English colonies sporadic fighting alternated with full-scale war for a century and a half. One of the most violent conflicts was king Philip's war of 1675-76 in New England.
Moreover, in the imperial contest between Britain and France, each power incited and led Indian allies against the other. By the middle of the 18th century this struggle had spread beyond the Appalachian Mountains to the Great Lakes region and had become preeminently Indian warfare. Although the French enjoyed many advantages in the French and Indian war of 1754-63, England finally prevailed. England's hold on the Great Lakes region was almost broken in 1763 with the outbreak of Pontiac's rebellion. An alliance of Ottawa and other tribes stormed Detroit. The garrison held, however, and the so-called conspiracy of Pontiac collapsed. In that same year England forbade all white settlement beyond the Appalachians.
The Woodlands Wars of the Eastern United States
In the American Revolution the British, as the French had done earlier, made extensive use of Indians to fight the colonists. After the war settlers pushed west of the mountains, and new fighting erupted. North of the Ohio River, in 1790 and 1791, Little Turtle led warriors of the Miami, Shawnee, and other tribes to victories over U.S. troops before the Indians were crushed by Gen. "Mad Anthony" Wayne in the Battle of fallen timbers in 1794. The Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, carried on, striving to forge a grand alliance of tribes west of the mountains. His dream was shattered by the Indiana Territory Governor William Henry Harrison at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. Tecumseh fell in battle during the war of 1812, in which Indians once again aided the British. In the South, Indian resistance collapsed after Gen. Andrew Jackson defeated the Creeks in 1814 at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, located in present-day Alabama.
In the three decades following the War of 1812 the U.S. government evolved a policy of moving eastern tribes to new homes west of the Mississippi River in order to clear the way for white settlement. For the most part, Indian removal was accomplished by nonviolent though coercive measures. Notable exceptions were Florida's Seminole wars (1817-18, 1835-42, 1856-58) and the brief Black hawk war (1832) in Illinois and present-day Wisconsin.
The Later Indian Wars in the Western United States
In the mid-19th century the wars spread from the eastern woodlands to the plains, mountains, and deserts of the Trans-Mississippi West. The territorial acquisitions of the 1840s brought new tribes within the limits of the United States and, with the discovery of gold in California (1848) shattered the hope for a "Permanent Indian Frontier" along the eastern edge of the Great Plains. For four decades, as new mineral strikes and other economic opportunities pulled the frontier of settlement westward, armed force alternated with negotiation until, one after another, the tribes had been brought under subjection.
At first the objective of U.S. military policy was to keep the travel routes open and protect the settled areas. A system of military posts developed in response to the threat as Indian raiders, their tribal ranges invaded, attacked both travelers and settlers. In the 1850s military forces defeated rebelling tribes in the Pacific Northwest, fought the first skirmishes with the Sioux and Cheyenne of the Great Plains, and contended indecisively with Kiowa and Comanche raiders along the Texas frontier and Apache raiders in the Southwest.
The Civil War diverted white energies momentarily, but the mobilization of volunteer armies soon enabled the federal government to field greater strength than ever. Between 1861 and 1865 volunteer forces conquered the Navajoes of the Southwest and fought with the Great Plains tribes. The Minnesota Sioux outbreak of 1862 took the lives of about 800 settlers amid scenes of savagery. At Sand Creek, in Colorado Territory, volunteer troops in 1864 perpetrated barbarities on black kettle's Cheyennes rivaling those of the Sioux in Minnesota .
Heavy fighting continued into the postwar years, highlighted by the Fetterman Massacre of 1866, when a detachment from Fort Phil Kearny, Wyo., was ambushed on the Bozeman trail and wiped out. A new government policy of "conquest by kindness" ultimately flowered in President Ulysses S. Grant's "Peace Policy," however.
In a series of treaties in the late 1860s representatives of many western tribes promised to settle their people on reservations. The Peace Policy did not, however, bring peace. The wars that followed were fought to force tribes onto reservations they had supposedly already accepted or to return them to reservations that they had fled once they discovered the harsh realities of life there.
The most spectacular of these conflicts were those with the Sioux and Cheyennes of the northern Plains from 1876 through 1881, notably the now-legendary Custer's Last Stand--the Battle of Little Bighorn , in which more than 200 men under Gen. George A. Custer perished on June 25, 1876. Sioux and Cheyenne resistance ended with the surrender of the Sioux chief, Sitting Bull, in 1881. The Red River War of 1874-75 finally brought peace to the southern Plains and Texas as Kiowas, Comanches, Cheyennes, and Arapahoes accepted life on reservations. Other encounters were the Modoc war of 1872-73, in the California lava beds; the dramatic flight (1877) of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce from Idaho across more than 1,500 miles of the American Northwest, almost to Canada; the Bannock-Paiute uprising of 1878 in Idaho and Oregon; and the Ute outbreak of 1879 in western Colorado. The long and bloody Apache wars of New Mexico and Arizona closed in 1886 when Geronimo surrendered for the last time. Wounded Knee, the tragic clash of reservation Sioux with U.S. troops in 1890, marked the end of the Indian Wars--in the very year that the U.S. Census recorded the disappearance of a frontier of settlement.
Little Bighorn, Battle of the
The Battle of the Little Bighorn (June 25, 1876), also called "Custer's Last Stand," was the last major Indian victory in the Indian wars of the American West. The Sioux and Cheyenne peoples resisted incursions of whites prospecting for gold on Indian land in the Black Hills of Dakota beginning in 1874. In 1876 the U.S. Army sent an expedition to subdue the Sioux leaders, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. On June 24, Col. George Armstrong Custer, commanding the 7th Cavalry, located their camp on the Little Bighorn River in Montana. Underestimating his opponents' strength, he attacked them with a small force of about 225 men the following day. In the ensuing battle, Custer and all of his men were killed. Despite their victory, most of the Sioux had been expelled from the Black Hills by the end of 1876. The site of the battle is now a national monument.
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