The Plains Aflame
President lincoln vastly understated the case when he told Lean Bear that his white children sometimes behaved badly. In the two and a half centuries between the settlement of the Jamestown colony in Virginia and Lincoln’s cautionary words to the Cheyenne chief, a relentlessly expansionist white population had driven the Indians westward without regard to treaty obligations or, sometimes, even simple humanity. The government of the young American Republic had not intended to exterminate the Indians. Nor had the founding fathers simply coveted Indian land. They had also wanted to “enlighten and refine” the Indian, to lead him from “savagery” to Christianity, and to bestow on him the blessings of agriculture and the domestic arts—in other words, to destroy an incompatible Indian way of life by civilizing rather than by killing the Indians.
The “civilized” Indians would not live on their homeland, which the federal government meant to purchase from them at the best possible price by means of treaties negotiated on the legal premise that tribes held title to their land and possessed sufficient sovereignty to transfer title to the true sovereign; that is to say, the United States. The federal government also pledged never to deprive the Indians of their land without their consent or to make war on them without congressional authorization. To prevent settlers or individual states from infringing on Indian rights, in 1790 Congress enacted the first of six statutes collectively known as the Nonintercourse Act, which prohibited the purchase of Indian land without federal approval and carried stiff punishments for crimes committed against Indians.
Not surprisingly, the punishment provision of the law quickly proved toothless. President George Washington attempted to intercede on behalf of the Indians, to whom, he insisted, full legal protection must be afforded, but his admonitions meant nothing to land-hungry whites living beyond the government’s reach. In order to prevent a mutual slaughter, Washington sent troops to the nation’s frontier. Once sucked into the fray, the small American army spent two decades and nearly all its limited resources in wresting the Old Northwest from powerful Indian confederations in undeclared wars. That set a dismal precedent; henceforth, treaties would be a mere legal veneer to conceal wholesale landgrabs that Congress tried to palliate with cash annuities and gifts of merchandise.
After George Washington, no president lost much sleep over Indian rights. Indeed, the executive branch led the way in divesting the Indians of their homelands. In 1817, President James Monroe told General Andrew Jackson that “the savage requires a greater extent of territory to sustain it than is compatible with the progress and just claims of civilized life, and must yield to it.” As president in the 1830s, Jackson took Monroe’s injunction to its harsh but logical extreme. With the authority granted him under the Removal Act of 1830, and by employing varying degrees of duress, Jackson swept the roving tribes of the Old Northwest beyond the Mississippi River. When southerners pressured him to open Indian lands in Alabama and Georgia, Jackson also uprooted the so-called Five Civilized Tribes—the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, Cherokees, and Seminoles—and resettled them west of the Mississippi River in Indian Territory, an unsustainably large tract spreading over several future states, which was gradually reduced to comprise solely present-day Oklahoma. Most of the “civilized” Indians went peaceably, but it took two long and bloody conflicts for the army to dislodge the Seminoles from their Florida strongholds, and a handful ultimately were allowed to remain.
Jackson never doubted the justice of his actions, and he truly believed that once beyond the Mississippi River the Indians would be forever free from white usurpation. Fur trappers, traders, and missionaries would be permitted to pass through the Indians’ new home and venture out onto the Great Plains, or into the mountains beyond, but there assuredly would be no further upheaval because army explorers had reported the Great Plains as unsuited to white settlement, and the public took them at their word.
But already there were pressures on the periphery. A burgeoning fur trade on the Missouri River expanded white contact with the western tribes. Also, the removal treaties bound the federal government to protect the relocated tribes not only from acquisitive whites but also from hostile Plains Indians, who had no desire to share their domain with newcomers, be they Indian or white. Meanwhile, white Missourians and Arkansans demanded protection from the dispossessed Indians in the event they found their new land somewhat less than the Eden they had been promised (which they did). The government’s answer was to build a chain of nine forts from Minnesota southward to northwest Louisiana between 1817 and 1842, creating a tantalizing abstraction known as the Permanent Indian Frontier.
Of the 275,000 Indians whose homelands lay outside Indian Territory and beyond the newly constituted military barrier, the government cared little and knew even less. White conceptions of the Indians of the American West were simplistic and tended toward extremes; Indians were either noble and heroic or barbaric and loathsome. But when the “Permanent Indian Frontier” crumbled less than a decade after its creation, a cataclysmic chain of events suddenly brought whites and Indians face-to-face west of the Mississippi.
The first crack in the permanent frontier appeared in 1841. Lured by the promise of fertile land in California and the Oregon Country, a few lumbering caravans of white-topped prairie schooners ventured tentatively onto the plains. The trickle soon became a torrent, and the rutted wagon road thus created along the shifting sands of the dreary Platte River became etched in the nation’s psyche as the Oregon Trail.
Then came the annexation of Texas in 1845, and a year later the United States and Britain settled a contentious dispute over the Oregon boundary. In early 1848, the War with Mexico ended in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, by which Mexico ceded California, the Great Basin, and the Southwest, as well as its claims to Texas, recognizing the Rio Grande as the international border. In just three years, the United States had grown by nearly a million square miles and become a continental nation. Expansionist orators exhorted Americans to fulfill the nation’s Manifest Destiny by emigrating to Texas, California, or the Pacific Northwest. (No one as yet considered the Great Plains other than a vast and tedious obstruction.) In August 1848, gold was discovered in California’s American River. The following year saw a mass migration unequaled in the young nation’s history. Within a decade, there were more whites in California than there were Indians in the entire West. Genocidal gold seekers decimated California’s peaceable small tribes, and the growth of white settlements in the newly organized Oregon Territory alarmed the stronger northwestern tribes.
As yet there had been no open conflict with the Indians in the West, but the peace was tenuous, warned the commissioner of Indian affairs. The Indians, he said, had abstained from attacking immigrant trains out of an expectation of reward from the government and not from fear, because they had not felt “our power and know nothing of our greatness and resources.”
They would not feel that power for some time to come; the government lacked anything resembling a coherent Indian policy, and the small regular army needed time to build forts in the West. In any case, the commissioner of Indian affairs need not have feared any great, concerted resistance to the white deluge. For one thing, the Indians did not perceive the white onslaught for the apocalyptic threat to their way of life that it was. But even if they had, the Indians of the American West had no common identity—no sense of “Indianness”—and were too busy fighting one another to give their undivided attention to the new threat.
And this was their Achilles’ heel. Only in the Pacific Northwest were the Indians able to unite against the sudden and vigorous white expansion. Few tribes in the West proved able to maintain the internal unity necessary to oppose the white advance. Nearly every tribe broke into two factions, one advocating peaceful accommodation with the whites and adopting white ways, the other holding fast to the traditional ways, resisting the government’s enticements to go peaceably onto reservations. The government grew adept at exploiting these rivalries, giving the army a potent fifth column in its battles to bring the “hostile” Indians to heel. The army would also come to benefit immeasurably from the intertribal warfare that lay at the very foundation of the culture of the Indians of the West. That the army needed Indian allies in order to prevail would prove axiomatic.
In the relations between tribes, there was nothing subtle; outsiders were either allies or enemies. The most intense intertribal conflict occurred on the northern plains, where warfare was fluid and continuous, as tribes struggled to conquer or protect hunting grounds. Tribes everywhere in the West survived and prospered by entering into alliances; those that went it alone suffered horribly. Open battles were rare; wars normally took the form of endless small raids and counterraids that chipped away at the loser’s domain.
On the Great Plains, the foundation of the Indian way of life was the American bison, commonly known as the buffalo. Buffalo meat was a staple. From the hide, the Indians fashioned robes for warmth and trade, containers for transport and storage, and skins for the distinctive conical tipi—also known as a lodge. No part of the animal was wasted. Not only did the buffalo undergird the economy, but it also shaped the Plains Indians’ religion and culture.
Well before the first American ventured beyond the Mississippi River, the European gifts of horses, guns, and disease had radically altered Plains and Rocky Mountain Indians’ cultures. In the sixteenth century, the Spaniards had introduced the horse to the New World. As the Spanish frontier pushed into the present-day southwestern United States, horses fell into the hands of Indians. Afterward, through theft and barter, the horse culture spread rapidly from tribe to tribe. In 1630, no tribe was mounted; by 1750, all of the Plains tribes and most of the Rocky Mountain Indians rode horses. The horse did not create the buffalo culture, but it made hunting infinitely easier. Horses also increased the frequency and fury of intertribal clashes, because warriors were able to range over distances previously unimaginable on foot. The gun, introduced to the Indians by French trappers and traders, made the hostile encounters far more deadly. White man’s diseases were deadlier yet, decimating western tribes just as they had ravaged those east of the Mississippi. No one knows precisely how many succumbed, but in 1849 alone cholera carried off half the Indian population of the southern plains.
A grand irony of the Great Plains is that none of the tribes with which the army would clash were native to the lands they claimed. All had been caught up in a vast emigration, precipitated by the white settlement of the East. This Indian exodus had begun in the late seventeenth century and was far from over when the Oregon Trail opened in 1843. As the dislocated Indians spilled onto the plains, they jockeyed with native tribes for the choicest hunting lands. In a very real sense, then—and this cannot be overemphasized—the wars that were to come between the Indians and the government for the Great Plains, the seat of the longest and bloodiest struggles, would represent the displacement of one emigrant people by another, rather than the destruction of a deeply rooted way of life.
The most powerful newcomers before the whites spilled onto the plains were the Sioux, formerly a woodlands people of the present-day upper Midwest. As it shifted west, the Sioux nation separated into three divisions: the Dakotas, a semisedentary people who clung to the Minnesota River; the Nakotas, who settled east of the Missouri River; and the Lakotas, who wrestled their way onto the northern plains. The Lakotas were the true horse-and-buffalo Sioux of popular imagination, and they constituted nearly half the Sioux nation. The Lakotas in turn divided into seven tribes: the Oglalas, Brulés, Miniconjous, Two Kettles, Hunkpapas, Blackfeet, and Sans Arcs, of which the Oglalas and the Brulés were the largest. In fact, these two tribes alone outnumbered all the non-Lakota Indians on the northern plains.
In their westward march across present-day Nebraska and the Dakotas during the early nineteenth century, the Lakotas gradually allied themselves with the Cheyennes and the Arapahos, who had been pushed onto the northern plains in advance of the Lakotas and had already forged an enduring bond, albeit an odd coupling. Their languages were mutually unintelligible, an impediment they overcame with a sophisticated sign language, and their characters could not have been more dissimilar. The Arapahos tended to be a kindly and accommodating people, whereas the Cheyennes evolved into fearsome warriors. The first contact between the Lakotas and the Cheyenne-Arapaho combination was hostile, because they competed for the game-rich Black Hills country. “Peace would be made,” a Cheyenne chief recounted. “They would hold out the pipe to us and say, ‘Let us be good friends,’ but time and again treacherously broke their promises.” Not until the 1840s did the Lakotas keep their word. By then, many of the Cheyennes and Arapahos, fed up with the duplicity of the Lakotas and lured by white traders, had migrated south, forming the Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho tribes and leaving the Lakotas the undisputed suzerains of the northern plains.
The Lakotas and the Cheyennes and Arapahos who remained on the northern plains had the same tribal enemies—the badly outnumbered but hard-fighting Crows of present-day central Montana and northern Wyoming and the semi-agricultural Pawnees who dwelled along the Platte River in Nebraska. The basis of the rivalry was both a relentless drive by the Lakota–Northern Cheyenne–Northern Arapaho alliance to expand their hunting lands and the warrior culture common to all Plains tribes. Geographically separated from each other, the Crows and the Pawnees never formed an alliance, but being badly in need of friends—or enemies of their enemies conceived of as friends—both tribes instead eventually cast their fate with the whites.
Similar jostling had occurred on the southern plains. The Kiowas, expelled from the Black Hills by the Lakotas, had retreated southward into the country known as Comancheria, where they first fought and then concluded an alliance with the Comanches. The uncontested lords of the southern plains and the most accomplished horsemen in the West, the Comanches were a fierce and cruel people who roamed and raided at will from the Arkansas River deep into Texas. They warred sporadically with Mexico but got along well enough with the Americans until settlers threatened their hunting grounds. The Republic of Texas treated the Comanches even worse than had the Mexican government, pursuing a policy of betrayal and brutality that culminated in the slaughter of a Comanche peace delegation. The Comanches afterward counted Texans as their bitterest enemies, and they regarded depredations against Texas settlers as both just retribution for the murder of their peace chiefs and good sport.
Copyright © 2016 by Peter Cozzens. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.