xxxxxAs we have seen, Custer’s famous “last stand” took place in June 1876 (Vb) at the Battle of Little Bighorn. The Sioux and other tribes had come out of their reservations in 1875 to protest against the horde of miners and prospectors entering the Black Hills, land which was sacred to them and had been granted to them by the government. But their victory over the U.S. Cavalry was short lived. Troops poured into the area. Many Sioux were killed, and the Black Hills were opened to white settlement. The final end to Sioux resistance came in 1890 with the coming of their Ghost Dance movement - a belief that by performing a ritualistic dance they would be immune from bullets, and their ancestors would return to rid them of the white man. Fearing that Sitting Bull, having returned to his tribe, might lead an uprising, the authorities tried to arrest him, but he was killed in the attempt. Some 300 Sioux left their reservation but peacefully surrendered to the U.S. Cavalry. The next day, however, when the Indians were being disarmed a trooper was shot. In response the soldiers opened fire, and over 150 men, women and children were killed. The Battle of Wounded Knee - regarded by many as a massacre - marked the end of Sioux resistance and brought to a close 350 years of Indian Wars in North America.



Ghost Dance: live sketch by the American artist Frederic Remington (1861-1909), published in the American political magazine Harper’s Weekly, New York, December 1890. Wounded Knee: by the American artist Frederic Remington (1861-1909), published in the American political magazine Harper’s Weekly, New York, January 1891. Map (North America): licensed under Creative Commons –

+Architecture. Map (North America): considered to be in the public domain – User:Dystopos – Map (Great Plains): licensed under Creative Commons –

xxxxxAs we have seen, the Battle of Little Bighorn in June 1876 (Vb) - in which Colonel George Custer made his famous last stand - was fought against the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. The Black Hills in South Dakota had been granted to them by the U.S. government in 1868, but after the discovery of gold in the area in 1874, the government reneged on the agreement and ordered all Indians to move out of their reservations. Rightly aggrieved, the Indians amassed a sizeable army against the U.S. Cavalry in the Spring of 1876 and won their historic victory. But the Indian success proved to be short lived. Enraged by this defeat, the U.S. government poured troops into the area. Many Sioux were killed, and the Black Hills, the centre of the dispute, were declared open to white settlement. Sitting Bull escaped to Canada, but Crazy Horse was forced to surrender and was killed in a skirmish.

xxxxxThe final end to Sioux resistance came in 1890. It was then that the Ghost Dance movement - a belief that performing this ritualistic dance and singing Ghost Dance songs would make them immune from bullets and bring about the return of their ancestors and the death of the white man (illustrated) - took hold of many tribal members. Fearing that Sitting Bull, having returned to his tribe, might be implicated in this movement and lead an uprising, the authorities attempted to arrest him and in the fighting that followed he and his son Crow Foot were killed by reservation police in December. In protest, a force of some 300 Sioux, led by chief Big Foot, left the reservation, but at the end of the month, near Wounded Knee Creek, it was forced to surrender to the 7th U.S. Cavalry. The next morning, however when - surrounded by troops - the Indian force was being disarmed, a shot rang out and a trooper fell. What then followed was more a massacre than a battle. With little if any justification, the troops, supported by four machine guns, then opened fire indiscriminately. Over 150 men, women and children were slaughtered for the loss of 25 soldiers. Those who managed to escape were pursued and shot down.

xxxxxThe so-called Battle of Wounded Knee marked the end of Sioux resistance, and it also brought to a close the Indian Wars, a long series of battles between the native peoples of North America and the white settlers, waged over 350 years.



The Indian Wars

Click Map to EnlargexxxxxThe Battle of Wounded Knee in December 1890 marked the end of 350 years of Indian Wars, a series of conflicts which began with the European exploration of North America in the mid 16th century, intensified through two hundred years of colonisation and colonial warfare, and came to an end after decades of bitter struggle against a U.S. government committed to westward expansion. By the end of the 19th century the indigenous peoples of North America, estimated at 10 million when the European settlers first arrived, had slumped to 237,000 in number and, territorially, were confined to cramped “reservations” - areas of land not of their choosing and in most instances quite inappropriate for their traditional way of life. Such treatment of the American Indian has to be seen in the context of its time and, regrettably, was not without parallel in the oft-times cruel history of colonial expansion worldwide.

xxxxxThe battle as to who should control the vast area of North America began way back in 1540 when the Spanish adventurer Francisco Coronado explored the American South-West, “discovered” the Grand Canyon, and fought with the Zuni people. This was the opening clash of the Indian Wars, and many more were to follow as explorers ventured ever more deeply into the New World. Then the early 17th century saw the beginning of European immigration. It started as a trickle, developed into a flood, (as many “as the stars in heaven”) and brought with it not just an alien, highly materialistic culture, but also a host of diseases against which the native Indian had no built-in resistance. These deadly diseases, such as smallpox, typhus, influenza and bubonic plague, brought widespread epidemics which, over the years, killed millions of the indigenous population - a catastrophe well exceeding the disaster of the Black Death in medieval Europe.

xxxxxThe arrival of the white settlers was soon opposed by the native Indians. Motivated almost entirely by the search for riches and the wholesale acquisition of land - and prepared to go to any lengths to procure both - these interlopers soon became a real and growing threat to the Indians’ traditional way of life. Sadly for the Indians, however, they lacked both the unity required to offer effective resistance - being deeply tribal in origin - and also the means needed to compete with the gunpowder and steel weapons in the hands of the stranger. This was certainly the case in Central and South America where the Spanish and the Portuguese, having conveniently divided up the New World between them by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 (H7), conquered vast stretches of land by force of superior arms and - apart from the odd revolt - held on to them until the early 19th century.

xxxxxIn North America, however, Indian resistance was stronger and more widespread, despite the strength of the opposition. In Virginia and southern Maryland, for example, relatives of the Indian chief Powhatan (father of Pocahontas) waged intermittent war against the English settlers from 1622 to 1644, and Pontiac’s Rebellion in the early 1760s, having laid siege to Detroit and won the Battle of Bloody Run, came close to driving the British out of the region around the Great Lakes.

xxxxxFurthermore, the situation in North America was complicated by colonial rivalry, particularly that between the British and the French. Here, as in King William’s War of 1689 to 1697 and King George’s War of 1744 to 1748, the American Indians took sides - often to settle old scores with rival tribes. By so doing they learnt the use of “modern” weaponry and preserved a great deal of their tribal independence. It was partly for this reason that when the British eventually emerged triumphant in 1763, they attempted to bring about harmony between the two peoples by forbidding any white settlement beyond the Appalachians, and by concluding treaties to this end. However, these proved to be “parchment promises”. The vast majority of Europeans regarded the American Indians as nomads with no interest in land ownership. Within a short while traders, speculators and settlers were crossing into the Ohio Valley in ever increasing numbers.

xxxxxWith the successful completion of the American War of Independence in 1783, the U.S. government tried, like the British before them, to come to terms with the American Indians. In its Act of August 7th 1789 it pledged that Indian lands and property would not be taken without their consent and that their rights and liberties were safeguarded by law. Nevertheless, settlers continued to push westwards, encouraged by the government, and this made conflict inevitable. In the early 1790s, for example, the Shawnee, Miami and other tribes swarmed across Indiana, Ohio and western Pennsylvania, and launched a series of successful attacks upon U.S. troops before being crushed at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. Later, an alliance of tribes, forged by the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, was only narrowly defeated at the Battle of Tippecanoe, Indiana, in 1811. In the south, the Creek War, waged from 1811 to 1814, ended in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in Alabama, a fight in which 800 Indians were killed. By the Treaty of Fort Jackson the Creek Nation ceded 23 million acres to the U.S. government - half of Alabama and part of southern Georgia (as illustrated).

xxxxxHowever, by 1815 a strong movement had emerged in favour of settling all Indians further west, beyond the Mississippi River, so as to clear the way for white settlement. By the Removal Act of 1830 (intended to be implemented by negotiation) a number of tribes were coerced into moving to designated areas - usually by bribery, threats or downright deception - but when some tribes refused to move west the government resorted to coercion by military force. As we have seen in the autumn and winter of 1838-39 some 18,000 Cherokees were split into groups and forced marched to Oklahoma. The journey, which came to be known as the Trail of Tears (1838 Va), took over three months to complete, and about 4,000 died en route. Likewise in 1842, after seven years of dogged resistance, the Seminole Indians were forcibly removed from Florida and marched to Oklahoma. It is estimated that over 100,000 Indians were reallocated to the West in the name of this Act.

xxxxxNor was this the end of the Indians’ forced migration. By the late 1840s some territory to which they had been driven, forcibly or otherwise, turned out to be rich in gold, and these lands and the overland routes to them were summarily taken over by the government. Thousands of wagon trains trundled westward, followed by the opening of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, an undertaking which took additional swathes of land away from the Indians. This encroachment on their final settlements, together with the wholesale slaughtering of the wildlife upon which their existence depended, led to some of the fiercest fighting of the Indian Wars. The thirty years from 1850 onwards saw the outbreak of raids and pitched battles across the plains, mountains and deserts of the American West beyond the Mississippi.

xxxxxIn the Pacific Northwest, for example, there were three major conflicts during the 1850s - The Rogue River, Yakima and Spokane Wars - aimed at forcing local tribes onto reservations, and later the Modocs and Nez Perce mounted some of the most determined resistance. In 1873 the Modocs, taking refuge in the lava beds of Tule Lake, held off 1,000 federal troops for six months, and the Nez Perce, led by Chief Joseph, fought a running battle across Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, and were captured just a few miles from the Canadian border in 1877. Meanwhile, in the south-west Geronimo and other Apache leaders mounted a long campaign against government forces. Rejecting reservation life, they launched hundreds of attacks on Mexican and American settlements, and were only defeated in 1886 after thousands of troops had been sent into the region.

Click Map to Enlarge

xxxxxThe tribes of the Great Plains fought doggedly to preserve their territory, but were faced with the arrival of vast numbers of white immigrants and constant attacks upon their villages. This and the destruction of the buffalo, their main source of food, finally forced them to surrender. In the south, fighting in Colorado was marked by two savage atrocities in 1864, the Hungate Massacre of a family of settlers, followed by the Sand Creek Massacre in which a hundred Indians were slaughtered. In Texas, the Red River War, a series of engagements in 1874-75, brought an end to local resistance. The local tribes, including the Comanches, Cheyennes and Arapahoes, were forced to accept life on reservations. Further north, attacks by the Oglala Sioux during the 1860s delayed the building of the Bozeman Trail, the overland route to the West, and led to the Treaty of Fort Laramie, granting the Sioux possession of the Black Hills of South Dakota. As we have seen, however, when gold was discovered in that area in the early 1870s, the government reneged on this agreement. This led to the annihilation of Colonel Custer and his men at the Battle of The Little Bighorn in 1876, and the eventual overthrow of the Sioux at the notorious Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890. This marked not only the defeat of the Sioux, but also the end of Indian resistance across the American West, an end to the Indian Wars.


xxxxxAnd it was during this period of heightened conflict that in March 1871 the U.S. government decided to abandon any further negotiation with the Indian tribes, and to cease payment of any money for the compensation of lost land. It decreed that no Indian nation was to be recognised as “an independent power” within U.S. territory. The new nation had taken over the old.

xxxxxIncidentally, the name “Indian” was first applied to the indigenous people of America by the explorer Christopher Columbus, assuming as he did that the mainland and islands of America were part of the Indies in Asia. The mistake was soon recognised, but the name stuck. In order to avoid confusion the term “Native American” was employed for many years, but this can apply to anyone born on the continent of America. Today the name American Indian is generally used. …...

xxxxx…… The Black Hills of Dakota, which had been given over to the Sioux by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, and taken away from them by force eight years later, were found to be rich not only in gold, but also coal, oil, natural gas and uranium. In 1980 the Sioux were awarded $160 million by way of compensation.

xxxxxAs we have seen, the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890 brought an end to the Indian Wars, that long period of intermittent fighting in which the American Indians fought against colonisation, took part in the colonial wars, and were eventually driven westward, forced to live in “reservations” far from their traditional homelands. In these wars the Indians were at a disadvantage. They fought with inferior weapons, they relied upon the wildlife for survival, and they succumbed in large numbers to the diseases brought to the continent by the Europeans, such as smallpox and typhus. At the end of the colonial wars the British government attempted to safeguard the Indians’ rights to land, as did the American government when it came to power in 1783, but the vast number of settlers looking for land and, later, gold in the West, proved unstoppable. The Indians were slowly driven westward, sometimes by coercion, sometimes by force, as in the Trail of Tears in 1838 (Va). By the end of the century, after a series of bloody battles across the American West, the Indians had been subdued and confined to their designated tribal areas.