“The Only Good Indian…” (1862-1891). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

“The Only Good Indian…” (1862-1891). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

 (50,000 B.C.-A.D. 1500S) * (1451-1507) * (1400-1600s) * (1497-1608) * (1608-1733) *

 (1608-1680s) * (1636-1748) * (1749-1763) * (1763-1775) * (1776-1783) * (1787-1797) *

(1798-1812) * (1812-1814) * (1814-1836) * (1817-1842) * (1724-1857) (1834-1846) *

(1846-1860) * (1859-1862) * (1863-1876) * (1862-1878) * (1862-1891) * (1869-1908) *

(1877-1906) * (1898-1918) * (1918-1929) * (1930-1941) * (1941-1945) * (1944-1954) *

(1947-1968) * (1946-1975) * (1968-1974) * (1963-1980) * (1980-1991) * (1992—).


In This Chapter

Indian roles in the Civil War.

The Santee Sioux Uprising.

The victory of Red Cloud.

Futile campaigns, the War for the Black Hills, and Custer’s Last Stand.

Defeat of the Nez Perce and Geronimo.

Massacre at Wounded Knee.

 The West was a land of many dreams, but what we seem to remember most vividly are the nightmares. On the vast stage of prairie and mountain, the last act of a four-century tragedy was played out. The curtain had been raised by the crew of Christopher Columbus, who clashed with the people they called Indians on an island they called Hispaniola. From then on, warfare between Native Americans and European Americans was chronic and continual. When whites and Indians did not start wars between themselves, Indians became embroiled in wars between whites: the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and finally, the Civil War.

Read any standard history of the Civil War, and you will learn that this epic struggle was mainly an eastern conflict. In the West, battles were smaller and less frequent, yet often, they were uglier.

Blue, Gray—and Red. Union loyalists in the West feared that the Confederates would acquire Indian allies. The Confederacy recruited some members of some eastern tribes, and both the North and South recruited troops from among tribes that had been “removed” to Indian Territory: the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles. But the more significant impact Indians had on the Civil War was to draw off some Union troops who otherwise would have been used against Confederates. Most important, the demands of the war meant that fewer troops occupied western posts, which provided Indians ample opportunity to raid settlers with relative impunity.

A Man Called Cochise. On the eve of the Civil War, Cochise (1812-74) emerged as leader of the Apaches. Feared throughout the Southwest by whites as well as other Indian tribes (Apache is a Hopi word for enemy), the Apaches had been fierce warriors and raiders for centuries. However, Cochise was actually inclined to like the American whites who settled in Arizona, and he even secured a contract with the Butterfield Overland Mail to supply fuel wood to the station at Apache Pass.

In 1861, Cochise was falsely accused of raiding a local rancher (a thoroughly disreputable drunk named John Ward), rustling his cattle, and abducting his son. Second Lieutenant George N. Bascom asked Cochise for a parley on February 4, 1861; Cochise came voluntarily, only to be taken captive with five others. The chief managed to escape by slitting a tent with his knife, and, enraged, he raided the Butterfield station, killing one employee and taking another prisoner. Cochise then ambushed a small wagon train and seized eight Mexicans and two Americans, He burned the Mexicans alive but offered to exchange the Americans for the Apache prisoners Bascom still held. When Bascom refused, Cochise murdered his remaining captives, and Bascom retaliated by summarily executing his hostages.

This scenario was the way of white-Indian war in the West: a crescendo of eye for eye, usually escalating into a full-scale war. In this case, war with the Apaches would consume the next quarter century.

Southwestern Terror. The entire Southwest was racked by violence. The outbreak of the Civil War stripped the U.S. Army’s western outposts of 313 officers—one-third of the entire officer corps—who resigned their commissions to fight on the side of the Confederacy. Confederate Lieutenant Colonel John Robert Baylor exploited the Union’s weakened position to take possession of Arizona Territory for the Confederacy. Baylor was able to roll over the greatly diminished Union presence, but he didn’t count on the hostility of the Chiricahua and Mimbreno Apaches, who terrorized the region. Baylor hastily formed the Arizona Rangers in August 1861 and ordered them to “exterminate all hostile Indians.”

In the meantime, hoping to retain New Mexico, Union General Edward R.S. Canby negotiated a treaty with the Navajo, pledging to distribute rations to the Indians. At Fort Fauntleroy, designated site of the distribution, a friendly series of horse races was run between Navajos and a regiment of New Mexico volunteers. The featured event was a race between an army lieutenant and Chief Manuelito (ca. 1818-94). Heavy wagers were laid, and from the beginning, it was apparent that Manuelito—an expert horseman—was not in control of his mount. After he came in a poor second, Manuelito protested that his bridle had been slashed, and he demanded a rematch. The soldiers refused, a fight broke out, and the troops began firing indiscriminately. “The Navahos, squaws, and children ran in all directions and were shot and bayoneted,” according to a white civilian eyewitness who testified before Congress. Forty Indians were killed, and the Navajo retaliated. Through August and September, the already legendary Kit Carson, leading the First New Mexico Volunteer Cavalry, relentlessly counterattacked.

The result, by the end of 1863, was total defeat of the Navajo, who were exiled to a desolate reservation called the Bosque Redondo. Eventually, 8,000 Navajo jammed the reservation, under conditions so intolerable that, after the Civil War, in an all-too-rare act of humanity, a U.S. peace commission granted Navajo pleas to be returned to their homelands.

The Great Santee Sioux Massacre. While the Southwest erupted, storm clouds also gathered far to the north. Unlike the Navajo, the Santee Sioux of Minnesota seemed willing to accept “concentration” on a reservation. But as increasing numbers of German and Scandinavian immigrants moved into the region, the Santee found themselves confined to a narrow strip of land along the Minnesota River. Worse, provisions and annuity money guaranteed them by treaty were routinely withheld. In June 1862, Little Crow led the Santee to the Yellow Medicine Indian Agency to demand release of provisions and funds. When these items were not forthcoming by August, warriors broke into the agency warehouse but were temporarily repelled.

Desperate and hungry, the Santee appealed to a local trader, Andrew J. Myrick, on August 5-6. His heartless reply—”let them eat grass”—enraged the warriors, and on August 18, they ambushed Myrick in his store, killed him, and stuffed his mouth with grass. From this point on, raiding became general in and around the town of New Ulm. By the end of August, 2,000 Minnesotans were refugees, and the Sioux had killed between 350 and 800 others. Governor Alexander Ramsey telegraphed Abraham Lincoln, requesting an extension of a federal deadline for fulfilling his state’s military draft quota. The president replied: “Attend to the Indians. If the draft cannot proceed of course it will not proceed. Necessity knows no law.”

Through the balance of August and most of September, fighting in Minnesota was brutal. On September 26, 2,000 Santee hostiles surrendered to General Henry Hopkins Sibley, and the deadliest Indian uprising in the history of the West was at an end. In November, a military tribunal sentenced 303 warriors to hang. Doubting the justice of these proceedings, President Lincoln personally reviewed the convictions and reprieved all but 39. In the end, 38 were hanged (another Indian received a last-minute reprieve), but administrative error resulted in the hanging of two Indians who were not on Lincoln’s list. As for Chief Little Crow, he fled the final battle, was refused refuge in Canada, and was ambushed and killed in Minnesota on July 3, 1863, while picking raspberries with his 16-year-old son.

War for the Bozeman Rail. Throughout the Civil War, warfare with the Apaches continued. Wars also broke out with the Shoshoni, Bannock, Utes, and Northern Paiutes—also called the Snakes—in parts of Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho. Wars erupted with the Navajo in the Southwest and with the combined forces of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in Colorado. All of these wars ended badly for the Indians, although, as one official observed, “Ten good soldiers are required to wage successful war against one Indian.”

One of the few conflicts from which the Indians emerged victorious broke out just after the end of the Civil War. Military authorities had anticipated that the collapse of the Confederacy would free up many troops for service in the West. What actually happened is that the Union army rushed to demobilize, and the army of the West shrunk rather than expanded. A modest force under Colonel Henry B. Carrington was sent to protect the Bozeman Trail, a major route of western migration through Wyoming and Montana. The trail was being menaced by Oglala Sioux led by Red Cloud, who was determined to resist white invasion of his people’s land. Carrington was not popular with his officers, who felt that he devoted too much time to building forts and not enough to fighting Indians.

One subordinate, Captain William J. Fetterman, boasted that with 80 men, he could ride through the entire Sioux nation. On December 21, 1866, Fetterman was given his chance to make good on the boast. Sent with a detachment of 80, his mission was to relieve a wood-hauling wagon train that was being harassed by Indians. Fetterman found himself Lip against 1,500 to 2,000 warriors led by Crazy Horse, and his command was wiped out in what came to be called the Fetterman Massacre.

A peace commission concluded a treaty with Red Cloud on April 29, 1868, promising (among other things) to abandon the Bozeman Trail—which (the commissioners well knew) was about to be rendered obsolete by the transcontinental railroad.

The Campaigns of Hancock and Sheridan. General William Tecumseh Sherman, in charge of western operations, found the peace with Red Cloud humiliating. Sherman advised army General-in-Chief Grant that “we must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women, and children.” But the mood in Washington drifted toward conciliation, and Sherman continued to prosecute “punitive campaigns” in the West with little support and, ultimately, to little purpose.

From April through July 1867, one of Sherman’s best commanders, Winfield Scott Hancock, fruitlessly pursued the Cheyenne and Sioux through Kansas. The following year, Sherman’s most able lieutenant, General Philip Sheridan, conducted a brutal winter campaign against the Sioux and Cheyenne. This campaign proved almost as punishing to the pursuers as to the pursued, all of whom suffered in snows and bitter cold.

The colorful colonel of the 7th Cavalry, George Armstrong Custer, laid claim to the biggest victory of “Sheridan’s Campaign,” when he attacked a peaceful Cheyenne camp on the Washita River. Among the 103 Indians he and his men killed were 93 women, old men, and children. Chief Black Kettle, actually a leading advocate of peace, was slain along with his wife.

War for the Black Hills. The futility and tragedy of Hancock’s and Sheridan’s campaigns were the hallmarks of the so-called Indian Wars. Weeks and months of fruitless pursuit characteristically culminated in wanton spasms of violence in which innocent victims perished alongside “hostiles.” In 1873, the brief but intense Modoc War broke out in California because a tiny tribe stubbornly refused to leave an utterly worthless volcanic wasteland. In 1874, the Red River War was launched to punish the Comanches and Cheyennes for attacking a group of white hunters at Adobe Walls, Texas. Then, in 1874, an expedition led by George A. Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills, the land most sacred to the Sioux. When government attempts to persuade the Indians to sell or lease the land failed, they were ordered to vacate. They refused, and war erupted.

The army never had an easy time fighting the Indian Wars, but now they found themselves up against an enemy equipped with formidable riding and warrior skills, motivated by religious fervor in defense of a sacred land, and led by the charismatic Tatanka Iyotake, better known as Sitting Bull. On June 17, Sitting Bull led a pounding attack against General George Crook’s column at the Rosebud Creek in southern Montana. This event made George Armstrong Custer more determined to pursue and destroy the “hostiles.”

Defeat of Custer. On the morning of June 22, 1876, to the strains of its regimental tune, “Garry Owen,” the 7th Cavalry passed in review before Generals Alfred Terry and John Gibbon. They were embarking on what the commanders conceived as a final pincers campaign against the Sioux. As Colonel Custer rode off to join his men, Gibbon called after him: “Now, Custer, don’t be greedy, but wait for us.” Custer answered, “No, I will not.”

Frustrated by long, fruitless pursuits, Custer was determined to fight it out whenever and wherever he could. That is why, on June 25, when his scouts discovered a Sioux camp and warriors near the Little Bighorn River, Custer decided not to wait until the next day, when he was supposed to rendezvous with the others. He decided to attack now. First, Custer sent Captain Frederick Benteen with 125 men south, to make sure the Sioux had not moved to the upper valley of the Little Bighorn. Then he sent another 112 men under Major Marcus A. Reno in pursuit of a small body of warriors he had sighted. With his remaining troops, Custer planned to charge the Sioux village. But it was soon apparent that Reno and his men were being overwhelmed, and Custer dispatched his bugler to recall. Benteen. Custer then charged, only to be engulfed himself by massive numbers of Sioux warriors, who killed the colonel and 250 cavalrymen. Reno, joined by Benteen—368 officers and men total—held off a relentless siege for the next two days.

“I Will Fight No More Forever”. The Battle of the Little Bighorn was the last major Indian victory of the Indian Wars. In subsequent engagements, the Sioux were defeated by the army’s two most successful Indian fighters, Ranald Mackenzie and Nelson A. Miles. It was Miles who finally defeated the Nez Perce at the five-day Battle of Bear Paw Mountain (September 30-October 5, 1877) in Montana, bringing to an end an epic pursuit that had begun in June.

Led by Chief Joseph the Younger, a faction of the Nez Perce refused to leave their homeland in the Wallowa Valley of Oregon. Troops under the command of General Oliver O. Howard and Colonel Miles pursued and battled some 800 Indians over 1,700 miles of the most inhospitable terrain on the continent. When it was over, Joseph and his people had earned the respect of their pursuers. Both Howard and Miles joined in Joseph’s petition to the White House to return to the Wallowa Valley. The petition was nevertheless denied—for the valley was rich in minerals—and Joseph lived out the remainder of his long life with his people on a reservation near Colville, Washington.

The Geronimo Campaign. The pursuit of the Nez Perce involved a concerted military operation focused on a small band of fugitives. Down in the Mexican border region, an entire army task force was devoted to the pursuit of a single Indian. His Apache name was Goyathlay (one who yawns), but he was better known by the name the Mexicans gave him: Geronimo (1829-1909). In 1850, Mexican settlers ambushed and killed Geronimo’s first wife and his children, after which Geronimo devoted much of his life to ruthlessly raiding the borderlands along with his brother-in-law, Juh, a Chiricahua chief.

In 1875, U.S. authorities branded Geronimo a troublemaker, who opposed military plans to “concentrate” all the Apaches at the desolate San Carlos reservation in eastern Arizona. Geronimo fled with a band of followers into Mexico but was soon arrested and returned to the reservation. Not to be contained, Geronimo used the reservation as a base from which he staged raids throughout the remainder of the decade.

In 1881, authorities killed another “troublemaker,” Nakaidoklini, revered by the Apaches as a prophet. His death incited Geronimo to abandon the reservation altogether for a secret stronghold in the Sierra Madre Mountains, from which he terrorized the border region.

In May 1882, Apache scouts working for the army discovered Geronimo’s sanctuary and persuaded him and his followers to return to the reservation. He fled again on May 17, 1885, with 35 warriors and 109 women and children. In January 1886, a small army unit, together with Apache scouts, penetrated deep into Mexico, where they found Geronimo, who surrendered to General George Crook. Geronimo escaped one more time but ultimately surrendered to Nelson Miles on September 4, 1886. Geronimo and some 450 other Apaches were sent to Florida for confinement in Forts Marion and Pickens. In 1894, the Apaches were removed to Fort Sill, Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), and Geronimo became a rancher.

Wounded Knee. In 1886, when Geronimo surrendered to General Miles, 243,000 Native Americans were confined to 187 reservations. With Geronimo’s last resistance extinguished, the Indian Wars were practically at an end. Yet, if the body of defiance was dead, its spirit lingered. Wovoka was the son of a Paiute shaman, but he had spent part of his youth with a white ranch family, who leavened his Paiute religious heritage with the teachings of their own Christianity. By the 1880s, Wovoka began to preach to the reservation Indians, foretelling a new world in which only Indians dwelled, generations of slain braves would come back to life, and the buffalo (nearly hunted to extinction during the first two-thirds of the 19th-century) would again be plentiful. To hasten this deliverance, Wovoka counseled, all Indians must dance the Ghost Dance and follow the paths of peace.

Among a people who had lost all hope, the Ghost Dance religion spread rapidly. Soon, many western reservations were alive with what white overseers regarded as frenzied dancing. Leaders among the Teton Sioux at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, called for armed rebellion against the whites. Reservation agent Daniel F. Royer frantically telegraphed Washington, D.C., in November 1890: “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy. We need protection and we need it now.” But the arrival of troops under Nelson A. Miles seemed only to enflame the Indians. As a precaution, Indian reservation police were sent on December 15, 1890, to arrest Sitting Bull, domiciled at Standing Rock Reservation. A scuffle broke out, and the most revered chief of the Plains tribes was slain.

In the meantime, another chief, Big Foot of the Miniconjou Sioux, was making his way to Pine Ridge. Miles assumed that his purpose was to bring to a boil the simmering rebellion, and he dispatched the 7th Cavalry to intercept Big Foot and his followers. The troops caught up with the Indians on December 28, 1890, at a place called Wounded Knee Creek, on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Big Foot did not, in fact, have hostile intentions. On the contrary, although he was desperately ill with pneumonia, Big Foot was traveling to Pine Ridge to try to persuade the rebellion leaders to surrender. Neither Miles nor Colonel James W. Forsyth, commander of the 7th, knew Big Foot’s intention, and Forsyth quietly surrounded Big Foot’s camp, deploying four Hotchkiss guns (deadly rapid-fire howitzers) on the surrounding hills. On the 29th, the soldiers entered the camp and began to confiscate the Indians’ weapons. A hand-to-hand fight developed, shots were fired—it is unclear whether these came from the Indians or the soldiers—and then the Hotchkiss guns opened up, firing almost a round a second at men, women, and children.

Nobody knows just how many died at Wounded Knee. The bodies of Big Foot and 153 other Miniconjous were found, but it is likely that the 300 or 350 camped beside the creek ultimately lost their lives, After a brief fight with the 7th Cavalry on December 30, the Indians withdrew. Two weeks later, on January 15, 1891, the Sioux formally surrendered to U.S. Army officials. It was a miserable end to 400 years of racial warfare on the American continent.

The Least You Need to Know

Few Indians participated directly in the Civil War, but some did take advantage of a reduced military presence in the West to raid and plunder.

 The Indian Wars in the West, spanning the Civil War years to 1891, consisted mainly of long, exhausting pursuits and relatively few battles. The strategy was to fight a “total war” against women, children, and old men as well as warriors, in order to force the Indians onto reservations.

Real Life. Christopher Houston Carson, better known as Kit Carson, was born near Richmond, Kentucky, on December 24, 1809, and grew up in Missouri. He joined a Santa Fe trading caravan when he was 16 and, from 1827 to 1842, lived in the Rocky Mountains as a fur trapper and mountain man. In 1842, Carson served John C. Fremont as a guide in Oregon and California and, during the Mexican War, carried dispatches for him. After the war, Carson settled in Taos, New Mexico, where he served from 1853 to 1861 as Indian agent to the Utes, earning a reputation as one of very few genuinely competent, honest, and compassionate officials.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Carson became colonel of the First New Mexico Volunteer Cavalry, where he distinguished himself in repelling the Confederate invasion of New Mexico and in combat against the Apache and Navajo. Although he became—in the popular phrase—a legend in his own time, especially for his role as an Indian fighter, Carson was deeply moved by the plight of the Indians, with whom he had a strong fellow feeling. Carson died on May 23, 1868, at Fort Lyon, Colorado.

Voice from the Past. Fortunately, genocidal phrases rarely enter folklore, but everybody knows the expression “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” It originated with General Philip Sheridan, when a Comanche named Tosawi came to him to sign a treaty after Custer’s “victory” at Washita. “Tosawi, good Indian,” said Tosawi. Sheridan replied: “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” The phrase was subsequently transformed through repetition.

Real Life. Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotake, 1831-90) made an early reputation as a warrior and was revered for his great bravery, strength, generosity, and wisdom. His fame and influence spread far beyond his own a Sioux tribe. With chiefs Crazy Horse and Gall, Sitting Bull led resistance against the white invasion of the sacred Black Hills after gold was discovered there in 1874. Following the annihilation of Custer at the Little Bighorn in 1876, Sitting Bull and his closest followers fled to Canada. Upon his return to the United States in 1881, Sitting Bull was imprisoned for two years and then sent to Standing Rock Reservation. In 1883, he traveled as a performer with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. Buffalo Bill was perhaps the only white man Sitting Bull ever trusted.

In 1890, Sitting Bull was identified with the antiwhite religious movement known as the Ghost Dance. He was killed during a scuffle when reservation police (who were Indians) attempted to arrest him on December 15, 1890.

Voice from the Past. Joseph surrendered to Nelson A. Miles with words that have come to symbolize the poignant dignity with which Native Americans ultimately bowed to the inevitable:

 “I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass [a war chief] is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men [Joseph’s brother, Ollikut] is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”


Please, login to leave comments