The cry "Indians!"
struck terror in the hearts of European intruders from the time of
the earliest Spanish, French and English settlements, through the
period of creation of the new American nation, and on until the late
1880s in the American West. The struggle of the Indians against conquest
was the longest war in American military history.
For a while, after the colonial battles, the tiny army of the new
American nation assumed the role of peacemaker, upholding Congressional
treaties with the eastern tribes, persuading Indians like the Iroquois
and tribes of the upper Ohio region to peacefully leave their lands.
But settlers demanded more and more land, and treaties were broken
time and time again.
War with Indians in the Southeast was delayed for a while by a
1790 treaty with the powerful Creeks, a treaty that Spain, then
holding Florida and Louisiana, supported to keep up Indian trade.
In the old Northwest Territory, however, such Indians as the Shawnee,
Miami and Wyandot, encouraged by the French and the English, attacked
American settlers pouring into the Ohio Valley. More than 1,500
settlers were killed or captured in Kentucky alone.
Military expeditions against the Indians ended in failure. On November
1791, 900 American regulars and militia were wounded or killed in
a surprise night attack a hundred miles north of Cincinnati, one
of the most disastrous defeats the army ever suffered from Indians.
It was not until 1793 that Major General Anthony Wayne, with a newly
trained army of 3,500, defeated the Miami Indians at the Battle
of Fallen Timbers, near Toledo, and the Indians lost their lands
in Ohio. The Shawnee Indians, after the Battle of Tippecanoe in
1811, lost their lands in Indiana.
The Creek Indians' land in Alabama was forcibly taken from them
after the bloody battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. Nine hundred
of the thousand Indians in the fight were wounded or killed. Afterward,
many Creeks fled to eastern Florida and became part of the Lower
Creek "Nation." They settled with the Seminole Indians
and with blacks who were fugitives from slavery. Their refuge was
When Creek Indians in Georgia attacked a keelboat carrying Soldiers
and their wives, the First Seminole War began. In 1814, General
Andrew Jackson marched, without orders, into Spanish-held Florida
and destroyed Indian villages and burned the Spanish cities of St.
Marks and Pensacola. The war ended in 1819, and Spain ceded Florida
to the United States.
The Indian Removal Act passed by the American Congress in 1830
required resettlement of all Indians east of the Mississippi to
new lands west of the river. Although some tribes took this blow
peacefully, others like the Sauk and Fox in Illinois resisted. The
result was the Black Hawk War. Even more fierce resistance came
in Florida with the Second Seminole War of 1835. Fighting a guerrilla
war from the Everglades, the Seminoles were at first victorious,
but starvation tactics, which prevented the Indians from raising
crops, ended the fighting in 1842. The Second Seminold War, the
last major Indian fight in eastern United States, was waged to ship
3,800 half-starved Indians west and cost the lives of almost 1,600
Forcing Indian tribes into open lands west of the Mississippi only
postponed for a short time the inevitable. And, although the treaty
ending the Mexican War had added a million square miles of territory
to the United States, it had also added 300,000 hostile Indians.
Meanwhile, American settlers were crossing the Mississippi, heading
west, seeking free land, gold, or simply a new and better life.
The violent clash of the two cultures brought about the last tragic
stages of the Indian wars.
As Indian resistance increased, the War Department threw up a line
of forts across the western frontier. The cordon of forts stretched
from the Mississippi River to the coast, from Washington and Minnesota
to Texas. By 1869, more than 75 major military forts were scattered
throughout the west. Some of the forts were large and well-established,
like the supply forts at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, and Fort
Leavenworth, Kansas. Most of the forts, though, were small and primitive,
built of wood or adobe by the Soldiers themselves. Only a few of
the forts had stockades; and mounted regiments or cavalry were not
widely used until after the Civil War.
Duty at the western forts was hard, the pay, poor; the discipline
harsh, and aside from an occasional skirmish with the Indians, the
life was monotonous and lonely. Surprisingly, the frontier Soldier
had little training in horsemanship or marksmanship. Many were immigrants,
scarcely able to speak English. Some of the best fighting men were
black men, called buffalo Soldiers by the Indians.
Although the outcome of the Indian Wars in the West was never really
in doubt--the nomadic lifestyle of the Indians, and the inability
of the tribes to unite against a common enemy, made their defeat
a certainty-the Plains Indians were formidable opponents. They knew
the terrain, could live off the land, and were some of the finest
light cavalry in the world. Also, the Indians knew they were fighting
for their very survival. Facing such a determined foe, one Soldier
wrote: "The front is all around and the rear is nowhere."
The Indian Wars in the West were bitter and bloody but consisted
of sporadic battles, not one long campaign. Between 1866 and 1891,
it is estimated there were over 1,000 engagements between the Indians
and the United States Army. To name only a few of the major engagements,
there was the Yakima War and the Modoc War in Oregon; the Cheyenne-Arapaho
War and the infamous Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado; the Red River
War against the Southern Plains Indians; the various Sioux wars
beginning in 1854 in Wyoming and going on through the uprisings
in Minnesota, ending in the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 in the
Dakotas; the dozens of campaigns against the Apache, Comanche, Navajo
and Ute in the Southwest. Perhaps the most tragic of all the Indian
wars was the Nez Perce War of 1877 led by the great Chief Joseph,
who led the army on a 1,300 mile chase over the Continental Divide.
By the 1890s, General Sheridan's tactics of attacking the winter
camps of the Indians, destroying their supplies and horses, and
confining the Indians to reservations, as well as the coming of
the railroad, had brought to an end the Indian wars in the United
States. The western forts were no longer needed, and one by one,
most of them were abandoned, to lie crumbling, forgotten in the
sun, the bugle call to arms and Indian war cries still at last.
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