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Indian Wars

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 short lived.

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 Soldiers.

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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Web Site Updated on:
August 8, 2006
1330 hrs.

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