The Indian Frontier
The Indian Frontier
During this period, Indian Territory comprised most of the vast region known as the Great Plains. The U.S. government had guaranteed that the Indians had title to this land in perpetuity. However, U.S. expansion westward soon made the “permanent Indian frontier” a fiction.
First, the pioneers migrating westward along the Oregon and California trails had to travel through Indian Territory. The Indians had no objection as long as the settlers were only passing through, rather than claiming any of the land for themselves. Indians and settlers even traded with one another along the journey, and few migrating pioneers were killed by Native Americans in raids or killed any Indians.
Horses enabled the Plains Indians to remain independent and prosperous. Spanish explorers had brought the first horses to North America. Once the tribes learned to breed and ride horses, they had a much easier time chasing and killing buffalo, and following the buffalo herds when they moved. This migratory lifestyle suited the people of the Plains very well.
Once the United States acquired clear title to Oregon Territory and to California and Texas, Indian Territory lay between two sections of settled country. Migrating pioneers replenished their food supplies by killing buffalo that they encountered on the journey west. Seeking safety, the buffalo herds changed their patterns of migration and grazing, leaving the Indians no choice but to follow the herds. This led tribes to violate one another’s hunting grounds in the interests of survival, and intertribal warfare was the result.
The stream of westward migration only grew with time. Between 1849 and 1850, more than 50,000 people traveled across the plains to California, many in search of gold. Such heavy traffic decimated the buffalo herds and put the continued existence of the Sioux tribes in peril. At the urging of concerned Indian agents of the federal government, the White House agreed to hold a conference with the Plains tribes, in which both sides would come to an agreement about compensation to the tribes for their damages, and a right-of-way across the plains for the pioneers.
The conference was held in 1851 near Fort Laramie in present-day Wyoming. More than 10,000 Plains Indians from various tribes attended. Colonel David Mitchell, speaking for the United States, outlined the terms of the proposal. The Indians would agree to cease intertribal warfare; each tribe would promise to remain within its own agreed-upon borders. The tribes would agree that all westbound migrants could cross the Plains in safety. They would also agree to allow the U.S. government to build forts and roads on the Plains. In return, the United States would pay each tribe $50,000 in food and trade goods for the next 50 years. The U.S. government was proceeding on the theory that by the end of that period, the Plains Indians would have become successful farmers.
The treaty had numerous effects. It deprived the Indians of their customary ability to range freely over the Plains, making it more difficult for them to hunt and making them more dependent on the charity of the U.S. government. It moved most tribes out of what would become Kansas and Nebraska into the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and Oklahoma. It deprived the tribes of their sovereignty over the Great Plains, which had been promised to them and their heirs in perpetuity. It hastened the end of the hunting culture of the Plains; with continued westward migration and the prospect of the construction of roads and forts, it was clear that the buffalo herds would continue to be diminished.
Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:
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