Conflicts with Indians in the Great Plains

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

Conflicts with Indians in the Great Plains

As Americans continued to migrate westward in search of California gold, farmland, and other economic opportunities, they continued to grab space that the government had set aside for Indians. Again and again, the U.S. government had broken its word to the tribes. Since Europeans first arrived in North America, they had steadily pushed the American Indians farther and farther west, driving them from their ancestral lands.

In 1851, in the First Fort Laramie Treaty, the American government had guaranteed the Plains Indians that they would be left alone in their defined territories, or reservations. In exchange for ceasing to wander the Great Plains as migratory hunters, the Plains Indians accepted money and a guarantee of a yearly delivery of supplies worth thousands of dollars.

Reality did not turn out according to the treaty. The United States continued to take land, shrinking the size of the reservations. Supplies were not delivered as promised. Since the treaties had limited the tribes’ opportunity to provide for themselves by hunting, they depended on those supplies for survival. With- out them, some tribes were in grave danger of starvation.

A deep cultural divide existed between the Americans of European descent and the American Indians. The American-Indians’ experience of dealing with other tribes had been limited, and had not taught them that treaties were easily broken. Europeans, on the other hand, had warred with neighboring nations for hundreds of years (France against England, Spain against France, Poland against Russia), making treaties on the best terms possible and then breaking them as soon as it was to their advantage. To the Americans, broken promises were a natural element of foreign policy—and to the U.S. government, the American Indians were a foreign population. To the tribes, broken promises were bewildering and ended by causing deep resentment and fury toward the U.S. government and its people.

Naturally, the broken promises ended up leading to armed conflict. In 1862, when the nondelivery of the promised supplies caused grave danger of starvation, the Santee Sioux attacked the local Bureau of Indian Affairs and raided local farms for food. U.S. troops, who were better organized and had more and better weapons, quickly quashed the raids. They executed several of the Sioux and forced the tribe to move to Dakota Territory and later to Nebraska.

Over time, the tribes came to realize that there was no reason to honor any treaty that the American government and military had repeatedly violated. The Plains Indians were migratory, not stationary; they wanted to roam, not to live on settled reservations. They frequently strayed away to hunt buffalo or simply to feel that they were free to go where they pleased. U.S. troops were ordered to try to contain them on their reservations. Sometimes the two groups clashed and people on both sides were wounded or killed.

Sand Creek, Colorado Territory, was the site of an especially shameful episode. Colonel John Chivington ordered his troops to open fire on a large group of Cheyenne Indians, almost all women and children, none of whom had attacked the U.S. troops or done anything to provoke an attack. Chivington’s troops massacred 200 Cheyennes that day. When national newspapers printed the story of the Sand Creek Massacre, Americans were horrified. A congressional committee investigated and condemned the massacre, calling for reform in Indian affairs.

Meanwhile, the tribes took direct, violent action against farmers and troops on the Great Plains. The U.S. government called for peace in the Treaty of Medicine Lodge. The southern Plains Indians were moved to reservations in Oklahoma Territory. In the Second Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, the Sioux agreed to move to South Dakota, to an area they named the Black Hills. For once, the United States had moved a tribe of Indians to rich, fertile lands.

In 1874, American troops invaded the Black Hills. When the troops discovered gold, the government naturally wanted the Sioux to move again. The Sioux took up arms and proceeded to win major battles at the Rosebud Battlefield and the Little Bighorn. At Little Bighorn, General George Armstrong Custer and all his troops were killed. The U.S. Army redoubled its efforts to police the Sioux, and in the end forced them to surrender and move to new reservations.

In these times of great trouble, the American Indians turned to religion for solace and hope. A Paiute named Wovoka assured the Plains Indians that a ritual dance called the Ghost Dance would bring their ancestors back and would ward off further American attempts to destroy their Indian culture. The U.S. military, afraid that the Ghost Dance movement would spread and give rise to further armed conflict, decided to arrest Sioux chief Sitting Bull. A fight broke out when they approached Sitting Bull’s cabin, and the troops killed several Indians, including Sitting Bull.

The assassination of their leader disheartened some Sioux and enraged others. Many of them traveled west toward the Pine Ridge reservation with their leader Big Foot. One night in December 1890, the Sioux camped along Wounded Knee Creek on the South Dakota–Nebraska border. In the morning, 500 troops surrounded them and demanded their guns. The Sioux surrendered, but the troops began shooting anyway. At the end of the Wounded Knee Masacre, 150 Sioux and about thirty U.S. soldiers lay dead. The Sioux gave up all further attempts at resistance after this incident. Further West, the U.S. Army also succeeded in relocating the Nez Percé and the Apache.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Westward Movement Practice Test

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