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Westward Expansion (1807-1912)

The Plains Indians

The Mexican War and Political Aftermath

The Transcontinental Railroad and the Admission of Western States


As Far Western Expansion picked up, it became clear that just as before, the goals of American expansionists conflicted with the needs of the Indians in the area of expansion. Many of the Plains tribes depended on the buffalo for survival. Several tribes followed the buffalo migration, harvesting conservatively to fill tribal needs. The Indians ate buffalo meat, used its hide for clothing and shelter. Sinews were used as bowstrings and bones were used as tools and weapons. Buffalo fat was used as grease, hoofs used to make glue, and even buffalo dung was used for fuel. By the 1870s, however, the buffalo population was on the decline. Non-Indians killed the buffalo for their pelts, to feed railroad construction crews, or even just for the pure sport of it. Army commanders who operated in the West often attempted to drive the Indians off of desired lands by killing the buffalo as a way to deprive the Indians of supplies. Between 1872 and 1875, only three years, hunters killed 9 million buffalo, most often taking the skin and leaving the carcass to rot in waste. By the 1880s the Indian way of life was ruined and the way was cleared for American settlement of the Plains.

As early as the 1860s, the US government had abandoned its policy of treating much of the West as a large Indian reserve, and introduced a system of small, separate tribal reservations, where the Indians were to be concentrated. Some tribes peacefully accepted their fate, but other tribes, with a total population of over 100,000, resisted. These tribes battled the US Army for control of the West. Early skirmishes and violent massacres prompted the US government to set aside two large areas in 1867, one North of Nebraska, and one south of Kansas, in which they hoped the nomadic tribes would finally settle. The government used the threat of force to convince the tribes to comply, and at first, many did, signing treaties them relocated them to these tracts.

However, many Indians refused to be confined to reservations. These tribes engaged in a constant battle with non-Indians, raiding settlements and attacking troop installments throughout the late 1860s and 1870s. The so-called Red River War posed American troops against Cheyennes in Kansas during a fierce winter campaign in 1874. The Apaches in what is now Arizona and New Mexico fought a similar guerilla war intermittently until 1886, when their leader, Geronimo, surrendered.

No instance of Indian resistance engendered more passion than the conflict between the Sioux and the US Army in the northern Plains. The Indian agents in the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana had long tried in vain to control the Sioux, many of who entered and left the reservations at will. The US Army responded in 1874 by sending a force under Colonel George Armstrong Custer into the hills of South Dakota. When gold was discovered in the region, the federal government announced that Custer's forces would hunt down all Sioux not in reservations after January 31, 1876. Many Sioux refused to comply, and Custer began to mobilize his troops. At the battle of Little Bighorn, in June 1876, Custer unwisely divided his troops, and a numerically superior force of Indians wiped out him and all of his men. After this crushing defeat, the army took a different tack, harassing Sioux bands in a war of attrition. These tactics were generally successful against the Sioux and throughout the West, and the Indians gradually lost the will to resist.

The Sioux became desperate in the late 1880s, and turned to the prophet Wovoka, who assured them that they would return to their original dominance of the Plains if they performed the Ghost Dance. As the Ghost Dance swept the Plains, Sioux Indians gathered in bands wearing Ghost Shirts and performing the ritual, reaffirming their own culture. Indian officials and military authorities were suspicious of the movement and attempted to arrest chief Sitting Bull, a Sioux war hero whose cabin had become the center of the movement. In a skirmish outside the cabin, Sitting Bull was accidentally shot. Two weeks later, on December 29, 1890, 300 Indians were slaughtered by American troops at Wounded Knee. This massacre was the symbolic end to Indian resistance; the Plains Indians were essentially conquered and moved into reservations throughout the next decade.


The destruction of the buffalo herds demonstrates the blind greed and selfishness with which Americans into the West without heeding or attempting to understand the lifestyle of the Plains Indians. In just a few years, the massive herds of buffalo, which had sustained the Indians there for centuries, were reduced to a sparse several thousand. Due to the dictates of Eastern fashion and the desire of entrepreneurial whites seeking to get rich quickly, the Indians' way of life was doomed forever. To add insult to injury, after destroying their way of life, whites next lay claim to Indian lands, explaining to the tribes that they would be better off on cramped reservations than pursuing their traditional lifestyle on the Plains. Whites believed strongly that the land of the West was theirs to take, and the Indians fiercely rejected this notion.

Thus it is understandable that passions flared up on both sides of the conflict. The direct result of these passions was the rise of guerilla warfare. During the period from the mid 1860s all the way through 1890, both the Indians and the white forces committed many atrocities. In 1864 the Cheyennes and Arapahos of southern Colorado sued for peace and made camp by Sand Creek to wait for a response. There they were brutally slaughtered by the Colorado militia, which continued its onslaught, killing women and children, even after the Indians had raised a white flag in surrender. In 1866, the Teton Sioux in Wyoming attacked troops working on the construction of the Bozeman Trail (a road between Wyoming and Montana), killing and mutilating the 80 soldiers at work. Events such as these led to the rise of bitter hatred between the two contending groups, which continuously spilled over into brutality and violence as the prolonged conflict went on.

Not all whites, however, were employed in the direct destruction of the Indians. Many took a more beneficent view of the Plains Indians, seeing it as their duty to Christianize and modernize the "savages" on the reservations. To this end, the Board of Indian Commissioners delegated the task of reform to Protestant leaders. Though cloaked in goodwill, this effort served the more practical purpose of breaking the nomadic tradition of the Indians and making them into permanent and productive members of the reservations. Other attempts were made throughout the late 1800s to "save" the Indians. Richard H. Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania to equip Indians with the skills and culture necessary for integration into white society. However, the school uprooted Indians from their homes and made no pretense of respecting Indian culture. This sort of cultural reeducation assaulted the Indian way of life as viciously as the hunters who had slaughtered the buffalo. The movement to "civilize" the Indians was infused with a sense of cultural superiority. Pratt explained that that goal of the Carlisle School was to "kill the Indian and save the man." Other humanitarians, genuinely concerned about the Indians, suggested that the best thing for them would be to integrate the tribes into white society, instituting concepts like private property and making the Indians less culturally distinct. These concerns were expressed in the 1887 Dawes Severalty Act. The Dawes Act called for the breakup of the reservations and the treatment of Indians as individuals rather than tribes. It provided for the distribution of 160 acres of farmland or 320 acres of grazing land to any Indian who accepted the act's terms, who would then become US citizens in 25 years. While some Indians benefited from the Dawes Act, still others became dependent upon federal aid.

After Indian resistance died out, many did try to adapt to non-Indian ways. Few succeeded completely, and many were emotionally devastated at being forced to abandoned age-old traditions. On reservations, the Plains Indians were almost totally dependent upon the federal government. Indian traditions, social organization, and modes of survival were broken down. By 1900, the Plains Indian population had fallen from almost 250,000 to only slightly more than 100,000. However, the population began to stabilize and slowly rise again, and the traditions of the Plains Indians were maintained as best they could be, considering the situation.

In the period following the Civil War non-Indian settlers pursued a strategy involving a mixture of benevolence, coercion cloaked in legality, and blind violence to change the Indian lifestyle in the name of civilization and progress. Many white Americans felt only contempt toward the Indians, but others viewed themselves as divinely chosen to uplift and Christianize the Indians. Both groups participated equally in the destruction of the Native American culture, however, and the fate of the Indians continues to rest heavy on the American conscience.

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