Indians west of the Mississippi River began the second half of the nineteenth century largely independent. By 1875, most Indians were confined to reservations. By 1900, any Indians still in existence were totally dependent on the goodwill of the U.S. government, were systematically being deprived of their unique cultures, and had no control over their lives or their futures. In 1850, a decreasing Indian population estimated at 388,000 (Royce, 1899, 537), with Late Stone Age technology and largely unaware of the threat, faced a United States of America with a population of 23 million people, growing at 21 to 26 percent per decade (Meinig, 1998, 265), with Industrial Age technology and largely unconcerned with those already using the land of the West. Each of the hundreds of Indian nations dealt with the European-American invasion on its own. To varying degrees, each nation was alien in language, culture, and interest to every other. To the Indians of the West in 1850, the White Man was just another strange tribe. By the time the Indians learned just how strange, it was too late. Not until the end of the century did there arise a sense of common Indian interest transcending tribal cultural boundaries. By then, any hope of resisting Euro-American control was gone.
At the midpoint of the nineteenth century, the Indians of the West were adjusting to such significant cultural changes as introduction of the horse and firearms, which spread northward and westward, respectively, increasing intertribal contact. Among the many Indian nations, particularly on the Great Plains, the horse revolutionized the cultures of many nations, including the Cheyenne, and in the Great Basin and the Southwest, where the Utes and the Apaches, respectively, had taken to horseback. Several nations had been forced west from the Great Lakes area in a "bow wave" effect, as Euro-Americans settled the Old Northwest in larger and larger numbers. However, most western Indians had little reason to believe that life for their grandchildren would be much different than their own.
At the same time, the United States was growing in population, wealth, and power. The second half of the nineteenth century was a time of profound change for Euro-Americans too. The railroad made it possible to travel vast distances in days. The telegraph moved information thousands of miles in an eyeblink. The Civil War destroyed the Old South. The machine took over from animal and human power. The discovery of gold gave the illusion of easy wealth. All these developments pushed Euro-Americans into the lands of the West.
Indian contact with Euro-Americans came in waves. One pattern of expansion was common, although not every contact happened in the same order. First on the scene were "mountain men" and traders. The mountain men were tolerated because there were so few of them. The traders were welcomed because they provided access to the White Man's goods. These forerunners were risk takers, gambling their lives to trade inexpensive goods for precious furs and information. Traders like George Bent were very careful to understand the cultures and personalities of the Indians with whom they traded, frequently marrying Indians, and often provided the communications link between the Indians and the Whites who followed.
The next wave consisted of the land exploiters— miners, ranchers, speculators, and road and railroad builders. Unlike the traders, they had no interest in understanding the Indians. Usually they wanted the Indians kept away from their projects. The gold rushes in California, Colorado, Montana, and Dakota Territory, in particular, attracted large numbers of such men very quickly, changing the racial complexion of these areas in a year or less. Once the land exploiters had enough clout to demand protection from Indians, the Army was dispatched to provide security. With the soldiers came their families, civilian contractors, and camp followers.
From the Indians' perspective, the last wave consisted of the farmers and townspeople. Sometimes, the farmers came first and towns grew up to support them. Alternatively, the town grew up around an Army fort, a railroad facility, or a trading post, providing the goods and services that farmers found attractive. The two might arrive together, in the same wagon train. A real estate developer might lay out an entire community, town, and farms, and advertise the development to potential immigrants. Because farming requires the exclusive use of land, the arrival of farmers indicated the final occupation of the land by Euro-Americans.
Given their incompatible goals, cultures, and perceptions, the collision between Euro-Americans and Indians was inevitable. Both wanted the same land. The Indians wanted to live their own lives, and Euro-Americans wanted to change the Indian way of life. Each saw the other as alien, inferior, and frightening. But the Euro-Americans not only survived the collision, but prospered for a number of reasons.
The first reason for the Euro-American success in the West was a simple preponderance of numbers. The Old World diseases had created pandemics in the Americas, killing much of the Indian population, and they would continue to do so. Mortality from disease, injury, and starvation remained high, limiting Indian population growth. On the other hand, not only were Euro-Americans having large families, but immigration from overseas was increasing. In the 1850 census, the population of the United States was 23 million (U.S. Census, 2002, Table 1). It grew to 75 million by 1900 (U.S. Census, 2002, Table 1). The consensus is that the Indian population in 1850 in what are now the Lower 48 was estimated at 350,000 to 400,000. It decreased over the next five decades to 237,000 (U.S. Census, 2002, Table 1). As Euro-American settlers moved into Indian country, they soon outnumbered the Indians by large margins. For each Euro-American in the West, there were fifty to three hundred or more back East. An Indian tribe had only its own people.
The second reason for Euro-American success was the wide disparity in technology. Indian tribes were Late Stone Age cultures. (The Five Civilized Tribes were an exception. They had access to most rural Euro-American technologies of the time.) Otherwise, Indians did not have the skills to mine ores or to work hard metals, and they were dependent on imports for metal tools and weapons. Indian implements for living were handmade by tribal members from natural materials and were supplemented by imports. Euro-American settlers imported steel tools, manufactured clothing, and other factory goods from the East, where they could be made by machine cheaply and in great quantities.
Most tribes that practiced agriculture did not grow enough food to have surpluses to export and often required imports of grain to survive even before contact with Euro-Americans. For example, the Apaches brought meat and skins to the Pueblo Indians to trade for corn and Mexican trade goods. For Euro-Americans, the invention of the heavy iron plow, the cotton gin, and other agricultural machinery led to a large-scale monoculture that produced large surpluses, so that one American farmer could support many others beyond his own family. The wide use of the tin can for food storage and transportation provided dietary variety far from growing areas. Having enough to eat was rarely a problem for a Euro-American in the West, whereas an Indian band was fortunate if people did not starve to death during the winter, droughts, or other catastrophes.
Indians moved on foot or, if of high enough status, on horseback, and freight moved by pack animal—horse or human. For Euro-Americans, by 1850 there were already 8,000 miles of railroad in the United States east of the Mississippi (Hine, 1973, 111). It was the preferred means of moving both people and cargo overland for long distances. The steamship enabled reasonably fast up- and downstream movement along waterways, along coastlines, and between the East and West Coasts. Even away from the waterways and rails, west of the Mississippi, the animal-drawn wagon was the primary passenger and freight hauler with a far greater capacity than the travois, which dragged loads behind horses (and, before they were utilized, humans or dogs). Coupled with their ability to form large, complex organizations, their means of transportation gave the Euro-Americans a major advantage in both speed of movement and quantities moved.
For the Indians in the West, and more often than not for Euro-Americans as well, information traveled at the speed of a horse. However, as telegraph lines were installed across the West, Euro-Americans could send and receive information instantaneously from thousands of miles away. This permitted the rapid coordination of large-scale commercial and military actions, and the Euro-American population back East would learn about an event in Indian Country before other Indian tribes could learn of it.
Finally, the Euro-American advantage in weapons technology was decisive. The primary weapons of the western Indians were the war club, knife, hatchet, spear/lance, and bow. Imported firearms, steel knives, hatchets, spearheads, and arrowheads were preferred but expensive. In the West, almost every Euro-American adult male and many women and children had firearms and steel knives. The shoulder-fired weapon evolved from the muzzle-loading smoothbore musket, with an effective range of about a hundred yards in the hands of a well-trained marksman and heavy stopping power out to that distance, to the lever- or bolt-action breech-loading rifle capable of killing at a thousand yards. The five- or six-shot revolver was the sidearm of choice, with an effective range of ten or fifteen yards. The U.S. Army also had artillery.
As the Nez Percés demonstrated in 1877, the Indians could make excellent use of rifles and pistols, but the Euro-Americans had one further advantage. With their industrial base and transportation networks, the United States could easily equip large numbers of soldiers and civilians with high-quality firearms and large quantities of ammunition and put them in the field almost anywhere. As with people, numbers mattered.
Third, Euro-Americans succeeded in driving the Indians out of most of the West by their willingness to deceive both the Indians and their own people, make promises that could not be kept, break other promises, rationalize immoral actions, ignore illegal acts, tolerate incompetence, and condone greed to accomplish their objective of the moment. The most common and most important promise made by government representatives to Indians was that whites would not enter their reservations without permission. Even if it had the political will to keep miners, settlers, and others from trespassing, the distances were too vast and the terrain too difficult for enforcement as a practical matter. The Army could never have been large enough to cover all the ground. However, as in the Black Hills in 1875 when an expedition led by Lieutenant Colonel George Custer reported finding gold, the Army was sometimes actively involved in encouraging trespassing. White occupation of Indian land was ignored, as was the sale of alcohol, even though both acts were against U.S. law.
Euro-Americans tolerated incompetence and graft in Indian Affairs that they would never have accepted in other areas of government. Government positions and contracts to provide food and other goods were considered political patronage. Incompetent and venal Indian agents aggravated tensions by callous disregard for the Indian perspective on events.
Greed was tolerated when it supported national objectives. The gold rushes in California, Colorado, and Dakota Territory devastated subsistence ranges, despoiled sacred sites, and led to the enslavement and extermination of whole tribes, but they added large amounts to the national wealth and attracted foreign investment. Therefore, Euro-Americans generally and the federal government in particular tolerated and even encouraged prospecting. Similarly, railroads were seen as constituting a strategic connection between East and West. Because the government was unable or unwilling to build them, private companies were subsidized by grants of land, leading to the partition and destruction of the buffalo herds on the Great Plains. These moral lapses facilitated a wide variety of activities that had the effect of opening up Indian land to white settlement and ultimately destroying the Indian will to resist. They were frequently the cause of Indian resistance that led to Army suppression. Combined with the disparities in technological levels and in the numbers of people, this willingness to abandon honor in favor of results created a force that was impossible for the Indians to stop.
Examples of this behavior include the treatment of the Indians in California, where commissioners negotiated treaties with Indians who had no understanding of what they were signing away. Most of the treaties were never ratified, neither reservation boundaries nor the removal of whites from reservations was enforced, and other promises were ignored. By 1870 only four reservations existed, and only about 30,000 Indians remained, mostly in Southern California (Meinig, 1998, 49). In 1854, Texas provided two small reservations along the Red River for the remnants of the native Indian tribes, but in 1859 Texas settlers demanded that land and 2,000 Indians were removed to Indian Territory (Gibson, 1980, 348). The failure to prevent encroachment on reservations in Washington led to the Yakama War (1855), the flight of the Nez Percés (1877), the Bannock War (1878), and the Sheepeater War (1879). In each case, the underlying cause of Indian dissatisfaction was Euro-American encroachment on Indian subsistence areas, and the flash point was the Indian belief that an entire band or tribe would be held responsible for the violent acts of one or a few warriors. A similar pattern of events led to the Ute War of 1878–1879, which followed a vicious propaganda campaign by the state government to turn sentiment back East against the tribe.
An important process in the relationship between Indians and Euro-Americans consisted of the negotiation, execution, ratification, and enforcement of treaties between Indian nations and the U.S. government. The Constitution of the United States gives Congress authority over Indian affairs and the federal government the authority to make treaties with foreign governments. Indian treaties typically provided that the parties would stay at peace with each other and that the United States would give the Indians future compensation—money, goods, and services, often called annuities—and secure territory—a reservation—in exchange for large tracts of land being used by the Indians for subsistence. They also might provide for the removal of the Indian tribe to a reservation away from their present homes. However, treaties were interpreted differently by Indians and the U.S. government.
Indians were experienced in negotiating peace agreements with other Indian nations. They tended to see such agreements as bargaining between equals in status (if not in power), binding on those at the signing and on their followers. The U.S. government usually chose to interpret treaties as binding the entire tribe of each Indian leader signing. The government was not concerned with the Indians' interpretation. Government officials thought that they were dealing with inferior, uncivilized people who should appreciate the respect they were being shown in the treaty-making process. Indian treaties had less moral significance than treaties with "civilized" European countries.
Indians incorporated oral representations and the spirit of the negotiations into the meaning of a treaty, and they expected substantial compliance until the circumstances that drove the negotiations changed, if ever. The intent of the treaty was to be observed. Indians knew that leaders could not absolutely control the activities of every warrior and that some violations would almost certainly occur. However, such violations were treated as personal matters, to be dealt with by the individuals concerned, not as matters concerning the entire nation. For Euro-Americans applying the principles of the Anglo-American legal system, the written treaty document was the entire agreement. Oral representations were overruled by the written treaty, and the government expected the Indians to comply precisely with every promise they made. It did not apply this standard to its own compliance.
The Indians participating in the negotiation process were almost without exception illiterate and could put no faith in a written document. For the Indian leaders, a treaty was the exchange of promises between the U.S. leaders and themselves. Symbols of respect presented to Indian leaders often had a positive effect on reaching agreement on treaties. While the government representatives may have thought it was childish, Indians truly valued medals, military uniforms and insignia, U.S. flags, and other gifts that to them symbolized their social acceptance as equals and friends by the United States.
An Indian leader's authority to negotiate was his moral authority as a successful war leader, a charismatic leader, and an elder. If he traded away too much for too little in return, his authority would decrease and perhaps vanish altogether. For the U.S. government, negotiating was done by a peace commission appointed by the president. Orally, commissioners tended to overstate their authority, but the written treaties included provisions that made the government's performance of its obligations dependent on the actions of Congress in ratifying the treaty and appropriating funds. Indians were expected to act immediately on their obligations under a treaty, and they felt betrayed if the treaty was not ratified by the Congress, if ratification was delayed, or if the treaty was changed before it was ratified—all common results when treaties arrived at Congress's door. Indians were even angrier when a ratified treaty with which they had already complied was changed or abrogated by subsequent U.S. government actions. The courts did not have the authority to deal with the consequences of that kind of breach of a treaty. That was the responsibility of the president and Congress.
Indians facing the inevitable breach of their treaties had four options. First, they could sue the government in federal court. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Five Civilized Tribes were the only Indians with the sophistication and resources to attempt this. Second, they could petition the Great White Father to help them. This was naive and rarely accomplished anything. The Indians generally did not understand the Constitutional and political limits on the president's authority or the president's inability as a practical matter to push the federal bureaucracy into action. Third, they could try to enforce the treaty with their own power, resisting and retaliating for the transgression by force. This choice consistently caused the U.S. government to send the Army after them and often led to the termination of the treaty they were trying to enforce. Fourth, they could do nothing and just tolerate the breach. After the end of Apache resistance in 1886, this was the only option left. With the fluid nature of tribal leadership, more than one of these options might be chosen by different tribal factions. Young and warlike warriors might retaliate with raids on settlements or infrastructure, irrespective of the wishes of tribal elders. The Euro-Americans interpreted the raids by a few hotheads as the entire tribe going to war, and, typically, the entire tribe suffered.
The Constitution of the United States says that ratified treaties with sovereign states are the law of the land. However, treaties, like statutes, may be amended or repealed by subsequent congressional and presidential action. There were five limitations on the U.S. government's flexibility. First, title to land granted by a treaty could not be disturbed without compensation. For this reason, any further attempt to reduce Indian land after a treaty required another treaty, or agreement. Second, Indian treaties and many statutes created a trust relationship, imposing on the U.S. government as the trustee obligations to act in good faith toward the Indians and in the Indians' best interests. Third, the courts repeatedly stated that the government owed the Indians a moral obligation to observe the terms of treaties due to the unequal negotiating positions of the parties. Fourth, the government was limited by internal Euro-American politics, including public opinion. Fifth, the government was limited by the practical limits of power on the ground. Of the five limitations, only the first two could be enforced in the courts.
The terms of treaties from 1850 until Congress ended the practice in 1871 were remarkably consistent. The Indian parties promised to withdraw to a more or less specific reservation and give up any rights to the balance of the lands they claimed. They promised to be faithful to the United States and follow no other "civilized" power (meaning Great Britain or Mexico). They promised to keep the peace with the United States and its people. The United States promised that the Indian parties would have their reservation forever, subject to federal laws on land ownership. Usually a cash payment was to be made each year for several decades, although the treaties were vague as to how this payment was to be made and to whom. The government would provide the Indians with food, particularly for the winter. Finally, the government would supply an itemized list of goods and services. The nature of these goods, in treaty after treaty, demonstrates one of the government objectives in the treaty process—changing the traditional Indian culture from that of nomadic hunting and gathering to that of settled, "civilized" agriculture. In addition to farming equipment, goods included Euro-American-style clothing.
While the treaties were uniformly one-sided, worse for the Indians was the U.S. government's general failure to perform its obligations. Leaders like Ouray of the Utes, who understood that the terms of the treaties were unequal, also understood that circumstances had changed and accepted the treaty terms as the best hope for tribal survival. They believed that, with a protected territory, annual monetary payments, and enough food to balance the loss of subsistence areas, they could survive the flood of whites moving into their lands. Often they believed they had no choice and simply hoped for the best. Had these obligations been met, many of the saddest events in the collisions between Indians and Euro-Americans would not have happened.
With some important exceptions, the U.S. government delegated the performance of its obligations under these treaties to un- or self-interested bureaucrats and contractors. The positions were filled on the basis of the personal decisions of senior officials, inviting corruption and favoritism. The government agencies involved demonstrated both incompetence and corruption in fulfilling their material obligations. Contracts for goods and services were awarded in the same way and rarely audited. Sometimes malfeasance was due to greed. Others failed to perform their duties out of racist malice toward the Indians. Some were stupid, insensitive, or lazy. Others manipulated the performance of obligations for what they thought were positive objectives, such as assimilation, religious salvation, or maintaining peace.
The delivery of material compensation—annuities, food, and other goods and services—failed at several levels. First, Congress had to appropriate the funds, and sometimes did not do so for political reasons that had nothing to do with treaty obligations to the Indians. Compensation might be delayed, diverted, or embezzled by agency employees. Sometimes it was paid to the wrong person, even to the wrong tribe. Food frequently arrived spoiled and insufficient in quantity to support a tribe deprived of its familiar form of sustenance. The food might be so alien to the recipients that they got sick on it or refused to eat it. A tribe of hunters might be given plows and seed, but no training on how to farm successfully.
Much of this incompetence and malice might have been tolerated by the Indians had the U.S. government fulfilled its promise to secure their remaining lands from Euro-American infiltration. However, in many instances when a tribe's large tracts of land were desirable or were found to contain gold, the government failed to prevent Euro-American occupation and settlement. Similarly, railroads were seen in the United States as critical to the nation's economy, growth, and security. Therefore, obstacles to the extension of rail lines throughout the West were not tolerable. Furthermore, Euro-American land hunger showed little respect for unmarked reservation boundaries. The attitude that "unoccupied" land was there to be taken for "productive" uses—agriculture, ranching, mining, commerce—continued to motivate speculators, developers, and migrants to occupy reservation lands.
The government lacked both the resources and the interest to protect Indian lands from Euro-American occupation. U.S. civil law enforcement and territorial militias did not enforce such restrictions on their own people—on themselves. That left the Army, which was stretched thin, controlled by civilians in Washington ignorant of western conditions, and all too often bigoted against Indians as a race.
In the midst of this misfeasance and malfeasance, many soldiers, government officials, contractors, and other Euro-Americans were both competent and dedicated to what they perceived as the best interests of the Indians. Traders often earned the respect of the Indian nations with which they dealt and served loyally as interpreters for the Indians in treaty negotiations. Agents, commissioners, and soldiers often sent honest and objective reports to Washington, even though their observations were filtered through their cultural biases. Idealists campaigned for the government to fulfill its obligations. However, even the most supportive of Euro-Americans pressed for actions like allotment and residential schools, which would lead to the destruction of the Indians as independent nations and unique cultures.
In 1871, Congress stopped making treaties with Indian nations, deciding that they were not "sovereign" foreign states. From that point, relations between Indian tribes and the U.S. government took the form of agreements, statutes enacted by the normal process, or by executive orders from the president. The terms of agreements were similar to those of treaties, but agreements raised none of the peculiar legal issues of treaties, such as tribal sovereignty.
Other than "vested" rights, meaning that Indians had a property interest such that they could not be taken away without due process of law and just compensation, by 1900 the rights of Indians were whatever the U.S. government chose to grant them. By means of treaties and agreements, Euro-Americans controlled all but a few small patches of the United States.
Euro-Americans, including the elected and appointed officials in the U.S. government, believed that fallow land was unoccupied and therefore freely available for agriculture, ranching, forestry, mining, and other uses. This belief came from a variety of sources, in particular the Anglo-American legal tradition. Such concepts as adverse possession and best use confirmed European traditions of land use and the more recent Euro-American tradition of homesteading. Also reinforcing this belief were the Euro-American beliefs in Manifest Destiny and the superiority of their civilization—racism. Euro-Americans still believed that agriculture was the foundation of society and that the farmer was the epitome of manhood. Given internal U.S. politics and economic incentives, the Euro-American migration west is not a surprise. For all these reasons, the government actively encouraged migration to western lands by farmers through homestead acts and cheap land sales.
North-South politics were important in the years before and during the Civil War. The balance of power between Slave States and Free States was swinging away from the South as the population of the North grew at a much faster rate than that of the South. Both North and South encouraged the colonization of the West to influence the political makeup of potential new states. After the Civil War, the largest motivating factor for migration was financial opportunity. Speculators and real estate developers sought land that they could buy and sell at a profit. Settlers were looking for better and more farmland, broader pastures for cattle, and new markets for services and trade. The desire for land suitable for cotton plantations led Southerners to migrate to eastern Texas and Indian Territory before and after the Civil War.
Infiltration by mining interests and miners was no less disruptive. In California, the massive influx of miners led to the near destruction of the Indians of California. Those who resisted were chased down and destroyed. Cross-country travel to California, followed by the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad and other permanent transportation routes, disrupted other Indians' subsistence and migration patterns. The Forty-Niners in California wanted to push the local Indians out of the gold fields, leading to the 1850–1851 Mariposa War. Prospecting in southern Oregon led to the Rogue River War of 1855–1856. Abusive behavior by miners in southwestern Idaho led the Northern Paiutes to take up arms in 1860. Prospectors crossing the Great Plains and squatting in prime winter quarters led to the 1864–1865 Cheyenne-Arapaho War. Miners trespassing on the Sioux reservation to get to Montana triggered the Bozeman Trail War in 1866–1867. The gold rush in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory, long a holy place for Sioux and other Plains tribes, led to the Lakota War of 1875–1877.
The Colorado gold rush led to confrontations between miners and Indians in Kansas and Nebraska. The actual mining area was not important to any Indian nations, but the strike attracted more than twice as many immigrants as did the California gold rush. In 1858–1859, more than 100,000 people crossed Kansas and Nebraska to reach the Rockies (West, 1998, xv). The Cheyennes, who dominated the central Plains at this time, had already deforested the area's river valleys, but Euro-American immigrants used the same routes for moving people and freight. Many of them settled in the river valleys when Indians were elsewhere on the Plains, and the Army chose some of the most fertile wooded areas remaining for fortifications. This shut the Cheyennes out of the best horse pastures. Also, the miners occupied critical Cheyenne and Arapaho winter quarters in the eastern Rocky Mountains. Buffalo herds drifted east and refused to migrate across the settled river valleys, splitting them into northern and southern herds and intensifying competition between the Western Plains tribes and the Pawnee and other Eastern Plains tribes.
In 1866 the northern Plains Indians recognized the disruption caused by Euro-Americans traveling on the Bozeman Trail to the Montana gold strike. This was land reserved to the Sioux, in particular, in the First Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851. The Sioux and their allies attacked parties of miners and especially prospectors, until the Army was ordered to protect travelers on the trail. Many Sioux resisted, while the Crows attempted to play the United States against the Sioux while remaining neutral. The Army troops deployed and the forts built were insufficient to provide real security, and the Sioux and their allies were successful in stopping the Army. With the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad into Colorado, another route to the Montana gold fields developed that did not trespass on Plains Indian lands, and the Army withdrew under the terms of the Second Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868.
The initial prospectors who responded to the lure of gold tended to move on when the claims were played out or all the good claims taken. However, the Euro-Americans and others who came to support and exploit the miners often stayed and started commercial, industrial, or agricultural communities. Sometimes, as in Nevada and Montana, mining continued as an industrial rather than individual enterprise, and extraction from more difficult ores and other minerals such as copper or coal required capital-intensive operations. However, time after time, when mining reached this stage, there were no longer any Indians in the area.
While gold rushes repeatedly triggered confrontations between Indians and Euro-Americans, it was land that attracted most settlers to the subsistence areas of the Indians. Land was a speculative investment, a desirable transportation corridor, or just a bigger ranch or farm. Indians learned to be more afraid of surveyors than of prospectors.
The U.S. government granted over 131 million acres of western land to railroads between 1850 and 1875 (Hine, 2000, 282). As they were built, the railroads provided corridors along which Euro-Americans settled. The railroad was the dominant means of long-distance transportation to markets back east. Towns sprung up where the railroads set up roundhouses and maintenance facilities. Finally, the railroads were major real estate developers in their own right, exploiting their broad land grants. The railroads and their associated influx of settlers divided the buffalo herds, making hunting buffalo much harder for the Plains Indians. By providing easy access for commercial hunters, the railroads facilitated the final destruction of the buffalo herds in the 1870s.
In the winter of 1858–1859, bands of southern Cheyenne returned to their usual winter quarters along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains to find thousands of Euro-American miners and others, with entire cities (including what would become the city of Denver) laid out in lots on some of the best living sites. At noon on April 22, 1889, about 50,000 people galloped or ran into what had been some of the choicest land on the Indian reservations in what is now Oklahoma. These are two dramatic examples of the speculative fever attached to "unoccupied" western land. Land long used for subsistence by Indians was variously granted by the government to individuals and organizations (such as the railroads), purchased from the government, homesteaded, or simply squatted on. Speculators moved into an area early, locating and acquiring (legally or otherwise) prime land for agriculture and commerce. They would lay out entire towns in lots on the ground, organize entire counties, and sell the lots back east to prospective settlers. It was a process repeated over and over.
Ranchers saw the Great Plains, western Texas, and the valleys of the Great Basin as perfect for large-scale cattle ranching. Soon after the Civil War, Texas ranchers began driving herds north to the Plains, establishing large ranches that exploited the open grasslands. With the railroads reaching across the Plains, ranchers had easy access to eastern markets. Cattle competed with the buffalo and provided a nearly irresistible target for hungry Plains Indians.
Farming expanded rapidly in Oregon, Washington, and the central valley of California. Homesteaders occupied more and more of the most productive land as the century passed, forcing out the subsistence plants and animals on which the Indians of California and the Northwest lived and pushing the Indians themselves into less fertile country. In the Great Plains, farmers moved west along the east-west rivers, staying near water. This blocked the north-south migration of buffalo and occupied most of the Plains Indians' watering areas. The trees left by the Indians were soon chopped down by the white settlers for construction and fuel, leaving nomadic Indians without fuel or shelter. Irrigation extended the breadth of farming from the river valleys, and the development of dry farming techniques late in the nineteenth century made the western Plains attractive to farmers. The young farmer who was crowded out of Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Kentucky could afford to set up a much larger farm in Kansas or Iowa.
In the early nineteenth century, many Euro-Americans believed that "civilized" whites and "savage" Indians could not live side by side. With a whole continent to the west, it became U.S. government policy to remove Indians beyond what was then thought to be the potential limits of Euro-American settlement. Many tribes in the Southeast, the Ohio Valley, and the Great Lakes area were bribed, coerced, or forced to move to reserved lands—reservations—west of the Mississippi River, leading to such incidents as the Cherokee Trail of Tears in 1838–1839. By 1850, Euro-Americans were settling in large numbers in the eastern Plains and across the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Removal again became government policy.
The stated purposes for removal and reservations were to move perceived Indian security threats farther away from settled areas, to protect Indians from Euro-American speculators and criminals, to concentrate Indians in more easily supervised areas, and to lead them to take up a settled, "civilized" way of life. Other purposes were to open up land for Euro-American exploitation and to make Indians dependent on the U.S. government for security, food, and essential services. Some tribes were removed more than once. When the tribes along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in Nebraska and Kansas were removed to Indian Territory, included were tribes such as the Sac and Fox that had been removed from the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes area a generation earlier.
Reservations were always significantly smaller than the lands left behind and almost always too small to permit the extensive hunting and gathering that had previously been the tribes' mode of subsistence. Furthermore, they were often far away from the lands they knew how to use. The reservation was a new place, with different terrain, plants, and animals. One exception was the original Sioux reservation in the northern Plains, the result of the Second Treaty of Fort Laramie. This covered much of what is now western Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota, as well as large parts of eastern Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. While smaller than the area controlled by the Sioux tribes previously, it was large enough for the Sioux to continue their existing lifestyle. In 1851 and 1858, the Sioux in Minnesota were concentrated on a small reservation. When their 1862 revolt was suppressed, the survivors were removed to this reservation.
The government was generally unable to prevent Indians from leaving their reservations for hunting, religious gatherings, or war. For example, while the Quakers supervised the Indian Territory reservations in the 1870s, warriors from the southern Plains Indians, who had been removed to reservations there, came to the Indian Territory reservations to draw rations, went raiding into Texas and Mexico, then returned to their reservations and boasted of their exploits. The Army could not intervene on the reservations except at the request of the Indian agents, and, as pacifists, the Quaker agents refused to make the requests. Thus the Army and the Texas Rangers were forced to track raiders across hundreds of thousands of square miles of western Texas, usually without success. In other areas the situation was less extreme. The Indian agent might withhold food or other annuity payments until missing warriors returned, and the Army had more freedom to take action on the reservation. Still, there were very few soldiers to patrol a vast territory. If small parties of off-reservation Indians were doing no harm to Euro-American settlers, they were usually ignored. As buffalo and other prey disappeared, this became less of an issue.
Many reservations were reduced in land area as the nineteenth century proceeded. For example, in the 1850s, the reservations of the Five Civilized Tribes covered most of the eastern and southern parts of what is now Oklahoma. In a generation they had adapted to their new homes and prospered. However, the Civil War divided the people of the Tribes, as it did the border states of Missouri and Kentucky. The Choctaws, the Chickasaws, the followers of those who had supported removal, the planters and slave owners, and those who already mistrusted the federal government supported the Confederacy, while those who had opposed removal, most full-bloods, and traditionalists supported the Union. Internal fighting left the reservations devastated. Many members of the Five Civilized Tribes fought for each side. However, their participation on the Confederate side was used as a pretext to shrink their prewar reservations by half, which provided territory for the relocation of southern Plains tribes to Indian Territory.
Within the United States throughout the nineteenth century, the Euro-Americans who worked the hardest on behalf of Indians were people of faith (usually Protestant Christians) and others with similar philosophical positions who sincerely believed that the future of the Indians depended on teaching them Euro-American culture and integrating them as citizens of the United States—assimilation. These Euro-Americans had no doubt that their religion and their culture, what they termed "civilization," were superior in every way to the native culture of the Indians. The best method of ensuring the survival of the Indians was to civilize them.
The Roman Catholic church had long served this function in the Southwest under the Spanish and Mexicans. The Army encouraged Protestant missionaries, protecting them when possible. In 1865, the Army awarded contracts for the operation of reservation schools to Protestant missionary societies. When the operation of the Indian agencies was moved from the Army to the Department of the Interior in 1870, contracts for the agencies were awarded to twelve Christian denominations. Consistent with the assimilation strategy were the annuity terms of the Indian treaties. The explicit goal was to transform nomadic hunter-gatherers into stable, static farmers. As the Indians learned the skills of agriculture and the life of the farmer, they would automatically become "civilized."
In the nineteenth century, nobody in the United States expressed any interest in preserving living Indian cultures. Even those who most fervently wanted to help the Indians and those who believed in the image of the noble savage also believed that the Indian culture was a thing of the past, something to be swept away by modern civilization. Museums and other institutions were created to collect artifacts of the material culture of the Indians, but this was done to remember the past, not to preserve the present or to facilitate the future of Indian cultures.
Another assimilationist theory for preserving the Indians arose from Euro-American ideas about private property and the significance of the individual over the group. In addition to the widely held idealistic view of the farmer as the bedrock of democracy, social theorists of the times associated collectivism with primitive savagery. Civilization required that individuals become the key unit of economic and political life. Collective—tribal—control of land was therefore in the way of bringing the Indians to a civilized state. Allotment was the process of taking land under common tribal control and granting title to specific tracts of it to individual Indians. The explicit rationale behind allotment was that Indians would assimilate into mainstream Euro-American culture if they became individual farm owners and their tribal institutions no longer had any authority over them. Those who supported the Indians believed that allotment would allow them to survive by further integrating them into the Euro-American culture. Others saw allotment as a way of destroying tribal institutions and loyalties and a further incentive to permanent settlement, making Indians less dangerous and easier to control than in the past. There were also less idealistic reasons for allotment. Indians were to be allotted small tracts that added up to substantially less land than in the existing reservations and that left large tracts available for the government to sell to others.
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, usually called the Dawes Act after its sponsor, Senator Henry Dawes. The Dawes Act provided that the allotments were to be held in trust by the government for twenty years, so that they could not be sold. However, an exception provided that an Indian who was declared competent to handle his own affairs by the local Indian agency could sell his land. Such declarations were quickly abused. Indians received private allotments without either the skills or resources to farm them profitably, motivating them to sell even without fraud. Some Indian communities resembled checkerboards, with allotments interspersed with land owned by non-Indians. Other tribes learned how to manipulate the system to preserve contiguous land. However, more than half of all reservation land was lost to Indian control.
Some tribes, including the Five Civilized Tribes, were exempt from the Dawes Act at first, although many of them were subsequently brought under its terms. The allotment process took time. Tribes with valuable farmland or other resources tended to be allotted sooner. Many reservations took on the checkerboard pattern, with Indian-owned land interspersed with non-Indian–owned land. Several tribes studied the allotment system carefully and exploited it to keep control of important resources, sacred places, and contiguous land holdings. Some even asked for allotment, sensing that Anglo-American style land titles were more secure than vague treaty promises.
Tribal governments and extended family and clan units did not fade away, as Indians found ways around the allotment system. However, as Indians were coerced into selling their allotments to pay taxes or tricked into selling, they lost more and more land. Indian farming decreased, as allotment owners found they could lease their property to whites. The utter failure of the Dawes Act to accomplish its goals would not be dealt with until well into the twentieth century.
Tribal governments became powerless and remained so until the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Tribes were crowded onto less and less land, causing increased poverty and disease. Mobility for hunting and gathering, already severely limited by the reservation system, was almost destroyed altogether. Extended families were broken up, and other long-standing collective institutions were destroyed or crippled.
A person born in 1830—Indian or Euro-American—was twenty years old in 1850 and seventy years old in 1900. The changes described in this article happened within that person's adult lifetime. What the person saw in 1900 could not have been imagined in 1850.
For many Euro-Americans, 1900 concluded in a general mood of incredible optimism. The useful areas of the West had been colonized successfully. Survival in the face of nature was rarely a major concern. Technology in every field of human endeavor was advancing rapidly, allowing people to live longer, live better, and do more. The United States of America was a world power, with a seat at the table with the ancient empires of Europe. At home, the countryside was generally peaceful.
The Indians of 1900 saw their world occupied by Euro-Americans, their own people confined to a small part of the land they used to roam. They saw their people disappearing. They saw the proliferation of things in the Euro-American community, things that enabled people to do more and live more comfortably. Their grandchildren coveted such things but could have them only at the price of giving up the remnants of their own culture, if then. Indians could see two futures for their people. Some would assimilate into the White Man's world, becoming white in every way but skin color. Others would stifle and stagnate on the reservation, perhaps preserving parts of a culture that was under continuous assault. Those who tried to bridge the gap and have both cultures would too often lose both and fall into alcoholism or worse.
There was hope. Young Indians from different nations attending residential schools learned a common language and found that they had many other things in common. A sense of common Indian interests, beyond the family, clan, and tribe, was developing. Indians who went off to the Spanish-American War with Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders found themselves earning the respect and admiration of their comrades of other races. These were small rays of sunlight in an otherwise bleak, cloudy future.
And the Indians were still here. Outnumbered, outproduced, outgunned, run off their land, cheated, robbed, and slaughtered, they were still here. In spite of the best efforts of good people to turn them into white Americans, they were still here. On a road paved with intentions both good and bad, they were still here. The Indians who survived the second half of the nineteenth century, saving most of their culture and some of their land, would be the seeds from which the Indian renaissance of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries would grow.