Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World in 1492 led to one of the
largest invasions ever undertaken. The wars between the indigenous American
Indians and land-hungry white settlers began in the late 15th century and did
not cease for four centuries. In the end, it was not merely a country or region
that fell, but an entire hemisphere.
In 1520, a Spanish conquistador named Hernando Cortés conquered the Aztecs of Mexico. When the Spaniards arrived, the Aztec population was about 5 million. Cortés had only 553 soldiers, only 13 of whom were armed with relatively crude Renaissance muskets. In 1532, another Spaniard by the name of Francisco Pizarro brought down the Incan Empire. The Incas are estimated to have had an army of between 40,000 and 80,000 men, but they were defeated by Pizarro's 200-man force, 62 of whom were cavalry.
Obviously, the Aztec and Incan civilizations did not submit willingly to Spanish domination, and both cultures fiercely resisted the invaders. How, then, did so few Spaniards triumph over such a huge population? One of the most important factors in the triumph of Cortés and Pizarro was probably disease. The New World, separated from Europe by a vast ocean and from Asia by the frozen Bering Strait, was sealed off from European and Asian diseases for thousands of years. American Indians, who had migrated from Asia in prehistoric times, had never been exposed to such diseases as measles, smallpox, and influenza and thus had no antibodies to combat them. Unwittingly, the Spaniards created the conditions that led to their victory by simply breathing in the presence of the natives. By some estimates, 90% of the population of the Americas died from diseases that Europeans often experienced as resistant carriers.
While foreign diseases were indeed instrumental in the defeat of American Indians farther north, European domination did not come as quickly there. English settlers began arriving on the eastern coast of North America in the late 1500s. They established their settlements along the coast of present-day Virginia in the midst of an Indian confederation led by the local chief, Powhatan. He had domination over a number of tribes and led a population of perhaps 14,000 people, from whom he could draw over 3,000 warriors. He had successfully built a political organization in the neighborhood and saw the English as little threat—they could either be killed or used for supplies to fight his enemies. Indeed, the earliest English attempts at colonization faced extermination both through disease and Indian warfare.
The founding of Jamestown in 1607 changed the situation. Powhatan continued to believe that these new white people could be used or killed as necessary, and the early experiences of the Jamestown settlers seemed to bear that out. However, under the leadership of John Smith, the English began to practice both military defense and diplomacy.
Powhatan traded corn for copper, the metal best known and most valued by the area tribes. Because he commanded a number of tribes, he was able to negotiate with the English through one tribe while attacking them with another. English reinforcements began to change the balance of power, though, and they actively courted Powhatan's enemies. Powhatan continued to trade with the English even as he persecuted them, but the large supply of English copper deflated its value, and he began to demand weapons (especially muskets) in return for food. By 1610, fighting between the two sides over land and food was common, and the alliances with Powhatan's enemies began to pay off. He refused to pay the exorbitant ransom demand made by his Anglo-Indian foes when they kidnapped his daughter Pocahontas. Instead, after a brief skirmish in 1614, Powhatan accepted Pocahontas' marriage to an English colonist who was investigating the export potential of tobacco. That ended the war for the time being.
The Indians soon suffered through some bad harvests and were forced to buy English corn. The English were beginning to make serious profits with tobacco, and more settlers were lured to the New World with promises of free land—land that had to be taken from the Powhatan Confederacy. Increased immigration brought English culture and diseases like smallpox.
Powhatan's successor, Opechancanough, was able to obtain muskets from the English in return for allowing the teaching of Christianity. In 1619, however, the colonists formed a government, the House of Burgesses, which banned the supplying of muskets to the Indians. The withdrawal of firearms provoked Opechancanough to launch a surprise attack against English farms up and down the James River in 1622. The Indians massacred 342 men, women, and children, and the remaining English withdrew into fortifications and were soon besieged. The English broke out on occasional sorties to loot the ripe cornfields of the Indians, which forced a food shortage that took warriors out of battle to plant new crops. Slaughter continued on both sides, and the English began underhanded diplomacy: they lured large numbers of Indians into negotiations and then poisoned them. Shortly thereafter, the first reported scalping took place by the English. The more heavily armed English soon gained the upper hand as they killed more Indians in battle and regularly stole their food. By the early 1630s, the Indians negotiated a truce, which was often violated by both sides.
Opechancanough's massacre in 1622 seemed to be all the excuse the English needed to make their settlement heavily militarized and their colonization one of complete domination. The establishment of militia units and their increasingly modern weaponry, coupled with a determination to conquer the land for their own agriculture, made warfare with the Indians a virtually constant pastime.
Relations between colonizing Englishmen and Indians to the north of Virginia took a somewhat different turn. Early expeditions to fish and trade along the New England coast brought Indians back to England as prisoners. They were taught English and used as interpreters and scouts for later colonists. Only intermittent contact between the two peoples occurred in the first two decades of the 17th century, but it was enough to bring about a devastating epidemic in 1616–1618 that wiped out about 90% of the local Wampanoag tribe. Their loss of population made them targets for aggressive northern tribes armed by the French or Dutch, so when the English arrived, the Wampanoags hoped to gain an alliance that would aid in protecting their territory.
The first serious attempt by the English to establish a permanent colony came in 1620 with the arrival of the Pilgrims, fundamentalist Calvinists who left England and Holland to escape worldliness and temptation. They came armed and surly, with a professional soldier, Miles Standish, as military adviser. After early aggressive actions against the locals, the Pilgrims made peace with the local Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, through the intermediary Squanto, a captured Indian interpreter. The Pilgrims hoped to use Massasoit as their agent to collect tribute from the area tribes; Massasoit hoped to gain weaponry from them to defend his lands from enemies. Increasing numbers of colonists, not all of them Pilgrims, caused social friction that resulted in a second settlement at Boston. The new arrivals ran afoul of the Massachusett tribe, and relations between Indians and whites became strained. Massasoit used that strain to convince Standish to attack the Massachusetts, thereby eliminating a Wampanoag rival.
The Pilgrims got into the fur trade as the fastest way to pay off their debts. They began growing corn, then traded the corn for furs. From the Dutch, they learned the value of wampum, strings of beads made from seashells. Those were a mark of status among area Indians, and because European tools made the production of wampum much easier, wampum soon replaced corn as the medium of exchange. Its increased availability brought about intertribal rivalry in the rush to trade with the Europeans, which also led to increased rivalry between the English and Dutch in the area. A smallpox epidemic killed many members of the Pequot tribe of Connecticut, where the Dutch had established a trading post. The aggressiveness of the Pequots brought about a response by Connecticut settlers in 1637 in what came to be called the Pequot War. An attack on their main settlement, in alliance with some of the area tribes chafing under Pequot dominance, ended in a slaughter of the tribe in May. The tribe's destruction came through fire and genocide as the English killed men, women, and children in a fashion unknown to the Indians at that time. It set the example for most of the later conflicts in the New England area as the Puritans and later colonists set about to clear the land of whatever stood in the way of European progress.
The English imposed treaties on the defeated Indians throughout their New World colonies, but those treaties usually marked temporary truces rather than lasting peaceful relations. Though the settlers gained from the Indians the knowledge necessary to survive in North America, whether in agriculture or fur trading, the Europeans gave little in return. The arming of the Indians inflamed preexisting hostilities among tribes and gave later settlers an excuse to make war on armed natives. In the long run, the resources of America benefited only the Europeans; the native people gained little but disease, weaponry with which to kill one another, and exploitation of their land and produce. Not until the white settlers dominated the country did they seriously attempt to educate the Indians or convert them to Christianity—the only positive influences, relatively speaking, that the English could provide.
After the United States broke away from the rule of England, the conquest of the Indians accelerated at the hands of the aggressive young nation. By the 1840s, the westward-expanding United States had come up against the Plains Indians, those peoples who lived on the Great Plains of North America, an area that ran from Canada south to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Mississippi River west to the Rocky Mountains. The Plains Indians tribes included the many nations of the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Pawnee, Shoshone, Crow, Kiowa, Comanche, and to a lesser degree, Apache. All those peoples (with the exception of the Apaches) shared a common culture—the horse culture, based on the buffalo and the horse.
The buffalo furnished the Plains Indians with all the necessities of life: food, clothing, housing, and fuel. With great herds of tens of millions of animals at their disposal, the Indians had a seemingly inexhaustible supply. Horses had been introduced onto the plains by the Spanish in around 1550 and were instantly adopted by the Indians, who had been following the buffalo herds on foot for thousands of years. The horse gave the Plains Indians a mobility that other North American Indians lacked and made them into fearsome warriors. They could cover 100 miles in a day, strike at the weakest, most exposed points in the frontier settlement lines, and be long gone with their spoils before they could be apprehended. Plains Indian societies were intensely militaristic, with advancement in a tribe based on deeds in war and in the hunt. The nearby white settlers, living on isolated farms and ranches, and usually with only themselves for protection, offered opportunities the Indians could not resist. No military force could catch the swift raiders, and no militia could handle them. Armed with lance, shield, rapid-fire bow, and later, firearms, the Plains Indians easily comprised the finest light cavalry in the 19th-century world.
In comparison, the U.S. Army of the post-Civil War period was poorly trained, badly equipped, and subject to a desertion rate approaching 50% in some regiments. From a peak strength of over 2 million men at the end of the Civil War, the army was reduced by Congress to less than 25,000 by 1870, and only 10 regiments were cavalry. Called on to build, garrison, and maintain the frontier forts; patrol the settlement lines; protect mail and stage lines; enforce the law; and intercept and punish Indian raiders, the 5,000 or so troopers of the U.S. cavalry found themselves badly overtasked.
With a single dramatic incident in 1871, all that began to change. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, the highest ranking officer in the U.S. Army and the man who had helped bring the American South to its knees, came to Texas on an inspection tour. Traveling with only a 16-man escort, Sherman was nearly ambushed by a party of over 200 Plains warriors; he escaped only because the Indians decided to wait for a richer prey to come along. After that close brush with death, Sherman decided to bring the might of the U.S. government to bear on the Plains Indians.
During the American Civil War, Sherman had developed the idea of "total war," the concept of waging war not just on an enemy's armies but on its people, too, thus breaking their will to resist. Following that notion, Sherman had marched across Georgia while burning and destroying everything in a 50-mile-wide path from Atlanta to the sea. That ruthless aggression achieved its purpose by destroying the supply base of the Confederate armies and making the war unpopular with the Southern people. Sherman reasoned that the same strategy would work against the Plains Indians.
The first step was to attack the Indians' supply base: the buffalo. Sherman encouraged the New England tanning industry to start using buffalo hides in their manufacturing process; they worked just as well as cowhides and were far cheaper, as they needed only to be "harvested." The tanning industry hired small armies of buffalo hunters who descended on the plains, shot hundreds of animals a day merely for their skins, and left behind a prairie full of rotting carcasses. When the killing began in 1872, there were perhaps 20 million buffalo in the United States; by 1884, there were less than 1,200. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan reflected the army's position on the slaughter when he told the Texas legislature, "Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo is exterminated, as it is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance."
That government-sanctioned extermination removed the sustenance of the Plains tribes. Sherman next struck at the tribes themselves. He had studied the Indians' lifestyle and realized that their vaunted mobility was not complete. Indian ponies ate prairie grass, and during the dead of winter when there was no grass, they were too weak to carry riders. Thus, in the cold months, the Plains Indians were almost completely immobile and passed the winter in box canyons and other remote hidden places. In the spring, almost as soon as the grass was up, the ponies would regain their strength and the Indians would be off again on their epic journeys and raids. Wintertime gave Sherman a window of opportunity to strike at the tribes. Army horses ate grain, which could be carried in wagons, along with infantry reinforcements. In truth, the cavalry was much slower in the winter than they were in the summer. However, at least they could operate, which was more than the Indians could do.
Thus, during 1874–1875, Sherman launched a campaign that became known as the Red River War. Thousands of cavalry and infantry crisscrossed the plains of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, looking for hostile Indians in a great search-and-destroy mission. As the Indian encampments were uncovered, the army attacked. Inevitably, the army would drive off the Indian defenders and overrun their camps. At Sherman's order, all captured material was destroyed. Clothing, weapons, food, and the irreplaceable hide tipis all were burned. Indian horses that fell into the army's hands were shot, as many as 1,500 killed at a time; at some places, their bones could still be seen in the 20th century. Dismounted and devoid of the necessities of life, the dispirited remnants of the southern tribes walked to their reservations and surrendered.
Sherman's tactics, which had worked so well against the southern Plains tribes, faltered against the northern tribes mostly due to problems in leadership, the most notorious example being Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. In 1874, Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills of Dakota, land sacred to the Sioux. Numerous civilian gold miners accompanied Custer, and they discovered gold in the Black Hills, which set off a rush that violated the Indians' treaty guarantees. The army did nothing to stop those incursions, and when the Sioux attacked the interlopers, the army was ordered to move against the Indians. In June 1876, Custer led his famous Seventh Cavalry regiment in an ill-advised attack on some 5,000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors under Chief Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse along the banks of the Little Bighorn River in the Montana Territory. Custer's entire command of 270 men was wiped out. Sheridan and Col. Ranald Mackenzie were dispatched to avenge Custer, and within three years, the Sioux and Cheyenne had been broken like the southern tribes.
In the mountains of the Southwest, the Apaches fought on under leaders like Cochise and Geronimo until 1886, when their resistance was overwhelmed. The once proud tribes of the plains were now confined to reservations.
In the late 1880s, a new religion, the Ghost Dance, swept the plains. It promised the return of the buffalo and all the dead warriors and the destruction of all whites if the living would perform a ceremonial dance at every new moon. The desperate Indians embraced the new religion so strongly that the government became alarmed. In December 1890, during an effort to prevent the dance at the Wounded Knee Agency in South Dakota, hostilities erupted between Sioux tribesmen and elements of the Seventh Cavalry. Some 200 Indian men, women, and children and 25 cavalrymen died in the bloodbath. With the Wounded Knee Massacre, the period of the American Indian wars was officially over.
In the 25 years of the wars, the U.S. Army had fought over 1,000 actions, with 932 men killed and 1,061 wounded, and the Plains Indians had suffered an estimated 5,519 killed and wounded. In addition, the culture of the Plains Indians was destroyed. The war between the United States and the Plains Indians had been a guerrilla-type, fast-moving, light-marching war that pitted a brave and savage foe against a modern world power. Though their struggle had been epic and in some cases, the stuff of which legends are made, the outcome was inescapable. The days of the lance, bow, and shield were gone forever. The reservation system, developed prior to the Civil War, became the forced habitation of all Native American tribes. Poor funding, corruption, and a lack of national interest virtually guaranteed that the reservation lifestyle would make the Indians overlooked, second-class citizens in a country they once dominated.