Further assaults on Native American holdings and rights
At the end of the Civil War, close to half a million American Indians were scattered across the West — 1 American Indian for every 60 Americans. Twenty-five years later, the Western homes of the American Indians were on reservations, and their homelands were carved into states and territories.
Most American Indians didn't really live in tightly organized tribes, and they mostly didn't stay put for long. Tribes were made up of family-based bands that numbered as few as 25 people. They came together with other bands that spoke the same language for periodic hunts, wars, or parties.
The various tribes also often had no permanent leaders, which frustrated the settlers who were looking for a chief to negotiate with. American Indians not only didn't have permanent leaders, they also lacked obedient followers who could be made to stick to treaty agreements. Most of all, the American Indians lacked any political or long term military power to make the United States stick to its own agreements. Many treaties were signed by compromised and self-appointed leaders on behalf of tribes that barely knew what was going on, except for the obvious fact that their life of freedom was being ruined by relentless settler aggression.
Settler inroads pushed American Indians into being aggressive with one another as well as with the whites, resulting in a sort-of domino effect:
- Before the settlers arrived, the Comanches had driven the Apaches off their land on the central Plains in the 1700s.
- Pushed by other tribes, the Cheyenne abandoned their villages along the upper Mississippi and Missouri rivers in the early 1800s.
- The Sioux, displaced from the Great Lakes, learned to ride horses and, like the Cheyenne, became skilled buffalo hunters.
Far more American Indians died from diseases than from the bullets of settlers; explorers are biological weapons even if they don't want to be. But the pressure of settlement of the West by white Americans in the late 1800s ended the independence and cultural vitality of the remaining free Indian nations.
In the 1860s, the U.S. Army pushed to move American Indians either to the Sioux Reservation in Dakota Territory or to Indian Territory in Oklahoma — the end of the trail for Eastern American Indians from the 1830s on. Mounted Plains Indians resisted skillfully when they could and tried to live in peace when they were surrounded.
In one of the most brutal and cowardly acts in the West, Colonel John Chivington's Colorado Militia murdered almost 200 women, children, and elderly men in an attack on an American Indian encampment living under the American flag on Sand Creek in Colorado. Because the camp was at peace, the warriors were off hunting. Reaction to Chivington's massacre turned public opinion away from a general war against the American Indians and toward a somewhat more even-handed treatment of peaceful natives.
The Sioux struck back a couple of years later, wiping out a detachment of 81 soldiers who were building a trail through their land in Montana. Stung, the federal government actually signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868), with the Sioux. The U.S. government agreed to stop the trail and guaranteed a Great Sioux reservation on the land around it.
Within years, Colonel George Custer's Seventh Cavalry was back on Lakota Sioux land for a "scientific exploration." Custer announced that he had discovered gold, and, treaty be damned, greedy miners rushed onto land given to the Indians forever in the treaty signed only a few years before. Custer attacked the Sioux and got killed, along with 264 officers and men. The Sioux were eventually hunted down and returned to the reservation.
Also hunted down by settlers were the Plains buffalo that fed the American Indians. Buffalo were 15 million strong at the end of the Civil War. Twenty years later in 1885, fewer than 1,000 buffalo were left.