Westward expansion brought about numerous wars between Native Americans and colonists during the 18th and 19th centuries. As had occurred before elsewhere on the American continents, the Native Americans rebelled against invasion and occupation. Some of the most bellicose tribes were the Sioux and the Apaches, whose battles and skirmishes against the United States Army have been portrayed in innumerable Westerns. In this post, we’ll tell you about some episodes of the most famous Indian wars of the 19th century.
The Apache Wars
The Apache conflicts began in the 16th century, when the Spanish arrived in the territories of Arizona and New Mexico. Conflict later continued with the Mexicans from the beginning of the 19th century until 1848, when these areas became United States territory. As a result of the discovery of gold in California and the consequent wave of immigrants who crossed this territory on their way to the West Coast, the situation with the Apaches worsened considerably.
The Apache Wars were conflicts that occurred between 1861 and 1886 in the territories of Arizona and New Mexico. Cochise, the Chiricahua Apache chief, led many of these battles against the United States Army alongside his father-in-law, Mangas Coloradas. There was a brief ceasefire in the wars after an agreement was made in which they agreed to live on a reservation in the Chiricahua Mountains and Sulphur Spring Valley, a sacred area for the tribe.
However, the conflicts continued with the famous chief Geronimo, who was born in Sonora and spoke Spanish. Despite being a very controversial figure—many of his actions did not always have the approval of his own people—he kept the United States government in check starting in 1876, with his refusal to accept that Indians were to be confined to reservations. This incited rebellion among many Apache tribes. Geronimo was arrested in the Sierra Madre Mountains in 1886. With his arrest, all the Apache Wars ended, as him and his followers were sent to faraway reservations in Florida and Oklahoma.
Sioux Indian Wars
As we explained in a previous post on American Indian tribes, the Great Sioux Nation was the name that the group of tribes who lived on the Great Plains was known by (Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota). The natural border of their territory was the Mississippi River. They were nomadic and hunted bison. They are one of the most well-known Indian tribes in part because they put up fierce resistance to the advances of the US conquest.
To understand the Sioux Indian Wars which broke out in the 19th century, you have to go back to 1803, when France sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States. This vast expanse of approximately 827,000 square miles stretched over fifteen modern day US states. This date marked the start of westward expansion.
Red Cloud’s War: 1866-1868
In 1851, the United States Government and the Sioux signed the first Treaty of Fort Laramie. With this peace agreement, the Native Americans promised to allow the construction of military forts on Indian territory and the passage of caravans towards the West. In exchange, the government recognized these lands as theirs.
However, constant violations of the treaty and incidents between the new arrivals and the natives lead to a breakdown of peace, which triggered what is known as Red Cloud’s War (1866 and 1868), in honor of the famous Sioux Indian Chief Red Cloud. He allied with the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes to combat what they considered to be an abuse of the occupation of their territories.
This Sioux Indian war is also known as the Powder River War, as the battles were triggered over control of this river, located in the center of Wyoming. The famous Bozeman trail, the main road that led to the Montana gold mines, also passes through here.
During this war, the Native Americans blocked the route, assaulting trains and attacking troops that were constructing forts. As a consequence, a second Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed in 1868. In it, the Lakota were recognized as having control of the Powder River territory and the Black Hills—the famous sacred hills—were recognized as a part of the Great Sioux Reservation. It also established hunting rights in the territories of South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana.
The Black Hills War 1876-1877
Gold fever and rumors of the discovery of this mineral in the Black Hills motivated many migrants to cross these reservations’ territories; the government did nothing to stop them. These incursions on their territory did not sit well with the Sioux, who responded with assaults, leading to the violation of the treaty by both parties.
Various incidents triggered another Great Sioux War: The Black Hills War, also known as the Great Sioux War (1876-77). It was led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, famous leaders of the Oglala and Hunkpapa tribes, who were well known to the United States Army.
The Battle of Little Bighorn: 1876
The most famous battle of all the Indian Wars is the Battle of the Little Bighorn. It took place in 1876 during the Black Hills War and was the greatest defeat of the United States military in their conflicts with native people. Between June 25 and 26, the Seventh Calvary Regiment, a force of more than 700 men led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, was defeated. A total of 268 people died, including the Colonel.
It seems that one of the factors that played a role in the defeat was Custer’s unwise decision not to wait for reinforcements and attack before they arrived. Furthermore, his troops were divided into three columns that attempted to attack from different areas. They were also outnumbered by Indian warriors.
It was a great victory for the Native Americans, but it had little impact afterwards, as the tribes were defeated in later battles. The Black Hills War ended with a new treaty in 1877 that was unfavorable for the Native Americans, as the Government took over their territories. This time, it was permanent.
The defeat was a point of no return in the Government’s intention of putting an end to the Indians. Since 1877, many military resources were invested in subduing and confining them to reservations. Indeed, all of the leaders fell except for Sitting Bull, who managed to flee to Canada.
The Wounded Knee Massacre: 1890
The Battle of Little Bighorn was followed by one of the darkest episodes in the history of the United States: The Wounded Knee Massacre (1890). In this incident, the Seventh Cavalry Regiment attacked the Pine Ridge Reservation population, causing nearly 300 deaths, the majority of which were women and children.
The Indian Wars finally ended with the surrender of Native American leaders and the tribes’ acceptance of living on reservations, which continue to exist today. If you want to learn more about the history of the Far West and Westerns, don’t miss out on visiting Oasys MiniHollywood.