I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below I describe the hardships endured by Native Americans in the "Reservation Period" and the Battle of Little Big Horn.
As white, Chinese, Mexican and African American men and women followed the railroads and staked a new life in the West, those immigrant-bearing trains brought death and destruction to the Native Americans living along the path. Sensing the danger that railroads presented to their future, Sioux and Cheyenne warriors attacked rail line workers and tore up track laid by the Union Pacific line in the late 1860s. Indians were expelled from their remaining homelands and herded onto reservations. The snake-like expansion of white-owned railroads, mines, farms and cattle herds in the West also meant less land and less freedom for Native Americans who moved to cramped, inadequate reservations.
Many whites doubted if Indians could ever be incorporated into white society and concluded that they represented an obstacle to Anglo wealth and progress. Some white newspapers and politicians openly called for Indian extermination. Civil War General Philip Sheridan famously declared that the “only good Indian was a dead Indian.” Sheridan was hardly alone in his sentiments. The New York Herald declared that for the Indian the drawing of blood was “as much of a passion as it is to the tiger, or the shark, who has no possibilities of civilization, and whose fate must be extermination . . .” Even as the Herald declared the Indian doomed, however, the newspaper preferred the more passive approach of penning Native Americans in overcrowded, disease-ravaged reservations, hoping that nature would provide a “final solution” to the Indian problem.
Toward this end, the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 assigned reservations in the Dakota Territory to Arapaho, Cheyennes, Comanches, Apaches, and Kiowas, squeezing these peoples together with already imprisoned Bannocks, Navajos, Shoshones, and Sioux. Eventually more than 100,000 people scrabbled for existence on bleak, shrinking lands. These different Indian nations battled over dwindling resources. At the same time, corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs officials routinely stole government aid meant for the Indians. This embezzlement reduced Indian food supplies, thus promoting malnutrition, disease and widespread depression on the reservations.
The so-called “reservation period” of Anglo-Indian relations lasted roughly from 1867 to 1887. Well-meaning liberals, ignoring the diversity and complexity of Indian culture, hoped that the reservations would provide an atmosphere in which “primitive” migratory Indians could be converted into stationary, law-abiding wards of a white republic. Helen Hunt Jackson wrote a heartbreaking 1881 bestseller, A Century of Dishonor, that detailed white brutality toward the Native population, and inspired many readers to call for reform in Indian policy. Reformers hoped that Indians would win acceptance by whites and would rise from poverty if they could be induced to surrender their language, culture, religion, and traditions and accept white cultural norms. Reformers saw reservations as training grounds for Indian citizenship.
Tragically, for many Indians, the reservations more closely resembled a concentration camp. The Indian population, about 2.5 million at the time of first European contact in 1492, had dropped to 250,000 by 1890. This appalling death rate only accelerated at the end of the 19th century, a situation attributable to the food shortages and poor sanitation that prevailed in overcrowded reservations. Indians entered the reservations with their minds reeling from the loss of their homes, the pain of battling for a lost cause, the pressure of white reformers who wanted to strip away their traditions and faith, and the fear of being under constant surveillance of corrupt and abusive federal agents.
THE BUFFALO MASSACRE
The Lakota, or Sioux, in particular resisted the white invasion of the West. With the arrival of the horse, the Lakota adopted an itinerant culture of following and hunting buffalo herds. In the late 19th century, however, whites launched a mass slaughter of buffalo, threatening the survival of the Lakota people.
In the early 19th century, eyewitnesses reported that the ground literally shook when massive buffalo herds charged across the landscape. Between 30 million and 60 million buffalo roamed the land from Canada in the north to the Mexican border in the south, and east to west from Pennsylvania to California. Buffalo rapidly vanished, however, when railroad companies paid hunters armed with rifles to kill buffalo to provide meat for rail construction crews. Others sought the buffalo for their hides. After skinning the animals, they would leave the rest of the carcasses to rot in the sun. Railroad executives and mining camp managers viewed the buffalo as a nuisance, since herds sometimes charged across the tracks in front of incoming trains, knocked over telegraph poles, or wrecked storage buildings or other structures.
Railroad companies provided rifles for passengers, encouraging them to fire at the herds purely for sport, leaving the dead animals behind as the train chugged on. The newest rifles, such as the .50 caliber sharpshooters, were accurate within a range of 600 feet. Thus armed, sportsmen devastated buffalo herds. Western showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody bragged that he had killed 4,000 buffalo in 18 months. One hunter said, “I saw buffaloes lying dead on the prairies so thick that one could hardly see the ground. A man could have walked for twenty miles upon their carcasses.”
The United States Army saw the buffalo massacre as a tactic in the war against Native Americans. The army referred to the animals as the “Indian commissary.” Indians ate buffalo meat, clothed themselves in buffalo hides, made their tents from buffalo skin, and used buffalo fat to make candles. Military commanders reasoned that the extermination of the buffalo would force Plains Indians to abandon their nomadic ways and accept confinement on reservations. If Indians starved to death along the way, many Army officers thought, that was all for the better. “Kill every buffalo you can,” one officer said. “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”
The Lakota and other hunting nomads began to experience hunger and had to travel over broader swaths of land in search of prey. In the 1870s, Anglo hunters killed as many as 200,000 buffalo a year. An 1883 scientific expedition found only find 200 buffalo in the Western United States. Their access to their chief food source gone, Lakotas, Oglalas and other Plains Indians concluded the only options left to them were waging war against whites or accepting their own extinction.
LITTLE BIG HORN
One of the fiercest Indian wars pitted the United States Army against the Oglala Sioux. In 1851, the Oglala surrendered vast lands to the United States government. Oglala leaders underestimated the number of white miners who would swamp their territory. They also did not anticipate that the U.S. Army would construct a chain of forts in the middle of their most important buffalo range along the Bozeman Trail in Wyoming. Oglala Chief Red Cloud temporarily halted the white advance, battling to an impasse with the U.S. Army in the Great Sioux War of 1865-1867. Unable to suppress Oglala resistance, the government abandoned Fort Reno, Fort Phil Kearny and Fort C.F. Smith. The Oglala burned these forts to the ground.
Under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, the federal government created the Great Sioux Reservation, located within the present state of South Dakota west of the Missouri River, but territorial disputes remained unsettled. The northern tribes pledged to allow the peaceful passage of railroads near the territory. Unfortunately, construction in the area, and the railway companies’ policy of buffalo eradication, disturbed the buffalo herds that ranged farther away from the Oglala settlements. This forced the Oglala to hunt over larger territories, which brought them into conflict not just with other whites but with other Indian groups as well. Numerous small battles broke out between the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors and the Army between 1868 and 1876.
The Treaty of Fort Laramie guaranteed the Sioux the right to live and hunt within the Black Hills for "as long as the grass shall grow." That promise became unimportant to the U.S. government and white prospectors when they realized that the Black Hills contained rich gold deposits. Prospectors intruded on Sioux land, and Colonel George Armstrong Custer directed his troops to conduct a surveying mission during the summer of 1874. Custer reported to Congress that the Black Hills contained abundant veins of ore and recommended that the U.S. expel the Sioux living there. Suspicious of white activities in the area, Oglala Sioux, Cheyennes, and Arapahos formed an alliance and prepared for battle.
Federal agents commanded the Indians to return to their reservations by February 1, 1876, or face an army assault. By this point Red Cloud had stepped down as the Oglala military leader because he believed resistance was futile. Crazy Horse now led the Oglala, who fought alongside Hunkpapa Sioux under the command of Sitting Bull. Four columns of American troops arrived and the soldiers engaged in several skirmishes with local Indians and destroyed 100 Indian lodges. Army scouts detected a major Sioux encampment in a valley at a site known to white soldiers as Little Big Horn and to the Oglala as Greasy Grass.
Custer decided to divide his column into four groups and positioned three of them to prevent Indians from retreating from their settlement. He then led 225 men in a charge along the Little Big Horn River into the valley on June 25, 1876. Between 2,000 and 4,000 Cheyenne and Sioux warriors closed in on the American forces and slaughtered Custer and all his men. In militarily defeating Custer, the Oglala and their allies unintentionally handed the American government a propaganda tool that whipped up anti-Indian frenzy in white society. Reportedly upon hearing of Custer’s death, Chief Sitting Bull remarked, “Now they will never let us rest." Custer’s “Last Stand” became the battle most frequently depicted in American art. Paintings, art prints and newspapers depicted the cavalrymen bravely fighting off an overwhelming force of near-naked savages. Custer’s defeat became a public symbol of the American resolve to fight on for a just cause to the last drop of blood. The New York Herald quoted the commissioner of Indian Affairs as responding to the massacre with the remark, “A white man’s life is worth more than an Indian’s” and that, “It is not too much to say that the prevailing feeling among the public favors the policy of extermination.” The U.S. Army pursued warring Indian nations until, by 1877, the Sioux leadership of Indian resistance in the Plains ended.
Michael Phillips is the author of "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001" published in 2006, and "The House Will Come To Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics," co-written with Patrick Cox and published in 2010 by The University of Texas Press. His essay “Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” appears in "Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations,” edited by Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León and published by Texas A&M Press in February 2011.