Contrary to Hollywood depictions and popular myths that portray the natives in a negative light as savages, mercilessly victimizing pioneers, the historical record presents a different story. In fact, sustained attacks by Indians on wagon trains were rare and encounters between Indians and emigrants were, more often, peaceful and mutually advantageous.
One of the common scenes in western films shows circled wagon trains under attack by Indians. However, pioneers circled their wagons at night mostly to keep their draft animals from wandering off, not protect against an ambush.
A study by historian John Unruh concluded that just over 360 emigrants were killed as a result of Indian attacks along the trail between 1840 and 1860 – most them during the 1850s. In comparison, he estimates that more than 425 Indians were killed by emigrants during the same period.
Instead of violent conflict, most Indians were helpful and generally friendly – providing needed supplies for the pioneers, operating ferries across the many rivers along the trail, helping to manage livestock, and acting as guides.
Early on, the Indians were most interested in peaceful trading, trading clothes, tobacco, firearms, food, and small items such as mirrors, tin cups, fish hooks, or metal tools.
Of the early conflicts, most violence and fatalities came from small skirmishes due to paranoia, retaliation, or theft of livestock by the Indians. However, few if any of the pioneers fell to Indian arrows. The pioneers were much better armed and few trains were out of sight of another. As accomplished military strategists, the natives realized they would be at a disadvantage in a war-like encounter.
In fact, many incidents were the work of criminals called “white Indians,” who were notorious for their brutality. One 1850 traveler concluded that “the savage Indians” were “afraid to come near the road” and “near all the stealing and killing is done by the Whites following the Trains.”
Violent attacks on small, isolated trains or individuals did see a rise after the 1850s, as native hostility grew toward white settlers. As more and more of the pioneers passed through their lands disrespecting their sacred grounds and customs, reduced the number of buffalo, and passed along new diseases, the natives became angrier and angrier.
In 1851, the Sioux signed the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, in which, they agreed to allow settlers from the east to travel through their land for a yearly payment of $50,000. Unfortunately, the treaty was short-lived, as officials refused to honor it.
There were several sensational incidents such as the Whitman Massacre in present-day Washington in 1847, the Bloody Point Massacre at Tule Lake, California in 1852, the 1854 attack on the Ward wagon train near Fort Boise, Idaho, and the 1860 Utter-Van Orman attack near Salmon Falls, Idaho on the Snake River. These accounts received wide publicity and caused the nervous and suspicious pioneers to retaliate with the indiscriminate killing of unsuspecting Indians.
Alternatively, countless exchanges of kindness and hospitality were noted in emigrant journals, but these did not grab newspaper headlines and stoke public outrage.
“We are continually hearing of the depredations of the Indians but we have not seen one yet.” Caroline Richardson, 1852.
Hostile encounters with the Indians increased in the years after the Civil War began. The great majority of these violent conflicts occurred west of the Rocky Mountains, which was by far the most dangerous portion of the overland journey.
With each passing year, relations between the pioneers and the Indians deteriorated.
In the summer of 1867 hostilities between the two groups were so bad that the U.S. Army would forbid travel by single wagons in western Kansas.
In the end, numerous Indian Wars would be fought before the U.S. Government was able to “tame” the Indians and place them on reservations.
© Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated February 2020.