Pushing the Indians Westward

Cañon de Chelle, New Mexico, 1873

Historic Ancient Puebloans dwellings dot the southwest, such as this one at Cañon de Chelle. Photo from 1873.

Though some Native American tribes lived for centuries in the American West, as the white man pushed westward, always wanting more land and resources, they pushed the American Indians out of their way, further populating the West with various tribes.

When European settlers arrived on the North American continent at the end of the 15th century, they encountered diverse Native American cultures – as many as 900,000 inhabitants with over 300 different languages. These people, whose ancestors crossed the land bridge from Asia, in what may be considered the first North American immigration, were virtually destroyed by the subsequent immigration that created the United States. This tragedy is the direct result of treaties, written and broken by foreign governments, of warfare, and of forced assimilation.

In 1786, the United States established its first Indian reservation and approached each tribe as an independent nation. This policy remained intact for more than 100 years.

But, as President James Monroe noted in his second inaugural address in 1821, treating Native Americans this way “flattered their pride, retarded their improvement, and in many instances paved the way to their destruction.” In addition, Monroe observed that America’s westward growth “has constantly driven them back, with almost the total sacrifice of the lands which they have been compelled to abandon.” Despite Monroe’s concern for the plight of Native Americans, his administration successfully removed them from states north of the Ohio River.

In 1823, a landmark decision was made by the Supreme Court (Johnson v. M’Intosh) that private citizens could not purchase lands from Native Americans, because Indians could not hold title to their own lands, even if they had occupied them for years. This was because their “right of occupancy” was subordinate to the United States’ “right of discovery.” This decision would become a staple in federal and state cases related to Indian land title for the next two centuries.

President Andrew Jackson, a long term proponent of Indian removal, stated in his first inaugural address in 1829, that he wished “to observe toward the Indian tribes within our limits a just and liberal policy, and to give that humane and considerate attention to their rights and their wants which is consistent with the habits of our Government and the feelings of our people.”  Fourteen months later, Jackson prompted Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act in May, 1830, a bill that forced Native Americans to leave the United States and settle in the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River.

Trail of Tears painting by Robert Lindneux

Trail of Tears painting by Robert Lindneux

As a result, many Cherokee tribes banded together as an independent nation, and challenged this legislation in U.S. courts. In 1832, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Cherokee, but, some tribes still signed treaties giving the federal government the legal authority to “assist” them in their move to the Indian Territory.

In 1838, as the deadline for removal approached, thousands of federal soldiers and Georgia volunteers entered the territory and forcibly relocated the Cherokee, hunting, imprisoning, raping, and murdering many of them. The Cherokee who survived the onslaught were forced on a 1,000-mile march to the established Indian Territory with few provisions. Approximately 4,000 Cherokee members die on this “Trail of Tears.”

The expansion of the United States that encroached upon Native American lands occurred faster than many policymakers had predicted with events such as the Mexican-American War in 1848, which placed new territories and tribes under federal jurisdiction. A government report in 1852 explained that many Californians believed “destiny had awarded California to the Americans to develop” and that if the Indians “interfered with progress they should be pushed aside.”

This anti-Native American sentiment was echoed in books of the era such as Andrew Peabody’s The Hawaiian Islands, published in 1865, which claimed that a “law of the divine Providence” caused some races to submit to those of “superior physical and intellectual vigor.”

Westward Expansion Map

Westward Expansion Map. Click to enlarge

He went on to say, “Under this law . . . the aborigines of North America will ultimately disappear, and the humane policy which ought to have been pursued to them from the first would not have ensured their preservation in the land, though it would have averted the condemnation of blood-guiltiness from the European settlers.”

Despite the prevalence of beliefs such as Andrew Peabody’s, the Union Army welcomed many Native American volunteers to fight in the Civil War. James Blunt’s December 2, 1862 letter to Kansas Citizens requests aid to nearby refugee Indians driven from their homes “by the Rebel for no other reason than adhering in their allegiance to their great Father.”

Ironically, a year later, Kit Carson led the Union Army in an attack on the Navajo tribe in the desert Southwest. Union Soldiers destroyed crops, orchards, livestock, and homes in a campaign to relocate the tribes to a federal reservation. In 1864, thousands of Navajo surrendered to U.S. troops and were forced to walk 300 miles to Fort SumnerNew Mexico. Known as “The Long Walk,” it ended at a small, disease-filled camp that served as a Navajo prison for four years.

Despite their welcome to serve in the Union Army, Native Americans were not recognized as U.S. citizens throughout the nineteenth century. A clause in the Fourteenth Amendment “excluding Indians not taxed” prevented Native American men from receiving the right to vote when African-American men gained suffrage in 1868. Instead, tribes remained independent nations that were expected to sign agreements such as the Kit Carson Treaty to establish Native American reservations in U.S. territories.

Ulysses S. Grant acknowledged such disparities in treatment in his first inaugural address in 1869 when he said, “The proper treatment of the original occupants of this land–the Indian is one deserving of careful study. I will favor any course toward them which tends to their civilization and ultimate citizenship.” The theme continued in a different vein during Grant’s second inaugural address in 1873: “Our superiority of strength and advantages of civilization should make us lenient toward the Indian . . . . If the effort is made in good faith, we will stand better before the civilized nations of the earth and in our own consciences for having made it.”

Battle of the Little Bighorn by C.M. Russell

Battle of the Little Bighorn by C.M. Russell. Click for prints & products.

The ongoing conflicts with Native Americans even disturbed U.S. military leaders such as General George Armstrong Custer. In his 1874 memoir, My Life on the Plains, Custer said that every American should be willing to avoid these “Indian Wars” at any cost: For let [a soldier] act as he may in . . . a campaign against the Indians, if he survives the campaign he can feel assured . . . that one-half of his fellow-citizens at home will revile him for his zeal . . . while the other half, . . . will cry “Down with him. Down with the regular army, and give us brave volunteers who can serve the Government in other ways besides eating rations and drawing pay.” Custer didn’t deal with military victories and moral failures for long; however, as in 1876, he and his 264 men died in an attack on Sioux and Cheyenne warriors during the Battle of the Little Bighorn in the Black Hills of Montana.

The federal government opened the Black Hills to gold mining in 1875 but Native Americans refused to leave the area because of its religious significance. As the U.S. military gathered to forcibly relocate the them, Custer’s troops disregarded orders and attacked a village. George Flanders was a soldier in a group arriving in Black Hills on June 26, 1876, a day after Custer’s charge. Flanders buried his comrades that day and, years later, he provided an account of Custer’s battlefield actions, as told by the Cheyenne, saying, “ Custer had received a wound in the hip and was unable to get up, but, continued shooting until he had used all except one of his cartridges and with that last bullet shot himself.”

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