Indian Wars of the Frontier West

George Alexander Forsyth

George Alexander Forsyth

Forsyth ordered meat cut from the bodies of his dead horses and buried in the wet sand so that it might keep as long as possible. Lieutenant Beecher, his chief of scouts, was killed, as also were Surgeon Mooers, and Scouts Smith, Chalmers, Wilson, Farley, and Day. Seventeen others of the party were wounded, some severely. Forsyth himself was shot three times, once in the head. His left leg was broken below the knee, and his right thigh was ripped up by a rifle ball, which caused him extreme pain. Later he cut the bullet out of his own leg and was relieved from some part of the pain. After his rescue, when his broken leg was set it did not suit him, and he had the leg broken twice in the hospital and reset until it knitted properly.

Forsyth’s men lay under fire under a blazing sun in their holes on the sandbar for nine days. But the savages never dislodged them, and at last, they made off, their women and children beating the death drums, and the entire village mourning the unreturning brave. On the second day of the fighting Forsyth had got out messengers at extreme risk, and at length, the party was rescued by a detachment of the Tenth Cavalry. The Indians later said that they had in all over 600 warriors in this fight. Their losses, though variously estimated, were undoubtedly heavy.

It was encounters such as this which gradually were teaching the Indians that they could not beat the white men so that after a time they began to yield to the inevitable.

What is known as the Baker Massacre was the turning-point in the half-century of warfare with the Blackfoot, the savage tribe which had preyed upon the men of the fur trade in a long-continued series of robberies and murders. On January 22, 1870, Major E. M. Baker, led by half-breeds who knew the country, surprised the Piegan in their winter camp on the Marias River, just below the border. He, like Custer, attacked at dawn, opening the encounter with a general fire into the tepees. He killed a hundred and seventy-three of the Piegan, including very many women and children, as was unhappily the case so often in these surprise attacks. It was deplorable warfare. But it ended the resistance of the savage Blackfoot. They have been disposed for peace from that day to this.

Battle of the Little Bighorn by C.M. Russell

Battle of the Little Bighorn by C.M. Russell

The terrible revenge which the Sioux and Cheyenne took in the battle which annihilated Custer and his men on the Little Big Horn in the summer of 1876; the Homeric running fight made by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce — a flight which baffled our best generals and their men for a hundred and ten days over more than fourteen hundred miles of wilderness — these are events so well known that it seems needless to do more than to refer to them. The Nez Perce, in turn, went down forever when Joseph came out and surrendered, saying, “From where the sun now stands I fight against the white man no more forever.” His surrender to fate did not lack its dignity. Indeed, a mournful interest attached to the inevitable destiny of all these savage leaders, who, no doubt, according to their standards, were doing what men should do and all that men could do.

The main difficulty in administering full punishment to such bands was that after a defeat they scattered so that they could not be overtaken in any detailed fashion. After the Custer fight, many of the tribe went north of the Canadian line and remained there for some time. The writer himself has seen along the Qu’Appelle River in Saskatchewan some of the wheels taken out of the watches of Custer’s men. The savages broke them up and used the wheels for jewelry. They even offered the Canadians for trade boots, hats, and clothing taken from the bodies of Custer’s men.

The Modoc War against the warriors of Captain Jack in 1873 was waged in the lava beds of Oregon, and it had the distinction of being one of the first wars to be well reported in the newspapers. We heard a great deal of the long and trying campaigns waged by the Army in revenge for the murder of General Canby in his council tent. We got small glory out of that war, perhaps, but at last, we hanged the ringleader of the murderers; and the extreme Northwest remained free from that time on.

Apache Warrior by Herman Wendleborg Hansen

Apache Warrior by Herman Wendleborg Hansen

Far in the dry Southwest, where a home-building man did not as yet essay a general occupation of the soil, the blood-thirsty Apache long waged a warfare which tried the mettle of our Army as perhaps no other tribes ever have done. The Spaniards had fought these Apache for nearly 300 years and had not beaten them. They offered three hundred dollars each for Apache scalps and took a certain number of them. But they left all the remaining braves sworn to an eternal enmity. The Apache became mountain outlaws, whose blood-mad thirst for revenge never died. No tribe ever fought more bitterly. Hemmed in and surrounded, with no hope of escape, in some instances, they perished literally to the last man. General George Crook finished the work of cleaning up the Apache outlaws only by use of the trailers of their own people who sided with the whites for pay. Without the Pima scouts, he never could have run down the Apache as he did. Perhaps these were the hardest of all the Plains Indians to find and to fight. But in 1872 Crook subdued them and concentrated them in reservations in Arizona. Ten years later, under Geronimo, a tribe of the Apache broke loose and yielded to General Crook only after a prolonged war. Once again they raided New Mexico and Arizona in 1885-6. This was the last raid of Geronimo. He was forced by General Miles to surrender and, together with his chief warriors, was deported to Fort Pickens in Florida. In all these savage pitched battles and bloody skirmishes, the surprises and murderous assaults all over the old range, there were hundreds of settlers killed, hundreds also of our army men, including some splendid officers. In the Custer fight alone, on the Little Big Horn, the Army lost Custer himself, thirteen commissioned officers and two hundred and fifty-six enlisted men killed, with two officers and fifty-one men wounded; a total of three hundred and twenty-three killed and wounded in one battle. Custer had in his full column about seven hundred men. The number of the Indians has been variously estimated. They had perhaps five thousand men in their villages when they met Custer in this, the most historic and most ghastly battle of the Plains. It would be bootless to revive any of the old discussions regarding Custer and his rash courage. Whether in error or in wisdom, he died, and gallantly. He and his men helped clear the frontier for those who were to follow, and the task took its toll. Thus, slowly but steadily, even though handicapped by a vacillating governmental policy regarding the Indians, we muddled through these great Indian wars of the frontier, our soldiers doing their work splendidly and uncomplainingly, such work as no other body of civilized troops has ever been asked to do or could have done if asked. At the close of the Civil War, we ourselves were a nation of fighting men. We were fit and we were prepared. The average of our warlike qualities never has been so high as then. The frontier produced its own pathfinders, its own saviors, its own fighting men.

Wounded Knee Massacre

Wounded Knee Massacre

So now the frontier lay ready, waiting for the man with the plow. The dawn of that last day was at hand.

By Emerson Hough, 1918. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated November 2018.

About the Author: Excerpted from the book The Passing of the Frontier, A Chronicle of the Old West, by Emerson Hough, Yale University Press, 1918. Emerson Hough (1857–1923).was an author and journalist who wrote factional accounts and historical novels of life in the American West. His works helped establish the Western as a popular genre in literature and motion pictures.  For years, Hough wrote the feature “Out-of-Doors” for the Saturday Evening Post and contributed to other major magazines.

Also See:

Indian Wars Across America

Indian Wars Timeline

Native Americans – First Owners of America

The Old West

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