Images, dreamlike or real, and the reputation of the Native American have greatly altered in the last forty or fifty years; he was always the treacherous and deadly villain of the Hollywood scene until certain directors began to take a more sympathetic view. Nowadays the painted ‘savage’ is likely to be an all-American hero rather than a killing machine. Political correctness has changed his name from ‘Red Indian’ to Native American, and Heaven help the writer or speaker who says otherwise. White frontiersmen disliked them strongly: Kit Carson, a frontiersman if ever there was one, said, “I wouldn’t trust any of them,” and Jim Bridger spoke of the ‘wicked and mean Sioux”. Jim Baker the Mountain Man snarled, “they are the most onsartenest (sic) varmints in creation . . . tha’r not moren half human . . . tain’t no use talking of honour with them . . .” etc. Doubtless some of ‘them varmints’ would have held the same opinion about Baker.
We know what native chiefs thought of the American army and government, not without cause. Native morals and sense of honour were quite different to those of the white Americans. It must have been difficult for a Sioux to comprehend white ideas on the inviolability of property, as it was for a white man to understand the difference between putting a Native American in the wilderness of a reservation, or simply killing him.
The Indian Wars were the result of native resistance to white encroachment of their land, home and hunting ground. Just as soon as the signers signed The Declaration of Independence after the War, military expeditions were sent to the immense Ohio valley. At the battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 the natives were conquered, and forced to cede most of the present state of Ohio to the United States. Tecumseh, a stalwart chief of the Shawnee tribe (q.v.) attempted to gather together a confederation of principal tribes, succeeded, and it fought on the British side in the Anglo-American War of 1812 (q.v.). Still, native power in the old North-West was destroyed in the Battle of the Thames in 1813. The great Tecumseh was killed in the battle.
White settlers moved west of the Allegheny Mountains and made innumerable treaties with native tribes, who gave up their lands to the east of the Mississippi in return for land to the west. Some tribes resisted offers or land or violence, and two minor wars could not be avoided. These were the Black Hawk War of 1832 – 5 when Illinois tribes tried to keep hold of their ancestral lands, before being exterminated; the Sacs and the Foxes ceased to exist. Some might call this genocide. The Seminole War of 1835 – 42 happened when the US tried to take a few hundred Seminole natives from their Florida swamps and dump them somewhere else, but they fought back until their chief Osceola was captured (under a flag of truce), though his followers continued the useless fight. They were also wiped out.
Native Americans were given lands in the West ‘for as long as the grass shall grow and the water flow’, but such high-flown phrases were unknown to the miners, trappers, ranchers and settlers who crossed the Mississippi to invade the Great Plains. When they saw what was happening the most warlike tribes (Sioux, Cheyennes, Apaches and Commanches q.v.) resolved not to give up without a fight. Fighting was what they were designed for; they were magnificent horsemen, brave, and deadly with their short bow and lethal arrows, but there were only around 24,000 of them living in the Plains in 1860. They were disunited and proud, and fought each other. Opposition to the white man was weakened. Soon superior numbers, technology, the railroad, the repeating rifle and so on sealed the fate of the natives, but the slaughter of the buffalo was worse. The Natives depended on the buffalo for food, clothing, shelter and fuel; between 1872 and 1874 professional hunters were killing three million beasts a year out of an estimated thirteen million in 1865. From the 1860s to the 80s, savagery on both sides was rife. The Sioux killed 500 settlers in Minnesota in 1862. The US Army hinted them down and publicly hanged three hundred of them. In 1863 the Cheyennes, having made peace and being under the protection of the US Army were shot down by the Colorado militia; this was the infamous Sand Creek Massacre.
The Federal Government sent a peace mission to the Plains in 1867, which found mostly for the natives, putting the blame for the Wars on the whites. But Congress made not even a feeble attempt to stop the advancing settlers and instead tried to shove the natives into two reservations, one in the Dakota Black Hills and the other in native territory which would soon become Oklahoma. Not even their own reservations were safe for the natives. Gold was found in the Black Hills and in poured heavily-armed prospectors. The Sioux became world famous when they wiped out the ambitious and foolhardy General Custer in a conflict near the Little Big Horn (q.v.): Chief Crazy Horse outmanoeuvred Custer and his entire 7th Cavalry was exterminated. This could be called the culmination of the Indian Wars because the Sioux could not sustain such a large army and by 1880 they had all surrendered. West of the Rocky Mountains, another large force of tribes under the general name of Nez Percé withdrew for nearly two thousand miles under their chief, Joseph, heading for the Canadian border. They were forced to surrender and suffer the usual humiliations just short of their target.
The last Native Americans to continue the fight were the Apaches, staple diet of the later Hollywood cowboy films. Here indeed were fighting machines. 15 years were needed for the United States to defeat them. Names of chiefs such as Cochise and Geronimo live always in American history, but Geronimo was taken in 1886 and native resistance ended, except for an isolated and disgusting incident in 1890: the Sioux reservation (supposedly untouchable) was in South Dakota; once in a while the braves would celebrate a Ghost Dance round the fire, but local authorities feared an uprising and sent in troops who shot most of the dancers (and many others) at a place called Wounded Knee. Three hundred died in a hail of bullets, some from machine guns. Again, some might call this genocide.