In the three decades following the Civil War, millions of people poured into the trans‐Mississippi West. They came from farms and cities in the East and Midwest, as well as from Europe and Asia, lured by the promise of cheap land, riches in the gold fields, or just the possibility of a better life. Many traveled on the newly constructed transcontinental railroads, while others crossed the plains and mountains by wagon train or sailed around South America to arrive on the West Coast. They settled the Great Plains, the Southwest, and the Great Basin, enduring hardship, danger, and disillusionment. By the end of the nineteenth century, the western migrants had established new farming homesteads, communities, and industries. Although some of the settlers became hugely successful, many, if not most, failed to achieve the wealth of which they dreamed.
From the beginning, settlers and the Plains Indians misunderstood each other in several ways. Non‐Indians, for example, seldom respected the religions of the native tribes, which were polytheistic and included the worship of plant and animal spirits. Additionally, Indians lived under a complex kinship system of extended families that outsiders found difficult to comprehend. Most significant, however, were the settlers' and Indians' differing concepts of land ownership. A comparatively small number of Native Americans (fewer than 400,000) roamed over a vast stretch of territory that they claimed as a communal hunting ground; whites saw this as a waste of land and expected the area to be surveyed and sold to settlers in 160‐acre tracts. Because of such cultural differences, settlers viewed the native peoples of the West simply as savages and barriers to civilization.
U.S. policy toward Native Americans. As new territories and states were organized in the West, it became clear that Native Americans could not roam at will over tens of thousands of square miles that non‐natives were hoping to settle. Beginning in the 1860s, the federal government's policy was to establish small tracts of land for specific tribes and encourage them to take up agriculture. While many tribes did settle peacefully on such reservations, others resisted giving up their lands and way of life. Tribes who resisted included the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho on the northern Great Plains, the Apache, Commanche, and Navajo in the Southwest, and the Nez Percé in Idaho.
Although Native Americans never presented a united front, various tribes had a series of confrontations with the U.S. Army and settlers between the 1860s and 1880s that collectively became known as the Indian Wars. At Sand Creek in Colorado, for example, more than 300 Arapaho and Cheyenne men, women, and children were massacred by the militia in 1864 after the parties had agreed to peace terms. At the Battle of Little Bighorn in the Montana Territory, a combined force of Sioux and Cheyenne killed all 200 men under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer in 1876. In the desert Southwest — New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico — the Apaches fought against settlers and soldiers for decades. Resistance there came to an end only with the capture of the Chiricahua Apache chief Geronimo in 1886.
On the Great Plains, the loss of the bison was an even greater threat to Indian survival than the wars with the U.S. Army. The Plains Indians relied upon bison for food, clothing, and shelter, and as a source of fuel (burning bison dung, or “buffalo chips”). Although the wanton destruction of the bison was not federal policy, army commanders in the field approved the practice as a means to destroy a key element of Indian life. Also, the railroads hired hunters such as William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody to kill thousands of the animals to feed the workers laying the tracks for the transcontinental lines. When the railroads were completed, “sportsmen” shot bison from specially chartered cars. By 1875, more than nine million bison had been killed for their hides, which were in demand in the East for lap robes and machine drive belts. The species was almost extinct in another decade, and with the mainstay of their nomadic lifestyle gone, the Plains Indians had little choice but to accept life on the reservations.
Change in federal policy and the end of resistance. The Indian reservation system established during the 1860s was a failure. Many of the reservations were located on marginal agricultural land that made it difficult for the tribes to develop self‐sustaining farming. Government promises to provide food and supplies went unfulfilled while unscrupulous Indian agents often cheated the very people they were expected to help. Under the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, the government abandoned its long‐standing policy of dealing with the tribes as sovereign nations; the new law was intended to promote agriculture among individual Native Americans by breaking up the reservations. The president was authorized to distribute up to 160 acres of reservation land to the heads of households or 80 acres to individual adults; the allotments were held in trust by the federal government for 25 years, after which the owner was given full title and citizenship. (Full citizenship was accorded the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma in 1901, but it was not extended to all Indians until 1924.) The reservation lands not apportioned to Native Americans were sold to the public. Although it was hailed as an important humanitarian reform, the Dawes Act actually undercut the communal basis of Native‐American life and resulted in the loss of millions of acres of Indian land.
Desperate to restore the past, the Plains tribes were attracted to a religious movement known as the Ghost Dance, which promised to restore the bison herds and protect Native Americans from the bullets of U.S. soldiers and settlers. The popularity of the religious revival among the Sioux concerned both the settlers and the Army because they feared it would lead to a resurgence in Indian resistance. When attempts to ban the Ghost Dance failed, more direct action was taken. Sitting Bull, who had fought against Custer at Little Bighorn and supported the Ghost Dance movement, was killed while being taken into custody by reservation police. Two weeks later on December 29, 1890, the Seventh Cavalry killed more than 300 Sioux men, women, and children at Wounded Knee Creek in the Dakota Territory. That confrontation marked the end of Indian resistance.
Throughout the twentieth century, Native Americans have comprised the poorest minority group in the United States. With their culture and religion either ignored or treated with contempt, many Indians did become Christians and have supported themselves through farming and ranching. Nevertheless, Native Americans continue to strive to maintain their tribal identities and languages despite all attempts to remake them in the “white man's” image.