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Warrior Nations: The United States and Indian Peoples

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During the century following George Washington’s presidency, the United States fought at least forty wars with various Indian tribes, averaging one conflict every two and a half years. Warrior Nations is Roger L. Nichols’s response to the question, “Why did so much fighting take place?” Examining eight of the wars between the 1780s and 1877, Nichols explains what started each conflict and what the eight had in common as well as how they differed. He writes about the fights between the United States and the Shawnee, Miami, and Delaware tribes in the Ohio Valley, the Creek in Alabama, the Arikara in South Dakota, the Sauk and Fox in Illinois and Wisconsin, the Dakota Sioux in Minnesota, the Cheyenne and Arapaho in Colorado, the Apache in New Mexico and Arizona, and the Nez Perce in Oregon and Idaho.

Virtually all of these wars, Nichols shows, grew out of small-scale local conflicts, suggesting that interracial violence preceded any formal declaration of war. American pioneers hated and feared Indians and wanted their land. Indian villages were armed camps, and their young men sought recognition for bravery and prowess in hunting and fighting. Neither the U.S. government nor tribal leaders could prevent raids, thievery, and violence when the two groups met.

In addition to U.S. territorial expansion and the belligerence of racist pioneers, Nichols cites a variety of factors that led to individual wars: cultural differences, border disputes, conflicts between and within tribes, the actions of white traders and local politicians, the government’s failure to prevent or punish anti-Indian violence, and Native determination to retain their lands, traditional culture, and tribal independence.

The conflicts examined here, Nichols argues, need to be considered as wars of U.S. aggression, a central feature of that nation’s expansion across the continent that brought newcomers into areas occupied by highly militarized Native communities ready and able to defend themselves and attack their enemies.

ISBN-13: 9780806143828

Media Type: Paperback(New Edition)

Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press

Publication Date: 09-26-2013

Pages: 252

Product Dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

Roger L. Nichols is Professor Emeritus of History and Affiliate Professor of Indian Studies at the University of Arizona. He is the author of American Indians in U.S. History and editor of The American Indian: Past and Present, Sixth Edition.

Read an Excerpt

Warrior Nations

The United States and Indian Peoples

By Roger L. Nichols


Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5070-3


The Ohio Valley War, 1786–1795

In mid-September 1786 Colonel Benjamin Logan led an 800-man force of Kentucky militiamen north into Shawnee country, hoping to avenge the continuing Indian raids on pioneer settlements. Moving up the Miami River in western Ohio, on October 6 Logan's men attacked the village of Mackachack, home of Moluntha, a leading Shawnee peace chief. Although many of the villagers fled, he remained and called for others to surrender. With a ritual pipe in hand, he led his wives and children to meet the Kentuckians. One officer, Captain Hugh McGary, demanded to know if Moluntha had been at the 1782 Battle of Blue Licks, where the officer had led Kentucky militiamen into a crushing defeat. When the chief (who understood little English) nodded, McGary murdered him with an axe. Then the attackers swept farther into Shawnee country. Moving quickly, they destroyed eight villages and hundreds of acres of crops ready for harvest. Satisfied with their work, the troops pronounced the raid a great success and, loaded with everything they could steal plus twenty-eight women and children as prisoners and eleven Indian scalps, returned south to Kentucky. Contrary to expectation, Logan's raid failed to end the fighting. Instead the troops' actions persuaded any Shawnees who had still hoped to avoid war to join their hostile kin and defend themselves from the invading Americans.

The attacks led directly to the nation's first major conflict with its tribal neighbors. It began without planning or forethought but resulted from complex and numerous causes that stretched back an entire generation. While only one other of these eight Indian wars included even modest elements of foreign involvement, the Indian-British alliance that had developed during the War for Independence and continued through the War of 1812 not only proved important but set this conflict apart from the others in this study. Invasions of Indian country by land-hungry pioneers occurred repeatedly, but not all of the other conflicts included the recurrent cycle that this one did of raids and atrocities by both sides that stretched back nearly four decades. Hasty, ill-planned demands for land by the weak U.S. government following Independence also played a major role. In fact diplomatic belligerence and military aggression characterized most American action in this era. That approach persuaded many of the Indians who had joined the British during the War for Independence to remain hostile or at least suspicious of the United States. Expecting to keep their independence and deflect American land-grabbing, they developed multitribal confederacies and sought renewed support from English officials in Canada. The Indians' open enmity made this situation different from most others as well. Without doubt the Ohio Valley Indian War of 1786–95 provided one of the most direct multitribal challenges to U.S. expansion. It disrupted or halted pioneer settlement, included one of the worst military defeats in American history, and forced the federal government to reshape its policies and tactics for later dealings with the Native peoples.

This outbreak should not have surprised many people at the time. Sporadic violence in the region between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River occurred repeatedly at least as early as the 1750s during the Seven Years', or French and Indian, War. Then most tribes in that area had supported their French trading partners against the encroaching English; when Britain won that war they shifted their stance to grudging neutrality. By the 1770s pioneers pushed west into southern Ohio from Fort Pitt at present Pittsburgh and others entered central Kentucky via the Cumberland Gap from the southeast. Tribal leaders recognized the arrogant Americans as the biggest threat to their independence and adapted two related tactics to counter this invasion. First, they worked to build a multitribal confederacy; second, they sought renewed help from British officials in Canada. While the American colonists struggled to gain independence, the Indians used both diplomacy and repeated military action to retain theirs. As early as Pontiac's War in 1763 and continuing sporadically into the 1780s tribal raiding and war parties crisscrossed western Pennsylvania, central Kentucky, and the upper Ohio Valley to repel or destroy the invading whites. Those actions often succeeded during the War for Independence, but they left deep-seated bitterness on both sides and increased the already widespread anti-Indian hatred.

In 1783 the Treaty of Paris recognized the United States of America as newly independent. Although the agreement signaled that fighting against the British had ended, it ignored the ongoing conflict with the Indians beyond the Appalachians. In fact the pact said nothing about the tribes at all. As recently as a year before the peace treaty had been signed, several tribes had crushed frontier militia armies in both Ohio and Kentucky. Now those groups who had fought against the colonists faced American retribution without any open support from their former British allies. Neutral tribes and even some who had helped the rebels fared little better during the chaotic years immediately after the war. The intermittent raids and retaliatory forays by pioneers and Indians alike kept frontier settlements and tribal villages in turmoil. In fact those incidents put the United States and the villagers on a collision course.

Flush from their defeat of the British, the victorious Americans wasted little time in extracting land from their tribal neighbors. In October 1784 U.S. commissioners rejected Iroquois claims that the Ohio River separated Indian land from that of the new republic. Instead of the usual diplomatic give-and-take that characterized most Indian councils, the federal negotiators announced that the Iroquois tribes had forfeited any right to bargain. Instead they told their astonished listeners that "you are mistaken in supposing that ... you are become a free and independent nation, and may make what terms you please. It is not so. You are a subdued people." Then they browbeat the chiefs into signing away much of their land in the 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwix. A year later at Fort McIntosh the commissioners used the same tactics to awe Delaware, Wyandot, and Chippewa chiefs into surrendering much of southern Ohio by telling them that the United States had taken the land through its military victory. Next they persuaded a few Shawnee leaders to parley and repeated the earlier assertion that the British had given the Indians' land to the Americans. Despite the chiefs' repeated objections, they gave in and signed the 1786 Treaty of Fort Finney.

While the boastful American negotiators acted as if the United States had defeated the western tribes, Ohio Valley Indian leaders thought otherwise. They had no intention of surrendering their homelands meekly to the advancing "Big Knives." Instead, beginning in 1783, they met repeatedly at Sandusky, Detroit, their own villages, or frontier British outposts as they tried to organize a confederacy to defend themselves against the United States. These efforts to use united leadership against the American negotiators' tactic of acquiring land from one tribe at a time provide a causal factor not often present in most later Indian wars. U.S. officials often sought to divide leaders in a single Native community by pitting one group of chiefs against another. The participants in these meetings varied and almost never included all of the chiefs from any single Indian group. Often the delegations represented individual villages instead, because their varying circumstances shaped the chiefs' attitudes toward peace or war differently. Communities nearest the marauding pioneers might accept some white demands for land, while those living at what seemed a safe distance from the raids could ignore the pioneers or even call for retaliatory attacks. Usually the civil chiefs sought negotiations while the military leaders wanted to resist U.S. demands that they sign treaties ceding some of their land. This continuing struggle for dominance between the civil chiefs and the war leaders kept some groups divided much of the time.

Despite their divisions, in 1786 Indian leaders meeting in a council at Detroit repudiated the three earlier treaties and insisted that the Ohio River remain the border with the United States. Joseph Brant, a Mohawk leader who had served as an officer in the British army during the Revolution, often took the lead even though he did not live in the disputed area. He tried to persuade representatives from other tribes that the land belonged to all of them and urged them to reject any proposals for cessions by any single group. Instead he insisted that all treaty talks should include representatives from the whole confederacy. Many of his listeners agreed, and in December 1786 Brant sent an address to Congress that included those ideas. It repudiated the earlier land cessions, demanded a renegotiation of the borders, and asked Congress to stop "your surveyors and other people from coming upon our side [of] the Ohio River."

Although they disagreed with each other bitterly, both the United States government and the frontier inhabitants rejected any such limit. While the pioneers continued to encroach on tribal land and attack Native American villages, inaction by the cash-strapped Congress made keeping them out of the Indian country almost impossible. Rather than consider rolling back the border, Congress had already passed the Land Ordinance of 1785 to encourage settlement in the disputed area north of the Ohio River. That law established a system for the survey and sale of land to the pioneers in areas that the Indians considered to be still part of their home territory. By the summer of 1786 survey crews had begun running their lines across what became known as the first Seven Ranges in the southeastern corner of present Ohio. While they struggled to haul their instruments through the forests, the trickle of pioneers into the area beyond Fort Pitt at present Pittsburgh became a torrent. This flood of settlers into their country enraged the Indians, who hurried to launch new attacks on the intruding whites. The resulting incidents fed directly into existing white hatred and fear of the Indians and their determination to destroy the area tribes.

Still on the verge of bankruptcy, Congress paid little attention to growing western violence and the pioneers' complaints. Instead it encouraged more frontier settlement, hoping to increase revenue from land sales by enacting the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which laid out the pattern for creating new territories and eventual states. During their deliberations, the authors of the new law responded to the chaos in the Ohio Valley with little more than platitudes. As a result the document stated: "The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians." Article 3 stated that "their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent ... unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress." American leaders somehow hoped to stimulate migration west without increasing violence there. Whatever role the new ordinance played in encouraging the pioneer movement, by June 1788 the commander at Fort Harmar near present-day Marietta, Ohio, reported counting 631 boats carrying 12,205 people down the Ohio River.

With this many pioneers seeking new land in what remained Indian country, George Washington's administration (which took office in late 1789) inherited a situation that modern scholars would label "total war." The combatants on either side rarely had any understanding of what motivated their enemies or sympathy for the tactics that they used. Indian custom demanded that relatives or friends seek revenge when outsiders killed or injured family or clan members. If tribal raiders successfully retaliated against pioneer atrocities, the frontier population labeled the events "massacres," and the deaths of whites in battle with the tribes became "murders" rather than casualties. During the 1780s the white border population thought of their opponents as hopeless savages and publicly called for their destruction. By then the violence had devolved into an undeclared race war in which people on both sides frequently tortured, scalped, mutilated, and slaughtered noncombatants. At times those actions became the norm.

Meanwhile, the two ordinances set the pattern for how Americans would acquire and move onto tribal lands that the new federal government followed for another century. Because of the continuing hostilities in the Ohio River Valley, Congress ordered Arthur St. Clair, first governor of the newly created Northwest Territory, to reopen negotiations over the disputed treaties. By this time even the most obtuse officials realized that the government had to shift from its earlier policy of claiming Indian land by conquest based on the 1783 peace treaty with Britain. To do that St. Clair received $26,000 to purchase the area in question. His instructions did not authorize him to return any land to the tribes, however, or to admit any wrongdoing by earlier American negotiators. The process started badly when the governor chose Fort Harmar rather than a neutral site for the negotiations. In response Mohawk leader Joseph Brant urged a full boycott, but some of the other chiefs ignored his call. Delays by both sides pushed negotiations into December 1788, when several hundred Iroquois, Delawares, Potawatomis, and Wyandots arrived at Fort Harmar. During the meetings that followed both sides restated their earlier positions. First the governor read parts of a proposed new treaty. Then Indian leaders repeated their earlier insistence on having an Ohio River border.

St. Clair had orders to reject Indian demands for any change to the border, so he fell back on the earlier American claims of having conquered the tribes. He contended that the defeated British had ceded the villagers' land to the United States. Then he brazenly asserted that the agreements negotiated at Forts Stanwix, McIntosh, and Finney had proved the new republic's goodwill. According to the governor, charity not vengeance had motivated the congressional negotiators' dealings with the tribes. Only the Americans' generosity allowed the tribes to retain some land rather than having to surrender all of it. Claiming to be acting in the same spirit, the governor offered modest payments to seal the earlier treaty agreements. In his effort to make another one-sided treaty acceptable, St. Clair promised to include a statement of the Indians' right to continue hunting on the lands surrendered in the earlier agreements. Of course, he neglected to tell his listeners that they would lose that right once the government sold the land and settlement began. All of his posturing ignored the tribal leaders' repeated calls for the invading whites to withdraw south and east of the Ohio River. Yet after more discussion the chiefs signed the new agreements. The governor boasted that the northwest Indian "confederacy is broken, and ... Brant has lost his influence."

That optimistic message repeated St. Clair's claim of having to beat down the chiefs' objections and ignored their obvious dissatisfaction. Yet he failed to note that the leading Shawnee and Miami leaders had boycotted the negotiations, so the resulting treaties had little chance to bring peace. In fact, along with many of the Delaware villagers, these two groups remained in open warfare with pioneers from the Virginia, Kentucky, and eastern Ohio settlements. The new terms did nothing to change that situation. Rather than quiet the frontier, the agreement achieved little. By summer 1789 observers claimed to have seen large amounts of powder and lead supplied by British traders at the village of Shawnee chief Blue Jacket and the homes of other war leaders. Some frontier officials still hoped that the continuing negotiations and the exchange of captives might bring peace. They overlooked the chiefs' repeated demands that the Americans "settle all these misunderstandings, and touch not our lands." The United States had no intention of doing that and as a result could not end the Indian attacks on pioneers moving down the Ohio River. In fact long-time trader and British agent Alexander McKee reported that young men from three or four tribes had taken part in the raids along the river and that the Shawnees, in particular, "declare themselves at war with the Americans."

When George Washington became president that same year, he inherited the bitter fighting between whites and Indians in the Ohio country that showed no signs of ending. The villagers refused to accept the American invasion of their homeland, and U.S. authorities would not or could not prevent the growth of settlements in the Northwest Territory. Repeated pioneer attacks on Indian villages brought a new round of retaliatory raids, so the new administration faced an immediate crisis. It had to satisfy the pioneers' demands that it punish the area tribes and open the land for their continuing occupation. Given the nation's empty treasury, secretary of war Henry Knox had to find some other way to gain peace without launching a costly invasion. He urged the administration to develop a "conciliatory system" for satisfying the tribes to avoid actions resulting in "blood and injustice which would stain the character of the nation." If that failed and a major war broke out, he estimated that the United States would have to raise an army of 2,500 men at a cost of at least $200,000, an amount far beyond its ability to pay.


Excerpted from Warrior Nations by Roger L. Nichols. Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Maps,
1. The Ohio Valley War, 1786–1795,
2. The Red Stick War, 1813–1814,
3. The Arikara War, 1823,
4. The Black Hawk War, 1832,
5. The Minnesota Sioux War, 1862,
6. The Cheyenne and Arapaho War, 1864–1865,
7. The Chiricahua Apache War, 1861–1872,
8. The Nez Perce War, 1877,