U.S. Government and Native Americans 19th Century
By the late 19th century, the American government had succeeded in moving Native Americans to reservations west of the Mississippi. The Trail of Tears, which was a forced migration, ended by 1850, and the Seminoles had been almost completely removed from Florida.
The government and Native Americans, through the Treaty of Fort Laramie signed in 1851 and then again in 1868, created a Sioux reservation and ceded the Black Hills region to the Lakota and Dakota Sioux and the Arapaho tribes.
By the mid-1870s, two of the Native American nation’s most famous warriors and leaders of the Sioux, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, began resisting government efforts to keep their people confined to reservations. Then in 1875, prospectors discovered gold in the Black Hills, and the U.S. government tried to persuade the Lakota Sioux to sell the territory. The Lakota considered the land sacred and refused to sell, and the government ordered the tribes confined to reservations and sent in troops.
Yet another land grab by the U.S. angered the Native Americans, some of whom refused to go to the reservations and instead joined Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in Montana. By 1876, more than 10,000 Native Americans camped along the non-reservation land on the Little Big Horn River, setting the stage for one of the most famous battles in American history.
In the spring of 1876, three army columns headed to Lakota to drive the Native Americans back to the reservation. On June 22, one column of soldiers led by General George Custer was ordered to pursue Sitting Bull.
Custer’s scouts found Sitting Bull’s village 3 days later. Custer planned to reposition his troops to attack the village the next day, but his troops were spotted by Native Americans. Custer feared the Native Americans would warn the villagers and they would immediately flee, so the General made a fateful decision.
He would attack immediately.
Custer split his regiment of roughly 600 men into three separate attack squads of 200 men each under the theory he could attack the tribes and cut off any fleeing tribesmen. This ended up being a disastrous decision. Custer and his men attacked from the north and were easily outnumbered by as many as 2,000 Sioux and Cheyenne. Within two hours, Custer and all of his soldiers were killed in a battle known as Custer’s Last Stand.
The native victory was short-lived. The U.S. Army soon flooded the region and forced the tribes to surrender. Sitting Bull fled to Canada, where he and some of his followers lived for four years before returning to the Dakotas. Sitting Bull played a key role in the last great Native American victory and would also play a tragic role in the last great conflict at Wounded Knee. But first, we need a little perspective.
In the late 19th century, a religious cult believed that Native Americans were confined to reservations because they displeased the gods by abandoning their traditions. The cult held that if believers performed the Ghost Dance the gods would destroy all nonbelievers, drive out white settlers, and bring back the Native American way of life.
Sitting Bull didn’t take the ways of the white man. He believed in Native American culture and traditions and by 1889 joined the Ghost Dance movement. Authorities feared the chief’s influence and that he might flee the Montana reservation he now called home, so they ordered him to be arrested.
On December 15, 1890, 39 police officers and four volunteers surrounded Sitting Bull’s cabin on the Grand River. Officers demanded Sitting Bull come with them because he was under arrest, but Sitting Bull refused. Villagers were enraged and one, the Lakota Native American Catch-A-Bear, shot Native American agency policeman Lt. Henry Bullhead, and Bullhead shot Sitting Bull. A battle erupted that would result in 16 total deaths – eight officers, including Lt. Bullhead, and eight Native Americans, including Sitting Bull.
Then, on December 29, the U.S. army approached a group of Sioux performing the Ghost Dance near Wounded Knee Creek. The Army ordered the Sioux to lay down their weapons, but a fight broke out followed by a shot. Army soldiers opened fire, and when the shooting stopped as many as 300 Native Americans, including women and children, died either from the shooting or dying in the cold. Twenty-five calvary men also died.
The Massacre at Wounded Knee was the last battle between Native Americans and the U.S. government but not the last attempt to assimilate Native Americans.
In 1890, the same year as the Massacre at Wounded Knee, the U.S. Census Bureau declared the American West frontier closed since whites were establishing homesteads and cities. That meant Native Americans were relegated to the reservation. Then, in 1897, the government passed the Dawes Act, which took away tribal-owned land and divided them into individual settlements. It was yet another attempt to take land from Native Americans and place it in the hands of white settlers and business, in this case, the railroads.
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