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Probe Ministries > History, Special Days and Quizzes > History > American Indians in American History


American Indians in American History Print E-mail

Written by Kerby Anderson

Colonial America

Two dark chapters in American history are slavery and the treatment of the American Indian. We have an article on slavery, and in this article we will focus briefly on the story of the American Indians (or Native Americans).

It is difficult to estimate the number of Indians in the Western Hemisphere. In Central and South America, there were advanced civilizations like the Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas in Peru. So it is estimated there was a population of about twenty million before the Europeans came. By contrast, the Indian tribes north of what is now the Mexican border were "still at the hunter-gatherer stage in many cases, and engaged in perpetual warfare" and numbered perhaps one million.{1}

One of the best-known stories from colonial America is the story of John Smith and Pocahontas. John Smith was the third leader of Jamestown. He traded with the Indians and learned their language. He also learned how they hunted and fished.

On one occasion, Smith was captured by the Indians and brought before Chief Powhatan. As the story goes, a young princess by the name of Pocahontas laid her head across Smith's chest and pleaded with her father to spare his life. This may have been an act of courage or part of the Indian ceremony. In either case, Smith was made an honorary chief of the tribe.

Although the Disney cartoon about Pocahontas ends at this point, it is worth noting that she later met an English settler and traveled to England. There she adopted English clothing, became a Christian, and was baptized.

Another famous story involves Squanto. He was originally kidnapped in 1605 and taken to England where he learned English and was eventually able to return to New England. When he found his tribe had been wiped out by a plague, he lived with a neighboring tribe. Squanto then learned that the Pilgrims were at Plymouth, so he came to them and showed them how to plant corn and fertilize with fish. He later converted to Christianity. William Bradford said that Squanto "was a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation."{2}

These stories are typical of the some of the initial interactions between the Indians and the colonists. Relations between the two were usually peaceful, but as we will see, the peace was a fragile one.

Many of the settlers owed their lives to the Indians and learned many important skills involving hunting, trapping, fishing, and farming. Roger Williams purchased land from the Indians to start Providence, Rhode Island, and William Penn bought land from the Indians who lived in present-day Pennsylvania. Others, however, merely took the land and began what became the dark chapter of exploitation of the American Indians.

Indian Wars in New England

Let's take a look at the history of Indians in New England.

One of the leaders in New England was Roger Williams. He believed that it was right and proper to bring Christianity to the Indians. Unfortunately, "few New Englanders took trouble to instruct Indians in Christianity. What they all wanted to do was to dispossess them of their land and traditional hunting preserves."{3}

Williams thought this was unchristian and argued that title to all Indian lands should be negotiated at a fair price. He felt anything less was sinful.{4}

Because of this, his Rhode Island colony gained the reputation of being a place where Indians were honored and protected. That colony managed to avoid any conflict with the Indians until King Philip's War.

King Philip's War was perhaps the most devastating war between the colonists and the Indians living in the New England area. There had been peace until that time between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe due to their peace treaty signed in the 1620s.

The war was named for King Philip who was the son of Chief Massasoit. His Indian name was Metacom, but he was called King Philip by the English because he adopted European dress and customs. In 1671, he was questioned by the colonists and fined. They also demanded that the Wampanoag surrender their arms.

In 1675, a Christian Indian who had been working as an informer to the colonists was murdered (probably by King Philip's order). Three Indians were tried for murder and executed. In retaliation, King Philip led his men against the settlers. At one point they came within twenty miles of Boston itself. If he could have organized a coalition of Indian tribes, he might have extinguished the entire colony.

Throughout the summer and fall of 1675, Philip and his followers destroyed farms and townships over a large area. The Massachusetts governor dispatched military against the Indians with the conflict ending in the fall of 1677 when Philip was killed in battle.

The war was costly to the colonists in terms of lives and finances. It also resulted in the near extermination of many of the tribes in southern New England.

The Pequot War in the 1630s developed initially because of conflict between Indian tribes. It began with a dispute between the Pequots and the Mohicans in the Connecticut River area over valuable shoreline where shells and beads were collected for wampum.

Neither the English nor the nearby Dutch came to the aid of the Mohicans. Thus, the Pequots became bold and murdered a number of settlers. In response, the Massachusetts governor sent armed vessels to destroy two Indian villages. The Pequots retaliated by attacking Wethersfield, Connecticut, killing nine people and abducting two others.{5}

The combined forces of the Massachusetts and Connecticut militia set out to destroy the Pequot. They surrounded the main Pequot fort in 1637 and slaughtered five hundred Indians (men, women, and children). The village was set fire, and most who tried to escape were shot or clubbed to death.{6}

Post Revolutionary America

Chief Tecumseh was a Shawnee chief who lived in the Ohio River Valley and benefited from the British. During the War of 1812, the British had a policy of organizing and arming minorities against the United States. Not only did they liberate black slaves, but they armed and trained many of the Indian tribes.{7}

As thousands of settlers moved into this area, the Indians were divided as to whether to attack American settlements. Tecumseh was not one of them. He refused to sign any treaties with the government and organized an Indian resistance movement against the settlers.

Together with his brother Tenskwatawa, who was also known as "the Prophet," he called for a war against the white man: "Let the white race perish! They seize your land. They corrupt your women. They trample on the bones of your dead . . . . Burn their dwellings—destroy their stock—slay their wives and children that their very breed may perish! War now! War always! War on the living! War on the dead!"{8}

Tecumseh and "the Prophet" met with other Indian tribes in order to unite them into a powerful Indian confederacy. This confederacy began to concern government authorities especially when the militant Creeks (known as the Red Sticks because they carried bright red war clubs) joined and began to massacre the settlers.

General William Henry Harrison was at that time the governor of the Indiana Territory (he later became president). While Tecumseh was recruiting more Indian tribes, Harrison's army defeated fighters led by "the Prophet" at the Tippecanoe River. This victory was later used in his presidential campaign ("Tippecanoe and Tyler too").

American settlers as well as some Indian tribes attempted to massacre the Creeks in the south. When this attempt failed, they retreated to Fort Mims. The Creeks took the fort and murdered over five hundred men, women, and children and took away two hundred fifty scalps on poles.{9}

At this point, Major-General Andrew Jackson was told to take his troops south and avenge the disaster. Those who joined him included David Crockett and Samuel Houston. Two months after the massacre, Jackson surrounded an Indian village and sent in his men to destroy it. David Crockett said: "We shot them like dogs."{10}

A week later, Jackson won a pitched battle at Talladega, attacking a thousand Creeks and killing three hundred of them. He then moved against the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend. When the Indians would not surrender, they were slain. Over five hundred were killed within the fort and another three hundred drowned trying to escape in the river. Shortly after this decisive battle, the remaining Creeks surrendered.

Trail of Tears

The Cherokee called Georgia home, and they were an advanced Indian civilization. Their national council went back to 1792 and had a written legal code since 1808. They had a representative form of government (with eight congressional districts). But the settlers moving into the state continued to take their land.

When Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828, it sealed the fate of the Indians. "In his inaugural address he insisted that the integrity of the state of Georgia, and the Constitution of the United States, came before Indian interests, however meritorious."{11}

In 1830, Congress passed the "Indian Removal Act." This act forced Indians who were organized tribally and living east of the Mississippi River to move west to Indian Territory. It also authorized the president to use force if necessary. Many Americans were against the act, including Tennessee Congressman Davy Crockett. It passed anyway and was quickly signed by President Jackson.

The Indian tribes most affected by the act were the so-called "civilized tribes" that had adopted many of the ways of the white settlers (Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee). The Cherokees had actually formed an independent Cherokee Nation.

Cherokee leader John Ross went to Washington to ask the Supreme Court to rule in favor of his people and allow them to keep their land. In 1832, Chief Justice John Marshall and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokee Nation was not subject to the laws of the United States and therefore had a right to their land. The Cherokee would have to agree to removal in a treaty (which would also have to be ratified by the Senate).

A treaty with one of the Cherokee leaders gave Jackson the legal document he needed to remove the Indians. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty by one vote over the objections of such leaders as Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.

In one of the saddest chapters in American history, the Indians were taken from their land, herded into makeshift forts, and forced to march a thousand miles. Often there was not enough food or shelter. Four thousand Cherokees died on the march to Oklahoma. This forced removal has been called "the Trail of Tears."

The Seminole resisted this forced march. Their leader Osceola fought the U.S. Army in the swamps of Florida with great success. However, when the Seminoles raised the white flag in truce, the U.S. Army seized Osceola. He died in prison a year later.

Those who made it to Oklahoma did not fare much better. Although Oklahoma was Indian Territory, settlers began to show interest in the land. So the government began to push Indians onto smaller and smaller reservations. The final blow came with the Homestead Act of 1862 which gave one hundred sixty acres to anyone who paid a ten-dollar filing fee and agreed to improve the land for five years.

Indian Wars in the West

Until the 1860s, the Plains Indians were not significantly affected by the white man. But the advance of the settlers and the transcontinental railroad had a devastating impact on their way of life. The railroads cut the Great Plains in half so that the west was no longer the place where the buffalo roam. Prospectors ventured onto Indians lands seeking valuable minerals. So it was inevitable that war would break out. Between 1869 and 1878, over two hundred pitched battles took place primarily with the Sioux, Apache, Comanche, and Cheyenne.

The impact of an endless stream of settlers had the effect of forcing the Plains Indians onto smaller and smaller reservations. Even though the government signed various treaties with the Indians, they were almost always broken. Approximately three hundred seventy treaties were signed from 1778 to 1871 while an estimated eighty or ninety agreements were also entered into between 1871 and 1906.{12}

One of the most famous Indian battles was "Custer's Last Stand." Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, fought against Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. The Battle of Little Big Horn actually wasn't much of a battle. Custer was ordered to observe a large Sioux camp. But he decided to attack even though he was warned they might be greatly outnumbered. It turns out they were outnumbered ten to one. Within an hour, Custer and all his men were dead.

Custer's defeat angered many Americans, so the government fought even more aggressively against the Indians. Many historians believe that the anger generated by "Custer's Last Stand" led to the slaughter of Sioux men, women, and children at Wounded Knee in 1890. After the death of Sitting Bull, a band of Sioux fled into the badlands, where they were captured by the 7th Cavalry. The Sioux were ordered disarmed, but an Indian fired a gun and wounded an officer. The U.S. troops opened fire, and within minutes almost two hundred men, women, and children were killed.

The Apache leader Geronimo led many successful attacks against the army. By 1877, the Apache had been forced onto reservations. But on two separate occasions, Geronimo planned escapes and led resistance efforts from mountain camps in Mexico. He finally surrendered in 1886.

Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé in the Northwest built friendships with trappers and traders since the first expedition by Lewis and Clark. He refused to sign treaties with the government that would give up their homeland. Eventually fighting broke out, so Chief Joseph led his people to Canada. Unfortunately, they were surrounded by soldiers just forty miles from Canada. Chief Joseph died at a reservation in Washington State in 1904.

This is the sad and tragic story of the American Indian in American history. We cannot change our history, and we should not rewrite our history. Neither should we ignore the history of the American Indian in the United States.

Notes

1. Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997), 7.
2. William Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation, c. 1650.
3. Johnson, 47.
5. Johnson, 76.
6. Alden T. Vaughn, The New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620-1675 (Boston: Little Brown & Company, 1965).
7. Reginald Horsman, "British Indian Policy in the North-West 1807-1812," Mississippi Valley Historical Review, April 1958.
8. J. F.H. Claiborne, Mississippi as Providence, Territory and State, 3 quoted in Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Freedom 1822-32, (New York: Harper and Row, 1981), i.
9. H. S. Halbert and T. S. Hall, The Creek War of 1813-14 (Tuscaloosa, 1969), 151ff.
10. David Crockett, A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee, 1834.
11. Johnson, 350.
12. Charles M. Harvey, "The Red Man's Last Roll-Call," Atlantic Monthly 97 (1906), 323-330.

© 2006 Probe Ministries


About the Author

Kerby AndersonKerby Anderson is president of Probe Ministries International. He holds masters degrees from Yale University (science) and from Georgetown University (government). He is the author of several books, including Christian Ethics in Plain Language, Genetic Engineering, Origin Science, Signs of Warning, Signs of Hope and Making the Most of Your Money in Tough Times. His new series with Harvest House Publishers includes: A Biblical Point of View on Islam, A Biblical Point of View on Homosexuality, A Biblical Point of View on Intelligent Design and A Biblical Point of View on Spiritual Warfare. He is the host of "Point of View" (USA Radio Network) heard on 360 radio outlets nationwide as well as on the Internet (www.pointofview.net) and shortwave. He is also a regular guest on "Prime Time America" (Moody Broadcasting Network) and "Fire Away" (American Family Radio). He produces a daily syndicated radio commentary and writes editorials that have appeared in papers such as the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, the San Jose Mercury, and the Houston Post.

 

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