Creek Tribes Were Decimated by Disease but Thrived Through Skin Trade

Creek Tribes Were Decimated by Disease but Thrived Through Skin Trade

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The Native American Creek (Muscogee) tribes of the Southeast were actually an allied nation that came into existence in relatively recent history so they would be united in peace.

The Creek included many of the native people of parts of Alabama, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida and lived in large towns, writes the site Warpaths 2 Peace Pipes . Many Creek tribes built huge earthen mounds that still stand today.

A Short Creek Indians History

Their population decreased precipitously after contact with Spanish explorers in the 16th century. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia online , the history of the Creek Indian nation is the main history of that colony until around 1760. The encyclopedia says:

“The history of early Georgia is largely the history of the Creek Indians. For most of Georgia's colonial period, Creeks outnumbered both European colonists and enslaved Africans and occupied more land than these newcomers. Not until the 1760s did the Creeks become a minority population in Georgia. They ceded the balance of their lands to the new state in the 1800s.”

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The Creeks as an allied nation of many different tribes and town centers did not exist when Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean Sea in 1492. At that time, they lived in what are known as mound-building societies. Their mounds can still be seen at Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon and Etowah Mounds at Cartersville, both in Georgia.

Artist’s conception of the Etowah site (9 BR 1), a Mississippian culture archaeological site located on the banks of the Etowah River in Bartow County, Georgia. Built and occupied in three phases, from 1000–1550 AD. (Herb Roe/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

The Creek people, also known as the Muscogee, and other anthropologists and archaeologists say that about 1400 AD, some large chiefdoms in the region collapsed for some reason. They then remade themselves into smaller groups in Georgia’s valleys. Two such river valleys are the Ocmulgee and the Chattahoochee.

Contact with Spanish people in the 1500s was devastating for the Creek tribal populations. European diseases, including smallpox, that had not been circulating in the New World previously, contributed to the deaths of as much as 90 percent or more of their people.

A painting by George Catlin of Great King, also known as Ben Perryman, a chief of the Creek people

In the late 1600s the Indians of the Southeast began to repopulate and recover, the encyclopedia says.

The survivors built a political alliance that united people from the Tallapoosa and Coosa rivers in Alabama to the Ocmuglee River to the east in Georgia. The Creek languages included Muskogee, Hitchiti and Alabama.

Trading with Europeans

They allied in part to be at peace with each other. English newcomers around the year 1715 started calling these tribes Creeks, which was shorthand for “Indians living on Ochese Creek,” the New Georgia encyclopedia says. After contact with Europeans, the Creek traded in deerskins and Indians for slavery that they captured in Florida. That slave trade collapsed about 1715 because of a lack of supply and demand, the encyclopedia states. Deerskins became their main trading commodity from then on.

In the 1730s the deerskin trade was very important to the Creek economy. Tens of thousands of skins were being shipped out Charleston, South Carolina, every year to English factories, where workers made the skins into pants, book covers, and gloves.

‘James Oglethorpe presenting the Yamacraw Indians to the Georgia Trustees’ , an event on July 3, 1734, one year after Oglethorpe landed to start the new colony.

By the 1750s, Savannah, Georgia, became another port for shipping as many as 60,000 deerskins a year. The New Georgia Encyclopedia states: “In Creek towns the profits from the trade included cloth, kettles, guns, and rum. These items became integral parts of the culture, easing the labor tasks of Creeks. However, they also created conflict by enriching some, but not all, Indians.”

This trade between natives and Europeans, and contact with slaves, encouraged closer cultural links. Some settlers lived in Creek towns to make closer trading ties. Some Europeans and fugitive slaves married Indians and lived among the Muscogee tribes. The hundreds of fugitive slaves living with Creek encouraged them to oppose slavery.

Eventually, the deer population crashed, and that trade ended. European settlers in Georgia began to look at Creeks not as trading partners, but as a roadblock to the establishment of the plantations and slavery.

Creek Wars

The Creek nation was able to largely stay out of the American Revolution. But war visited them soon after. The colonists in Georgia pressured the Creeks to cede lands east of the Ocmulgee River in three treaties: that of New York in 1790, Fort Wilkinson in 1802, and Washington in 1805.

Around this time the U.S. government began a program to transform Creeks into farmers and ranchers. Some Creeks resisted, but others voluntarily joined up. Civil war broke out among the Muscogee in 1813 over this program.

Portrait of Benjamin Hawkins (1754-1818) on his plantation along the Flint River in central Georgia. Here he is instructing Muscogee Creek in European technology.

State militias and U.S. soldiers entered the war, and in March 1814, a definitive battle happened at Horseshoe Bend in Alabama. A future U.S. president, General Andrew Jackson, led troops that killed 800 creeks. This was the Red Stick War. A treaty in August that year required the Creeks to give up 22 million acres (8,903,084 hectares) of land, much of it in South Georgia.

The Creeks were dispossessed of the rest of their land in the fraudulent Treaty of Indian Springs. The U.S. government didn’t recognize the treaty, but the Georgians would not relent. In the 1826 Treaty of Washington, the Creeks ceded all their remaining lands in the state of Georgia.

The Creeks signed a treaty in 1832 that would send them to the Indian Territory, which is known now as Oklahoma. Land speculators took advantage of the Creeks’ hard straits and bought Creek lands and fomented a war between the natives and whites to remove the Indians from the Southeast for good.

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The Creek Nation Supreme Court building in Ocmulgee, Oklahoma. (Screenshot from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation website)

The Creek Nation was one of the Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeast that were forced to go to Oklahoma. Many people of these tribes lived in towns, had stores and newspapers, and lived much as their neighbors of European ancestry.

In 1836, there was a brief war between the Creeks and the U.S. military. At the end of the war, U.S. troops and the militias of Georgia and Alabama forced some 20,000 remaining Creeks, some in chains, to Indian Territory.

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation website says their political system was the most advanced north of Mexico during the time of contact with the Europeans. Today, the Muscogee Indians are a sovereign nation in Ocmulgee, Oklahoma, with a population of 83,570 people.

The annual Ocmulgee Indian Celebration brings together craftsmen, dancers, storytellers, and living history demonstrators to celebrate and share their heritage with thousands of visitors. ( NPS Photo )

Native American disease and epidemics

Although a variety of infectious diseases existed in the Americas in pre-Columbian times, [1] the limited size of the populations and interactions between those populations (as compared to areas of Europe and Asia) hampered the transmission of communicable diseases. One notable infectious disease of American origin is syphilis. [1] Aside from that, most of the major infectious diseases known today originated in the Old World (Africa, Asia, and Europe). The American era of limited infectious disease ended with the arrival of Europeans in the Americas and the Columbian exchange of microorganisms, including those that cause human diseases. Eurasian infections and epidemics had major effects on Native American life in the colonial period and nineteenth century, especially.

Europe was a crossroads among many distant, different peoples separated by hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. But repeated warfare by invading populations spread infectious disease throughout the continent, as did trade, including the Silk Road. For more than 1,000 years travelers brought goods and infectious diseases from the East, where some of the latter had jumped from animals to humans. As a result of chronic exposure, many infections became endemic within their societies over time, so that surviving Europeans gradually developed some acquired immunity, although they were still subject to pandemics and epidemics. Europeans carried such endemic diseases when they migrated and explored the New World.

Native Americans often contracted infectious disease through trading and exploration contacts with Europeans, and these were transmitted far from the sources and colonial settlements, through exclusively Native American trading transactions. Warfare and enslavement also contributed to disease transmission. Because their populations had not been previously exposed to most of these infectious diseases, the indigenous people rarely had individual or population acquired immunity and consequently suffered very high mortality. The numerous deaths disrupted Native American societies. This phenomenon is known as the virgin soil effect. [2]

Native Americans are also affected by noncommunicable illnesses related to social changes and contemporary eating habits. Increasing rates of obesity, poor nutrition, sedentary lifestyle, and social isolation affect many Americans. While subject to the same illnesses, Native Americans suffer higher morbidity and mortality to diabetes and cardiovascular disease as well as certain forms of cancer. Social and historical factors tend to promote unhealthy behaviors including suicide and alcohol dependence. Reduced access to health care in Native American communities means that these diseases as well as infections affect more people for longer periods of time. [3]

Colonial Period Indian Wars

On March 22, 1622, Powhatan Indians attacked and killed colonists in eastern Virginia. Known as the Jamestown Massacre, the bloodbath gave the English government an excuse to justify their efforts to attack Indians and confiscate their land.

In 1636, the Pequot War over trade expansion broke out between Pequot Indians and English settlers of Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut. The colonists’ Indian allies joined them in battle and helped defeat the Pequot.

A series of battles took place from 1636 to 1659 between New Netherlands settlers in New York and several Indian tribes (Lenape, Susquehannocks, Algonquians, Esopus). Some battles were especially violent and gruesome, sending many settlers fleeing back to the Netherlands.

The Beaver Wars (1640-1701) happened between the French and their Indian allies (Algonquian, Huron) and the powerful Iroquois Confederacy. The fierce fighting started over territory and fur trade dominance around the Great Lakes and ended with the signing of the Great Peace Treaty.

Did you know? On November 29, 1864, one of the most infamous events of the American-Indian Wars occurred when 650 Colorado volunteer forces attacked a Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment along Sand Creek. Although they had already begun peace negotiations with the U.S. government, more than 140 Native Americans were killed and mutilated, most of whom were women and children.

Creek Tribes Were Decimated by Disease but Thrived Through Skin Trade - History


With few facts to flesh out their story, Native Americans have become largely invisible in early NH history. They appear largely in stories about Indian raids on white settlements at the turn of the 18 th century. But a much deeper and detailed study is needed.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This essay is adapted from a history of Portsmouth and Strawbery Banke now in development.

Most accounts of early Portsmouth scarcely mention its original settlers at all. Thousands of years of Native American occupation are reduced to a sentence or two. Often the only references are to Indian raids on white settlers during King Phillips war late in the 1600s when French soldiers fighting the British helped stir up Native rebellion. With almost no documentation of Indian life here before English occupation, we have to look for evidence elsewhere.

When Captain John Walker explored Maine’s Penobscot River in 1579, he reported seeing Native Americans there. But the first detailed eye witness account from an Englishman first visiting this region comes from Bartholomew Gosnold who examined the coast from Maine to Massachusetts in 1602. The meeting did not go as you might expect.

Spotting eight men in a "Biscay shallop with sail and oars" probably near what is now Cape Ann, Gosnold at first thought they were European fishermen in distress. It was only when the party of Indians came aboard ship that he realized who they were. One man in the group of Natives wore "Christian" clothing including a black waistcoat, breeches, shoes, stockings and a hat with a band. The rest were naked except for short pants made from seal skin and deerskins thrown loosely about their shoulders. The Indians gave a lengthy speech using some "Christian words" and drew Gosnold a map of the area using a piece of chalk. In memory of this initial close encounter with an obviously intelligent and adaptable new race, Gosnold named the location of the meeting "Savage Rock". Native Americans, despite their obviously sophisticated culture would remain "savages" and "heathens" to many New England historians through the next three centuries. Their story remains largely untold to this day.

Martin Pring, who had traveled with Gosnold, was the first known European explorer to document a trip 10 or 12 miles up the Piscataqua River in 1603. "In all these places," Pring reported, "we found no people, but signes of fires where they had been."

Native Americans in Early NH

The fact that Native Americans were rarely reported in the Portsmouth area and did not attack and destroy the first European outposts here is sometimes seen as evidence that Indians were never here at all. Prehistoric Portsmouth is often depicted as an empty landscape frozen in time. Well into the 20 th century local historians imagined an unpopulated and lush region along a breathtaking and swift river waiting only to be discovered by white explorers.

We can be certain that Native Americans populated New Hampshire’s coast, rivers, lakes, forests and hills for 12,000 years or more before European settlers changed everything. The oldest Native American occupation sites discovered on New Hampshire’s coast are in Seabrook and date to a little over 4000 years ago. Evidence shows that they were successfully hunting swordfish on the open sea at this time, along with many other species. Earlier than this the coastal sites are submerged below rising sea level. A mastodon tusk recently dredged up by a fisherman off the coast of Maine attests to this fact. And archeologists have ample evidence of Native American presence on the nearby streams and rivers, back from the ocean.

A paleoindian site discovered just across the Piscataqua from Portsmouth in Eliot, Maine included artifacts dated to at least 10,000 years old. Archeological evidence from the last 3,000 years proves that early Native Americans in this region were adept at building oversized ocean-going canoes. Piles of shells or "kitchen middens" discarded by coastal Natives are more abundant after about 3000 years ago because sea level rose more slowly and the coastline looked more like it does today. Analysis of these trash heaps shows abundant bone remains of large cod among the many fish remains, in addition to seal and terrestrial mammals. They fished with great success using bone hooks and elaborate fishing weirs or nets strung across the rivers on poles. They ate scallops, clams, oysters and lobsters found along the shore in the summer, then moved inland to hunt and trap birds and mammals living in the dense local forests. About 1000 years ago corn, beans and squash were introduced and the people met by the first Europeans were agriculturists. They cleared great areas of trees for farming and foraged and thrived through thousands of brutal New England winters. Speculation about prehistoric life along the seacoast is made more difficult by the fact that the boundaries have changed significantly as the water level rose over millennia, pushing back the coastline and leaving the evidence of former civilizations under water.

If Indians were scarce in the founding days at Portsmouth, they had good reasons. Historians estimate that as much as 80 to 90 percent of the local Native population died of exposure to smallpox and other diseases carried by European visitors at the beginning of the 17 th century. This "Great Plague" from 1616 to 1619 certainly decimated Piscataqua Natives as well in the years just prior to European settlement here. A few years later, in 1633, another wave of disease swept through the region. A rare reference in the local record notes that the infection came to Pascataquak "where all the Indians (except one or two) died". Surviving members of local tribes were in no shape for war and understandably wary of all white visitors. Many tribes reportedly gathered in a loose confederation under the leader known as Passconaway. Whether Passaconaway had a spiritual vision, as white histories imply, or whether he avoided attacking New Hampshire first settlers for political and economic reasons is unknown. Either way, for the first half of the 17 th century, with very few exceptions, peace reigned. It was a purposeful and organized peace.

Indians were canny traders and politicians who valued English, French and Spanish trade goods. They feared the power of European weapons and sometimes tried to ally themselves with whites who might provide protection from other tribes. But the English were not easily trusted. Captain John Walker, the first Englishman to spot Maine natives, stole 300 moose hides from an Indian camp. Early explorers frequently kidnapped Indians to use as guides or sold them into slavery in the West Indies.

We only have to turn to the record of the Pilgrim colony a Plymouth to understand why Natives feared settlers. Miles Standish, the soldier employed to protect the colony, once stabbed a tribal leader to death during a dinner meeting. Legend says that David Thomson, the first New Hampshire settler, kept a Native American slave in 1623. Fifty years later, George Walton of New Castle had two Indian slaves, as did his neighbor.

Archeologists have yet to discover a major pre-colonial Native campsite in Portsmouth. English colonists tended to establish their colonies on top of former Indian settlements. Maybe that happened in Portsmouth, or perhaps the rocky area along the swift river near modern Prescott Park was not considered prime real estate by Natives. Early New Hampshire Indians visited the seacoast seasonally, but preferred the falls of rivers further inland when the fish were plentiful and moved inland for the winter.

Assuming Piscataqua area Indians followed the patterns of tribal groups in nearby Maine, they too had begun moving to a more agrarian lifestyle with the introduction of corn, bean and squash crops to this area as late as 1300 to 1400 AD. This more stationary lifestyle, at least in southern Maine, means Indians had more well-defined village designs and a more sophisticated view of land ownership and property boundaries than historians have traditionally credited them with. Native women may have been more involved in Native government and clearly understood the treaties and sale of lands. Indeed, the more studies delve into the complex lives of local Natives during the "Contact Era", the more ridiculous the traditional view of New England’s "savage" people becomes, especially when compared to the "civilized" lifestyle imported from England.

New Hampshire’s indigenous people left little evidence behind as they traveled the natural river highways of the Piscataqua. The rivers they named, adopted by English settlers, are often the only evidence of their long and wide-ranging occupation. As fur trading faded along the rivers, white settlements sprung up at the same rocky falls where the Indians had fished for millennia, driving them to more distant hunting grounds. By the last of the Indian raids in the early 1700s, most Indians living in this region had moved north, often settling in Canada. As dams and towns and water-powered sawmills grew up along rivers, the fragile evidence of the "people of the Dawnland" was rapidly obliterated. By 1713, the first "Treaty of Portsmouth" created an untenable list of demands on Natives that further reduced their rights and freedoms.

A final snapshot of Native Americans here comes from Rambles About Portsmouth by Charles Brewster. Here Thomas Pickering confronts two Indians in town around the time of the American Revolution:

"One day two peaceable Indians came into his residence near the mill. He entered the door, went to the yard -- his mother knowing what was coming, bade them run for their lives. They ran up Water street [now Marcy], with the Captain in full pursuit. Finding he could not gain upon them, when near the South Church hill he threw his axe, which passed between them, the handle touching one of their shoulders."

Copyright © 2007 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. This article is adapted from his upcoming history of Strawbery Banke Museum scheduled for publication late this year.

The Northeast

The Northeast culture area, one of the first to have sustained contact with Europeans, stretched from present-day Canada’s Atlantic coast to North Carolina and inland to the Mississippi River valley. Its inhabitants were members of two main groups: Iroquoian speakers (these included the Cayuga, Oneida, Erie, Onondaga, Seneca and Tuscarora), most of whom lived along inland rivers and lakes in fortified, politically stable villages, and the more numerous Algonquian speakers (these included the Pequot, Fox, Shawnee, Wampanoag, Delaware and Menominee) who lived in small farming and fishing villages along the ocean. There, they grew crops like corn, beans and vegetables.

Life in the Northeast culture area was already fraught with conflict—the Iroquoian groups tended to be rather aggressive and warlike, and bands and villages outside of their allied confederacies were never safe from their raids𠅊nd it grew more complicated when European colonizers arrived. Colonial wars repeatedly forced the region’s natives to take sides, pitting the Iroquois groups against their Algonquian neighbors. Meanwhile, as white settlement pressed westward, it eventually displaced both sets of Indigenous people from their lands.

The Spanish Arrival

Accounts from Spanish explorations of Florida led by Ponce de Léon, Pánfilo de Narváez, and Hernando de Soto in the early 1500s reveal that these cultures developed into powerful chiefdoms including the Pensacola, Apalachee, Timucua, Tocobago, Calusa, Saturiwa, Utina, Potano, Ocale, Tequesta, Ais, Mayaca, Jororo, Chacato and Chisca, among others. Spain’s first attempt to establish a permanent settlement in Florida near present-day Pensacola in 1559 failed.

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés succeeded at St. Augustine in 1565, destroying a small French settlement on the St. Johns River and defending the Spanish claim to La Florida. As part of the Spanish colonial strategy, Catholic missions were established to convert indigenous people to Christianity. By the mid-1700s, there were 40 Spanish missions in La Florida, manned by 70 friars and occupied by 26,000 Native Americans. British colonists from Georgia and the Carolinas and their Creek allies attacked and brought an abrupt end to the Spanish missions in the early 1700s. By the mid-1700s, most of the original inhabitants of Florida had been enslaved, devastated by disease and warfare resulting from the European invasion, or relocated or fled to other areas.

European settlers moving into North America and warfare among various Creek tribes pushed groups of Creek Indians off their ancestral lands in Georgia and Alabama and into a nearly empty Florida, a place they already knew well through trade and shared cultural traditions. Cowkeeper’s Cuscowilla band near the present-day town of Micanopy and Secoffe’s band near present-day Tallahassee began to act independently of other Creeks in Florida and eventually became known as the Seminoles, a Creek pronunciation of the Spanish word cimarón or “wild one.” By the early 1800s, these separatist groups developed a staunchly anti-American element.

In response to demands by white settlers for more territory and greater security, the U.S. government attempted to remove Seminoles from Florida, first by treaty, then by military force. A few agreed to leave and many were forceably removed to what is now Oklahoma and Arkansas. Those that remained were determined to stay. This led to four decades of hostilities (1818 to 1858), marked by three distinct wars collectively called the Seminole Wars. Hostilities ended when the U.S. military, deterred by the environment and persistence of the natives, gave up the fight. No formal treaty was signed. Though the numbers of natives remaining in Florida were reduced to between 200 and 300 people, the determination of those remaining had not been broken.

French and Indian War (1754–1763)

In the mid-1700s, a group of Virginia investors set their eyes on the land beyond the mountains in the Ohio River watershed. They had a vision of linking the Ohio Valley with the Chesapeake to open the way for harvesting western resources for southern and European markets. French possessions stood in the way, leading to the French and Indian War between Great Britain and France. This war was part of the larger Seven Years War that involved several European powers.

England won the war, forcing France to abandon almost all its land in North America. Two other outcomes affected the Chesapeake region: (1) formation of a new national identity as English colonists began to think of themselves as American and (2) England's decision to tax the colonies to pay for the war.

Where the Buffalo No Longer Roamed

A pile of American bison skulls in the mid-1870s. Photo: Wikipedia

The telegram arrived in New York from Promontory Summit, Utah, at 3:05 p.m. on May 10, 1869, announcing one of the greatest engineering accomplishments of the century:

The last rail is laid the last spike driven the Pacific Railroad is completed. The point of junction is 1086 miles west of the Missouri river and 690 miles east of Sacramento City.

The telegram was signed, “Leland Stanford, Central Pacific Railroad. T. P. Durant, Sidney Dillon, John Duff, Union Pacific Railroad,” and trumpeted news of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. After more than six years of backbreaking labor, east officially met west with the driving of a ceremonial golden spike. In City Hall Park in Manhattan, the announcement was greeted with the firing of 100 guns. Bells were rung across the country, from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. Business was suspended in Chicago as people rushed to the streets, celebrating to the sounding of steam whistles and cannons booming.

Back in Utah, railroad officials and politicians posed for pictures aboard locomotives, shaking hands and breaking bottles of champagne on the engines as Chinese laborers from the West and Irish, German and Italian laborers from the East were budged from view.

Celebration of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, May 10, 1869. Photo: Wikipedia

Not long after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, railroad financier George Francis Train proclaimed, “The great Pacific Railway is commenced.… Immigration will soon pour into these valleys. Ten millions of emigrants will settle in this golden land in twenty years.… This is the grandest enterprise under God!”  Yet while Train may have envisioned all the glory and the possibilities of linking the East and the West coasts by “a strong band of iron,” he could not imagine the full and tragic impact of the Transcontinental Railroad, nor the speed at which it changed the shape of the American West. For in its wake, the lives of countless Native Americans were destroyed, and tens of millions of buffalo, which had roamed freely upon the Great Plains since the last ice age 10,000 years ago, were nearly driven to extinction in a massive slaughter made possible by the railroad.

Following the Civil War, after deadly European diseases and hundreds of wars with the white man had already wiped out untold numbers of Native Americans, the U.S. government had ratified nearly 400 treaties with the Plains Indians. But as the Gold Rush, the pressures of Manifest Destiny, and land grants for railroad construction led to greater expansion in the West, the majority of these treaties were broken. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s first postwar command (Military Division of the Mississippi) covered the territory west of the Mississippi and east of the Rocky Mountains, and his top priority was to protect the construction of the railroads. In 1867, he wrote to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, “we are not going to let thieving, ragged Indians check and stop the progress” of the railroads. Outraged by the Battle of the Hundred Slain, where Lakota and Cheyenne warriors ambushed a troop of the U.S. Cavalry in Wyoming, scalping and mutilating the bodies of all 81 soldiers and officers, Sherman told Grant the year before, “we must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women and children.” When Grant assumed the presidency in 1869, he appointed Sherman Commanding General of the Army, and Sherman was responsible for U.S. engagement in the Indian Wars.  On the ground in the West, Gen. Philip Henry Sheridan, assuming Sherman’s command, took to his task much as he had done in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War, when he ordered the “scorched earth” tactics that presaged Sherman’s March to the Sea.

Early on, Sheridan bemoaned a lack of troops: “No other nation in the world would have attempted reduction of these wild tribes and occupation of their country with less than 60,000 to 70,000 men, while the whole force employed and scattered over the enormous region…never numbered more than 14,000 men.  The consequence was that every engagement was a forlorn hope.”

The Army’s troops were well equipped for fighting against conventional enemies, but the guerrilla tactics of the Plains tribes  confounded them at every turn.  As the railways expanded, they allowed the rapid transport of troops and supplies to areas where battles were being waged.  Sheridan was soon able to mount the kind of offensive he desired. In the Winter Campaign of 1868-69 against Cheyenne encampments, Sheridan set about destroying the Indians’ food, shelter and livestock with overwhelming force, leaving women and children at the mercy of the Army and Indian warriors little choice but to surrender or risk starvation.  In one such surprise raid at dawn during a November snowstorm in Indian Territory, Sheridan ordered the nearly 700 men of the Seventh Cavalry, commanded by George Armstrong Custer, to “destroy villages and ponies, to kill or hang all warriors, and to bring back all women and children.” Custer’s men charged into a Cheyenne village on the Washita River, cutting down the Indians as they fled from lodges. Women and children were taken as hostages as part of Custer’s strategy to use them as human shields, but Cavalry scouts reported seeing women and children pursued and killed “without mercy” in what became known as the Washita Massacre. Custer later reported more than 100 Indian deaths, including that of Chief Black Kettle and his wife, Medicine Woman Later, shot in the back as they attempted to ride away on a pony. Cheyenne estimates of Indian deaths in the raid were about half of Custer’s total, and the Cheyenne did manage to kill 21 Cavalry troops while defending the attack. “If a village is attacked and women and children killed,” Sheridan once remarked, “the responsibility is not with the soldiers but with the people whose crimes necessitated the attack.”

Gen. Philip Sheridan photographed by Matthew Brady. Photo: Library of Congress

The Transcontinental Railroad made Sheridan’s strategy of “total war” much more effective. In the mid-19th century, it was estimated that 30 milion to 60 million buffalo roamed the plains. In massive and majestic herds, they rumbled by the hundreds of thousands, creating the sound that earned them the nickname “Thunder of the Plains.”  The bison’s lifespan of 25 years, rapid reproduction and resiliency in their environment enabled the species to flourish, as Native Americans were careful not to overhunt, and even men like William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who was hired by the Kansas Pacific Railroad to hunt the bison to feed thousands of rail laborers for years, could not make much of a dent in the buffalo population. In mid-century, trappers who had depleted the beaver populations of the Midwest began trading in buffalo robes and tongues an estimated 200,000 buffalo were killed annually. Then the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad accelerated the decimation of the species.

Massive hunting parties began to arrive in the West by train, with thousands of men packing .50 caliber rifles, and leaving a trail of buffalo carnage in their wake. Unlike the Native Americans or Buffalo Bill, who killed for food, clothing and shelter, the hunters from the East killed mostly for sport.  Native Americans looked on with horror as landscapes and prairies were littered with rotting buffalo carcasses.  The railroads began to advertise excursions for “hunting by rail,” where trains encountered massive herds alongside or crossing the tracks.  Hundreds of men aboard the trains climbed to the roofs and took aim, or fired from their windows, leaving countless 1,500-pound animals where they died.
Harper’s Weekly described these hunting excursions:

Nearly every railroad train which leaves or arrives at Fort Hays on the Kansas Pacific Railroad has its race with these herds of buffalo and a most interesting and exciting scene is the result. The train is “slowed” to a rate of speed about equal to that of the herd the passengers get out fire-arms which are provided for the defense of the train against the Indians, and open from the windows and platforms of the cars a fire that resembles a brisk skirmish. Frequently a young bull will turn at bay for a moment. His exhibition of courage is generally his death-warrant, for the whole fire of the train is turned upon him, either killing him or some member of the herd in his immediate vicinity.

Hunters began killing buffalo by the hundreds of thousands in the winter months. One hunter, Orlando Brown brought down nearly 6,000 buffalo by himself and lost hearing in one ear from the constant firing of his .50 caliber rifle. The Texas legislature, sensing the buffalo were in danger of being wiped out, proposed a bill to protect the species. General Sheridan opposed it, stating, ”These men have done more in the last two years, and will do more in the next year, to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has done in the last forty years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary. And it is a well known fact that an army losing its base of supplies is placed at a great disadvantage. Send them powder and lead, if you will but for a lasting peace, let them kill, skin and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle.”

Chief Black Kettle, leader of the Southern Cheyenne. Photo: Wikipedia

The devastation of the buffalo population signaled the end of the Indian Wars, and Native Americans were pushed into reservations.  In 1869, the Comanche chief Tosawi was reported to have told Sheridan, “Me Tosawi. Me good Indian,” and Sheridan allegedly replied, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.”  The phrase was later misquoted, with Sheridan supposedly stating, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Sheridan denied he had ever said such a thing.

By the end of the 19th century, only 300 buffalo were left in the wild. Congress finally took action, outlawing the killing of any birds or animals in Yellowstone National Park, where the only surviving buffalo herd could be protected. Conservationists established more wildlife preserves, and the species slowly rebounded. Today, there are more than 200,000 bison in North America.

Sheridan acknowledged the role of the railroad in changing the face of the American West, and in his Annual Report of the General of the U.S. Army in 1878, he acknowledged that the Native Americans were scuttled to reservations with no compensation beyond the promise of religious instruction and basic supplies of food and clothing—promises, he wrote, which were never fulfilled.

“We took away their country and their means of support, broke up their mode of living, their habits of life, introduced disease and decay among them, and it was for this and against this they made war. Could any one expect less? Then, why wonder at Indian difficulties?”

Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?

Guenter Lewy, who for many years taught political science at the University of Massachusetts, has been a contributor to Commentary since 1964. His books include"The Catholic Church & Nazi Germany, Religion & Revolution, America in Vietnam," and "The Cause that Failed: Communism in American Political Life."

On September 21, the National Museum of the American Indian will open its doors. In an interview early this year, the museum’s founding director, W. Richard West, declared that the new institution would not shy away from such difficult subjects as the effort to eradicate American Indian culture in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is a safe bet that someone will also, inevitably, raise the issue of genocide.

The story of the encounter between European settlers and America’s native population does not make for pleasant reading. Among early accounts, perhaps the most famous is Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor (1888), a doleful recitation of forced removals, killings, and callous disregard. Jackson’s book, which clearly captured some essential elements of what happened, also set a pattern of exaggeration and one-sided indictment that has persisted to this day.

Thus, according to Ward Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, the reduction of the North American Indian population from an estimated 12 million in 1500 to barely 237,000 in 1900 represents a"vast genocide . . . , the most sustained on record." By the end of the 19th century, writes David E. Stannard, a historian at the University of Hawaii, native Americans had undergone the"worst human holocaust the world had ever witnessed, roaring across two continents non-stop for four centuries and consuming the lives of countless tens of millions of people." In the judgment of Lenore A. Stiffarm and Phil Lane, Jr.,"there can be no more monumental example of sustained genocide—certainly none involving a 'race' of people as broad and complex as this—anywhere in the annals of human history."

The sweeping charge of genocide against the Indians became especially popular during the Vietnam war, when historians opposed to that conflict began drawing parallels between our actions in Southeast Asia and earlier examples of a supposedly ingrained American viciousness toward non-white peoples. The historian Richard Drinnon, referring to the troops under the command of the Indian scout Kit Carson, called them"forerunners of the Burning Fifth Marines" who set fire to Vietnamese villages, while in The American Indian: The First Victim (1972), Jay David urged contemporary readers to recall how America’s civilization had originated in"theft and murder" and"efforts toward . . . genocide."

Further accusations of genocide marked the run-up to the 1992 quincentenary of the landing of Columbus. The National Council of Churches adopted a resolution branding this event"an invasion" that resulted in the"slavery and genocide of native people." In a widely read book, The Conquest of Paradise (1990), Kirkpatrick Sale charged the English and their American successors with pursuing a policy of extermination that had continued unabated for four centuries. Later works have followed suit. In the 1999 Encyclopedia of Genocide, edited by the scholar Israel Charny, an article by Ward Churchill argues that extermination was the"express objective" of the U.S. government. To the Cambodia expert Ben Kiernan, similarly, genocide is the"only appropriate way" to describe how white settlers treated the Indians. And so forth.

That American Indians suffered horribly is indisputable. But whether their suffering amounted to a"holocaust," or to genocide, is another matter.

It is a firmly established fact that a mere 250,000 native Americans were still alive in the territory of the United States at the end of the 19th century. Still in scholarly contention, however, is the number of Indians alive at the time of first contact with Europeans. Some students of the subject speak of an inflated"numbers game" others charge that the size of the aboriginal population has been deliberately minimized in order to make the decline seem less severe than it was.

The disparity in estimates is enormous. In 1928, the ethnologist James Mooney proposed a total count of 1,152,950 Indians in all tribal areas north of Mexico at the time of the European arrival. By 1987, in American Indian Holocaust and Survival, Russell Thornton was giving a figure of well over 5 million, nearly five times as high as Mooney’s, while Lenore Stiffarm and Phil Lane, Jr. suggested a total of 12 million. That figure rested in turn on the work of the anthropologist Henry Dobyns, who in 1983 had estimated the aboriginal population of North America as a whole at 18 million and of the present territory of the United States at about 10 million.

From one perspective, these differences, however startling, may seem beside the point: there is ample evidence, after all, that the arrival of the white man triggered a drastic reduction in the number of native Americans. Nevertheless, even if the higher figures are credited, they alone do not prove the occurrence of genocide.

To address this issue properly we must begin with the most important reason for the Indians’ catastrophic decline—namely, the spread of highly contagious diseases to which they had no immunity. This phenomenon is known by scholars as a"virgin-soil epidemic" in North America, it was the norm.

The most lethal of the pathogens introduced by the Europeans was smallpox, which sometimes incapacitated so many adults at once that deaths from hunger and starvation ran as high as deaths from disease in several cases, entire tribes were rendered extinct. Other killers included measles, influenza, whooping cough, diphtheria, typhus, bubonic plague, cholera, and scarlet fever. Although syphilis was apparently native to parts of the Western hemisphere, it, too, was probably introduced into North America by Europeans.

About all this there is no essential disagreement. The most hideous enemy of native Americans was not the white man and his weaponry, concludes Alfred Crosby,"but the invisible killers which those men brought in their blood and breath." It is thought that between 75 to 90 percent of all Indian deaths resulted from these killers.

To some, however, this is enough in itself to warrant the term genocide. David Stannard, for instance, states that just as Jews who died of disease and starvation in the ghettos are counted among the victims of the Holocaust, Indians who died of introduced diseases"were as much the victims of the Euro-American genocidal war as were those burned or stabbed or hacked or shot to death, or devoured by hungry dogs." As an example of actual genocidal conditions, Stannard points to Franciscan missions in California as"furnaces of death."

But right away we are in highly debatable territory. It is true that the cramped quarters of the missions, with their poor ventilation and bad sanitation, encouraged the spread of disease. But it is demonstrably untrue that, like the Nazis, the missionaries were unconcerned with the welfare of their native converts. No matter how difficult the conditions under which the Indians labored—obligatory work, often inadequate food and medical care, corporal punishment—their experience bore no comparison with the fate of the Jews in the ghettos. The missionaries had a poor understanding of the causes of the diseases that afflicted their charges, and medically there was little they could do for them. By contrast, the Nazis knew exactly what was happening in the ghettos, and quite deliberately deprived the inmates of both food and medicine unlike in Stannard’s"furnaces of death," the deaths that occurred there were meant to occur.

The larger picture also does not conform to Stannard’s idea of disease as an expression of"genocidal war." True, the forced relocations of Indian tribes were often accompanied by great hardship and harsh treatment the removal of the Cherokee from their homelands to territories west of the Mississippi in 1838 took the lives of thousands and has entered history as the Trail of Tears. But the largest loss of life occurred well before this time, and sometimes after only minimal contact with European traders. True, too, some colonists later welcomed the high mortality among Indians, seeing it as a sign of divine providence that, however, does not alter the basic fact that Europeans did not come to the New World in order to infect the natives with deadly diseases.

Or did they? Ward Churchill, taking the argument a step further than Stannard, asserts that there was nothing unwitting or unintentional about the way the great bulk of North America’s native population disappeared:"it was precisely malice, not nature, that did the deed." In brief, the Europeans were engaged in biological warfare.

Unfortunately for this thesis, we know of but a single instance of such warfare, and the documentary evidence is inconclusive. In 1763, a particularly serious uprising threatened the British garrisons west of the Allegheny mountains. Worried about his limited resources, and disgusted by what he saw as the Indians’ treacherous and savage modes of warfare, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, wrote as follows to Colonel Henry Bouquet at Fort Pitt:"You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians [with smallpox] by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method, that can serve to extirpate this execrable race."

Bouquet clearly approved of Amherst's suggestion, but whether he himself carried it out is uncertain. On or around June 24, two traders at Fort Pitt did give blankets and a handkerchief from the fort’s quarantined hospital to two visiting Delaware Indians, and one of the traders noted in his journal:"I hope it will have the desired effect." Smallpox was already present among the tribes of Ohio at some point after this episode, there was another outbreak in which hundreds died.

A second, even less substantiated instance of alleged biological warfare concerns an incident that occurred on June 20, 1837. On that day, Churchill writes, the U.S. Army began to dispense"'trade blankets' to Mandans and other Indians gathered at Fort Clark on the Missouri River in present-day North Dakota." He continues: Far from being trade goods, the blankets had been taken from a military infirmary in St. Louis quarantined for smallpox, and brought upriver aboard the steamboat St. Peter’s. When the first Indians showed symptoms of the disease on July 14, the post surgeon advised those camped near the post to scatter and seek"sanctuary" in the villages of healthy relatives.

In this way the disease was spread, the Mandans were"virtually exterminated," and other tribes suffered similarly devastating losses. Citing a figure of"100,000 or more fatalities" caused by the U.S. Army in the 1836-40 smallpox pandemic (elsewhere he speaks of a toll"several times that number"), Churchill refers the reader to Thornton’s American Indian Holocaust and Survival.

Supporting Churchill here are Stiffarm and Lane, who write that"the distribution of smallpox- infected blankets by the U.S. Army to Mandans at Fort Clark . . . was the causative factor in the pandemic of 1836-40." In evidence, they cite the journal of a contemporary at Fort Clark, Francis A. Chardon.

But Chardon's journal manifestly does not suggest that the U.S. Army distributed infected blankets, instead blaming the epidemic on the inadvertent spread of disease by a ship's passenger. And as for the"100,000 fatalities," not only does Thornton fail to allege such obviously absurd numbers, but he too points to infected passengers on the steamboat St. Peter's as the cause. Another scholar, drawing on newly discovered source material, has also refuted the idea of a conspiracy to harm the Indians.

Similarly at odds with any such idea is the effort of the United States government at this time to vaccinate the native population. Smallpox vaccination, a procedure developed by the English country doctor Edward Jenner in 1796, was first ordered in 1801 by President Jefferson the program continued in force for three decades, though its implementation was slowed both by the resistance of the Indians, who suspected a trick, and by lack of interest on the part of some officials. Still, as Thornton writes:"Vaccination of American Indians did eventually succeed in reducing mortality from smallpox."

To sum up, European settlers came to the New World for a variety of reasons, but the thought of infecting the Indians with deadly pathogens was not one of them. As for the charge that the U.S. government should itself be held responsible for the demographic disaster that overtook the American-Indian population, it is unsupported by evidence or legitimate argument. The United States did not wage biological warfare against the Indians neither can the large number of deaths as a result of disease be considered the result of a genocidal design.

Still, even if up to 90 percent of the reduction in Indian population was the result of disease, that leaves a sizable death toll caused by mistreatment and violence. Should some or all of these deaths be considered instances of genocide?

We may examine representative incidents by following the geographic route of European settlement, beginning in the New England colonies. There, at first, the Puritans did not regard the Indians they encountered as natural enemies, but rather as potential friends and converts. But their Christianizing efforts showed little success, and their experience with the natives gradually yielded a more hostile view. The Pequot tribe in particular, with its reputation for cruelty and ruthlessness, was feared not only by the colonists but by most other Indians in New England. In the warfare that eventually ensued, caused in part by intertribal rivalries, the Narragansett Indians became actively engaged on the Puritan side.

Hostilities opened in late 1636 after the murder of several colonists. When the Pequots refused to comply with the demands of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for the surrender of the guilty and other forms of indemnification, a punitive expedition was led against them by John Endecott, the first resident governor of the colony although it ended inconclusively, the Pequots retaliated by attacking any settler they could find. Fort Saybrook on the Connecticut River was besieged, and members of the garrison who ventured outside were ambushed and killed. One captured trader, tied to a stake in sight of the fort, was tortured for three days, expiring after his captors flayed his skin with the help of hot timbers and cut off his fingers and toes. Another prisoner was roasted alive.

The torture of prisoners was indeed routine practice for most Indian tribes, and was deeply ingrained in Indian culture. Valuing bravery above all things, the Indians had little sympathy for those who surrendered or were captured. Prisoners. unable to withstand the rigor of wilderness travel were usually killed on the spot. Among those—Indian or European—taken back to the village, some would be adopted to replace slain warriors, the rest subjected to a ritual of torture designed to humiliate them and exact atonement for the tribe's losses. Afterward the Indians often consumed the body or parts of it in a ceremonial meal, and proudly displayed scalps and fingers as trophies of victory.

Despite the colonists' own resort to torture in order to extract confessions, the cruelty of these practices strengthened the belief that the natives were savages who deserved no quarter. This revulsion accounts at least in part for the ferocity of the battle of Fort Mystic in May 1637, when a force commanded by John Mason and assisted by militiamen from Saybrook surprised about half of the Pequot tribe encamped near the Mystic River.

The intention of the colonists had been to kill the warriors"with their Swords," as Mason put it, to plunder the village, and to capture the women and children. But the plan did not work out. About 150 Pequot warriors had arrived in the fort the night before, and when the surprise attack began they emerged from their tents to fight. Fearing the Indians' numerical strength, the English attackers set fire to the fortified village and retreated outside the palisades. There they formed a circle and shot down anyone seeking to escape a second cordon of Narragansett Indians cut down the few who managed to get through the English line. When the battle was over, the Pequots had suffered several hundred dead, perhaps as many as 300 of these being women and children. Twenty Narragansett warriors also fell.

A number of recent historians have charged the Puritans with genocide: that is, with having carried out a premeditated plan to exterminate the Pequots. The evidence belies this. The use of fire as a weapon of war was not unusual for either Europeans or Indians, and every contemporary account stresses that the burning of the fort was an act of self-protection, not part of a pre-planned massacre. In later stages of the Pequot war, moreover, the colonists spared women, children, and the elderly, further contradicting the idea of genocidal intention.

A second famous example from the colonial period is King Philip’s War (1675-76). This conflict, proportionately the costliest of all American wars, took the life of one in every sixteen men of military age in the colonies large numbers of women and children also perished or were carried into captivity. Fifty-two of New England’s 90 towns were attacked, seventeen were razed to the ground, and 25 were pillaged. Casualties among the Indians were even higher, with many of those captured being executed or sold into slavery abroad.

The war was also merciless, on both sides. At its outset, a colonial council in Boston had declared"that none be Killed or Wounded that are Willing to surrender themselves into Custody." But these rules were soon abandoned on the grounds that the Indians themselves, failing to adhere either to the laws of war or to the law of nature, would"skulk" behind trees, rocks, and bushes rather than appear openly to do" civilized" battle. Similarly creating a desire for retribution were the cruelties perpetrated by Indians when ambushing English troops or overrunning strongholds housing women and children.

Before long, both colonists and Indians were dismembering corpses and displaying body parts and heads on poles. (Nevertheless, Indians could not be killed with impunity. In the summer of 1676, four men were tried in Boston for the brutal murder of three squaws and three Indian children all were found guilty and two were executed.)

The hatred kindled by King Philip’s War became even more pronounced in 1689 when strong Indian tribes allied themselves with the French against the British. In 1694, the General Court of Massachusetts ordered all friendly Indians confined to a small area. A bounty was then offered for the killing or capture of hostile Indians, and scalps were accepted as proof of a kill. In 1704, this was amended in the direction of"Christian practice" by means of a scale of rewards graduated by age and sex bounty was proscribed in the case of children under the age of ten, subsequently raised to twelve (sixteen in Connecticut, fifteen in New Jersey). Here, too, genocidal intent was far from evident the practices were justified on grounds of self-preservation and revenge, and in reprisal for the extensive scalping carried out by Indians.

We turn now to the American frontier. In Pennsylvania, where the white population had doubled between 1740 and 1760, the pressure on Indian lands increased formidably in 1754, encouraged by French agents, Indian warriors struck, starting a long and bloody conflict known as the French and Indian War or the Seven Years' War. By 1763, according to one estimate, about 2,000 whites had been killed or vanished into captivity. Stories of real, exaggerated, and imaginary atrocities spread by word of mouth, in narratives of imprisonment, and by means of provincial newspapers. Some British officers gave orders that captured Indians be given no quarter, and even after the end of formal hostilities, feelings continued to run so high that murderers of Indians, like the infamous Paxton Boys, were applauded rather than arrested.

As the United States expanded westward, such conflicts multiplied. So far had things progressed by 1784 that, according to one British traveler,"white Americans have the most rancorous antipathy to the whole race of Indians and nothing is more common than to hear them talk of extirpating them totally from the face of the earth, men, women, and children."

Settlers on the expanding frontier treated the Indians with contempt, often robbing and killing them at will. In 1782, a militia pursuing an Indian war party that had slain a woman and a child massacred more than 90 peaceful Moravian Delawares. Although federal and state officials tried to bring such killers to justice, their efforts, writes the historian Francis Prucha,"were no match for the singular Indian-hating mentality of the frontiersmen, upon whom depended conviction in the local courts."

But that, too, is only part of the story. The view that the Indian problem could be solved by force alone came under vigorous challenge from a number of federal commissioners who from 1832 on headed the Bureau of Indian Affairs and supervised the network of agents and subagents in the field. Many Americans on the eastern seaboard, too, openly criticized the rough ways of the frontier. Pity for the vanishing Indian, together with a sense of remorse, led to a revival of the 18th-century concept of the noble savage. America's native inhabitants were romanticized in historiography, art, and literature, notably by James Fenimore Cooper in his Leatherstocking Tales and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his long poem, The Song of Hiawatha.

On the western frontier itself, such views were of course dismissed as rank sentimentality the perceived nobility of the savages, observed cynics, was directly proportional to one’s geographic distance from them. Instead, settlers vigorously complained that the regular army was failing to meet the Indian threat more aggressively. A large-scale uprising of the Sioux in Minnesota in 1862, in which Indian war parties killed, raped, and pillaged all over the countryside, left in its wake a climate of fear and anger that spread over the entire West.

Colorado was especially tense. Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians, who had legitimate grievances against the encroaching white settlers, also fought for the sheer joy of combat, the desire for booty, and the prestige that accrued from success. The overland route to the East was particularly vulnerable: at one point in 1864, Denver was cut off from all supplies, and there were several butcheries of entire families at outlying ranches. In one gruesome case, all of the victims were scalped, the throats of the two children were cut, and the mother’s body was ripped open and her entrails pulled over her face.

Writing in September 1864, the Reverend William Crawford reported on the attitude of the white population of Colorado: “There is but one sentiment in regard to the final disposition which shall be made of the Indians: ‘Let them be exterminated—men, women, and children together.’” Of course, he added,"I do not myself share in such views." The Rocky Mountain News, which at first had distinguished between friendly and hostile Indians, likewise began to advocate extermination of this “dissolute, vagabondish, brutal, and ungrateful race.” With the regular army off fighting the Civil War in the South, the western settlers depended for their protection on volunteer regiments, many lamentably deficient in discipline. It was a local force of such volunteers that committed the massacre of Sand Creek, Colorado on November 29, 1864. Formed in August, the regiment was made up of miners down on their luck, cowpokes tired of ranching, and others itching for battle. Its commander, the Reverend John Milton Chivington, a politician and ardent Indian-hater, had urged war without mercy, even against children."Nits make lice," he was fond of saying. The ensuing orgy of violence in the course of a surprise attack on a large Indian encampment left between 70 and 250 Indians dead, the majority women and children. The regiment suffered eight killed and 40 wounded.

News of the Sand Creek massacre sparked an outcry in the East and led to several congressional inquiries. Although some of the investigators appear to have been biased against Chivington, there was no disputing that he had issued orders not to give quarter, or that his soldiers had engaged in massive scalping and other mutilations.

The sorry tale continues in California. The area that in 1850 became admitted to the Union as the 31st state had once held an Indian population estimated at anywhere between 150,000 and 250,000. By the end of the 19th century, the number had dropped to 15,000. As elsewhere, disease was the single most important factor, although the state also witnessed an unusually large number of deliberate killings.

The discovery of gold in 1848 brought about a fundamental change in Indian-white relations. Whereas formerly Mexican ranchers had both exploited the Indians and provided them with a minimum of protection, the new immigrants, mostly young single males, exhibited animosity from the start, trespassing on Indian lands and often freely killing any who were in their way. An American officer wrote to his sister in 1860:"There never was a viler sort of men in the world than is congregated about these mines."

What was true of miners was often true as well of newly arrived farmers. By the early 1850's, whites in California outnumbered Indians by about two to one, and the lot of the natives, gradually forced into the least fertile parts of the territory, began to deteriorate rapidly. Many succumbed to starvation others, desperate for food, went on the attack, stealing and killing livestock. Indian women who prostituted themselves to feed their families contributed to the demographic decline by removing themselves from the reproductive cycle. As a solution to the growing problem, the federal government sought to confine the Indians to reservations, but this was opposed both by the Indians themselves and by white ranchers fearing the loss of labor. Meanwhile, clashes multiplied.

One of the most violent, between white settlers and Yuki Indians in the Round Valley of Mendocino County, lasted for several years and was waged with great ferocity. Although Governor John B. Weller cautioned against an indiscriminate campaign—"[Y]our operations against the Indians," he wrote to the commander of a volunteer force in 1859,"must be confined strictly to those who are known to have been engaged in killing the stock and destroying the property of our citizens . . . and the women and children under all circumstances must be spared"—his words had little effect. By 1864 the number of Yukis had declined from about 5,000 to 300.

The Humboldt Bay region, just northwest of the Round Valley, was the scene of still more collisions. Here too Indians stole and killed cattle, and militia companies retaliated. A secret league, formed in the town of Eureka, perpetrated a particularly hideous massacre in February 1860, surprising Indians sleeping in their houses and killing about sixty, mostly by hatchet. During the same morning hours, whites attacked two other Indian rancherias, with the same deadly results. In all, nearly 300 Indians were killed on one day, at least half of them women and children.

Once again there was outrage and remorse."The white settlers," wrote a historian only 20 years later,"had received great provocation. . . . But nothing they had suffered, no depredations the savages had committed, could justify the cruel slaughter of innocent women and children.” This had also been the opinion of a majority of the people of Eureka, where a grand jury condemned the massacre, while in cities like San Francisco all such killings repeatedly drew strong criticism. But atrocities continued: by the 1870's, as one historian has summarized the situation in California,"only remnants of the aboriginal populations were still alive, and those who had survived the maelstrom of the preceding quarter-century were dislocated, demoralized, and impoverished."

Lastly we come to the wars on the Great Plains. Following the end of the Civil War, large waves of white migrants, arriving simultaneously from East and West, squeezed the Plains Indians between them. In response, the Indians attacked vulnerable white outposts their"acts of devilish cruelty," reported one officer on the scene, had"no parallel in savage warfare." The trails west were in similar peril: in December 1866, an army detachment of 80 men was lured into an ambush on the Bozeman Trail, and all of the soldiers were killed.

To force the natives into submission, Generals Sherman and Sheridan, who for two decades after the Civil War commanded the Indian-fighting army units on the Plains, applied the same strategy they had used so successfully in their marches across Georgia and in the Shenandoah Valley. Unable to defeat the Indians on the open prairie, they pursued them to their winter camps, where numbing cold and heavy snows limited their mobility. There they destroyed the lodges and stores of food, a tactic that inevitably resulted in the deaths of women and children.

Genocide? These actions were almost certainly in conformity with the laws of war accepted at the time. The principles of limited war and of noncombatant immunity had been codified in Francis Lieber's General Order No. 100, issued for the Union Army on April 24, 1863. But the villages of warring Indians who refused to surrender were considered legitimate military objectives. In any event, there was never any order to exterminate the Plains Indians, despite heated pronouncements on the subject by the outraged Sherman and despite Sheridan's famous quip that"the only good Indians I ever saw were dead." Although Sheridan did not mean that all Indians should be shot on sight, but rather that none of the warring Indians on the Plains could be trusted, his words, as the historian James Axtell rightly suggests, did"more to harm straight thinking about Indian-white relations than any number of Sand Creeks or Wounded Knees."

As for that last-named encounter, it took place on December 29, 1890 on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. By this time, the 7th Regiment of U.S. Cavalry had compiled a reputation for aggressiveness, particularly in the wake of its surprise assault in 1868 on a Cheyenne village on the Washita river in Kansas, where about 100 Indians were killed by General George Custer's men.

Still, the battle of Washita, although one-sided, had not been a massacre: wounded warriors were given first aid, and 53 women and children who had hidden in their lodges survived the assault and were taken prisoner. Nor were the Cheyennes unarmed innocents as their chief Black Kettle acknowledged, they had been conducting regular raids into Kansas that he was powerless to stop.

The encounter at Wounded Knee, 22 years later, must be seen in the context of the Ghost Dance religion, a messianic movement that since 1889 had caused great excitement among Indians in the area and that was interpreted by whites as a general call to war. While an encampment of Sioux was being searched for arms, a few young men created an incident the soldiers, furious at what they considered an act of Indian treachery, fought back furiously as guns surrounding the encampment opened fire with deadly effect. The Army's casualties were 25 killed and 39 wounded, mostly as a result of friendly fire. More than 300 Indians died.

Wounded Knee has been called"perhaps the best-known genocide of North American Indians." But, as Robert Utley has concluded in a careful analysis, it is better described as"a regrettable, tragic accident of war," a bloodbath that neither side intended. In a situation where women and children were mixed with men, it was inevitable that some of the former would be killed. But several groups of women and children were in fact allowed out of the encampment, and wounded Indian warriors, too, were spared and taken to a hospital. There may have been a few deliberate killings of noncombatants, but on the whole, as a court of inquiry ordered by President Harrison established, the officers and soldiers of the unit made supreme efforts to avoid killing women and children.

On January 15, 1891, the last Sioux warriors surrendered. Apart from isolated clashes, America’s Indian wars had ended.

The Genocide Convention was approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 9, 1948 and came into force on January 12, 1951 after a long delay, it was ratified by the United States in 1986. Since genocide is now a technical term in international criminal law, the definition established by the convention has assumed prima-facie authority, and it is with this definition that we should begin in assessing the applicability of the concept of genocide to the events we have been considering.

According to Article II of the convention, the crime of genocide consists of a series of acts" committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group as such" (emphases added). Practically all legal scholars accept the centrality of this clause. During the deliberations over the convention, some argued for a clear specification of the reasons, or motives, for the destruction of a group. In the end, instead of a list of such motives, the issue was resolved by adding the words"as such"—i.e., the motive or reason for the destruction must be the ending of the group as a national, ethnic, racial, or religious entity. Evidence of such a motive, as one legal scholar put it,"will constitute an integral part of the proof of a genocidal plan, and therefore of genocidal intent."

The crucial role played by intentionality in the Genocide Convention means that under its terms the huge number of Indian deaths from epidemics cannot be considered genocide. The lethal diseases were introduced inadvertently, and the Europeans cannot be blamed for their ignorance of what medical science would discover only centuries later. Similarly, military engagements that led to the death of noncombatants, like the battle of the Washita, cannot be seen as genocidal acts, for the loss of innocent life was not intended and the soldiers did not aim at the destruction of the Indians as a defined group. By contrast, some of the massacres in California, where both the perpetrators and their supporters openly acknowledged a desire to destroy the Indians as an ethnic entity, might indeed be regarded under the terms of the convention as exhibiting genocidal intent.

Even as it outlaws the destruction of a group"in whole or in part," the convention does not address the question of what percentage of a group must be affected in order to qualify as genocide. As a benchmark, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has suggested"a reasonably significant number, relative to the total of the group as a whole," adding that the actual or attempted destruction should also relate to"the factual opportunity of the accused to destroy a group in a specific geographic area within the sphere of his control, and not in relation to the entire population of the group in a wider geographic sense." If this principle were adopted, an atrocity like the Sand Creek massacre, limited to one group in a specific single locality, might also be considered an act of genocide.

Of course, it is far from easy to apply a legal concept developed in the middle of the 20th century to events taking place many decades if not hundreds of years earlier. Our knowledge of many of these occurrences is incomplete. Moreover, the malefactors, long since dead, cannot be tried in a court of law, where it would be possible to establish crucial factual details and to clarify relevant legal principles.

Applying today’s standards to events of the past raises still other questions, legal and moral alike. While history has no statute of limitations, our legal system rejects the idea of retroactivity (ex post facto laws). Morally, even if we accept the idea of universal principles transcending particular cultures and periods, we must exercise caution in condemning, say, the conduct of war during America’s colonial period, which for the most part conformed to thenprevailing notions of right and wrong. To understand all is hardly to forgive all, but historical judgment, as the scholar Gordon Leff has correctly stressed,"must always be contextual: it is no more reprehensible for an age to have lacked our values than to have lacked forks."

The real task, then, is to ascertain the context of a specific situation and the options it presented. Given circumstances, and the moral standards of the day, did the people on whose conduct we are sitting in judgment have a choice to act differently? Such an approach would lead us to greater indulgence toward the Puritans of New England, who fought for their survival, than toward the miners and volunteer militias of California who often slaughtered Indian men, women, and children for no other reason than to satisfy their appetite for gold and land. The former, in addition, battled their Indian adversaries in an age that had little concern for humane standards of warfare, while the latter committed their atrocities in the face of vehement denunciation not only by self-styled humanitarians in the faraway East but by many of their fellow citizens in California.

Finally, even if some episodes can be considered genocidal—that is, tending toward genocide—they certainly do not justify condemning an entire society. Guilt is personal, and for good reason the Genocide Convention provides that only"persons" can be charged with the crime, probably even ruling out legal proceedings against governments. No less significant is that a massacre like Sand Creek was undertaken by a local volunteer militia and was not the expression of official U.S. policy. No regular U.S. Army unit was ever implicated in a similar atrocity. In the majority of actions, concludes Robert Utley,"the Army shot noncombatants incidentally and accidentally, not purposefully." As for the larger society, even if some elements in the white population, mainly in the West, at times advocated extermination, no official of the U.S. government ever seriously proposed it. Genocide was never American policy, nor was it the result of policy.

The violent collision between whites and America's native population was probably unavoidable. Between 1600 and 1850, a dramatic surge in population led to massive waves of emigration from Europe, and many of the millions who arrived in the New World gradually pushed westward into America's seemingly unlimited space. No doubt, the 19th-century idea of America’s"manifest destiny" was in part a rationalization for acquisitiveness, but the resulting dispossession of the Indians was as unstoppable as other great population movements of the past. The U.S. government could not have prevented the westward movement even if it had wanted to.

In the end, the sad fate of America's Indians represents not a crime but a tragedy, involving an irreconcilable collision of cultures and values. Despite the efforts of well-meaning people in both camps, there existed no good solution to this clash. The Indians were not prepared to give up the nomadic life of the hunter for the sedentary life of the farmer. The new Americans, convinced of their cultural and racial superiority, were unwilling to grant the original inhabitants of the continent the vast preserve of land required by the Indians’ way of life. The consequence was a conflict in which there were few heroes, but which was far from a simple tale of hapless victims and merciless aggressors. To fling the charge of genocide at an entire society serves neither the interests of the Indians nor those of history.

This article was first published by Commentary and is reprinted with permission.

The Comanche Empire and the Destruction of Northern Mexico

Image: map showing the extent of Comanche raiding into Mexico during the 1830s and 1840s, from Brian Delay’s “War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War.” The following article is primarily based on Delay’s work, as well as Pekka Hämäläinen’s “The Comanche Empire.”

When the United States invaded Mexico in 1846, the soldiers who marched through what are today Mexico’s northern states encountered desolation. The U.S. Army marched down abandoned roads, past burned-out villages and through deserted ghost towns littered with corpses rotting in the sun. In the words of historian Pekka Hämäläinen, “It was as if northern Mexico had already been vanquished when the U.S. invasion got underway.”

And indeed, it had. The destruction of northern Mexico was the work of the indigenous masters of much of the Southwest: the Comanche. The Comanche had not only prevented the Spanish Empire from pushing further into what would become the United States… they had turned the Spanish colonies of New Mexico and Texas into virtual colonies of their own. Shortly after Mexico liberated itself from Spain, Comanche war bands pushed deep into the interior of the newly independent, but war-weakened country. They forged war trails a thousand miles long that pushed through Mexico’s deserts, mountains and jungles. Comanche warriors raided cities within a mere three-day ride of Mexico City itself. Because of the Comanche, the U.S. Army found the road to Mexico’s capital essentially wide open.

Why, and how, did the Comanche unleash such devastation in Mexico… and by doing so unintentionally lay foundations for American conquest? The story begins a century and half before the U.S.-Mexico War, when the Comanche began to forge an indigenous empire based on dominating the trade in horses and bison hides across the Great Plains, and beyond.

The Emergence of the Comanche

In 1680, the Pueblo Indians living in the Spanish colony of New Mexico revolted. They forced the Spanish out of the region, took control of an enormous number of Spanish horses, and began a lucrative horse trade. The trade in horses moved north from New Mexico, following well-worn indigenous trading routes that moved along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains at the point where the mountain region gradually melted into the Great Plains. Because horses were not found in the Americas before European contact, the indigenous peoples living in the middle of what would later become the United States had not yet encountered the animals. The introduction of horses was a revolutionary moment: tribes who gained access to horses gained immediate and profound advantages in their ability to travel great distances, engage in more extensive trade, hunt, and wage war.

Within a decade, this indigenous horse trade reached the Shoshone peoples living where the Great Plains sweep through modern-day Wyoming and Montana. Bison hunting was at the center of Shoshone life, and horses made the hunt far easier. However, trading in goods that came from Spanish territories also exposed the Shoshone to diseases that were widespread across the massive, interconnected landmasses of Africa, Europe, and Asia… but that had never existed before in the Americas and which Native Americans thus had no immunities to.

As Shoshones fell prey to the kind of contact-induced epidemics that killed millions of Native Americans, a large group splintered off and headed south along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains… following the flow of horses to its source in New Mexico. This group was probably seeking to escape the epidemic, but it also appears they were seeking to establish themselves within the horse trade that had such clear potential to revolutionize indigenous America. As they approached the source of horses in New Mexico, they formed an alliance with the Utes, after which Utah is named. The Utes had long raided horses from the Spanish – who had recently reconquered New Mexico – and they shared their expertise in how to use them in war, hunting, trade, and travel. Over the next generation, the two allied tribes raided so many horses from the Spanish in New Mexico that the settlers no longer had enough horses to mount a defense. The Spanish were soon cursing the new group from the north as “Comanches”… the Ute word for “enemy.”

Mastering the Southern Plains Dominating the Horse and Bison Trade

Newly rich in horses and knowledge of the Spanish borderlands, in 1720 the Comanches headed east onto the Great Plains of the Southwest, where immense horse herds could be sustained on the seemingly infinite grasslands. Once on the plains, the Comanche herds grew rapidly. Their horses allowed them to hunt bison with great effectiveness, and the Comanche soon realized that if they focused all their energies on hunting bison and expanding their herds, that they could dominate the regional trade in horses, bison hides, and bison meat. Knowing that they could trade these goods for all the food they needed, the Comanche turned away from farming and foraging, in order to focus exclusively on horses and bison.

In their effort to monopolize the horse and bison trade and eliminate trade competition – especially for the food sources they relied on – the Comanches went to war against their main competitor on the southern plains: the Apache. The Apache had thrived on the plains as farmers, but once they were at war those farms became a military liability. Whereas the nomadic Comanche had no farms or villages to attack, the Apache had to defend the places where they were rooted and which they counted on for food and shelter. By sweeping into Apache villages in the dark of night, destroying their food storages, killing their livestock, burning their homes, and quickly disappearing into the night, the Comanche wore down their competitors on the plains. They combined this type of swift, guerilla style attack with massive frontal assaults that focused on killing as many Apache men and enslaving as many women and children as possible. Following a practice that was widespread amongst indigenous peoples in the region, some of these slaves were sold on the thriving New Mexican slave markets, while others were adopted or married into families and eventually became Comanches themselves. By 1740, the Apache had been forced out of the plains regions of modern day New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma. Some fled further south onto the plains of Spanish Texas, while others moved to the Rio Grande area and the contemporary U.S.-Mexico border region.

After defeating the Apache, the Comanche emerged as the masters of the southern Great Plains… a land soon known as Comancheria. They quickly became the primary suppliers of horses and bison products in the region, and began building a massive trade network through which they were able to extend their reach far beyond their own territory. In the 1740s, when the French settlers of the Louisiana Territory sought horses and bison robes, the Comanches supplied them by using other indigenous groups as intermediaries between the two regions. In return, the Comanches received manufactured French products… including iron axes, metal tipped arrows and lances, and most importantly guns that were superior to anything made by the Spanish. The Comanche then used this superior firepower to raid Spanish-controlled New Mexico for horses, which they then sold to the French, who then gave them more weapons. By 1750, this cycle had created busy commercial routes connecting Comancheria and French Louisiana.

By 1750, the Comanche population had grown to fifteen thousand… and it was rapidly increasing. The main driver of their population boom was an abundant food supply, based on the Comanche’s ability to trade cherished horses and bison robes for plentiful and diverse foods. Their horse herds were probably upwards of thirty thousand, and that was rapidly expanding as well. By this time, Comanches had broken up into dozens of bands consisting of large extended families, so that their horses would have enough space to graze and find water. This rapid population growth, combined with the desire to acquire new markets, created pressures to expand into new territories. The Comanche bands to the south thus pushed into the vast plains of Spanish Texas, where a million wild horses roamed… and just as importantly, where isolated and vulnerable Spanish missions and presidios held abundant supplies of tamed horses ready for the taking. Because training wild horses was a high-skill task requiring weeks of labor, in their efforts to monopolize the region’s horse trade, Comanches sought out vulnerable and abundant supplies of domesticated horses that could immediately be traded. Over the following century, this would lead Comanches to constantly push into new raiding domains.

When the Comanche arrived on the southern plains of Spanish Texas, they encountered their old Apache competitors who they had forced south. Once again, they set themselves to forcing the Apache out of the region. This time, however, the Apaches were allied with the Spanish. The Comanche responded by forming an alliance of their own with the smaller indigenous groups of the region, who felt marginalized by the Apache/Spanish alliance. The Comanche-led alliance – which the Spanish referred to as the Norteños – attacked Spanish missions and presidios with indigenous armies that were up to two thousand warriors strong and armed with French guns. Reinforcement armies sent from Mexico City were defeated by well-armed Comanche warriors, who were by this time some of the best horseback riders on the continent. They were faster than the Spanish, could fight better on horseback than the Spanish, and used guerilla warfare tactics that the Spanish were unable to adjust to. The Comanche forced the Spanish to realize that they were not the strongest power in Texas. In an attempt to appease the Comanche, the Spanish severed their alliance with the Apache, who fled to the region of the current U.S.-Mexico border. Now completely forced out of the plains and alienated from the Spanish, the Apache initiated decades of systematic raids on the Spanish settlements of what is today northern Mexico.

In 1763, however, the Spanish saw their luck turn around… or so they thought. In that year, the French were forced to turn over the Louisiana Territory to Spain after suffering defeats in the Seven Years War. With the French gone, Spain assumed the Comanches would lose their access to guns, gunpowder, and ammunition. They assumed that Comanches would be forced to turn to the Spanish for European manufactured goods, and would be forced to cease their raiding in order to build better trade relations with Spanish territories in order to gain access to those goods. The Spanish further assumed that once the Comanches ceased their raids, that they would be able to strengthen their colonies in New Mexico, Texas, and Spanish Louisiana… thus hemming the Comanche in to the west, south, and east.

The Comanche, however, had other ideas. By this time, they had dominated the entire portion of the Great Plains that was suitable for breeding and raising horses. On the northern plains, the winters were too cold for baby horses to survive, which made breeding impossible. Even on the central plains just north of Comancheria, winter blizzards could sometimes freeze entire herds. The Comanches understood that their northern neighbors required an endless stream of new horses if they wished to survive economically and militarily… and Comanches set out to supply them.

By providing horses to the indigenous peoples of the northern plains who traded with British Canada, the Comanche also secured access to British markets… and British guns. Meanwhile, Spain found itself unable to control the borders of Spanish Louisiana, and French and British smugglers with an interest in weakening Spain pushed into the prime-trading region of the lower Mississippi. The Comanche were thus soon receiving mass amounts of guns from the north as well as the east – one record reveals seventeen horseloads of guns during a single trade deal. Whereas the Spanish had hoped to hem the Comanches in on three sides and cut off their access to guns in 1763, in 1767 a Spanish report warned that Comanches were better armed than Spanish troops.

By the 1770s, the Comanches were selling coveted British and French manufactured goods at trade fairs in New Mexico. Instead of the Comanches turning to the Spanish for manufactured goods, Spanish settlers now turned to the Comanche. However, such trade was not the Comanche’s top priority: that was providing horses to plains Indians, the French, and the British… and the New Mexicans had plenty of horses. Having freed themselves from any dependence on the Spanish markets of New Mexico, Comanches now sought to bend the Spanish colony to their own purposes. Over the course of the 1770s, Comanches launched over one hundred raids into New Mexico, stealing thousands of horses and trading them to the French, British, and the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains.

Comanche raiding parties also sought to systematically weaken the Spanish colony by destroying ranches, farms, food storages, irrigation systems, and slaughtering entire herds of livestock. Their destruction was strategic: by depriving New Mexico of resources, food, and its ability to be productive, the Comanche made New Mexicans dependent on Comanche trade even as Comanches assaulted them. At the same time, they always made sure to leave ranches and farms with just enough resources to replenish their horse herds… so that they could be raided again in the future. Comanches also murdered hundreds of fighting-age New Mexican men during their raids and enslaved New Mexican women and children, some of whom were sold throughout the Comanche’s extensive trade network, and some of whom were used as a source of labor within Comancheria to tend the ever expanding herds of horses and tan the endless bison hides. Entire communities fled in fear. New Mexican settlements vanished from the map. By 1780, only the capital of Santa Fe remained untouched, but the city was overflowing with refugees. The Governor’s Palace had strings of dried Indian ears hanging above its portal to signify Spanish dominance over the region’s indigenous people, but indigenous peoples who had once feared the Spanish now gravitated towards Comanche alliances and markets and spoke more of the Comanche language than Spanish. Spanish officials had planned for the colony of New Mexico to ship surplus goods south into Mexico instead those goods headed east into Comancheria. New Mexico had become a Spanish colony in name only.

Peace With the Spanish

By this time, the Comanche population had exploded to 40,000… more than the populations of Texas and New Mexico combined. Comancheria encompassed the vast southern plains. Comanches raided New Mexico to the west and Texas to the south at will, removing the resources and enslaving the inhabitants of those lands and channeling them to allies and trading partners to the north and the east. But in the late 1770s, they encountered major obstacles: the American Revolution cut off the supply of guns coming from the French and the British. Droughts forced former allies to migrate into Comancheria, leading to wars along once secure Comanche borders. And then in 1781, right at the height of their powers, a wave of smallpox swept through Comancheria. Half of the Comanche population was dead within two years. Comancheria descended into a realm of horror and sadness. In 1783, the greatly weakened Comanches made the pragmatic decision to open up peace talks with the Spanish. The Spanish, who were unaware at the extent of the epidemic, readily accepted: perhaps their colonies might survive after all.

The Comanche offer of peace came at the perfect time, for the Spanish had just decided to overhaul their relations with Native Americans. With the American revolutionaries victorious, the Spanish immediately foresaw the westward expansion of the United States… and they knew that if Native Americans were hostile to New Spain, that American settlers could ally with them, arm them, and push Spain out of the Americas. If, on the other hand, Spain built positive relations with Native Americans, their alliance could be the best way to prevent westward expansion. And the Comanches would be the most important allies to have when the time came.

The Spanish were serious enough about peace to back off their policies aimed at “civilizing” the Comanches and converting them to Catholicism. They even made efforts to build the new partnership around Comanche cultural norms. In Comanche culture, trade was viewed as a bond that signified mutual support, friendship, and even a sense of extended family. Trade that appeared to be based in greed or coercion had quickly destroyed former attempts at peace: for the Comanches, that included Spanish attempts to sell inferior products, inflate prices, or refuse to trade goods that they possessed in abundance. In their effort to maintain peace with the Comanches, Spanish officials went to great lengths to conform to these norms, and to engage in the generous giving of gifts that Comanches viewed as a sign of friendship. Realizing that Comanches believed that frequent personal and physical contact was critical for strong relations between peoples, Spanish officials journeyed into Comancheria, and welcomed Comanches into the very cities they had recently come close to destroying. There, the officials publicly embraced Comanche leaders for all to see.

The Comanches took the peace equally seriously: Comanches allowed the Spanish onto their plains to hunt for bison. A small group symbolically asked for baptism. And when a group of Comanches broke the peace by raiding into New Mexico, the famed Comanche chief Ecueracapa personally executed the leader of the raid. Ecueracapa later sent his own son to become the son of the New Mexican governor: the governor adopted him as his own and committed to instructing him in the language and ways of the Spanish. Trade flowed freely between Comancheria and Spanish Texas and New Mexico, and Comanches, Texans, and New Mexicans freely visited one another’s lands. It was a remarkable turnaround.

American Expansion Spanish Collapse and a Troubled Mexican Independence

American Westward expansion went into full swing in 1803, after President Thomas Jefferson facilitated the American purchase of the Louisiana Territory. Spain had been unable to prevent American settlers from pushing west into Spanish Louisiana, and had sold the territory back to France… which then quickly sold it to the United States. The purchase doubled the size of the young country. Whereas Spain had once hoped that Spanish Louisiana would act as a buffer that would prevent American expansion into the Southwest, they now hoped that a strong Comanche nation, allied with New Spain, would serve as that buffer. Comanches, the Spanish thought, would push back hard against encroaching American settlement.

The first Americans, however, did not come as settlers, but as traders… and the Comanches welcomed that trade. Already in the 1790s, American merchants had been evading Spanish officials to journey into Comancheria for the Comanche’s famous horses and bison hides. By that time, the Comanches had been organizing their society around horses for nearly a century, and had become the recognized masters of horse breeding and training. Just as so many peoples before them, the Americans gravitated towards the Comanche horse trade. Before the Louisiana Purchase had even been made, Americans had purchased thousands of horses from the Comanche. Now that the new American border went right up to the Comanche’s doorstep, trade boomed… especially because Congress, in an effort to break the Comanche away from its alliance with New Spain, sent emissaries to Comancheria to showcase America’s wealth and promise access to it.

The Spanish looked on in dismay as Comanches embraced American trade. By this time, Comanches had also repaired their relationships with the northern plains tribes they had been at war with. Comanche trade was once again orienting itself to the east and the north, leading the Spanish to fear a return to the days of Comanche conquest. And then, things got much worse for the Spanish. In 1808, Napoleon invaded Spain, cutting off Spanish resources flowing to its possessions in the Americas. Generous trade with the Comanches became impossible. Then, in 1810, Mexico initiated its War of Independence. New Mexicans – many of whom spoke Comanche, had adopted aspects of Comanche culture, and were more a part of Comancheria than New Spain – embraced Comancheria when the war erupted, and were able to keep the peace with Comanches. Relations between the Comanches and Spanish Texas, however, quickly collapsed. Comanches responded by systematically raiding the Texan colony: using American guns, they removed much of the wealth of Texas and sold it to American merchants. They destroyed what they could not trade. Within the span of a few years, Texas had ceased to be a Spanish colony. It had become the realm of the Comanche.

Thus, when Mexico emerged as an independent nation in 1821, the entire northeastern section of the new country was Comanche-dominated. The Spanish had been unable to control the Comanches, and Mexico was even less able to do so: hundreds of thousands of Mexicans had died during the war for independence, and its economy was shattered. Mexico’s all-important silver mines – one of the great treasures of the Spanish Empire – had been destroyed. Part of Mexico’s postwar plan had been to develop the nation by taxing foreign trade, but high taxes simply led to smuggling and tax evasion. Mexico had expected to secure foreign investment in the wake of the war, but investors looked at Mexico and saw an economically risky environment. Investment didn’t come. In a state of desperation, Mexico took out enormous, high-interest loans from the U.S. and European powers: they quickly defaulted, leaving Mexico’s credit in shambles.

As Mexico’s economic turmoil descended into political chaos, officials were more concerned about internal rebellions closer to Mexico City – or even worse, the very real threat of reconquest by Spain – than they were about the Comanche. Even so, these officials viewed building peace with the Comanches as essential. Like the Spanish, the Mexicans saw American expansion into their territory on the horizon… and they viewed Texas and New Mexico as an important buffer zone between the United States and intrusion into the core of Mexico. In 1821, Mexican officials journeyed into Comancheria, where they spoke before a grand council attended by five thousand Comanche. After three days of deliberation, the council agreed to a truce with the Mexicans. The following year, a delegation of Comanche chiefs journeyed to Mexico City to attend the coronation of Agustín Iturbide as Emperor of Mexico, and to sign a formal peace treaty. The treaty promised generous trade with the Comanches. The Comanches – partly to show their strength to Mexico – promised to raise an army of twenty-seven thousand warriors to fight Spain if it sought to reconquer Mexico.

Political and economic turmoil in Mexico, however, meant that the new nation was unable to live up to the treaty it had signed with the Comanches. As trade with Mexico disintegrated, Comanches returned to raiding with a vengeance. Raiding parties began pushing south of the Rio Grande into present-day northern Mexico… and now, they took not only horses, but slaves. Comanches had been hit by new waves of smallpox in 1799, 1808, and 1816, and they turned to slave raiding to repopulate their dwindling numbers and keep up with the demand for horses and bison hides. Mexican men were usually considered too dangerous to enslave and were typically killed during raids unless they had specialized skills. Mexican boys, however, were put to work taking care of the Comanche’s immense horse herds and tanning the endless flow of bison hides. Mexican women were highly prized as slaves because they could give birth to Comanche children and help to regrow the Comanche population: light-skinned women were especially prized because they, and their children, were more resistant to the smallpox that continuously reduced the Comanche population. These slaves were gradually absorbed into the Comanche population, eventually being adopted into families, intermarrying with Comanches, and ceasing to be slaves… a process that fueled continuous slave raids to replace the slaves who had become Comanches. By the time that the U.S. invaded Mexico, most Comanche families had one or two Mexican slaves.

Trails of Tears Rebellion in Texas Slave Raiding in Mexico

While Comanches were turning northern Mexico into a vast slave-raiding domain, trade with the United States boomed. Comanches saw an almost inexhaustible demand in the U.S. for the horses and bison hides they offered, and the more that demand grew, the more of an incentive they had to enslave Mexicans to tend to their horses and tan their bison hides. Comanches also returned to using Texas as a vast horse-raiding territory. These ever-expanding raids led Mexico to make a fateful decision: desperate to populate Texas in order to drive the Comanches out of the region, in 1824 Mexico opened Texas to foreign immigration. Mexico even offered generous land grants and tax exemptions to encourage settlement… and loyalty. They would get one, but not the other.

Mexico had opened up floodgates it could not reverse. Americans began pouring into Texas, but they did not settle throughout the region as Mexico had hoped for. Rather, Americans settled in the east… away from the Comanche raiding territories of the southern plains, and close to the markets of Louisiana and New Orleans that they remained tied to. These Americans brought slaves with them, established cotton plantations, and quickly developed a flourishing cotton industry that was essentially an extension of the American South. Within ten years more than a dozen new urban centers had developed in American-settled eastern Texas. Rather than pushing Comanches out, however, these settlers provided yet another market for Comanches to sell horses to by systematically raiding the Mexican farms, ranches, and villages of western Texas and northern Mexico. Seeing that the plan to entice immigrants to settle Texas was not only a failure but a grave threat, Mexico outlawed slavery in 1829, and banned any further immigration from the United States in 1830. The new laws simply propelled Americans in Texas towards a state of rebellion.

As rebellion simmered in Texas, another momentous event was unfolding: in 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law. The act led to the forced removal of Native Americans into designated “Indian Territory,” west of the Mississippi. The primary targets for removal were the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole, whom White Americans had deemed the “Five Civilized Tribes.” These tribes built permanent towns, practiced farming and raising livestock, and traded extensively with White settlers. They formed centralized governments and created written constitutions. Many adopted Christianity and intermarried with Whites. In their efforts to prove that Native Americans could be just as civilized as Whites – and thereby achieve security for their people – the Five Civilized Tribes also took up cotton cultivation, purchased Black slaves, and participated in the cotton trade that was at the center of the global economy.

By so fully assimilating, the Five Civilized Tribes discredited the primary excuse that White Americans used for stripping Native Americans of their land: the notion that Natives were incapable of “developing” the land and making the land “productive.” With this excuse for indigenous dispossession gone, all that was left was violent racism and greed. The Five Civilized Tribes lived on prime cotton-growing land in the Southeast, and the Cherokees had recently-discovered gold on their land. President Jackson agreed with White southerners that they, not indigenous peoples, deserved access to such wealth. The President saw only two solutions: the extermination or forced deportation of Native Americans.

Indian removal led to the infamous Trails of Tears… not one trail, but many, as numerous tribes were rounded up into unsanitary detention centers where they died in large numbers, were forced to march hundreds of miles through harsh winters during which they died of cold and starvation, or died during fierce battles to keep their territory. A full half of the Creeks died on their Trail of Tears, one third of the Cherokees did, and other tribes suffered similar losses. Indian Removal was nothing short of an ethnic cleansing campaign to ensure that the wealth of gold and cotton would remain the domain of Whites only. The Five Civilized Tribes – as well as many others – were pushed right up to the borders of Comancheria on their forced death marches… where they then all had to compete for resources the Comanche had long monopolized. Forced onto arid lands where they could not farm, these tribes pushed into Comancheria to hunt bison. The Comanche waged war on these desperate refugees for infringing on their territory. As the displaced tribes fought for their very survival as a people, the death toll climbed on all sides.

The warfare was unsustainable and disastrous for all. All sides desired peace and sought to find a way forward within their new circumstances. Within a few years, the wars shifted into alliances. The Comanches began hosting massive intertribal gatherings and trade fairs, calling the tribes together for communication and commerce. Many displaced tribes became intermediaries for the vast commercial operations of the Comanches. Like so many before them, the new arrivals turned to the Comanche for the horses they depended on for trade, travel, hunting, and war. They began adopting the Comanche language as the language of trade and intertribal diplomacy, and became deeply influenced by Comanche culture. As displaced tribes adapted to their new circumstances by building strong ties with Comanches, many of their members moved into Comancheria itself, intermarried with the Comanches, and even became Comanches themselves.

The tribes displaced by Indian Removal not only expanded the Comanche population and trade and alliance network, they also provided the Comanches with a massive slave market. The Five Civilized Tribes came from the Deep South, and arrived with 5000 Black slaves who they had brought with them on the Trail of Tears. They now sought slaves to help rebuild their nations in a new land… and to repopulate their decimated tribes, much as the Comanche had done in the wake of numerous smallpox epidemics. Comanches did not have a conception of race – anyone could become a Comanche as long as they adopted Comanche culture but anyone could become a slave. Comanches had incorporated White renegades and refugees and escaped Black slaves into their tribe as well as Mexicans and numerous indigenous peoples… and, they also enslaved members of these groups. In response to the new market in slavery coming from their recently-made allies, Comanches were soon capturing Black runaway slaves and White settlers to trade to displaced tribes… who often kept the Black slaves, but ransomed back their White captives to White American communities, who were willing to pay high prices. Much more importantly, however, this new market led Comanches to escalate their slave raiding in northern Mexico.

Other factors pushed Comanches to raid deeper into northern Mexico as well: the development of widespread peace with surrounding tribes allowed large numbers of Comanche warriors who had previously focused on protecting Comancheria to instead make long raiding expeditions. Because bravery in battle and the generous distribution of goods taken during raids was an essential part of gaining access to prestige, sex, and marriage for young Comanche men, times of peace led to great eagerness amongst young men to prove themselves on raids. Finally, the massive indigenous trade fairs hosted by the Comanche attracted an increasing number of American merchants, leading Americans to build permanent trading posts along the eastern edges of Comancheria. The Americans had an unquenchable thirst for bison hides, and the trading posts allowed for massive amounts of hides to be stored. Endless streams of merchants came and went from the trading posts, taking bison hides to all corners of the United States. As Comanches supplied the endless flow of hides, more American weapons than ever before flowed into Comancheria. Although the Comanche had traded bison hides for generations, never before had they sought to meet the demands of such a massive market. Comanches once again deepened their slave raiding into northern Mexico: using American guns, they took Mexican slaves to tan the bison hides they sold to the Americans. Comanche profits and power soared. Bison herds started to wear thin.

Meanwhile, full-scale revolution in Texas had broken out. Calls for independence became widespread in Texas in 1835, shortly after General Santa Anna transformed the Mexican presidency into a dictatorship that was willing to use ruthless military force against all who resisted him. White American settlers saw this development as a grave threat to their land holdings and the practice of slavery on which they made their fortunes. Following White American skirmishes with Mexican soldiers, Santa Anna led his forces into Texas to crush the rebellion. After massacring the rebel force at the Alamo – despite their being on the verge of surrender – Santa Anna ordered the few prisoners of war to be hacked to death, and the hundreds of bodies piled up, doused in oil, and burned. Amongst the bodies was famed frontiersman Davy Crockett. The event was widely reported in the U.S. as a brutal episode in an unfolding race war between heroic White Texans and savage Mexicans. It set White American hearts aflame and facilitated anti-Mexican sentiments that in turn laid foundations for war.

Overly confident in his success, Santa Anna divided his forces as he pursued the fleeing rebel army. He then failed to establish a sufficient night watch, leading to his ambush and defeat. White American settlers claimed the independence of Texas, and although Mexico refused to recognize it, there was little they could do. By the time the U.S. invaded Mexico a decade later, there were 100,000 White Americans and 27,000 Black slaves living in Texas. The growing population discouraged Comanche raids within Texas, and gave Comanches an even further incentive to reorient their raids towards Mexico. White Texan officials, understanding that a weakened Mexico was good for an independent Texas, offered Comanches supplies and unrestricted travel through their lands on their way into Mexico.

The Destruction of Northern Mexico Comanche Collapse

In the decade between Texan independence and the U.S.-Mexico War, Comanches unleashed raiding expeditions more massive than anything before in their history. Historian Brian DeLay documents a minimum of forty-four large raids into Mexico between 1834 and 1847: most had between two to four hundred warriors, but some were eight hundred to a thousand strong. These were highly organized expeditions that moved across multiple Mexican states. They proceeded according to carefully laid plans, moving from one target to the next, hitting ranches, haciendas, mining communities, and towns. Scouts and spies rode ahead to ensure effective attacks. Raiding parties not only took slaves and horses, but – as had long been their practice – murdered fighting-age men, destroyed food supplies, burned homes, and killed any livestock they themselves did not use for food during the course of the raid. To avoid being tracked, raiders scattered in many directions after their attacks, reconvening at planned locations. Each warrior often rode with three or four horses that were specially bred for war: such horses possessed superior speed and endurance and were not for sale, allowing Comanches to keep a military edge. When warriors were pursued they would ride a horse to exhaustion, abandon it, and switch to a fresh horse. Comanches nearly always outran their pursuers. These raiders removed a full million horses from Mexico in the years leading up to the U.S. invasion.

Northern Mexicans, of course, were not passive in the face of Comanche onslaught. They did what they could to develop local militias, and wealthy hacienda owners fortified their properties and hired small private armies. What they needed, however, was assistance from Mexico City in rebuilding the old Spanish presidio system and manning the frontier fortresses with fresh troops. Such support did not come: the federal government decided to use its meager resources to fight rebellions closer to the nation’s capital rather than protect its periphery. Because the farms, ranches, and towns of northern Mexico were isolated and sparsely populated, they were sitting ducks for expert guerrilla warriors like the Comanches. Although Mexican militia did sometimes succeed at ambushing and killing large numbers of Comanche, this only led Comanches to return and visit extreme retaliation. Comanche violence led to a mass exodus of farmers, ranchers, and rural Mexicans away from the countryside and into safer urban areas, leaving vast portions of northern Mexico unpopulated, unproductive, and open to assaults leading deeper into Mexico.

With Mexico City failing to assist its northern states and local militias woefully unable to fight the Comanche, states experimented with other solutions. In the late 1830s, the states of Durango, Sonora, and Chihuahua passed bills offering bounties for Indian scalps. Soon, scalp-hunting wars raged across northern Mexico, with squads of mercenaries typically ambushing Apaches… who had raided across northern Mexico for decades after being pushed out of the plains by the Comanche. Because Apaches lived in the north Mexican region, they were easier targets than the Comanche, who only travelled into Mexico in large raiding parties before departing again to Comancheria. Mercenaries almost never took Comanche scalps. Indeed, Comanches, seeing an opportunity to make a profit by attacking their old Apache enemies, joined the scalping wars and sold many Apache scalps themselves. The states of Chihuahua and Coahuila then decided to offer tribute to the Comanche – offering their goods freely in exchange for a cessation of raids. Paying tribute, however, continued to deprive those states of resources and simply pushed Comanche raiding parties into other states… especially those further south.

By the late 1830s, northern Mexicans were boiling with anger at their government’s inability and unwillingness to protect them. Starting in 1837, a wave of rebellions rippled across Mexico’s northern states: most wanted to withhold their taxes to the Mexican government so they could develop their own military forces and protect against raiding parties. Some rebels talked of secession. Whereas Mexico City had been unwilling to send military reinforcements to help push back the Comanche, they quickly sent the Mexican Army to defeat the uprisings. Mexicans were soon slaughtering each other instead of fighting the Comanche. By 1840, northern Mexico’s fighting forces had been decimated, leaving the region even more open to Comanche assault. It was at this moment, in the early 1840s, that Comanche war parties pushed all the way into states in central Mexico, including southern Durango, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, and Jalisco. Comanche war trails now stretched one thousand miles long… through Mexico’s northern deserts and up into Central Mexico’s high mountains and jungles. Comanches raided cities a mere 135 miles from Mexico City itself.

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