Indian Wars

The Indian Wars were a series of conflicts between the United States and Native American peoples ("Indians") of North America. The wars, which ranged from colonial times to the Wounded Knee massacre and "closing" of the American frontier in 1890, collectively resulted in the conquest of American Indian peoples and their decimation, assimilation, or forced relocation to Indian reservations.

The term Indian Wars is misleading because it groups American Indians under a single heading. American Indians were (and remain) a diverse category of peoples with discrete histories; throughout the wars, they were not a single people any more than Europeans were. Living in societies organized in a variety of ways (the terms tribe or nation are not always accurate), American Indians usually made decisions about war and peace at the local level, though they sometimes fought as part of complex formal alliances such as the Iroquois Confederation, or in temporary confederacies inspired by charismatic leaders such as Tecumseh.

There are other problems with the term Indian Wars. It creates a category which has traditionally been used to relegate the long story of American Indian warfare to a minor footnote in U.S. history. The term also tends to obscure American Indian involvement in other wars. For example, American Indians fought extensively in the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, two wars which had massive consequences for Native Americans, yet these conflicts have not traditionally been labeled as Indian Wars.

To see the Indian wars as a racial war between Indians and European-Americans ("whites") overlooks the complex historical reality of the struggle. Indians and whites often fought alongside each other; Indians often fought against Indians. For example, although the Battle of Horseshoe Bend is often described as an "American victory" over the Creek Indians, the victors were a combined force of Cherokees, Creeks, and Tennessee militia led by Andrew Jackson. From a broad perspective, the Indian wars were about the conquest of Native American peoples by the United States; up close it was rarely quite as simple as that.

Citing figures from a 1894 estimate by the United States Census Bureau, one scholar has noted that the more than 40 Indian wars from 1775 to 1890 reportedly claimed the lives of some 45,000 Indians and 19,000 whites. This rough estimate includes women and children, since noncombatants were often killed in frontier warfare (see also "Indian massacres").1

Note that this article covers wars primarily involving Native Americans and European-Americans in the area that became the contiguous United States. Other "Indian Wars" occurred throughout the Western Hemisphere, including wars fought between Indians in which Europeans played little or no role.


Colonial era (1637-1775)

These are wars fought by Native Americans with colonizing powers in the future territory of the United States before the Declaration of Independence. See also: European colonization of the Americas.

East of the Mississippi (1776-1835)

Missing image
The Mohawk leader Joseph Brant commanded both American Indians and white Loyalists during the American Revolutionary War.

American Revolution (1776-1783)

Main article: Frontier warfare during the American Revolution

"The American Revolution, a fight for freedom from colonial rule, was also the most extensive and destructive 'Indian war' in the nation's history. Whereas other wars affected individual nations, the Revolution affected all Native Americans east of the Mississippi."
--Ray Raphael, A People's History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence (New York: The New Press, 2001), p. 244.

The American Revolutionary War officially came to a conclusion with the Treaty of Paris (1783). However, Native Americans were not consulted during the negotiations, and those Indians who had been allied with the British during the war were shocked to learn that the British had ceded native lands to the Americans without notice. Exhausted by a long war, Indians were unable to effectively oppose the United States without British support. Many Native American leaders signed "conquest treaties" after the war, the terms of which were often dictated to the Indians by the Americans.

Wars of the Old Northwest

In 1787, the Continental Congress of the United States passed the Northwest Ordinance, which officially organized the Northwest Territory for white settlement. American settlers began pouring into the region. Violence erupted as Indians resisted this encroachment, and so the administration of President George Washington sent armed expeditions into the area to put down native resistance. However, in the Northwest Indian War, a pan-tribal confederacy led by Blue Jacket (Shawnee), Little Turtle (Miami), Buckongahelas (Lenape), and Egushawa (Ottawa) crushed armies led by Generals Josiah Harmar and Arthur St. Clair. General St. Clair's defeat was the severest loss that would ever be inflicted upon an American army by Native Americans. The Americans attempted to negotiate a settlement, but Blue Jacket and the Shawnee-led confederacy insisted on a boundary line the Americans found unacceptable, and so a new expedition led by General Anthony Wayne was dispatched. Wayne's army defeated the Indian confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. The Indians had hoped for British assistance; when that was not forthcoming, the Indians were compelled to sign the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, which ceded modern-day Ohio and part of Indiana to the United States.

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William Henry Harrison

In 1800, William Henry Harrison became governor of the Indiana Territory, and pursued an aggressive policy of obtaining titles to Indian lands. Two Shawnee brothers, Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, organized another pan-tribal resistance to American expansion. However, while Tecumseh was in the south attempting to recruit allies among the Creeks, Cherokees, and Choctaws, Harrison marched against the Indian confederacy, defeating Tenskwatawa and his followers at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. This was a severe blow for Tecumseh, but his efforts continued with British support in the War of 1812, which was, for many Native Americans, simply a continuation of the struggle already in progress. Indeed, the War of 1812 was a massive Indian war, and Tecumseh was killed by Harrison's army at the Battle of the Thames. The War of 1812 was a major turning point in the Indian Wars, marking the last time that Native Americans could turn to a foreign power for assistance against the United States.

Black Hawk
Black Hawk

Without support from their British allies, the Native Americans of the Ohio River valley and Old Northwest region were pushed west of the Mississippi River by the federal government through a series of imposed treaties. The major resistance to relocation in this region was the Black Hawk War in 1832. However, the combined forces of Sauk and Fox tribes failed to prevent the land from United States annexation. The Battle of Bad Axe marked the end of the Black Hawk War after the Native Americans were crushed by Colonel Zachary Taylor's forces.

Wars in the South

Indian removal

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Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, was a major figure in Indian removal.

President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law in 1830. The Removal Act did not order the removal of any American Indians, but it authorized the president to negotiate treaties that would exchange tribal land in the east for western lands that had been acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Jackson favored relocating Native American tribes outside existing states primarily for national security reasons, since most Indians had sided with the British in the Revolution and the War of 1812.

The Removal Act was especially popular in the South, where population growth and the discovery of gold on Cherokee land increased pressure on tribal lands. The state of Georgia became involved in a contentious jurisdictional dispute with the Cherokees, culminating in the 1832 Supreme Court decision (Worcester v. Georgia) that ruled that Georgia could not impose its laws upon Cherokee tribal lands.

However, Jackson had no intention of protecting the Cherokees from Georgia, though he never actually uttered the famous defiant quote attributed to him ("John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it!"). A faction of Cherokees led by Major Ridge, realizing that removal under Jackson was inevitable, negotiated the Treaty of New Echota with Jackson's administration, a treaty of dubious legality that most Cherokees rejected. However, the terms of the treaty were strictly enforced by Jackson's successor, Martin van Buren, leading to what became known as the "Trail of Tears", which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Cherokees. Other Native American tribes were removed as well; see Indian Removal.

West of the Mississippi (1861–1890)

See also


Note 1: Thornton, pages 48-49.


  • Thornton, Russell. American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492. University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

fr:Guerres indiennes ja:インディアン戦争 pl:Wojny z Indianami


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