The Indian Problem
Newly arrived Americans on the frontier clamored for a solution, any solution,
to what they liked to call "the Indian problem." Sometimes the federal
government led the way, making treaties or sending troops. But Westerners also
took matters into their own hands, and the results could be horrifying.
In 1864, two ambitious Colorado politicians, territorial governor John Evans
and Colonel John Chivington, a former Methodist minister who commanded the
Colorado militia, decided they could make political hay out of an Indian war.
One of Chivington's officers ordered his men to "burn villages and kill
Cheyenne wherever and whenever found." When militiamen killed a Cheyenne chief
who was riding in to talk peace, the Indians finally began to organize for
But one Cheyenne chief, Black Kettle, still hoped for peace. He agreed to take
his band, escorted by federal troops, to camp at a place called Sand Creek.
Now there, on the morning of November 29, 1864, Chivington and 700 men, many of
them drunk, rode into the Indians' camp and began killing.
Most of the Cheyenne men were off hunting, so Chivington's men slaughtered
mainly women and children, mutilating and looting the corpses. The Rocky
Mountain News declared that the campaign was "one of the most brilliant feats
of arms in Indian warfare." But one federal officer was less enthusiastic. He
said, Chivington had "whipped the only peaceable Indians in the country."
As the years passed, Native Americans fought to keep a shred of what they'd
had, against increasingly heavy odds. The West rang with the names of bloody
places: Washita Creek and The Little Bighorn. The surrender of Geronimo in 1886
marked the last organized Indian resistance. The arrest and murder of Sitting
Bull, followed by the Seventh Cavalry's massacre of Lakota Ghost Dancers at
Wounded Knee in 1890, added a final heartbreaking epilogue to the Indian
By the time of the Wounded Knee tragedy, the government had turned to another
approach to the so-called "Indian Problem." And this was an approach based on
the project of settling the West. Reformers like the writer Helen Hunt
Jackson, self-styled "Friends of the Indian," insisted that the best course of
action was to 'civilize' and 'Christianize' the Indians, to get them to give up
their communal property arrangements and their tribal ways, and get them
speaking English and farming and living in nuclear families.
And so in 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Act. Each Indian reservation was to
be broken up into private parcels, and each tribe member would receive a
personal allotment of land, the maximum allotment of 160 acres going to male
heads-of-households. The government was supposed to hold the land in trust for
twenty-five years, but through fraud and federal neglect, a lot of the allotted
land ended up in white hands.
Reformers loved the Dawes Act, and so did speculators. As each reservation was
broken up, whites moved in to snap up cheap so-called "surplus" land. 160
acres, a quarter of a square mile, was not enough to feed a family in the best
circumstances most places in the West.
And there was no guarantee that the land would have water or good soil. So even
Indians who wanted to become yeoman farmers were pretty much doomed to failure.
By 1934, Indians had lost about two-thirds of the land that they'd held in
But the most effective means of displacing Indians was white settlement. And it
was not always easy to attract the right kind of settlers, the kind of people
who would farm and ranch, and go to church and build schools. Instead, the West
seemed to overflow with rootless, lawless American men, in the line camps and
the mine camps and the cowtowns, and out in the canyons, and up in the
mountains. They were shooting at the Indians, shooting at each other, jumping
each other's claims, robbing stagecoaches and banks and trains, and they were
creating as many problems as they'd solved.
Wyoming Territory and Women Suffrage
In 1869, Wyoming Territory was in the middle of the railroad boom, and gold had
been discovered on the continental divide. The territory was full of homesick
soldiers and hard-living laborers and footloose fortune-seekers. Cheyenne,
Arapaho, and Shoshone Indians were constantly skirmishing with transient bands
of immigrant men.
As if these local tensions weren't enough, this was also, of course, the middle
of Reconstruction. Democrats at the national level were battling Republicans'
attempts to assure that black citizens could exercise their rights, including
the right to vote. In South Pass City, a mining camp high up on the Continental
Divide, William Bright, a Democrat, was elected to this territorial
legislature. And Bright had an idea he hoped would bring in more orderly,
respectable white settlers like himself and his young wife, Julia.
Bright decided he'd introduce a bill to give women the vote! He argued that
giving white women like Julia the right to vote would not only promote
settlement, it would also bring an "uplifting" element to Wyoming politics. And
coincidentally, it might also offset black men's votes. Evidently he convinced
his colleagues, because they passed Bright's woman suffrage bill.
And it was the first to pass anywhere in the United States and its territories.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, however, white women voters proved unreliable
allies. They tended to vote to close saloons on Sundays. They liked to vote
Republican, and some were even seen driving black voters to the polls!
But there were other ironies as well. By 1871, William and Julia Bright had
left Wyoming, along with nearly all the other families who had seen the gold
boom bust at South Pass. Evidently, the very people who supposedly embodied
settlement had a tendency to be rootless and restless. And after only two
years' experiment, the Democratic-controlled legislature voted to repeal woman
Fortunately for the women of Wyoming, and perhaps the women of America, the
Republican governor vetoed the bill. But the irony remained. When Wyoming came
into the Union in 1890 as the first state to enfranchise women, as "the
Equality State," it did so not because the frontier promoted liberty, but
because of the complicated politics of the American empire.