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The Indian Problem

[picture of Indian dwellings]

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 war.

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.

[picture of Sitting Bull]

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 wars.

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 1887.

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 suffrage.

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.

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