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Indian Wars (1865–1890)

Indian Wars is the name generally used in the United States to describe a series of conflicts between the colonial or federal government and the aboriginal people. In his book American Holocaust, David Stannard argues that the destruction of the aboriginal peoples of the Americas, in a “string of genocide campaigns” by Europeans and their descendants, was the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world. The genocide debate is ongoing, and about as many scholars agree with it as don’t.

Although the earliest English settlers in what would become the United States often enjoyed peaceful relations with nearby tribes, as early as the Pequot War of 1637, the colonists were taking sides in military rivalries between Indian nations in order to assure colonial security and open further land for settlement. The wars, which ranged from the seventeenth-century (King Philip’s War, King William’s War, and Queen Anne’s War at the opening of the eighteenth century) to the Wounded Knee massacre and “closing” of the American frontier in 1890, generally resulted in the opening of Native American lands to further colonization, the conquest of American Indians and their assimilation, or forced relocation to Indian reservations. Various statistics have been developed concerning the devastations of these wars on both the American and Indian nations. The most reliable figures are derived from collated records of strictly military engagements such as by Gregory Michno which reveal 21,586 dead, wounded, and captured civilians and soldiers for the period of 1850–90 alone. Other figures are derived from extrapolations of rather cursory and unrelated government accounts such as that by Russell Thornton who calculated that some 45,000 Indians and 19,000 whites were killed. This later rough estimate includes women and children on both sides, since non-combatants were often killed in frontier massacres.

In his book The Wild Frontier: Atrocities during the American-Indian War from Jamestown Colony to Wounded Knee, amateur historian William M. Osborn sought to tally every recorded atrocity in the area that would eventually become the continental United States, from first contact (1511) to the closing of the frontier (1890), and determined that 9,156 people died from atrocities perpetrated by Native Americans, and 7,193 people died from those perpetrated by Europeans. Osborn defines an atrocity as the murder, torture, or mutilation of civilians, the wounded, and prisoners.

What is not disputed is that the savagery from both sides of the war — the Indians’ own methods of brutal warfare and the Americans destructive campaigns — was such as to be noted in every year in newspapers, historical archives, diplomatic reports and America’s own Declaration of Independence. (“…[He] has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”)

The Indian Wars comprised a series of smaller wars. American Indians, diverse peoples with their own distinct tribal histories, were no more a single people than the Europeans. Living in societies organized in a variety of ways, American Indians usually made decisions about war and peace at the local level, though they sometimes fought as part of formal alliances, such as the Iroquois Confederation, or in temporary confederacies inspired by leaders such as Tecumseh.

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