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ISSUE:  Summer 1996

As a red-blooded American boy I gobbled up every buckskin thriller and horse opera that came my way. For awhile I tried walking to school with my toes turned in, “Indian fashion.” It was uncomfortable, and anybody who watched probably thought I had a rectal problem.

We have to start somewhere. I seriously wanted to understand the collision of peoples in North America.

Within a few years news reached me through more scholarly channels that John Wayne and Hawkeye were not outnumbered after all. If swarms of whooping braves on pinto ponies surrounded a lone hero, if huge scalping parties chased the scout through the forest, for the most part that was the result of racist brag and the gimmicry of melodrama. A single grain of historical truth lay behind the image: after the earliest days a few whites fought and pioneered for the many. Safe in cities and burgs and on deeded farms, for good reason confident of “winning” anyway, taxpayers didn’t usually care to foot the bill for a bigger army or militia.

(From this stinginess and complacent remoteness resulted one of the great scenes of American history—never to my knowledge re-created on film. After Crazy Horse was bayoneted at Fort Robinson in 1877, most of the Sioux nation was marched eastward toward a reservation, but only a single troop of cavalry was assigned to herd them. Seventy-five miles along the trail a signal was given. Two thousand people—Crazy Horse’s people—turned out of line and ran for the Canadian border. The troopers watched them go over the horizon—babies, dogs, and all—afraid that if they galloped in pursuit the rest of the Sioux would scatter.)

As to the over-all imbalance of population, however, already by 1671 20,000 Indians faced 40,000 colonials in southern New England. Against 150,000 settlers in the Illinois country when Abraham Lincoln was a young man, Black Hawk could muster about 300 warriors. During the period of late Plains warfare glorified by Hollywood, a Wild West show was as close to an Indian as the overwhelming majority of Americans came.

I also learned that warfare was not necessarily the worst situation Indians faced. Spanish colonists, familiar with the die-off of native peoples in the Caribbean and Latin America, noticed a similar “sickliness” as they penetrated Florida and New Mexico. Likewise British and French fishermen, explorers, and freebooters who came ashore for fresh food and water as early as 1600. Exposed to such visits, the Massachusetts tribe diminished on the order of 90 percent before the Puritans founded the Bay Colony. Roughly 30,000 Tidewater Indians are thought to have perished in Virginia between 1607 and 1682. The Hurons are believed to have lost two-thirds of their population in the first decade of sustained contact with the French. Dutch and Swedish colonists spread comparable devastation. An estimated nine-tenths of the people of the lower Hudson Valley died by 1630. Harboring microbes to which they themselves were partly immune—especially smallpox, measles, cholera, and tuberculosis—Euro-Americans and Afro-Americans had only to pass through to strew the ground with Indian corpses. A sneeze, a roll in the grass, a dip in a pool, an old shirt left at a campsite might prove lethal. Nor did Euro-Americans and Afro-Americans become less infectious, Indians less vulnerable, during the progress from sea to shining sea. Epidemics reduced the Mandan of the upper Missouri by approximately 85 percent in one generation. In the first decade after Americans seized California, 70 percent of the population succumbed. Some were shot and some starved, but the majority died from disease. The Kwakiutl of the Northwest, who numbered about 39,000 in 1841, were down to fewer than 2000 in 1912.

In recent years of course new renditions and accounts have been crowding out conventional Wild West lore of the kind I grew up with. Given the enormous destruction that occurred, abrasive slogans such as Custer Had It Coming are plausible. Though framed to suit current ethno-cultural politics rather than the past as it was experienced by those who lived it, possibly angled toward “reparations” in the name of the dead, they nevertheless awaken a wider public to the enormity of what happened.

Conceptions of the Indian as mystic or the Indian as master ecologist are more dubious. The word “wilderness” verges on being a romantic misnomer for unmechanized and fewer inhabitants per square kilometer than in post-feudal Europe. In particular the word conceals North America as a place where people made a living. A number of Indian nations obtained up to three-fourths of their food and possessions from hunting, gathering, and simple crafts, but others produced more than half through agriculture, certain forms of artisanry, and long-distance trade. With the proto-urban culture of the Anasazi in the Southwest and the Mound-builders of the Mississippi Valley, flush times came and went before Europeans arrived and might have come again if they had stayed on their side of the ocean.

As a person who once paid good money to see Randolph Scott movies, I may not be entitled to laugh out loud at any of the new renditions. It is fair, however, to suggest a rule of thumb: the flimsiest ones are billed as multicultural breakthroughs. For example, a highly popular film, called Dances with Condescension if I remember right, let it be known that Indians are human. Yes, folks, consider these radical possibilities. They speak languages, wear warmer clothes in winter, smile, raise children.


One thing both older and newer renditions ignore, and scholars rarely bring it into focus either. Whether the real-life counterparts of Hawkeye and John Wayne were heroes, villains, or a bit of both mattered relatively little. In the long run victory in war did not depend on them. The principle of playing Indians against each other was more important—understood by whites from the beginning and applied with deadly effectiveness. By 1704, for instance, thousands of the inhabitants of Spanish West Florida had more or less entered the white world. They went to church, bred livestock, manured fields, dug wells. To colonists in the Carolinas this was intolerable: Indians who were not savages, Christians who were not Protestants, land-owners who were not Anglo. So about 50 Carolinians came down to correct the mistake. They killed or enslaved every Indian they could find. They destroyed buildings. They uprooted crops. They left the carcasses of 6000 cattle, horses, and sheep to rot in the sun. That is, they and the thousand or so Creeks they brought with them did this.

When news of Cherokee raids reached Charleston in 1759, Governor William Lyttleton knew from venerable practice what to do: he sent for Chickasaw and Catawba warriors. Similarly in New England, Mohicans, Pequots, and Niantics, expecting booty, raced to join the Puritans against the Wampanoags. Prudent settlers in the colonies and later at Far Western outposts subsidized Indians to live nearby. Thus an Act of the Assembly of Maryland named the neighboring Susquehannocks as the “bulwark and security of the northern parts of the Province,” meaning that the prospect of getting tomahawked themselves kept these neighbors on the alert for approaching war parties.

A bleak episode in 1832 illustrates typical frontier combat. When Colonel Henry Dodge lost the trail, Winnebago braves steered him to Black Hawk’s hiding place on the Wisconsin River. Estimating the heavy casualties his force then inflicted, Dodge based the numbers partly on “scalps taken by the Winnebagos.” And why not? Five years earlier when Winnebagos were attacking white homesteads, Sauks and Foxes had acted as spies for the American army. While he was counting bodies a remnant of Sauks and Foxes got away from Dodge again, heading west. There the Sioux slaughtered nearly all that were left. When their turn came a generation later, the Sioux were treated in the same spirit. Americans gunned them down with the enthusiastic participation and guidance of the Crows.

Over 300 hundred years of warfare a lesson stood out. It usually cost whites dearly to take the field without Indian help. Correspondingly, whites almost always did better in the field with Indian allies and mentors.

In 1680 the Pueblos slew about 400 New Mexicans, drove the rest out of the country for a dozen years, and would have held out longer if they had not been weakened by Apache raids. In 1791 Miamis and Shawnees led by Little Turtle and Blue Jacket cut to ribbons a 2000-man army commanded by General Arthur St. Clair, a hero of the Revolution. In 1813 Tecumseh’s forces rolled over an army of Kentuckians who were attempting to relieve Fort Meigs in Indiana, killed 500, captured 150, and sent the rest running for their lives. The Second Seminole War of 1835 cost the lives of 2000 soldiers and strained the U.S. treasury. The cavalry unit that struck Chief Joseph’s group at White Bird Canyon in the 1870’s lost a third of its men without killing a single Nez Percé.

It took Indians to find the enemy. Lipan Apaches fingered Commanche camps for the Texans. Twenty years later Pimas. Papagos, and Maricopas tracked Apaches for Americans. Despite hunger and cold, Chief Joseph’s Nez Percé—men, women, and children—outwitted and outraced the cavalry across two states and stopped to catch their breath in a deep hollow just thirty miles from the Canadian line. Their white pursuers could not find them, Cheyenne scouts did—and brought the whites forward and joined in the ultimate charge. When Southern frontiersmen were uncertain how to get at the Lower Creeks in 1818, mobilizing turncoat scouts solved the problem. They helped to surprise a large encampment of their own people. In a famous massacre in 17th-century New England, the Narragansetts had holed up in a fortified village in a swamp. It took only a single Indian volunteer to undo them. He guided whites to the hiding place, pointed out a concealed gap in the palisade, and 600 Narragansetts went down in the shooting, hacking, and burning that followed.

The terms “scout” and “auxiliaries” in fact reflected arrogance and pretense on the part of whites. As the historian Thomas Dunlay shows in Wolves for the Blue Soldiers, in many encounters after 1866 Indian scout companies were “the only U.S. soldiers actually to fight with the enemy.” In earlier border wars Indians often composed the main assault force. Accompanied by a handful of French soldiers who could equally well be called their auxiliaries, they sliced up Braddock’s army. Cherokees were prominent in the slaughter of Creeks at Horseshoe Bend that boosted Andrew Jackson’s fame, Indians also did much of the fine work for whites. Cherokees assassinated Creek chiefs for South Carolina in the 18th century. Although it was never proved, possibly a British trader undercut his French competitors in Illinois by inveigling a Peoria to stab Pontiac to death in 1769.

A number of whites who saw action on the frontier made the point clearly: in fighting Indians it was best to fight alongside Indians. Kit Carson said that he survived to old age because the Utes with whom he rode saved him from the Kiowas. Governor Issac Stevens acknowledged that his Nez Percé escort kept him alive to “pacify” the state of Washington. In the judgment of Colonel August Kautz, a veteran of Southwest campaigns, one Apache company was worth six companies of white cavalry against other Apaches.

Only headquarters types, greenhorns, and people in long-settled areas believed naively in Tippecanoe, Old Hickory, and Buffalo Bill. William Henry Harrison rode a sham reputation as an Indian fighter into the presidency. After the inconclusive battle of Tippecanoe, at which an estimated 25 to 40 Indians fell but the Americans paid with 61 dead and 127 wounded, Harrison reported to the Secretary of War that “Indians have never sustained so severe a defeat since their acquaintance with the white people.”

In truth the person who won the West, just as he won the East, was a stocky man with high cheekbones and a name that whites could not pronounce. On occasion it might be a dark-eyed woman such as Sarah Winnemucca, eventually a crinolined Washington lobbyist for the Northern Paiutes but in her prime a courier for the U.S. army. To the extent that sickness, destitution, and low numbers left any margin, Indians whipped the Indians.


Another thing missing from most accounts old or new is a sense of the peculiar spirit in which Indians were overrun. On the whole, Euro-Americans lacked the normal feelings of conquerors and invaders.

Conquerors typically seek subjects rather than corpses. While the initial violence and plunder are under way they consider what might be gained by exploiting the talents, services, and resources of subject peoples. There is nothing necessarily benign about the process. Roman Gaul, Norman England, Spanish Mexico, and Japanese Korea come to mind. Nevertheless, as a good in itself and a buttress for further expansion, conquerors are often keen on converting the vanquished to their way of life. They promote and insinuate, as well as impose, their creed, style, and institutions, use the carrot as well as the stick. In contrast, aside from traders (temporarily), missionaries (ineffectually and punitively), and frontier commanders in need of help (self-liquidating), few Americans asked whether Indians might be more useful alive than dead. Most of the money John Eliot raised in Britain to Christianize the Indians of New England, for example, he spent on himself and Harvard College. His idea of an appropriate outlay for other purposes was to supply guns and ammunition to the Praying Indians whom he sent among the Nipmucks of western Massachusetts, to “teach them the fear of the Lord” as he put it. White bias can be seen in the scramble of a Major John Green to save his modest career. Upon accepting the surrender of Chief Miguel’s Apaches in 1869 instead of shooting them, Green immediately wrote an elaborate letter of explanation and apology to his departmental commander.

Invaders of course do not always intend to conquer in a rational sense. Ungovernable passions rage in the frenzy of war. Annihilation may be the goal. Certainly the American experience included murderous fanaticism. Thus Colonel John Chivington, preparing his men to jump the Southern Cheyenne at Sand River in 1864, urged them to kill women and children because, he said, “Nits make lice.” Yet Americans by and large were haphazard invaders, moving ahead four or five counties at a time and wiping out Indians almost incidentally. Already from the safety of seaboard cities before the Revolution it was possible to take eventual victory for granted, without either malice or regret. In Benjamin Franklin’s view, up against a society with forges and shipyards, writing and trigonometry, wagons and grist mills, Indians must inevitably fade away.

For the conqueror’s desire to dominate and exploit and the invader’s bloodlust, thinkers such as Franklin substituted a belief in extinction by natural law. In turn Emerson and Thoreau rarely mentioned the coastal tribes whose bones lay beneath their feet through the depradations of their own ancestors. (Over a long life Emerson’s grandfather took a leave of absence from his ministry for only one reason—to fight Indians.) To the next generation of Harvard graduates, Indians were a fragile species, relics of an earlier geological era so to speak, the few remaining specimens dwindling far up in Maine or out West somewhere. By the end of the 19th century the phrase “Vanishing American” relieved whites of direct responsibility altogether.

Locked into this belief, most whites were blind to any evidence to the contrary. Indians in fact gave ample signs that they were capable of much else besides skulking in the woods and living on roots till the next government handout arrived. Between 1772 and 1924 Indian authors published more than 6700 articles and books in English. Ottawas, Mohawks, Cherokees, Micmacs, and Yaquis— peoples from every corner of the continent—created syllabaries and orthographies in which to write their own languages. In a masterful lawyer-like speech Tecumseh once analyzed differences between Indian and American conceptions of land tenure. Such signs made no difference to whites. Birds flew, fish swam, and Indians vanished.

The peculiarly incidental spirit in which Indians were overrun reflected the fact that America is a business society and always has been. At the very time New England magistrates held fiercely that a covenant between minister and congregation was the only legitimate foundation for a community, the fishing folk of Essex County, Massachusetts, let it be known that the aim in their towns was to make a living. Minus Puritanism and other Utopian fantasies, deals struck Americans as the model and vehicle of proper procedure. The proprietors of South Carolina, for example, worked out an exclusive arrangement with the Westoes to raid neighboring tribes for slaves, and by 1708 Indians comprised a fifth of the colony’s slaves. Rival white entrepreneurs then provoked a war so as to exterminate the Westoes and make monopolistic slaving agreements for themselves with the Savannahs and the Yamasees. By the middle of the 19th century business had virtually become religion. As one spread-eagle orator said, the presence of so many self-made businessmen indicated that America was ready for inspection by God, “the ultimate confrontation.” What the business mentality defined as “private” decisions—to plow a meadow, drain a marsh, breed hogs, build a mill, smelt ore, lay a road, dump waste into a river—could not help but be natural and right. If such actions in the aggregate took a terrible toll on Indians, that was the way things had to be. No hostile intention was necessary (though it was often present)—merely an expectation that any Indians in the vicinity would go somewhere else. The location of elsewhere was generally as vague to whites as the away into which things were thrown.

It follows that characters called Deadeye and Bloody Hand misrepresent how Indians were dispossessed. Does this mean a forced choice between low entertainment and truthful history? Do I have to give up the scene in which they fight with knives at the edge of a cliff? Not unless I want to. Despite the hokum, backwoods melodramas faintly reflect actual feats by historical individuals who really found the passes and risked their scalps. What needs to be included is a sense that those individuals served as the advance guard of a business society.


The best exemplar I know of is Daniel Boone. He covered the ground from eastern Pennsylvania to the high Plains; survived skirmishes and sieges, endured and escaped captivity; slept so often on the ground that his joints and tendons hurt as he grew older. Aching or not, however, he went a thousand miles up the Missouri River at the age of 76, stayed out for six months, and came home with a boatload of beaver pelts. A pathfinder if there ever was one.

Yet Boone didn’t wear a coonskin cap. He didn’t carve his name on trees. He didn’t mow down Indians. Midway through his life hacks began to make up colorful copy about him. Romances, feature articles, radio dramas, movies, and TV adventures followed in due course. He belongs to the history of commerce as well as the history of the border. Boone was business.

He was also very much in business. In the time-honored American way he got himself elected to the Virginia Assembly with the intention of using the position to win contracts for militia supplies. His move from Limestone, Ohio, to Spanish Missouri had nothing to do with smoke from a neighbor’s chimney and everything to do with debt and deals gone sour. With borrowed money plus profits from a warehouse and a tavern, he had speculated to the hilt in Kentucky land warrants. Failing to prove title to virtually any of the property at stake, he lost his money to sharpies who were better at the game. After coaxing a land grant from the Spanish governor in Missouri, he managed his affairs more prudently. Within a short time of returning from the long hunt to the mouth of the Yellowstone, the old man was seen heading for St. Louis. To get top price for his furs, he told an acquaintance. Why give a cut to middlemen?

Significantly, Indian fighting was not a business for Boone. A son and a grandson fell in ambushes, and at least once he was himself seriously wounded. By his own account nevertheless, over a long life spent on or beyond the frontier he killed three Indians in all. His main hunting partner toward the close of his life was a Shawnee married to an Osage.

Apparently the worst is now over for American Indians. Their population has approximately tripled since the low point of 1910. Often these days they succeed as plaintiffs and lobbyists. The press played the anti-Columbus rumblings of 1992 as hoped. In April 1994 President Clinton invited delegates from 515 federally recognized tribes and sub-tribes to the White House, the first such gesture since James Monroe convened Indian leaders in 1822. Apaches are making money with a ski resort, Southern Utes are pumping oil from their land, and Pequots are buying real estate in Connecticut with profits from a casino. Thirty-one Indian-controlled colleges in the U.S. and Canada have formed an educational consortium.

If this means that Indians are at last competitive in the national scramble for funds and status, moving forward as participants rather than wards and leftovers, more power to them. A word of advice, however, from someone who has ridden many a reel with John Wayne. They are hopping aboard a business civilization, and they above all have reason to remember that a business civilization is a fast-moving vehicle without headlights.


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