U.S. Settler Colonialism and Native American Resistance


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The Gnadenhutten Massacre

In 1782, a group of militiamen from Pennsylvania killed 96 Christianized Delaware Indians, illustrating the growing contempt for native people. Captain David Williamson ordered the converted Delawares, who had been blamed for attacks on white settlements, to go to the cooper shop two at a time, where militiamen beat them to death with wooden mallets and hatchets.
Ironically, the Delawares were the first Indians to capture a white settler and the first to sign a U.S.-Indian treaty four years earlier—one that set the precedent for 374 Indian treaties over the next 100 years. Often employing the common phrase “peace and friendship,” 229 of these agreements led to tribal lands being ceded to a rapidly expanding United States. Many treaties negotiated U.S.-Indian trade relations, establishing a trading system to oust the British and their goods—especially the guns they put in Indian hands.

1Battle of Tippecanoe, 1811. (Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
The Land Ordinance of 1785: Dividing and Allotting (Assigning) the Land
After the Revolutionary War, the new U.S. government had acquired a vast amount of land in addition to the thirteen original states. To sell and settle the newly-acquired territory, called “public lands,” the government enacted what has been called the most significant U.S. land law—the Land Ordinance of 1785. Under the Land Ordinance, new lands would be surveyed by means of a rectangular system based on the township, an area six miles by six miles. Townships were divided into thirty-six sections, each a mile square. Sections, in turn, were divided into half and quarter sections.


The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and Statehood

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and Statehood
On July 13, 1787, the Confederation Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance. The act created a system of government for the Northwest Territory. It also specified how the various parts of the Northwest Territory could become states.
According to the act, the territory would have to progress through three separate stages of government. In the first stage, the Congress was responsible for selecting the territory's leaders. There would be a governor, a secretary, and three judges. The governor would have power over the militia and Native Americans matters. He also could select law enforcement officials and judges for the lower courts. All five members of the territorial government were to have large holdings of land and be residents of the territory.
Once five thousand free men lived within the territory, the government would enter a second stage. The federal government allowed residents to elect a legislature. Every legislator had to be an adult male resident with at least two hundred acres of property under his control. To serve on the legislative council a person had to be an adult male who owned five hundred or more acres of land. To be able to vote in the territory, a person had to be an adult male and the owner of at least fifty acres of land. No "squatters" or residents who did not own property were permitted to vote.
The final phase was actual statehood. The Northwest Ordinance stipulated the creation of at least three but not more than five states out of the Northwest Territory. Once sixty thousand people resided in a territory, they could apply for statehood.
The Northwest Ordinance created a pattern for adding states to the Union and encouraged westward expansion. It didn’t set rules for admitting states outside of the Northwest Territory, but it set expectations.
Battle of Tippecanoe
In the early 1800s, the rise of the charismatic Shawnee war leader, Tecumseh, and his brother, known as the Prophet, convinced Indians of various tribes that it was in their interest to stop tribal in-fighting and band together to protect their mutual interests. The decision by Indiana Territorial Governor (and later President) William Henry Harrison in 1811 to attack and burn Prophetstown, the Indian capital on the Tippecanoe River, while Tecumseh was away campaigning the Choctaws for more warriors, incited the Shawnee leader to attack again. This time he persuaded the British to fight alongside his warriors against the Americans. Tecumseh’s death and defeat at the Battle of the Thames in 1813 made the Ohio frontier “safe” for settlers—at least for a time.

3Creek Indians and inhabitants of Fort Mims, Alabama, during the Creek War, 1813. (Credit: MPI/Getty Images)

The Creek War

In the South, the War of 1812 bled into the Mvskoke Creek War of 1813-1814, also known as the Red Stick War. An inter-tribal conflict among Creek Indian factions, the war also engaged U.S. militias, along with the British and Spanish, who backed the Indians to help keep Americans from encroaching on their interests. Early Creek victories inspired General Andrew Jackson to retaliate with 2,500 men, mostly Tennessee militia, in early November 1814. To avenge the Creek-led massacre at Fort Mims, Jackson and his men slaughtered 186 Creeks at Tallushatchee. “We shot them like dogs!” said Davy Crockett.
In desperation, Mvskoke Creek women killed their children so they would not see the soldiers butcher them. As one woman started to kill her baby, the famed Indian fighter, Andrew Jackson, grabbed the child from the mother. Later, he delivered the Indian baby to his wife Rachel, for both of them to raise as their own.
Jackson went on to win the Red Stick War in a decisive battle at Horseshoe Bend. The subsequent treaty required the Creek to cede more than 21 million acres of land to the United States.

The Seminole Wars, (1817–18, 1835–42, 1855–58)

The Seminole Wars, (1817–18, 1835–42, 1855–58)
The Seminole Wars were three conflicts between the United States and the Seminole Indians of Florida that ultimately resulted in the opening of the Seminole’s desirable land for white settlement.
The First Seminole War (1817–18) began over attempts by U.S. authorities to recapture runaway black slaves living among Seminole bands. Under General Andrew Jackson, U.S. military forces invaded the area, scattering the villagers, burning their towns, and seizing Spanish-held Pensacola and St. Marks.
The Second Seminole War (1835–42) followed the refusal of most Seminoles to abandon the reservation that had been specifically established for them north of Lake Okeechobee and to relocate west of the Mississippi River. Whites coveted this land and sought to oust the Seminoles under the Indian Removal Act. Led by their dynamic chief Osceola, the Seminole warriors hid their families in the Everglades and fought vigorously to defend their homeland, using guerrilla tactics. As many as 2,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in this prolonged fighting, which cost the government between $40,000,000 and $60,000,000. Only after Osceola’s capture while parleying under a flag of truce did Indian resistance decline. With peace, most Seminoles agreed to emigrate.
The Third Seminole War (1855–58) resulted from renewed efforts to track down the Seminole remaining in Florida. It caused little bloodshed and ended with the United States paying the most resistant band of refugees to go West.
The Indian Trade and Intercourse Act
In 1824 the Indian Trade Intercourse Act was amended. In this act, Congress created Indian Territory in the west that included the land area in all of present-day Kansas, most of Oklahoma, and parts of what later became Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming. The area was set aside for Indians who were to be removed from their ancestral lands which, in turn, would be settled by non-Indians.
The Indian Trade and Intercourse Act was an attempt to establish a permanent Indian Frontier and was designed to keep white Americans and Native Americans apart. The Indian Trade and Intercourse Act made it illegal for any white Americans to settle on the land west of the Indian Frontier. It also made it illegal to sell weapons or alcohol to the Native Americans To enforce the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act, white Americans built a military road and forts along the edge of the Indian Frontier. The forts were manned by the US Army.

4Indian Territory as established by the 1824 the Indian Intercourse Act

Forced Removal/ Trail of Tears
One of the most bitterly debated issues on the floor of Congress was the Indian Removal Bill of 1830, pushed hard by then-President Andrew Jackson. Despite being assailed by many legislators as immoral, the bill finally passed in the Senate by nine votes, 29 to 17, and by an even smaller margin in the House. In Jackson’s thinking, more than three dozen eastern tribes stood in the way of what he saw as the settlers’ divinely ordained rights to clear the wilderness, build homes and grow cotton and other crops. In his annual address to Congress in 1833, Jackson denounced Indians, stating, “They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of another and a superior race…they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere [before] long disappear.”
From 1830 to 1840, the U.S. army removed 60,000 Indians—Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee and others—from the East in exchange for new territory west of the Mississippi. Thousands died along the way of what became known as the “Trail of Tears.” And as whites pushed ever westward, the Indian-designated territory continued to shrink. Of the 15,000 Creeks who make the voyage to Oklahoma, more than 3,500 did not survive. In 1938 with only 2,000 Cherokees having left their land in Georgia to cross the Mississippi River, President Martin Van Buren enlists General Winfield Scott and 7,000 troops to speed up the process by holding them at gunpoint and marching them 1,200 miles. More than 5,000 Cherokee die as a result of the journey.

5A painting depicting the Trail of Tears, when Native Americans were forced by law to leave their homelands and move to designated territory in the west. (Credit: Al Moldvay/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Black Hawk War
The Black Hawk War was a brief but bloody conflict from April to August 1832 between the United States and Native Americans led by Black Hawk, a 65-year-old Sauk warrior who in early April led some 1,000 Sauk, Fox, and Kickapoo men, women, and children, including about 500 warriors, across the Mississippi River to reclaim land in Illinois that tribal spokesmen had surrendered to the U.S. in 1804. The band’s crossing back into Illinois ignited fear and anger among white settlers, and eventually a force of some 7,000 mobilized against them—including members of the U.S. Army, state militias, and warriors from various other Indian peoples. Some 450–600 Indians and 70 soldiers and settlers were killed during the war. By 1837 all surrounding tribes had fled to the West, leaving most of the former Northwest Territory to white settlement. Among those who participated in various roles during the war were a number of men who would figure prominently in U.S. history, including future U.S. presidents Abraham Lincoln and Zachary Taylor, longtime military leader and presidential candidate Winfield Scott, and Jefferson Davis, who would become president of the Confederate States of America.
The Indian Appropriations Act of 1951
As white settlers continued westward and needed more land, Indian territory shrank—but there was no more land for the government to move them to. In 1851, Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act which created the Indian reservation system and provided funds to move Indian tribes onto farming reservations and hopefully keep them under control. Indians were not allowed to leave the reservations without permission.
Daily living on the reservations was hard at best. Not only had tribes lost their native lands, but it was almost impossible to maintain their culture and traditions inside a confined area. Feuding tribes were often thrown together and Indians who were once hunters struggled to become farmers. Starvation was common and living in close quarters quickened the spread of diseases brought by white settlers. Indians were encouraged or forced to wear non-Indian clothes and learn to read and write English, sew and raise livestock. Missionaries attempted to convert them to Christianity and give up their spiritual beliefs.
The Homestead Act of 1862
The survey system created by the Land Ordinance of 1785 greatly affected the physical appearance of western lands, dividing them into grids that identified boundaries in a precise manner. It helped the Homestead act of 1862, which provided that migrating settlers were allowed, even encouraged, to occupy up to one quarter section (160 acres) of unappropriated public lands (homesteads) with the condition that the land must be settled and cultivated. Land claims and titles were affordable for most under the Act.
Requirements included five years of continuous residence on the land, building a home on it, farming the land and making improvements. Homesteaders, who had to be the head of a household or 21 years of age and had to certify they had never borne arms against the U.S., also needed two neighbors or friends to attest to the government that they had fulfilled the requirements. Union soldiers could shave off time served in the Civil War from the five-year residency requirement.

6Bettmann Archive/Getty Images https://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/homestead-act

Mankato Executions
Money and provisions promised to Indians through government treaties were slow in being delivered, leaving Dakota Sioux people, who were restricted to reservation lands on the Minnesota frontier, starving and desperate. After a raid of nearby white farms for food turned into a deadly encounter, Dakotas continued raiding, leading to the Little Crow War of 1862, in which 490 settlers, mostly women and children, were killed. President Lincoln sent soldiers, who defeated the Dakota; and after a series of mass trials, more than 300 Dakota men were sentenced to death.
While Lincoln commuted most of the sentences, on the day after Christmas at Mankato, military officials hung 38 Dakotas at once—the largest mass execution in American history. More than 4,000 people gathered in the streets to watch, many bringing picnic baskets. The 38 were buried in a shallow grave along the Minnesota River, but physicians dug up most of the bodies to use as medical cadavers.

7Execution of Dakota Sioux Indians in Mankato, Minnesota, 1862. (Credit: Library of Congress/Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)

The Sand Creek Massacre
Indians fighting back to defend their people and protect their homelands provided ample justification for American forces to kill any Indians on the frontier, even peaceful ones. On November 29, 1864, a former Methodist minister, John Chivington, led a surprise attack on peaceful Cheyennes and Arapahos on their reservation at Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado. His force consisted of 700 men, mainly volunteers in the First and Third Colorado Regiments. Plied with too much liquor the night before, Chivington and his men boasted that they were going to kill Indians. Once a missionary to Wyandot Indians in Kansas, Chivington declared, “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians!…I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heavens to kill Indians.”
That fateful cold morning, Chivington led his men against 200 Cheyennes and Arapahos. Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle had tied an American flag to his lodge pole as he was instructed, to indicate his village was at peace. When Chivington ordered the attack, Black Kettle tied a white flag beneath the American flag, calling to his people that the soldiers would not kill them. As many as 160 were massacred, mostly women and children.

8Sand Creek Massacre, 1864. (Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Custer’s Campaigns
At this time, a war hero from the Civil War emerged in the West. George Armstrong Custer rode in front of his mostly Irish Seventh Cavalry to the Irish drinking tune, “Gary Owen.” Custer wanted fame, and killing Indians—especially peaceful ones who weren’t expecting to be attacked—represented opportunity.
On orders from General Philip Sheridan, Custer and his Seventh attacked the Cheyennes and their Arapaho allies on the western frontier of Indian Territory on November 29, 1868, near the Washita River. After slaughtering 103 warriors, plus women and children, Custer dispatched to Sheridan that “a great victory was won,” and described, “One, the Indians were asleep. Two, the women and children offered little resistance. Three, the Indians are bewildered by our change of policy.”
Custer later led the Seventh Cavalry on the northern Plains against the Lakota, Arapahos and Northern Cheyennes. He boasted, “The Seventh can handle anything it meets,” and “there are not enough Indians in the world to defeat the Seventh Cavalry.”
Expecting another great surprise victory, Custer attacked the largest gathering of warriors on the high plains on June 25, 1876—near Montana’s Little Big Horn river. Custer’s death at the hands of Indians making their own last stand only intensified propaganda for military revenge to bring “peace” to the frontier.
General Allotment Act of 1887 (The Dawes Act)
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the federal government allotted millions of acres of Native American lands to individual Native Americans in an effort to break up reservations.
This process was not in widespread use until the late 19th century. The passage of the General Allotment Act of 1887, also known as the Dawes Act, greatly expanded the practice. This expansion had devastating consequences for Native Americans.

Under the Dawes Act and other tribe-specific allotment acts, the federal government allotted a specified amount of land, usually 80 or 160 acres, to each tribal member. These allotments were to be held in trust by the United States for the Native American owner for a specified period of time, usually 25 years, after which the federal government would remove the trust status and issue the Native American owner title to the land.

Once out of trust, however, the land became subject to state and local taxation. Because of poor conditions on reservations, most Native Americans lived in poverty. High costs, taxes, and fees caused thousands of acres of Native American to be sold to non-Native Americans once the trust status was lifted. Furthermore, non-allotted lands were often declared “surplus land” by the federal government, which opened them to homesteaders, thereby increasing the loss of Native American land to non-Native Americans.

The policy of allotment dramatically reduced the amount of land owned by tribes. In 1887, tribes held 138 million acres. Just forty-seven years later, in 1934, they owned 48 million acres. To stop the loss of Native American land, the federal government ended the allotment policy in 1934 and extended the trust period indefinitely. Today, allotments are still held in trust by the federal government for the beneficial Native American owner.

In addition to diminishing the total acreage owned, the allotment policy also left behind a checkerboard of land ownership on many reservations, with individual parcels of land sometimes owned by a tribe or tribes, Native American individuals, and non-Native Americans. As the original recipients of allotments died, their land was divided among their descendants, with each receiving only a fractional share of the whole. This division among multiple heirs is known as fractionation.

In many cases, ownership of allotted lands continued to divide over multiple generations so that today, individual parcels sometimes have more than 100 co-owners. Fractionation limits economic development on reservations and can divide lease income among co-owners so that individuals receive just a few cents based on their share.


Wounded Knee
Anti-Indian anger rose in the late 1880s as the Ghost Dance spiritual movement emerged, spreading to two dozen tribes across 16 states, and threatening efforts to culturally assimilate tribal peoples. Ghost Dance, which taught that Indians had been defeated and confined to reservations because they had angered the gods by abandoning their traditional customs, called for a rejection of the white man’s ways. In December 1890, several weeks after the famed Sioux Chief Sitting Bull was killed while being arrested, the U.S. Army’s Seventh Cavalry massacred 150 to 200 ghost dancers at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
For their mass murder of disarmed Lakota, President Benjamin Harrison awarded about 20 soldiers the Medal of Honor.

10Burial of the dead after the massacre of Wounded Knee. (Credit: Niday Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photo)

Indian Boarding Schools

Between 1869 and the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Native American children were removed from their homes and families and placed in boarding schools operated by the federal government and the churches. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, the country’s first off-reservation boarding school was created by Civil War veteran Richard Henry Pratt, and was designed to assimilate Native American students. His theory was, “Kill the Indian. Save the man.” There were more than 350 government-funded, and often church-run, Indian Boarding schools across the US in the 19th and 20th centuries
Though we don't know how many children were taken in total, by 1900 there were 20,000 children in Indian boarding schools, and by 1925 that number had more than tripled. The U.S. Native children that were voluntarily or forcibly removed from their homes, families, and communities during this time were taken to schools far away where they were punished for speaking their native language, banned from acting in any way that might be seen to represent traditional or cultural practices, stripped of traditional clothing, hair and personal belongings and behaviors reflective of their native culture. They suffered physical, sexual, cultural and spiritual abuse and neglect, and experienced treatment that in many cases constituted torture for speaking their Native languages. Many children never returned home and their fates have yet to be accounted for by the U.S. government.

“End of the Trail”

Three years after Wounded Knee, Professor Frederick Jackson Turner announced at a small gathering of historians in Chicago that the “frontier had closed,” with his famous thesis arguing for American exceptionalism. James Earle Fraser’s famed sculpture “End of the Trail,” which debuted in 1915 at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, exemplified the idea of a broken, vanishing race. Ironically, just over 100 years later, the resilient American Indian population has survived into the 21st century and swelled to more than 5 million people.

11The End of the Trail is a sculpture by James Earle Fraser located in Waupun, Wisconsin.

Termination Period
Beginning in the early 1950s, the U.S. government took steps to end the sovereign status of Native American tribes and encourage Native American assimilation into non-Indigenous communities. Tthe Urban Indian Relocation Program encouraged Native Americans to leave reservations and pursue economic opportunities and lives in large urban areas. The economic opportunities, however, turned up to be less plentiful than promised. Native Americans often returned to their communities to avoid extremely high levels of unemployment and poverty.
Additionally, Congress passed a resolution beginning a federal policy of terminating, or ending, the status of tribal lands as trusts of the federal government. The goal was “as rapidly as possible to make Indians within the territorial limits of the United States subject to the same laws and entitled to the same privileges and responsibilities as are applicable to other citizens of the United States.” (House Concurrent Resolution 108)
Within the first decade of the termination era, the federal trust status of more than 109 tribes was removed. Jurisdiction over tribal land was turned over to state governments. Approximately 2,500,000 acres of trust land was removed from protected status and 12,000 Native Americans lost tribal affiliation.
In addition to ending the tribal rights as sovereign nations, the policy terminated federal support of most of the health care and education programs, utility services, and police and fire departments available to Indians on reservations. Given the considerable geographic isolation of many reservations and long-standing economic problems, not many tribes had the funds to continue such services after termination was implemented. The tribes initially selected for termination had been considered groups who were the most successful in the United States, in some cases, because of natural resources controlled by their reservations
Criticism of these policies claims the goal was to move Native Americans to cities, where they would disappear through assimilation into the white, American mainstream. Then, the government would make tribal land, much of which was rich with natural resources, taxable and available for purchase and development by non-Indigenous corporations.