Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Indians and the Civil War



From the Pequot War forward, Alvin Josephy wrote in a 1979 article in The Indian Historian
Whites gave the Native Americans three options. The first was that they could stop being Indians and turn themselves into Whites. They would have their hair cut, wear White men’s clothes, become Christians, live in White men’s houses, become farmers or mechanics, and adopt the White men’s language, customs, ways of living, values, society, and culture. In other words, they would become assimilated and disappear as Indians. If they refused, they would have to be pushed away, westward to a safe distance, where they would have no contact with White society. They would continue as “wild” Indians, unconquered, but neither a physical or cultural threat to the Whites. If they refused to move or become assimilated, they had a third option: extermination.
For most of American history, Alvin says in several places, assimilation has been official policy and the mood of the country. And from the days of first European contact, early colonies, fur companies, and the “United” States, some Indian individuals have readily assimilated. But for most Indians, assimilation has not been easy—missionaries, Indian agents, boarding schools, beatings and berating for lingering signs of “Indianness,” have made for hard lives, but lives nevertheless. 

If I read Alvin’s Civil War in the West correctly, the War years marked a hiatus from assimilation. Removal and/or extermination of Western tribes became primary government policy and military and civilian practice. 

According to Josephy, the West was wrapped up in the Civil War. In the East, Northern and Southern politicians fought over roads west and homestead laws as they gauged political leanings of Western states and territories.  Westering emigrants—freed slaves, draft evaders, seekers of fortune and land—fought the Indians over land and each other over their Southern and Northern roots. And military men stationed in the West went East to be in the big War on one side or the other, or complained at being stationed far away from the big War. Maybe most importantly, North and South jockeyed for Western gold and prospectors ran roughshod over Indian lands before the War started and through its duration.

In the introduction to Civil War in the American West, Josephy says that 
…during the four years of the Civil War… more Indian tribes were destroyed by whites and more land was seized from them than in almost any comparable time in American History. Although some of the most heinous massacres of Indian peoples... accompanied this process, the warfare in various parts of the West was inconclusive, and continued on after 1865, when Regular troops… sought under Sherman, Sheridan, Custer and others to complete the conquest of those tribes that were still able to resist.
In 1862 Minnesota, treaties promised land, commodities, and annuities to the Indians, but settlers occupied the promised lands, annuities went to traders for supposed Indian debts, and agents and the governor skimmed the commodities. In desperation, the Minnesota Dakota (four bands of Sioux Indians) massacred scores of whites and were eventually chased out of the state and joined brethren in the Dakotas and Canada. Lincoln released many of those captured, but 38 Indians were hanged. The Sioux chapter ends in the post-War massacre at Wounded Knee in 1891.

In 1863 on Bear River in Idaho Territory, Colonel Patrick Conner directed the slaughter of 250 peaceful Northwestern Shoshonis. Chief Bear Hunter was tortured and finally killed with a red-hot bayonet thrust through his head, and Mormon guides described Indian women “used in the act of dying from their wounds.”

Sand Creek Massacre
In 1964, at Sand Creek in Colorado, Colonel John Chivington descended on a peaceful village of 550 Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho, and his Colorado cavalrymen bashed in babies’ heads and took scalps, skin, and genitals, which they later paraded in Denver.

“In California, posses of settlers combed the forests and mountains, shooting down every Indian they saw… [and] communities paid bounties for Indian scalps.”

And there was Kit Carson.

If I had to summarize the awful series of events, it would be a pattern of land grabs and destruction of hunting and gathering grounds, Indian starvation (in Nevada, 300 starving Pauites raided miners supply wagons, eating flour “raw from the sacks”), and then predation on settlers and emigrant trains; disgruntled military officers killing Indians when they couldn’t kill Confederates; gold rushes and keeping the overland routes open for gold and the prospectors, settlers, and adventurers who came relentlessly throughout the War; treaties, broken treaties, and corruption of public officials in their dealings with the Indians in the middle of it all; reprisals and retributions.

If Josephy is right, why don’t we know more about the Civil War in the West and the toll it took on Indians? Disinterest of Civil War historians in the West and Indians? Confusion or disinterest on the part of Indian historians about the Civil War? The overwhelming destruction of the War in the East, and the years of political and civil rights controversy that followed?

If Alvin is right, Indian affairs have again been shuffled to the bottom of the historical deck, and Indians have again been omitted from the main narrative of American History.

Please tell me if he’s wrong—or if I am reading him wrong.

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4 comments :

  1. Rich, I shared your blog on FB although I find my FB friends respond better to puppy and kitten pics than something as hard-hitting as your blog. Painful reading, but well said.
    Great work here. Keep it up.
    Matters of Doubt appears on Sept.10. Let's nail a date your way. I'll come for the fun of it and bring a few books to sign!

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  2. RIch, I wonder if you could clarify if The Indian Historian was a magazine or a book. Who published it? Was it part of American Heritage? I'm wondering how Alvin's assessment was received at the time this came out. We still have a hard time accepting the truth about our own history - 40 years after he wrote this. I am wondering how this article was received in 1979, who published The Indian Historian, and who it was written for. Was he shouting into a well?

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  3. Indian Historian is a periodical. not part of american heritage. piece was given first as a speech at u of michigan same year. I do not know how alvin's thinking on civil war and indians was received at the time. i do know that he kept writing and speaking and that he checked himself with indian friends constantly--he was always trying to give them voice.
    i am going to try to learn more about Indian Historian.. there is not much
    on the web.

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  4. Whitman has a full run of the Indian Historian: http://library.whitman.edu/record=b1038329~S1

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