When Columbus landed in the New World in 1492, North America was home to as many as 15 million Native Americans.
The 2010 Census says that today there are 5.2 million people in the United States who identify as American Indian and Alaska Natives — either alone or in combination with other races.
When the Indian Wars ended in the late 1800s, there were less than 240,000. By 1930, there were 332,000.
Today, a huge cultural shift is taking place.
It’s hard to believe that Americans once condoned genocidal policies against Native Americans — but we did.
In a letter to Washington Territorial Gov. Isaac I. Stevens, Gen. John E. Wool wrote on Feb. 12, 1856:
“Whilst I was in Oregon, it was reported to me, that many citizens, with due proportion of volunteers, and two newspapers, advocated the extermination of the Indians.
“This principle has been acted on in several instances without discriminating between enemies and friends, which has been the cause, in Southern Oregon, of sacrificing many innocent and worthy citizens, as in the case of Maj. Lupton and his party (volunteers) who killed 25 Indians, eighteen of whom were women and children.
“These were friendly Indians on their way to their reservation, where they expected protection from the whites. This barbarous act is the cause of the present war in the Rogue River country.”
There was nothing new about that.
Trouble between Native Americans and whites started with the Spanish in 1539, when explorer Hernando de Soto and his troops were attacked by Choctaw Indians in Florida. De Soto won and executed 200 Indians. Then a bigger battle took place at Mabila, a Choctaw compound in today’s Alabama, where an estimated 2,500 warriors were killed.
The Indians retaliated by killing 200 soldiers and their livestock.
In 1782, Moravian Protestants in Ohio killed 96 Christianized Delaware Indians who were blamed for attacks on white settlements. Militiamen escorted the Indians in pairs to a cooper shop and beat them to death with wooden mallets and hatchets.
As America grew, so also did the number of conflicts. The long-term battle of cultures was one that Native Americans had little chance of winning, due to superior resources of the Anglo-European immigrants arriving with each ship.
It was a dark and cruel world — and still is today — only the reasoning and methodology has changed. Whether or not the world is more civilized than in times past is an ongoing question to be debated.
In the early Pacific Northwest, there were fatal encounters between Indians and trappers, but the first major historic confrontation happened in 1847, when a band of renegade Cayuse and Umatilla warriors attacked a Protestant mission near Walla Walla, killing Dr. Marcus Whitman, his wife, Narcissa, and 12 others, while also taking 54 hostages. Not all survived.
The killings triggered the Cayuse War.
The Whitmans were blamed for the death of some 200 Indians who had contracted measles — a white man’s disease for which they had no immunity. Five Indians were eventually captured, tried, convicted and hanged.
Due to westward expansion in America, Northwest Indians faced a tough year in 1858: Settlers were attacked, and U.S. Indian Agent A.J. Bolon was murdered — with the blame put on Yakama Sub-Chief Qualchan.
Qualchan’s father, Chief Owhi, entered U.S. Army Col. George Wright’s camp under a white flag to negotiate peace. He was immediately shackled and held hostage to lure his son into camp.
Not knowing that his father was a prisoner, Qualchan arrived the next day with his wife, Whist-alks, their son, brother Lo-kout, and two warriors. Within 15 minutes, Qualchan was slowly strangled to death without trial.
After witnessing his son’s murder, Chief Owhi was shot dead attempting to escape.
Three days later, Col. Wright hanged a dozen more Indians who came to his camp under a flag of truce.
Wright’s rampage in September 1858 wasn’t over. To stop further Indian attacks, he ordered his troops to round up and herd 800 to 900 Indian horses to a field in Spokane Valley — near the Idaho-Washington border at Post Falls — and slaughter them. The killings also prevented the tribes from hunting for food on horseback — bringing on starvation.
There was also trouble in southwestern Oregon in the 1850s: A gold strike brought in hordes of miners, and the Oregon Trail was crowded with tens of thousands promised free land by the 1850 Donation Lands Claim Act.
More cultural clashes between Indians and whites were inevitable. A spark was ignited in 1853 when miners marched a 7-year-old Indian boy through the streets of Jacksonville, Ore., and then hung him.
The Rogue River Wars were just ahead.
Elsewhere too, bad things had been happening for years:
In 1813, the Creek Indians in Alabama were warring among themselves with one faction seeking accommodation with the whites and adopting white man ways. Another band of Creek called Red Sticks opposed them and their white and Metis (mixed blood) allies who were encamped at Fort Mims, anticipating an attack.
Some 700 Red Sticks did attack — killing 250 defenders and taking at least 100 captives.
State militia Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson and 2,500 troops, mostly from Tennessee, avenged the massacre by slaughtering 186 Creeks at Tallushatchee.
“We shot them like dogs!” said Davey Crockett.
Creek women killed their own children rather than watch the soldiers do it. Jackson rescued one baby before the mother could kill him, and with his wife, Rachel, raised the boy as their own.
Jackson won the Red Stick War. The one-sided treaty that followed forced the Creek to give up more than 21 million acres of land to the United States.
From 1830 to 1840, the U.S. army removed 60,000 Indians — Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee and others from the Southeast, forcing them into reservations west of the Mississippi. Thousands died along the way of what became known as the Trail of Tears.
In 1862, when government promises of annuities and food failed to materialize, angry rampaging Dakota Sioux killed 490 settlers — mostly women and children — triggering the Little Crow War.
Three hundred Dakotas were tried, convicted and sentenced to death, but President Lincoln commuted their sentences except for 38.
Some 4,000 locals came with their picnic baskets to watch the spectacle of the U.S. Army troops lined up in formation to witness and hang the 38.
The bodies were buried in a shallow grave and later dug up by physicians to use as medical cadavers.
Anti-Indian anger rose in the late 1880s when the Ghost Dance spiritual movement in 16 states called for rejecting white man’s ways — threatening government efforts to culturally assimilate tribal peoples. On Dec. 29, 1890, the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry massacred 146 ghost dancers at Wounded Knee in South Dakota.
Fast-forward to present times:
During the World War II Greatest Generation era, and perhaps up to the 1960s, America was a different country than it is today. Our diverse cultures were generally at peace with one another — though not perfectly. The Civil Rights Movement was gaining traction, and the nation was booming with new technologies and new opportunities.
Americans were more united then — more tolerant of ethnic and cultural groups like the Jews, Irish, Italians, Polish, Slavs, Asians and others who early on faced discrimination but were increasingly being accepted into mainstream America.
On a personal level, there was more respect toward one another — between kids and parents, neighbors, different races and cultures — and social attitudes were very different regarding self-government, duty, responsibility, divorce, sexual lifestyles, dress codes, etiquette and table manners, honor and honesty, speech and politeness, loyalty and trust — and the integrity of doing the right thing even when no one is looking.
French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting America in the 1830s, understood the rhythm and dynamics of the growing nation better than many today.
“America is great because she is good,” he wrote in “Democracy in America.” “If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
He further warned, “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”
America has never been perfect — no nation has — but we should learn the lessons of history.
Despites all its faults, the United States is still a beacon of light in a world of darkness.
Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com
Words to live by…
“Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith…Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.”
— Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)
Jackson tells Congress…
“They Indians) 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 (before they) long disappear.”
— President Andrew Jackson (1833)
Abducted by Indians…
“On a cool May day in 1758, a 10-year girl with red hair and freckles was caring for her neighbor’s children in rural western Pennsylvania. In a few moments, Mary Campbell’s life changed forever when Delaware Indians kidnapped her and absorbed her into their community for the next six years. She became the first of some 200 known cases of white captives, many of whom became pawns in an ongoing power struggle that included European powers, American colonists and indigenous peoples straining to maintain their population, their land and way of life. While Mary was ultimately returned to her white family—and some evidence points to her having lived happily with her adopted Indian tribe—stories such as hers became a cautionary tale among white settlers, stoking fear of ‘savage’ Indians and creating a paranoia that escalated into all-out Indian hating.”
— A&E TELEVISION
On killing the horses…
“I deeply regretted killing these poor creatures, but a dire necessity drove me to it…The chastisement which these Indians have received has been severe but well merited and absolutely necessary to impress them with our power. … A blow has been struck which they will never forget.”
— Col. George Wright, U.S. Army
Culture of 1800s…
“War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”
— Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, U.S. Army
Rogue River War…
“The war was the direct result of the aggression by exterminators—Indian haters—living in the Rogue River valley…They had an attitude of racism that native people were sub-human, savage and had no right or entitlement to be their neighbors.”
— Stephen Dow Beckham, historian and author of “Requiem for a People: The Rogue Indians and the Frontiersmen”