Indian wars, in American history, general term referring to the series of conflicts between Europeans and their descendants and the indigenous peoples of North America.
Each of the colonial powers in North America met and overcame Native American resistance. In the Southwest the most notable incident precipitated by the Spaniards was the ferocious Pueblo uprising led by Popé in 1680. New France was constantly menaced because of the hostility of the Iroquois Confederacy, although the French missionaries and traders maintained better relations with other Northeastern tribes. The history of the English settlements is studded with tribal conflicts, including the war of the Pequot against the Connecticut settlers in 1637; the uprising of the Wampanoag and Narragansett against the New England colonies in 1675–76, known as King Philip's War; the wars with the Yamasee on the South Carolina frontier; and Pontiac's Rebellion in the Northwest Territory in 1763.
Struggles in the Northwest Territory
After the American Revolution, the most pressing Native American problem facing the new government was the unwillingness of the tribes of the Northwest to acquiesce in the settlement of the Ohio valley. After unsuccessful expeditions under generals Josiah Harmar (1790) and Arthur St. Clair (1791), Gen. Anthony Wayne defeated the tribes of the Northwest Territory at the battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. By the Treaty of Greenville (1795) they agreed to give up their lands in Ohio and move to Indiana.
Settlers soon began to encroach on Native American lands in Indiana, provoking the Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, and his brother, the Shawnee Prophet, to organize a powerful native confederacy. In 1811, William H. Harrison defeated the Shawnee Prophet at Tippecanoe. Tecumseh allied himself with the British in the War of 1812 and was killed in the battle of the Thames (1813), which ended the threat from Native Americans in the Northwest Territory. During the War of 1812 the Creek also rose and were defeated (1814) by Andrew Jackson.
Relocation across the Mississippi
After 1815 a policy of removing the indigenous population to reservations across the Mississippi River was pursued by the U.S. government with such success that by 1860 the great majority of the tribes had been relocated. Often, however, this was accomplished only after a struggle. The attempt to remove the Seminole from their lands in Florida resulted in a number of wars; the most notable Seminole War involved the celebrated Osceola. Similarly the refusal of the Sac and Fox to be removed led to the Black Hawk War of 1832.
Wars in the West
After 1860 the wars continued but they now took place W of the Mississippi; the heaviest fighting occurred on the Great Plains, but there was also intermittent warfare in the Southwest and Northwest. In these conflicts most of the fighting was done by the regular army led by two of the more renowned Indian fighters, generals George Crook and Nelson Miles. Much of the opposition was furnished by four tribes: the Sioux, the Apache, the Comanche, and the Cheyenne. Other tribes that presented courageous but generally futile opposition to the white man's rapacity were the Arapaho, the Kiowa, the Ute, the Blackfoot, the Shoshone, the Nez Percé, and the Bannock. Among the Native American fighting leaders were Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph, Captain Jack, Red Cloud, and Mangas Coloradas. The warfare was characterized by numerous atrocities on both sides.
Until 1861 the Plains people had been relatively peaceful, but the advance of white settlers, with their wanton slaughter of the buffalo herds on which the Native Americans depended for their livelihood, led to the first of the numerous outbreaks in the West. Dissatisfaction among the Native Americans continued; the contributing causes were corrupt Indian agents, transgressions by prospectors seeking valuable minerals in tribal lands, and the interference of the railroads with the tribes' traditional hunting practices. Hostilities between the army and indigenous tribes reached its height between 1869 and 1878, when over 200 pitched battles were fought. Although the Native Americans fought fiercely and courageously, the continuing flow of settlers to the West and the spread of a Western railroad network made their resistance ineffectual.
Notable incidents in this bloody warfare include the virtual siege of Tucson by a band of Apaches led by Cochise, the massacre at Sand Creek, the Fetterman Massacre (see under Fetterman, William Judd), Custer's last stand (see Custer, George Armstrong), and the battle of Wounded Knee. Wounded Knee in 1890 is often considered the last battle of the Indian Wars although there was an expedition against the Ojibwa in Minnesota in 1898. By 1887, with the passage of the Dawes Act, a new era had begun. The resistance of the Native Americans was at an end, and the government had successfully confined them to reservations.
See A. Britt, Great Indian Chiefs (1938, repr. 1969); M. F. Schmitt and D. A. Brown, Fighting Indians of the West (1948, repr. 1966); R. H. Lowie, Indians of the Plains (1954, repr. 1963); A. M. Josephy, The Patriot Chiefs (1961); J. Tebbel and K. W. Jennison, The American Indian Wars (1961); J. Tebbel, The Compact History of the Indian Wars (1966); A. W. Eckert, Wilderness Empire (1969); D. A. Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970); S. Longstreet, War Cries on Horseback (1970); H. Bird, War for the West, 1790–1813 (1971); S. L. A. Marshall, Crimsoned Prairie (1972). See also the bibliographies under the various chiefs, tribes, and wars cited.