"They Made Us Many Promises": The American Indian Experience, 1524 To the Present

By Philip Weeks | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
Ambiguity and Misunderstanding:
The Struggle between the U.S. Army
and the Indians for the Great Plains

Thomas W. Dunlay

Anglo Americans and Plains Indians first came into serious conflict in Texas, where by the 1830s white settlement had penetrated the raiding range of the Comanches and Kiowas. The belligerence and mutual lack of understanding the Indian and white people displayed ensured future conflicts and the growth of a mutual hatred. Elsewhere the American settlement frontier remained east of the Great Plains, and through the 1840s only fur traders, trappers, and Santa Fe traders had any considerable contact with the Plains tribes. Nevertheless, the Plains people were certainly aware of the white presence in their homelands; whence came a variety of material goods on which they became increasingly dependent and diseases that devastated some tribes, especially the sedentary Missouri River folk. Though impressed by the tools and luxuries the whites dispensed, the Plains Indians remained ethnocentrically contemptuous of white behavior. In any case, at midcentury the Plains tribes had little conception of the vast number of whites or the power embodied in their technology and social organizations.

The westward expansion of the United States in the 1840s, followed by the California gold rush, changed this situation. Large numbers of whites began to cross the Plains by the Platte River route, while lesser numbers did so farther south. Comanche leaders promptly informed U.S. authorities that they did not object to whites crossing their territory, providing the travelers remained “orderly,” a requirement that casts a curious light on the Comanches' fearsome reputation. Interestingly, they made a distinction between “Americans” and “Texans,” not yet realizing the implications of the recent U.S. annexation of the Lone Star Republic.

Not until 1848 and 1849 did the U.S. Army first establish military posts beyond the eastern periphery of the Great Plains. In 1851, at Fort Laramie in present-day Wyoming, U.S. civil authorities held the first great council with the Northern Plains tribes, in which the former hoped to secure pledges of safe passage through the region for white travelers as well as intertribal peace among the Indian peoples themselves. The Plains tribes had for decades been accustomed to refer to the president as the Great Father or Grandfather, but they had no idea of

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