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The Indian Wars and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

In the late nineteenth century, the US Army clashed with Native Americans, and General Custer took his last stand. 


  • The Indian Wars were a protracted series of conflicts between Native American Indians and white settlers over land and natural resources in the West.
  • Many of these battles resulted from Indian resistance to the imposition of the reservation system and the repeated attempts of the US Army and white settlers to forcibly remove Native Americans from their tribal lands.
  • The Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand, marked the beginning of the end of the Indian Wars.

Indian removal and the reservation system

From the earliest days of European colonization of the New World, relations between white Europeans and Native Americans were plagued by violent competition for land and natural resources. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 authorized the forced removal of numerous Indian tribes from their ancestral lands in the Southeast to what was designated “Indian territory” west of the Mississippi River. The Cherokee nation was subject to a brutal mass migration that came to be known as the Trail of Tears.1
Some tribes fiercely resisted the forced relocations, and Native Americans and the US Army fought many battles in the East. The Seminoles of Florida, for instance, refused to leave their lands, resulting in the Second Seminole War, which lasted from 1835 to 1842 and has been described as “the longest and most costly of the Indian conflicts of the United States.”2 Despite some major Indian victories in battle, the US Army ultimately succeeded in crushing this resistance, massacring or forcing into hiding those Indians who refused to march westward.
The Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 established Indian reservations in the territory that would become the states of Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Kansas. The US federal government envisioned the reservation system as a method of keeping Native American tribes off of the lands that white Americans wished to settle.3 Many tribes resisted the imposition of the reservation system, sparking a series of bloody battles that ultimately led to the forced relocation of most Native Americans onto the reservations.

The Indian Wars of the West

Inspired by the ideology of Manifest Destiny, which held that European Americans were divinely ordained to settle the whole of the North American continent, white settlers pushed ever further westward towards the Pacific. As they did so, they increasingly came into violent conflict with Native American Indians over land and natural resources, especially after the discovery of gold in western territories sparked the Gold Rush. Prospective gold-diggers flooded into the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest, clashing—sometimes violently—with the Native Americans they encountered there.4
Map of battles between Native Americans and the US Army, 1860-1890. Most battles occurred in the Great Plains region, with centers of activity in Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, and South Dakota.
Map of battles between Native Americans and the US Army, 1860-1890. Map courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The relentless pace of continental expansion inevitably heightened these conflicts. After the Mexican-American War, the territories comprising modern-day Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California became sites of competition and bloody skirmishing between white settlers and Native Americans.5

The Battle of the Little Bighorn

As white settlers moved into the Great Plains region, they battled the Plains Indian tribes in a series of conflicts known as the Sioux Wars, which lasted from 1854 to 1890. In 1875, the discovery of gold in the Black Hills region of South Dakota brought prospective miners into the area and onto the hunting grounds of the Sioux Indians. The US Army responded to the pleas of the white settlers and miners for protection against the Sioux, and the Great Sioux War of 1876-77 erupted. It was the last major conflict between the US Army and the Sioux tribe.
Photograph of Sitting Bull, wearing Native American garb and a feather in his hair.
Sitting Bull was a leader of the Sioux during the Indian Wars. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
On June 25, 1876, Colonel George Armstrong Custer of the 7th Cavalry led his battalion in an attack on the main Sioux encampment at Little Bighorn, in a battle that is also commonly referred to as Custer’s Last Stand.6 Custer and his men were vastly outnumbered by the Indians, who were led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. The Indians, enjoying both superior numbers and a strong tactical advantage, defeated the 7th Cavalry and killed Custer. Although the battle was a major victory for the Sioux, they abandoned the encampment at Little Bighorn and fled, fearing further reprisals from the US Army. The battle marked the beginning of the end of the Indian Wars, as the remaining tribes were forced to cede their lands and move onto the reservations.

What do you think?

What do you see as the primary difference between Native American and European American conceptions of land and ownership?
What was the effect of Manifest Destiny on US-Indian relations?
Why is the Battle of the Little Bighorn significant?

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