Almost from the time the first Europeans landed in the Americas, the native people’s lives were disrupted. In the early years of colonization, thousands of Indians died from disease. Colonists crowded the Indians off their hunting grounds, which led to conflict and war.
These conflicts escalated during the 1800s as settlers moved west. The government was unable to come up with a fair solution; wars between the Indians and white men became more common and more violent.
- About 250,000 American Indians lived in the West in the mid-1800s. Tribes, such as the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Sioux, depended on herds of buffalo for their survival. They smoked or dried the buffalo meat, used the hides for clothing, moccasins, and tepees, and made the bone and sinews into jewelry, tools, and weapons. The wagon trains and army forts brought more white men to the West. The railroads were especially destructive. At least 50 million bison once roamed the plains. By 1875, they were nearly extinct.
- The U.S. government signed treaties with the Indians, promising them reserves of land. These treaties weren’t fair because the government often broke their word, taking lands they had originally promised. The Indians weren’t in an equal position of power and couldn’t negotiate; and most of the reserved land was land that the white men didn’t want – land with poor soil, few natural resources or water, or in areas with severe weather.
- In 1862, Chief Little Crow led Sioux Indians in Minnesota to attack Fort Ridgley, killing 29 people. During the Dakota Wars, the Sioux Indians attacked the small settlement of New Ulm. The people of the town fled and gathered together in makeshift buildings. The crowded conditions allowed diseases to thrive. Many more people died from illness than from the Sioux attacks.
- In 1874, thousands of gold seekers came to sacred Sioux lands in the Black Hills region looking for gold. Sioux Indians responded by fighting. U.S. Calvary General George A. Custer led 264 troops into battle against the Sioux, which had many more men. Every white man, including Custer, was killed. This battle is known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
- Some of the Sioux believed that the whites would disappear and buffalo herds would come back. They believed they had seen this in a group ritual, The Ghost Dance. Calvary officers worried that the Indians might create an uprising. They gathered and held 350 Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. Someone shot a gun and soldiers, fearing a battle, shot and killed nearly 200 men, women, and children.
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