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Demystifying the “Indian Wars,” a Complex Series of Conflicts

The fighting spanned dozens of adversaries and hundreds of years.

the indian wars
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  • The Treaty of Greenville (1795) is negotiated at the end of the Northwest Indian War.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The early 17th century saw a group of battles and conflicts known as the “Indian Wars.” As did the late 17th century, the 18th century, the 19th century, and even the early 20th century. There’s few terms in American history so all-encompassing as “Indian Wars.” The term is a historical relic in its own right, dating back to a time when dozens of major conflicts across time and across America, alongside different tribes and nations could be grouped together so simply. At its core, the “Indian Wars” was a period in early American history in which Native Americans and settlers were in constant conflict.

The first conflict to be labeled under the “Indian Wars” began in the early 1600s, when European countries began colonizing North America in earnest. The century-long conflict between the French and the Iroquois was known as the “Beaver Wars,” since it was motivated by desire for control of territories populated by the animals and most importantly, their lucrative furs.

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The Beaver Wars established a pattern that would be repeated by many of the Native American and European struggles to come in the next few centuries: indigenous tribes and nations would ally with their trading partners and engage in on-and-off skirmishes with their territorial or economic adversaries for years or decades. In this case, the Algonquians sided with the French. The Iroquois would prove victorious, expanding into modern-day New England and refusing an offer from the French to turn against their British allies. This would eventually weaken French power in North America in the decades to come. 

Other 17th-century conflicts included three Anglo-Powhatan Wars, during which the 1622 Jamestown Massacre took place, along with Native American involvement in wars between the rival European nations, particularly England and France.

While minor wars and conflicts occurred throughout the 1700s, tensions between colonists and Native Americans increased in the build-up to the American Revolution. As colonists fought the British, battles were raging for control of the lands east of the Mississippi River. The Iroquois Confederacy—also known as the Haudenosaunee—were divided in their support between the colonists and the British, and were eventually forced to fight one other. Other tribes, like the Cherokee, were similarly split. 

Although Native Americans may have thought they were protecting themselves and their future interests by allying with one European side or another, these kinds of conflicts would prove to be devastating for indigenous populations. For example, even though the Revolutionary War was primarily fought between the colonists and the British, it's still considered a costly Indian War. This was amplified when the British ceded indigenous lands to the American settlers following their defeat; the colonists then believed these tribes to be enemies squatting on conquered land and responded with devastating force.

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Tensions continued in the lead-up to the War of 1812, which itself can be considered part of the Indian Wars. The British Empire, furious after their loss against the Americans, began providing aid to several tribes in hopes of securing their loyalty should a future war break out. The Brits had a plan to create an "Indian barrier state" in the Great Lakes region that would be completely populated by Native Americans, independent of the United States, and under British control. The prevailing idea was that this would prevent the colonists from expanding westward, and keep control of the fur trade out of their hands. 

the indian wars
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  • Geronimo (right) and other Apache warriors pictured in 1886. The Apache Wars were part of the larger Indian Wars.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

When the War of 1812 broke out, several tribes backed the British, and also took the opportunity to settle some inter-tribal rivalries. Defeat was disastrous for Native Americans in the United States. Several tribes fled north to Canada or south to Spanish-controlled Florida, with the rest forcefully assimilated or relocated by the 1830 Indian Removal Act. This devastating blow came on the heels of wars waged against the Cherokee in Tennessee and a struggle against a multi-tribal confederacy in Ohio. 

The 19th century saw the indigenous population shrink even further. The First Seminole War—the dates of which are disputed, but occurred sometime between 1814 and 1819—saw Florida transferred from Spanish hands to American. The Second Seminole War began in 1835, and may have been the longest and mostly costly of the Indian Wars. Settlers in Florida wanted to relocate the Seminoles and return runaway slaves who had sought refuge with Floridian tribes. The Seminoles responded with a few successful attacks against the armed settlers, but were mostly relocated to reservations by the early 1840s.

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On the other side of the Mississippi, a separate batch of conflicts has also been categorized under the umbrella of the “Indian Wars.”  As settlers expanded westward, skirmishes along the frontier were frequent and bloody. More organized conflicts came in the form of the Great Sioux War and Red Cloud’s War fought on the Great Plains, the Comanche-Mexican War and Texas-Indian Wars in the South, and the Rogue River Wars and Puget Sound War in the Pacific Northwest, among dozens of other battles and extended conflicts. The century saw fighting in every corner of what is now mainland USA, with massacres and genocides far from uncommon.

By the early 20th century, the Indian Wars had begun to slow down for a few reasons. The simplest and saddest explanation is that there were significantly fewer Native Americans left to fight. Those who survived the violence of genocide were either forced to assimilate into American society or live apart on designated reservations. The first few decades of the 1900s saw minor skirmishes and short conflicts with casualties in the dozens rather than hundreds or thousands. With the end of the Apache Wars in 1924, so too did the era of the “Indian Wars” cease.

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Dozens of conflicts and wars were not even mentioned here, simply because it would take too long to explain each one in detail. Categorizing all these engagements under one title is more obviously a farce the more one researches this period of American history. Before even considering the dated term “Indian,” the different tribes and nations affected by these wars cover such a large distance in geography, culture, language, genealogy, and religion that grouping them all together as “Americans vs. Indians” is not just a racist oversimplification, it’s poor from an educational standpoint. The centuries of conflicts between, say, the British Isles against Vikings, the Roman Empire, and France would never be classified as “the European Wars.” Yet 300 years of aggression between European colonists and North America’s original inhabitants is grouped as a single set of conflicts, even to this day, nearly a century after the end of the so-called Indian Wars.

Source: History.com