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date: 03 December 2023

Native American Wars

The Oxford Companion to American Military History

James D. Drake,

James D. Drake,

James D. Drake

Native American Wars. 

This essay consists of three articles that examine different aspects of Native American wars and warfare. Warfare in Native American Societies discusses the changing nature of organized armed conflict in disparate Native American societies. Wars Among Native Americans examines warfare between different Indian nations before and after contact with Euro‐Americans. Wars Between Native Americans and Europeans and Euro‐Americans traces the history of warfare between Indians and European nations, American colonies and states, and the United States.

Native American Wars: Warfare in Native American Societies

The significance of warfare varied tremendously among the hundreds of pre‐Columbian Native American societies, and its meanings and implications changed dramatically for all of them after European contact. Among the more densely populated Eastern Woodland cultures, warfare often served as a means of coping with grief and depopulation. Such conflict, commonly known as a “mourning war,” usually began at the behest of women who had lost a son or husband and desired the group's male warriors to capture individuals from other groups who could replace those they had lost. Captives might help maintain a stable population or appease the grief of bereaved relatives: if the women of the tribe so demanded, captives would be ritually tortured, sometimes to death if the captive was deemed unfit for adoption into the tribe. Because the aim in warfare was to acquire captives, quick raids, as opposed to pitched battles, predominated. Warfare in Eastern Woodland cultures also allowed young males to acquire prestige or status through the demonstration of martial skill and courage. Conflicts among these groups thus stemmed as much from internal social reasons as from external relations with neighbors. Territory and commerce provided little impetus to fight.

Trade contacts with Europeans changed this situation by creating economic motives to fight, as Indians sought European goods. The arrival of Europeans also dramatically intensified mourning warfare as it ushered in an era of depopulation stemming from colonization, intertribal warfare, and epidemic disease. In the seventeenth century, Algonquian and Iroquoian groups fought a series of “beaver wars” to control access to pelts, which could be traded for iron tools and firearms from Europe. Casualties and losses from disease ignited more mourning wars in a vicious cycle that threatened the viability of many Eastern Woodland cultures.

On the Western Plains, pre‐Columbian warfare—before the introduction of horses and guns—pitted tribes against one another for control of territory and its resources, as well as for captives and honor. Indian forces marched on foot to attack rival tribes who sometimes resided in palisaded villages. Before the arrival of the horse and gun, battles could last days, and casualties could number in the hundreds; thereafter, both Plains Indian culture and the character and meaning of war changed dramatically. The horse facilitated quick, long‐distance raids to acquire goods. Warfare became more individualistic and less bloody: an opportunity for adolescent males to acquire prestige through demonstrations of courage. It became more honorable for a warrior to touch his enemy (to count “coup”) or steal his horse than to kill him.

Although the arrival of the horse may have moderated Plains warfare, its stakes remained high. Bands of Lakota Sioux moved westward from the Eastern Woodlands and waged war against Plains residents to secure access to buffalo for subsistence and trade with Euro‐Americans. Lakota Sioux populations, unlike most Indian groups, increased in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; this expansion required greater access to buffalo and thus more territory.

Unlike the Plains and the Eastern Woodlands, pre‐Columbian warfare was almost negligible west of the Rockies. Northwest Coast, Columbia Plateau, and Arctic peoples tended to express violence at a personal level rather than between more elaborate political entities. Ceremonies often resolved conflicts between groups; rituals such as ceremonial gaming and the potlatch—a gathering at which the host acquired honor and privilege through the distribution of goods—allowed individuals peaceably to acquire prestige and leaders to compete for the allegiance of followers, and minimized warfare in the northwestern quadrant before the arrival of Europeans.

As always, European contact ushered in an era of greater warfare by intensifying competition for resources. Mounted Lakota Sioux warriors pushed such Plains nations as the Blackfeet and the Crow westward, into contact with Plateau Indians, precipitating violence between groups that shared little common cultural ground by which to mediate disputes. Some Plateau groups, such as the Nez Percé, adapted culturally, closely approximating Plains horse culture, including its martial components. Similarly, European traders, who approached trade as a competitive endeavor instead of one of reciprocity that created ties of mutual obligation, provoked disputes and sporadic violence in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The European settlement that followed more distant trade relationships led to many wars for the control of land, some of which promoted united, pan‐Indian resistance.

Despite the diversity of Indian cultures in North America, patterns of resistance to Euro‐American conquest followed certain rules: sedentary groups tended to capitulate more quickly than their nomadic counterparts, because nomads faced more drastic changes in lifestyle if they surrendered to European domination, and because they could capitalize on their mobility to resist Euro‐Americans militarily. Semisedentary and sedentary groups, lacking the means to carry out guerrilla warfare, found it more feasible to accept reservation life and European‐style agriculture.


Frank Raymond Secoy, Changing Military Patterns on the Great Plains, 1953.Find this resource:

Richard White, The Winning of the West: The Expansion of the Western Sioux in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Journal of American History, 65 (September 1978), pp. 319–43.Find this resource:

Patrick M. Malone, The Skulking Way of War: Technology and Tactics Among the New England Indians, 1991.Find this resource:

Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815, 1991.Find this resource:

Daniel K. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization, 1992.Find this resource:

Stan Hoig, Tribal Wars of the Southern Plains, 1993.Find this resource:

James D. Drake

Native American Wars: Wars Among Native Americans

Among most Indian groups east of Mississippi River on the eve of European contact—including the Iroquois and Cherokee—warfare served both social‐psychological and demographic functions. Indians waged war against one another to help members of their group cope with the grief experienced at the loss of a loved one or to avenge the death of a relative. Known as “mourning wars,” these conflicts were intended to acquire captives who would in turn either be ceremonially tortured to death or adopted into the group. Although men had responsibility for waging war and conducting the raids for captives, women often decided to initiate wars and typically chose between killing and adopting captives. Because taking captives rather than acquiring territory or economic goods was the primary impetus to fight, most wars before the arrival of Europeans were sporadic and consisted of relatively quick raids with little bloodshed.

Contact with Europeans spread trade goods and new diseases throughout the Eastern Woodlands, changing and intensifying wars between Indian groups. In the Northeast, for example, Iroquoian peoples dependent on European firearms and iron tools expanded militarily to acquire the beaver pelts Europeans sought in exchange for their goods. The result, a protracted series of “beaver wars” between Iroquoian and Algonquian groups near the Great Lakes from the 1640s to 1680s, had both economic and demographic motives. Having lost many members to European diseases, the Iroquois waged mourning wars in a desperate effort to maintain their populations; meanwhile, having hunted out the local beaver supply, they expanded their hunting grounds, creating conflict with neighboring groups. The attendant warfare led to further depopulation, and, in a dangerous cycle, escalated mourning wars.

Beginning in the 1680s, wars among the Eastern Woodland Indians became entangled with the European wars for control of the continent and the Atlantic trade. King William's War (1689–97), Queen Anne's War (1702–13), King George's War (1744–48), and the French and Indian War (1754–63), all pitted Indians against one another as allies of European powers. Incentives for Indians in these wars were both economic and demographic. Indians used European allies to further their interests in wars for captives and control of economic resources.

Indian rebellions against colonial domination also tended to become wars among Indian groups. In King Philip's War (1675–76), for example, Indian groups including the Mohawks helped the New England colonies put down a great Wampanoag‐Narragansett‐Abenaki uprising. These actions reflected old rivalries among New England's Indians, as well as the view of some who preferred a strategy of accommodation toward the English over violent resistance. Similarly, in the Yamasee War (1715), Cherokees seeking English trade goods helped white Carolinians suppress the Yamasee and Creek Indians who resisted European military encroachments.

Wars on the Plains and in the Southwest differed from those in the Eastern Woodlands in that these primarily broke out between peoples pursuing two distinct lifestyles—nomadic and horticulturist. While such groups often forged symbiotic relationships, e.g., exchanging crops for buffalo meat, these contacts sometimes degenerated into nomadic raids on villages. The arrival of Europeans and the spread of the horse heightened distinctions between nomads and villagers. Most horticulturists, like the Pueblos, Pawnees, Navajos, Omahas, and Arikaras, remained sedentary once they acquired the horse; but others, such as the Cheyennes and Crows, abandoned horticulture for nomadism. Yet other groups, such as the Lakota Sioux and Blackfeet, moved onto the Plains from the east to take advantage of the buffalo supply and became nomads in the process. Those Plains and southwestern groups that had practiced nomadism before European contact usually continued after the arrival of the horse. The horse enabled nomads to hunt more efficiently, but did not end their reliance on agricultural peoples for many goods; trade between nomads and villagers became rarer, however, as raids largely supplanted trading as a means of procuring agricultural products.

The development of horse culture shifted the military balance of power on the Plains in favor of nomads. The Comanches came to dominate the southern Plains in the first half of the eighteenth century at the expense of Pueblos, Plains Apaches, and Navajos. Early in the eighteenth century, for example, the Navajos lived north of Santa Fe; pressures from northern raiders gradually drove them westward, until by 1750 they inhabited what is now Arizona and western New Mexico.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, the Lakota Sioux did to northern and central Plains Indians what the Comanches had done to the Navajos. Originally residents of the Eastern Woodlands, the Sioux became the dominant power of the northern and central Plains through their willingness to use the horse as a tool of conquest against the horticulturists of the upper Missouri River. From Minnesota, they ranged westward to the Rocky Mountains and southward to the Platte River, finding allies in the Arapahos and Cheyennes, who helped devastate the Pawnees, Arikaras, and other groups by the mid‐nineteenth century. The rise of the Lakota Sioux at the expense of sedentary tribes explains why the latter behaved as they did after the arrival of the United States on the Plains in the 1840s. Horticultural groups saw a greater threat in the expanding Lakota Sioux than the United States. They felt that a military alliance with the United States against the Lakota Sioux offered their best hope for survival.


Frank Raymond Secoy, Changing Military Patterns on the Great Plains, 1953.Find this resource:

Richard White, The Winning of the West: The Expansion of the Western Sioux in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Journal of American History, 65 (September 1978), pp. 319–43.Find this resource:

Thomas D. Hall, Social Change in the Southwest, 1350–1880, 1989.Find this resource:

Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815, 1991.Find this resource:

Daniel K. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization, 1992.Find this resource:

Stan Hoig, Tribal Wars of the Southern Plains, 1993.Find this resource:

James D. Drake

Native American Wars: Wars Between Native Americans and Europeans and Euro‐Americans

Despite the diversity of Euro‐American and American Indian societies, wars between the two have shared certain features. In most eras of conflict, Euro‐Americans had Indian allies; Euro‐American citizen soldiers tended toward greater brutality and less military discipline than professional soldiers; nomadic groups of Indians usually waged war more tenaciously than the more sedentary ones; and the eruption and expansion of war usually stemmed from a Euro‐American drive to acquire Indian land.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, European powers established military presences in North America from which they could make and defend claims—by right of discovery, settlement, or conquest—to vast portions of a continent already inhabited by Indians. In response, many Native Americans waged wars to resist European colonial domination. In the seventeenth century, the Powhatan Confederacy threatened the existence of the Virginia Colony with attacks in 1622 and 1644. Four decades after their devastation of the Pequots in the Pequot War (1636–37); New England colonists faced a massive uprising among the Algonquians living within their borders in King Philip's War (1675–76). The Pueblo Revolt (1680) drove the Spanish out of New Mexico for thirteen years. In the eighteenth century, colonists in Virginia and the Carolinas forcibly acquired land from Tuscaroras, Yamasees, and Cherokees, while the French put down the armed resistance of the Natchez, Chickasaw, and Fox.

In these wars and others, many groups of Indians flirted with a united pan‐Indian alliance against colonists, but such alliances usually failed to reach fruition. With the French defeat in the French and Indian War (1754–63), Indians west of the Appalachians found their survival threatened because they could no longer play off the French against the English. Aware that the presence of only one European power in their vicinity meant that the old trade system had broken down, in 1763 the Ottawa Chief Pontiac rallied many groups formerly allied with the French in an effort to oust the English from the Ohio Valley. Pontiac's Rebellion (1763–66), although relatively successful in cementing a pan‐Indian alliance, ultimately failed. The English government tried to achieve peace in 1763 by a royal proclamation separating Indians and English settlers at the crest of the Appalachian Mountains. While the proclamation's promise that all land west of he Appalachians would be reserved for the Indians weakened Pontiac's alliance, it did nothing to lessen Euro‐American pressures on Indian land, as American traders, squatters, and speculators flowed unchecked into the Ohio Valley.

Throughout the colonial era, European imperial rivalries overlaid warfare between Europeans and Native Americans. For example, during King William's (1689–97), Queen Anne's (1702–13), and King George's (1744–48) Wars, the French supported Algonquian raids against the English colonies, while New England's domesticated Indians and certain Iroquoian allies aided the English. In the French and Indian War, the French and their mostly Algonquian allies initially made impressive strides toward controlling the Ohio Valley, beginning with Braddock's Defeat (1755), only to be overcome by the more numerous English and their Iroquoian supporters. Indians fought as European allies in these wars to advance their own perceived interests in acquiring weapons and other trade goods and captives for adoption, status, or revenge. Until the end of the French and Indian War, Indians succeeded in using these imperial contests to preserve their freedom of action.

The Revolutionary War, however, forced the Indians of the Eastern Woodlands to deal with a United States that by the Treaty of Paris (1783) had acquired all British claims south of the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi. The United States encouraged settlement in its newly acquired lands, and the resulting Euro‐American pressures for Indian land generated sporadic fighting in the Old Northwest. In the late 1780s, Shawnees and other Indians launched attacks that swept across Indiana, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania, and soundly defeated contingents of the U.S. Army in 1790 (“Harmar's Defeat”) and 1791 (“St. Clair's Defeat,” which inflicted 900 casualties on the 1,400 Americans under Arthur St. Clair). It took until 1794 for U.S. troops to quell the Indian warriors in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, in which Gen. Anthony Wayne decisively defeated the Indians, securing the Old Northwest—for the time being—to Euro‐American control.

Following their defeat in 1794 and the Treaty of Greenville (1795), the Indian land base continued to shrink until 1809, when the Shawnee brothers Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa fostered a message of Indian unity and nativism among the tribes of the Old Northwest. Tensions in the region climaxed when Indians capitalized on the War of 1812 between the United States and England to wage their own war. Despite several initial battlefield victories, these Indian efforts failed to do more than briefly delay the completion of American dominion in the Old Northwest. A final Indian attempt failed in the Black Hawk War (1832).

To the south, diverse Creek leaders united to challenge white encroachment. Although some Creeks advocated accommodation, their voices went unheard as whites from Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee, the last under the leadership of Andrew Jackson, sought land and retribution for alleged Creek atrocities. The resulting Creek War (1811–14) ended with the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, in Alabama, in which 800 Indians died, the greatest Indian battle loss in U.S. history. The Cherokees were driven west in the Trail of Tears (1838–39). Most of the Florida Indians were conquered and forced west in the Seminole Wars (1818; 1835–42; 1855–58). Like the Indians in the Old Northwest, the Indians of the South had succumbed to U.S. expansion.

Peace, interrupted by only periodic armed resistance to removal policies, lasted until the end of the Mexican War in 1848. After that conflict, the U.S. government and Indians west of the Mississipi River confronted a new burst of westward migration propelled by gold discoveries in California. The populous yet atomized Indians of California faced local posses and militias rather than federal troops. The result was devastating; if Euro‐Americans committed genocide anywhere on the continent against Native Americans, it was in California. Between 1850 and 1860, war, disease, and starvation reduced the population of California Indians from 150,000 to 35,000. When prospectors found gold in the Pacific Northwest, warfare erupted in that region. The U.S. Army engaged in the Rogue River (1855–56), Yakima (1855–56), and Spokane (1858) Wars to force a number of tribes onto reservations in the eastern portions of Oregon and Washington.

The Modocs and Nez Percé mounted the most determined resistance in the Pacific Northwest. The former, under the leadership of Keintpoos, holed up in a ten‐square‐mile area of lava deposits rife with caves and trenches. From this advantageous position, 60 Modoc warriors held off 1,000 federal troops for seven months in 1873. When the Modoc finally surrendered, the United States executed four of their leaders and sent the remainder to the Indian Territory. The Nez Percé, under the leadership of Chief Joseph, led the army through more than 1,500 miles of rugged territory in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, until most were captured shortly before attempting to cross the Canadian border in 1877.

Initially, the United States sought to protect the overland trails leading to the West Coast from possible Indian attacks. While these attacks were minimal in the 1840s, Indians felt the presence of the migrants early as they brought disease and depleted game along the routes. Such repercussions escalated tensions. The Treaty of Fort Laramie, sponsored by the United States in 1851, sought to preserve peace on the plains by restricting tribes to designated lands. Yet fighting erupted as the parties largely ignored the treaty's terms and American migration continued to have detrimental effects on the buffalo herds on which Plains Indians relied for subsistence. Although Americans' westward migration temporarily abated during the Civil War, tensions between Indians and settlers remained high. In Minnesota, groups of Eastern Sioux raided American settlements in 1862, only to face retaliation from American troops who pushed many of them onto the plains. These Sioux faced relatively disciplined American troops and fared much better than the Cheyennes and Arapahos did at the hands of a volunteer Colorado militia. Sporadic Indian raids on Santa Fe Trail travelers led to fears in Colorado of a widespread Indian war. Hoping to make a preemptive strike, John Chivington led volunteers from Denver in the slaughter of most of Black Kettle's Cheyenne band, together with some southern Arapahos near Sand Creek—a location in southeastern Colorado where the U.S. government had promised them safety. The Sand Creek Massacre (1864) precipitated Cheyenne and Arapaho revenge as they joined the Sioux in what would be a sporadic twenty‐year war against the United States. In the Plains Indians Wars (1854–90), U.S. soldiers waged war to open the plains to safe travel and settlement by confining Indians to reservations; Plains Indian warriors sought increased individual status through wartime acts of bravery and preservation of their way of life. Plains Indians now faced vast numbers of Euro‐Americans, because the development of the railroad provided white soldiers and settlers efficient and economical transportation to the contested territory. In the end, U.S. destruction of the Indians' main food source—the buffalo—combined with persistent attacks on Indian villages subdued the Indians on the plains.

Nevertheless, Plains Indians mounted a spirited resistance. In the north, the Oglala Chief Red Cloud's warriors stopped the building of the Bozeman Trail between Fort Laramie and western Montana (1866–67). In 1868, the Sioux received U.S. treaty guarantees to their territory, including the Black Hills of South Dakota. Yet in the northern plains, these victories proved short‐lived. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills in the 1870s led to new white pressures for Sioux land, as the United States failed to live up to the terms of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. Crow and Shoshone warriors assisted American soldiers in their effort to conquer and pacify Sioux country. Determined to avenge the annihilation of George Armstrong Custer and much of the Seventh Cavalry in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, the army persisted until the last of the northern Plains Indians surrendered. By 1877, Sioux armed resistance came to a virtual end when Chief Sitting Bull fled to Canada and Crazy Horse surrendered.

On the southern plains, Kiowas, Comanches, and southern Cheyennes faced a similar fate. Hemmed in by Texans to the south and settlers along the Platte River to the north, at the Treaty of Medicine Lodge in 1867, these Indians agreed to live on reservations in exchange for the protection and supplies of the federal government. When the federal government failed to provide the promised supplies, Indian men left the reservations to hunt and conduct raids. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan and other officers retaliated with winter campaigns against Indian villages in the region beginning in 1868. Warfare lasted until 1875, by which time nearly all southern Plains Indians had submitted to life on reservations. The final denouement came in the tragedy known as the Battle of Wounded Knee (1890).

In the American Southwest, the last region of the United States to face intense Euro‐American pressure for land, various bands of Apaches under such prominent leaders as Cochise, Victorio, and Geronimo mounted perhaps the most protracted military resistance of Indians to Euro‐American expansion. Unlike the nearby Navajo, whose more sedentary existence had helped compel them to surrender in the 1860s, the prospect of surrender to American troops confronted the Apache with a catastrophic lifestyle change. Moreover, the Apache resided on more rugged territory than the Navajo, and their more nomadic existence facilitated their crossing and recrossing the Mexican border as they fled U.S. troops. Apache resistance came to an end in 1886 only after the army committed thousands of troop to the region and allowed them to cross the Mexican border in pursuit of the Apache.


Francis Paul Prucha, The Sword of the Republic: The United States Army on the Frontier, 1783–1846, 1969; repr. 1977.Find this resource:

Robert M. Utley, Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866–1890, 1973.Find this resource:

Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492, 1987.Find this resource:

David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America, 1992.Find this resource:

Stan Hoig, Tribal Wars of the Southern Plains, 1993.Find this resource:

Ian K. Steele, Warpaths: Invasions of North America, 1994.Find this resource:

Colin G. Calloway, ed., Our Hearts Fell to the Ground: Plains Indian Views of How the West Was Lost, 1996.Find this resource:

Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity, 1998.Find this resource:

James D. Drake