In many American histories the nineteenth century is an era filled with Indian wars. However, these wars were different from European wars and are more accurately called battles, skirmishes, conflicts, and massacres. First, formal armies were rarely involved. While the U.S. Army did engage American Indian war parties in battle, most of the skirmishes involved posses, militias, and unregulated mobs formed to kill Indians—men, women, children, and elders.
Warfare byAmerican Indians was carried out by small, independent raiding parties rather than by large, organized armies. The motivation for war was personal gain, not tribal patriotism. While it was not uncommon for warriors to kill their enemies in battle, this was not the purpose of war.
While the American armies in the nineteenth century waged wars of imperial aggression seeking the annihilation of the enemy and the occupation of territory, Indian war parties fought defensive actions against invaders, trespassers, thieves, and others. People who settled on Indian lands were trespassers; people who trapped and killed Indian animals were thieves; people who grazed cattle on Indian lands were both trespassers and thieves.
Briefly described below are some of the skirmishes and battles from 200 years ago, in 1823.
In Arizona, which was Mexican territory at this time, a group of Navajos led by Juanico was raiding Mexican homesteaders. In response, a Mexican posse led by Jose Antonio Vizcarra began chasing the Navajo raiders. The Mexicans encountered a group of Paiutes with goats and without warning attacked them. They killed four men and took seven captives who they intended to sell as slaves in New Mexico. When Vizcarra realized that the Indians were Paiutes and not the Navajos who they had been chasing, he released them. He explained his mistake by saying that he thought only the Navajos had goats.
Osage hunters under the leadership of Skitok found a group of Quapaws and American hunters on their hunting territory in Arkansas. The Osages attacked the group, killing four, capturing 30 horses and several thousand deerskins. Historian Willard Rollings, in his book The Osage: An Ethnohistorical Study of Hegemony on the Prairie-Plains, observes:
“The United States government, never overly concerned about the ongoing Cherokee and Osage deaths, was angered by the attack on the non-Indians.”
When the army demanded the surrender of Skitok, Chief Clermont II expressed regret about the deaths, but reminded the army that the party had been hunting illegally on Osage land.
In 1823, Texas was a Mexican province. There were, however, several hundred American settlers living in Texas who fought with local Indians since their arrival in the region.
In Texas, two special investigators from the Mexican government advised the immediate dispatch of 200 troops to Nacogdoches to stop the trade between the American traders and the Indians. In his book The Comanche Empire, Pekka Hamalainen reports:
“The troops never came, and Anglo immigrants and merchants continued to pour into Nacogdoches and Comanchería.”
A group of American settlers who were bringing food supplies by canoe up the Colorado River from the Gulf of Mexico were attacked by a Karankawa war party. Two of the Americans were killed and the third, wounded several times, managed to swim to the opposite bank and escape.
The same day, American colonist Robert Brotherton encountered the same Karankawa band, and, thinking them to be friendly Tonkawas, he rode toward them. In their book Forgotten Fights: Little-Known Raids and Skirmishes on the Frontier, 1823-1890, Gregory Michno and Susan Michno report:
“When he got close, the Karankawas grabbed him. Brotherton struggled and managed to escape, but not before taking an arrow in his back. Reaching the nearest settlement, Brotherton spread news of the assault.”
In response, a twelve-man posse led by American colonist Robert Kuykendall together with a party of Tonkawas led by Carita, went in search of the Karankawas. The posse found them at the mouth of Skull Creek, near present-day Eagle Lake. At daybreak, the posse attacked and killed ten Karankawa warriors in the initial assault. Another ten were killed as they tried to escape. Gregory Michno and Susan Michno report:
“Later Karankawa raids would be made with more stealth and precaution.”
Near the present-day town of Sequin, a group of Karankawas and Wacos attacked a pair of American colonists. One of the Americans was killed but the other managed to escape. In response, an American posse was formed and attacked a Waco camp, killing twelve of the thirteen warriors.
Although many of the Indian tribes on the Northern Plains were nomadic buffalo hunters, the Arikaras were farming people who raised corn, beans, sunflowers, tobacco, pumpkins, and squash. They lived in permanent villages in which they constructed large earthlodges. The Arikara villages, like those of the Mandans and Hidatsas, also served as trading centers for the nomadic tribes.
In North Dakota, the Arikaras attacked a fur trapping party camped below their villages on the Missouri River. The attack left 14 trappers dead. However, the party’s leader, William Ashley, escaped and retreated down river.
Ashley asked Colonel Henry Leavenworth for help. Determined to punish the Arikaras, the Sixth Infantry sent 230 soldiers and two canons. In addition, a party from the Missouri Fur Company joined them with 50 men and a cannon. The fur company also enlisted the aid of 750 Sioux warriors. The Sioux and the Arikaras were traditional enemies. Colonel Leavenworth ordered the mounted Sioux warriors to prevent anyone from leaving the village.
The Sioux were the first to engage the Arikaras just outside of their village, killing ten to fifteen Arikaras. The Arikaras withdrew into the palisaded villages. The Americans then bombarded the villages with canon fire. Gregory Michno and Susan Michno report:
“As the artillery intermittently fired on both villages, with unclear results, the colonel continued to vacillate for two days. The Sioux, losing interest, plundered the Arikaras’ crops while they waited for something to happen.”
About 50 Arikaras were killed according to Colonel Leavenworth, but the trappers estimated that only 20 were killed.
The Arikaras petitioned for peace and signed a treaty with the Americans. The Arikaras were, however, aware that the fur trappers were advocating revenge. They abandoned the village and withdrew out onto the plains. The deserted village was then burned by the Missouri Fur Company.
Afterwards Colonel Leavenworth called the battle a success in which the blood of Americans had been avenged. Gregory Michno and Susan Michno report:
“Most of the men disagreed with his assessment and viewed the operation as a fiasco.”
The Blackfoot Indians were not friendly with American explorers, fur traders, and trappers. When a party of American fur trappers penetrated Blackfoot territory to poach their animals, a Blackfoot party attacked them near the mouth of the Smith River about twelve miles above the Great Falls of the Missouri River. Four of the trappers were killed and seven managed to flee down the Missouri River to Fort Henry some 450 miles away.
Not all the skirmishes and battles were between Indians and non-Indians. In some cases, there were intertribal battles. In the Hay River area of Alberta, Canada, a Chipewyan hunting party led by the Fool and the Perdrix Blanche had a confrontation with a Dunneza hunting party led by Grand Cheveux. Four young men were killed in the conflict.
More 19th Century American Indian Histories
Indians 101: The Lame Cow War
Indians 101: Fort Fizzle and the Nez Perce
Indians 101: California's War on Indians, 1850 to 1851
Indians 201: The war against the Yavapai
Indians 201: The Bannock Indian War
Indians 201: The Cayuse Indian War
Indians 201: Utah's Black Hawk War
Indians 201: The First Seminole War