The End of a Way of Life
(Be sure to look up any words you do not know.)

For years the Indians were mistreated and lied to by the white men. The Indians of the east had been forced by the government to move west of the Mississippi River. They had to try to live as the Indians of the plains lived, They had been promised they would have land there “forever.”

“Forever” did not last very long. As you have learned, the Indian land in the West was sold to white settlers.

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The Plains Indians needed their land. They roamed the plains on their fast horses and depended on buffalo for food, shelter and clothing. The main Plains tribes, the Sioux, Crow, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche and Kiowa, were fierce fighters and horsemen. They saw the coming of the white man to their land as the end of their way of life. The white men built roads and towns on their hunting grounds. The white men built railroads across their land. And, worst of all, the white soldiers killed their women and children.


The Indians had a close relationship with the buffalo. The buffalo meat was used for food, and the skins for clothing and shelter. The buffalo was a part of their religion, a sign from above that they would survive.

In 1867, General Philip H. Sheridan took command of U.S. troops in the West.  He swore to bring peace to the plains.  He planned to kill all of the buffalo.  The buffalo were sacred to the Indians.  The Indians lived off of the buffalo.  "Kill the buffalo, and you kill the Indians," the general said.

At the government's urging, white hunters slaughtered the buffalo. The crews building the railroads killed many for food and for the hides. Men who enjoyed the sport killed many others. They often left the dead buffalo on the ground without touching them.

In 1865 the buffalo herds on the great plains numbered, by best guess, about 15 million animals. By 1883 the herds were all but wiped out.

As the buffalo herds began to disappear, the tribes that depended upon them for food and clothing felt they had few choices. They could starve in their own land. They could go to reservations and live on what they were given by the white men. They could fight.

Many chose to move to the reservations, only to find that even that promised land was soon to be taken from them. Many others chose to fight.

Sand Creek

Many Indians were sure that the white men meant to wipe them from the face of the earth. They remembered Sand Creek in Colorado and what had happened there in 1864.

At that time it was reported that some Cheyennes had stolen some cattle from a government contractor. Colonel Chivington and his Colorado Volunteers (soldiers) attacked the Indians. The Indians, in return, attacked white settlers.

The short war ended with the Indians setting up a village at Sand Creek.

Colonel Chivington and 1,000 Volunteers then pulled a surprise raid on the village. “Kill and scalp them all, big and little,” Chivington told his men.

They did. Black Kettle, the chief of the tribe, ran up an American flag and a white flag of truce as the troops first attacked. The attacking soldiers did not pay any attention to the flags.

More than 200 women and children were killed. About 70 men were also killed. An elderly chief named White Antelope stood in front of his tent, singing his death song. “Nothing lives long except the earth and the mountains,” he sang.

The Cheyennes agreed to give up Sand Creek and to move to a reservation. Many Indians remembered Sand Creek and how the white man’s promises were broken with bullets.

Indian Wars

The Indian Wars in the west continued. The Indians won a few battles, but the army had far better guns and many more fighting men.

In the summer of 1865 there were heavy attacks by Arapahos and Cheyennes. The Indians burned small ranches, cut down telegraph wires, and attacked towns and army forts.

The best-known of the Indian victories was in 1876. In that year there were rumors that gold had been found in the Black Hills. Thousands of prospectors (men looking for gold) went to the area. That land had been given by the government to the Sioux. They did not like the white men digging up their hunting grounds. Many of them went there to protect the land.

The Indian agents (government workers) ordered all the Sioux to return to the reservations. Many Indians, led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse refused to return. The army prepared to move agatnst them.

Sitting Bull heard about this. “You won’t need any guides,” he told the army scouts. “You’ll find me easily. I won’t run away.”

One of the officers in charge of the attack was George Armstrong Custer. Many people now feel that Custer wanted to get all the glory for himself. He attacked against orders. Custer and 265 of his men were killed at a place called Little Big Horn by the Indians.

In spite of this victory, the army finally surrounded the Indian force. Crazy Horse and his warriors gave up. Sitting Bull took his followers over the border to Canada, where American troops could not follow him. In 1881 he returned to the United States and surrendered to the army.

The death of Custer and his men angered the American public. They were told in newspaper stories and books that Custer was a brave hero who died because the savage Indians wanted to kill all white men. More and more soldiers were sent to the west to put down the “savage” Indians.

By 1881 all the warring tribes on the plains had been put down by the soldiers. However, there was one more battle yet to come.

In 1889 a Paiute Indian named Wovoka said that an Indian god leader was coming. He would bring back all the dead Indians and the buffalo. The white man would disappear and the Indians would again rule their land. Many Indians believed Wovoka. In order to show their belief they did a certain dance for long periods of time. Many Indians went into a trance while doing the dance. When people are in a trance, they seem to be almost asleep. These dancers were called Ghost Dancers.

The Ghost Dance movement spread throughout the west. More and more Indians began doing the ghost dance, as they waited for the leader which Wovoka had promised would come.

On December 29, 1890 the army moved to put down the Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. The Indians were waiting to surrender. The army never got this message. They attacked. More than 300 men, women and children were killed by the army troops. The Indian wars were over.

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White People Speak Out

Many Americans were not proud of what had been done to the Indians. Such westerners as Kit Carson spoke out against the brutality. General George Crook, a man who fought the Indians from 1871 until his death in 1890, also spoke out for better treatment for the Indians.

The one who spoke the loudest was a woman named Helen Hunt Jackson. Helen Jackson was the wife of an army officer. She traveled the west with her husband until his death.

In 1881 she wrote a book called A Century of Dishonor. The book told about all the wrongs done to the Indians by the United States government. She traveled and gave lectures about the Indians. Helen Jackson went to Washington. She presented a copy of the book to each member of Congress.

Mrs. Jackson was appointed as a Special Commissioner to investigate Indian affairs in 1884. Later, she wrote a novel, called Ramona. In it she used Indian characters to show how the Indians had been mistreated.

She did what she could, but she and the others were much too late. By 1900, the first people to live in America had been largely wiped out. Those who remained lived on small reservations of land no white man wanted.

Spotlight on Chief Joseph

The Nez Perce were one of the friendlier Indian tribes. They lived in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. Many said that, for fifty years, not one white man had lost his life at the hands of the Nez Perce Indians.

In 1871 the chief of the tribe, Joseph, died. His son, called Young Joseph by the white man, took over.

The new Chief Joseph did all he could to keep the peace. One time a member of his tribe was killed by a white man. Many in the tribe wanted to take the white man’s life. Joseph refused to let them.

In the spring of 1877 Joseph and his people were told that they must leave their homes and move to a reservation. Although they did not want to go, Joseph agreed to keep the peace and leave. As they were getting ready to leave, some white men stole into their camp and took their horses.

The Indians were so angry that they attacked the settlers. The army was sent in to stop the “savage” Indians.

Joseph decided to take his whole tribe to Canada. He led his 500 people, many of whom were old and sick, over mountains and rivers. Joseph had only about 150 warriors with him. Yet on the 1,000-mile trip which took four months, he many times fought off larger armies trying to stop him and his people. His braves and the old people always were able to escape the army traps set for them.

Eighty-nine of his people were killed in one of a dozen major battles. Fifty of them were women and children. During the time Joseph was trying to reach Canada, those hunting him had nothing but praise for him and his men.

“The Indians showed courage and skill,” one of the generals said. “They did not scalp anyone, and always let women prisoners go free.”

On October 5, 1877, just 30 miles short of Canada, Joseph surrendered. He was cut off by a much larger force. He walked to the top of a hill, his blanket wrapped around him. His speech to the general who captured him will be long remembered.

Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our Chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Ta Hool Hool Shute is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are - perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my Chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.

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