That event was for us the greatest blow that could have been dealt us, unless it had been our total destruction.

—Chiefs of the Haudenosaunee [Iroquois], Shawnee, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Loup Nations to Francisco Cruzat, Spanish governor of St. Louis, August 23, 1784

Conflicting Loyalties

When the War of Independence began in 1775, the opposing powers sought first to secure the neutrality of, then to forge alliances with, powerful Indian Nations. Most nations sided with the British, who Native people considered less threatening than the land-hungry colonists.

Military service record of John Montour, ca. 1781

John Montour (Lenape [Delaware]/Métis, 1744–1788) was a cultural mediator during the Revolutionary War between his people and Euro-Americans. He also served the Americans as captain of a company of Lenape [Delaware] soldiers.

National Archives and Records Administration 31138408

American victory in the Revolutionary War proved disastrous for American Indians. Abandoned by their British allies, Indian tribes were left to face Americans, who considered them conquered peoples. Still viewing Britain as their last, best hope against U.S. expansion, many Native Nations fought alongside the British during the War of 1812.

All tribes, whether they supported the British or fought with the Americans, came to regret the U.S. victories of 1783 and 1814. Settlers now flooded their lands and set into motion the conflicts, land loss, and removals to come.

Pushmataha, 1837

Choctaw chief Pushmataha (ca. 1760–1824) allied with the Americans during the War of 1812. Impressed by Pushmataha’s achievements in both battle and diplomacy, U.S. army officers dubbed him the Indian General.

John William Gear (1806–1866), copy after Charles Bird King (1785–1862). Hand-colored lithograph on paper. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Betty A. and Lloyd G. Schermer. NPG.99.167.6

Pipe tomahawk presented to Chief Tecumseh, ca. 1812

Chief Tecumseh (Shawnee, 1768–1813), with his brother Tenskwatawa (also called the Shawnee Prophet, 1775–1837), traveled the Ohio Valley and succeeded in creating a pan-Indian tribal coalition that sided with the British in the War of 1812.

Wood, iron, lead; 66 x 22.5 cm. Gift of Sarah Russell Imhof and Joseph A. Imhof. National Museum of the American Indian 17/6249


The Civil War

Conflicting loyalties continued to torment Indian Country during the Civil War. Approximately 20,000 American Indians fought in the Civil War, most of them for the Confederacy—a choice informed by the southern origins of many tribal nations, bitter memories of the Indian removals of the 1830s, and tribal grievances against federal treaty violations.

General Ulysses S. Grant (fourth from left) and his staff, including Lieutenant Colonel Ely S. Parker (second from the right), late spring, 1864

Photo by Mathew Brady. National Archives and Records Administration 524444

Stand Watie, 1860–65

Stand Watie (or Degataga, Cherokee, 1806–1871) was a controversial figure during one of the Cherokee Nation’s darkest times. Occurring only a few decades after the tribe’s removal to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), the Civil War split the Cherokee and caused widespread destruction.

Watie was elected principal chief of the Confederate-aligned Cherokee, and was awarded the rank of brigadier general—the only American Indian to achieve that rank in the Civil War—as commander of the Indian Cavalry Brigade.

Photo by Mathew Brady. National Archives and Records Administration 529026

William Terrill Bradby, dressed traditionally and holding a club, October 1899

William Terrill Bradby (Pamunkey, 1833–?) and other men from Virginia’s Pamunkey and Mattaponi Nations served as river pilots, land guides, and spies for the Union army during the 1862 Peninsular Campaign. They piloted steamers, tugboats, gunboats, and torpedo boats during the remainder of the Civil War.

Photo by De Lancey W. Gill. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution [NAA INV 06197600]

Wearing blue uniforms were 3,600 American Indian soldiers who served bravely in the Union Army. The Native people who fought for the Union hoped their alliance would improve conditions in and defend their tribal homelands.

American Indian volunteers on both sides wore their uniforms as proudly as their non-Native comrades did, and suffered the same appalling casualty rates. Of the 135 Oneida volunteers from Wisconsin in the Union Army, only 55 returned home—a mortality rate of nearly 60 percent.

Ely S. Parker, 1860–65

At the surrender at Appomattox in 1865, Ely S. Parker (Seneca, 1828–1895) was the highest ranking American Indian in the Union Army, a lieutenant colonel. As General Ulysses S. Grant’s secretary, he drafted the terms of surrender. General Lee, noticing that Parker was an American Indian, remarked, “I am glad to see one real American here.” Parker later recalled, “I shook his hand and said, ‘We are all Americans.’”

Photo by Mathew Brady. National Archives and Records Administration 529376


Army Scouts

The end of the Civil War marks the beginning of a turbulent and tragic chapter in American Indian history. Enraged by increasing settlement on tribal lands, the expansion of railroads, the slaughter of bison herds, and government efforts to confine Indians to reservations, many Native Nations in the West took arms to defend their homelands and cultures.

San Carlos Apache scouts. Arizona, ca. 1885

Photo by J. C. Burges. General Nelson A. Miles Collection. Presented by Maj. Sherman Miles and Mrs. Samuel Reber. National Museum of the American Indian P6963

Faced with a shrinking army and a huge territory to protect, Congress in 1866 authorized the War Department to enlist up to a thousand Indians to act as scouts for the U.S. Army. Receiving the same pay and allowances as cavalry soldiers, Native American scouts played a critical role in tracking and engaging “hostile” Indian groups during the so-called Indian Wars of the mid-to-late 19th century.

Bankston Johnson, 1898

Bankston Johnson (Choctaw, 1862?–?) was a trooper in Theodore Roosevelt’s First Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, popularly known as the Rough Riders. The regiment was mustered in 1898 for the Spanish–American War. Victory in that war began a process that transformed the United States into a major world power.

Stereograph by Strohmeyer & Wyman. Courtesy Library of Congress