“That event was for us the greatest blow that could have been dealt us, unless it had been our total destruction.”
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
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.
Pipe tomahawk presented to Chief Tecumseh, ca. 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.
Stand Watie, 1860–65
Photo by Mathew Brady. National Archives and Records Administration 529026
William Terrill Bradby, dressed traditionally and holding a club, October 1899
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.
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.
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
Stereograph by Strohmeyer & Wyman. Courtesy Library of Congress