Army Scouts 1866–1890

In 1866, Congress authorized the enlistment of up to 1,000 American Indians to serve as scouts for the U.S. Army. With ranks reduced by post-Civil War demobilization, the army struggled to deal with thousands of Native warriors who had taken up arms to protect their lands and people across more than half the continental United States.

General George Crook on a mule alongside two American Indian scouts in the Arizona desert

Photo Lot 24 SPC Sw Apache NAA 4877 Baker & Johnston 02028600, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

General George Crook, wearing his campaign outfit and riding his mule in Arizona Territory, 1885. With him is Chiricahua Apache scout Ba-Keitz-Ogie (Yellow Coyote, ca. 1855–1893), at left, and Alchesay (1853–1928), a White Mountain Apache scout who earned the Medal of Honor during Crook’s campaign against the Chiricahua. Alchesay participated in Geronimo’s surrender to Crook in March 1886, serving as the Chiricahua Apache leader’s appointed translator.

Indian scouts belonged to the Pawnee, Apache, Crow, Shoshone, Tonkawa, and many other nations. Familiar with both the terrain and fighting prowess of rival tribes, scouts served as guides, trackers, guards, and fighters, becoming indispensable allies in army campaigns.

Closeup of Curley, a male American Indian (Crow) military scout in traditional dress

NMAI P06650

Curley (Apsáalooke [Crow], 1856–1923), also known as Curly, Shi-Shia.

Curley was one of six Crow scouts assigned to Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer’s command when the men of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry rode to their deaths at the Little Bighorn, in Montana, on June 25, 1876. Although Curley did not participate in the battle, journalists frequently later hounded him for details about “Custer’s Last Stand.”

Army service enabled Native people to earn a living as well as exercise warrior traditions increasingly discouraged by U.S. officials. Scouting also offered Native men an opportunity to battle enemy tribes—an incentive that overrode any broader allegiance to Indian solidarity. Most significantly, scouts were positioned by the army to convince militant members of their own tribes to lay down their arms and move to a reservation, thereby preventing further bloodshed. For their service, sixteen American Indian scouts were decorated with the Medal of Honor.

A group of scouts sitting around with their rifles around a campfire in Oregon

BAE GN 02899A 06465400, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

Scouts from the Warm Springs Reservation in north-central Oregon at ease during the “Modoc War” (1872–1873). The men were recruited by the United States Army to pursue a group of Modoc people who had left their reservation in Oregon and returned to their homelands in northern California.