Forget Vietnam – the US fought more deadly wars

Review: Archie Henderson

The Earth is Weeping: The epic story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Atlantic Books)

America’s longest war was not Vietnam, Iraq or even Afghanistan, where US troops have been fighting since 2001. The longest war was fought on American soil, virtually from the time Europeans landed in the New World and against a variety of indigenous people, known first as Indians, more pejoratively as Redskins, and only recently as Native Americans. It was a civil war before the Civil War.

Hollywood and Louis L’Amour, among others, would distort that war. Indians were often cast as barbarous villains resisting progress. I should know; I was a victim of cowboy movies and cowboy books that shaped a young mind. Then along came Dee Brown with his book Buried My Heart at Wounded Knee in 1970 that changed perceptions of that war, and turned us into bleeding hearts.

All the chronicles, it turns out, were distorted. Peter Cozzens has tried to correct this with a dispassionate account of the Indian Wars. His book deals with the wars on the Great Plains between 1862 to 1891. It begins with the Dakota Sioux uprising in Minnesota and ends with the final surrender of the Brulé and Oglala Lakotas in South Dakota – an era that spawned Western mythology.

Cozzens is critical of Brown, who died in 2002 aged 94, and sets out to create some balance.  For example, Brown depicts the Indian allies of the US army – the Shoshones, Crows and Pawnees, deadly rivals of the other tribes even before the white man – as mercenaries. “These Indians, like the army and the government, became cardboard cutouts, mere foils for the ‘victims’ in the story,” writes Cozzens. As he proves, you did not need to be a bleeding heart to understand, and feel deep sympathy for the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains, but also horror at their gratuitous cruelty.

Whether Cozzens succeeds is up to the individual reader, upon whom the author makes huge demands. The book, with its cast of tribes, individuals and locations, requires great concentration; fortunately the outstanding maps help and the index comes in handy.

By the end, there is sympathy for both sides. Unlike Brown, Cozzens finds evidence that many of the military leaders tried to find an honourable and humanitarian outcome to a conflict run from distant Washington in an impossible situation with the westward migration of hundreds of thousands of white pioneers. Nevertheless, the American historian TH Watkins, who has also written on the West, says the white people of the US will look upon the history with a mixture of pride and shame.

Cozzens sets the scene for his story. Well before the first American ventured beyond the Mississippi River, the European gifts of horses, guns and disease had radically altered the cultures of the Plains and Rocky Mountain Indians. In the 16th century, the Spaniards had introduced the horse to the New World.

As the Spanish frontier pushed into the present-day south-western US, horses fell into the hands of the Indians. Afterwards, through theft and barter, the horse culture spread rapidly from tribe to tribe. In 1630, no tribe was mounted; by 1750, all of the Plains tribes and most of the Rocky Mountain Indians rode horses.

The horse did not create the buffalo culture, but made it infinitely easier. Horses also increased the frequency and fury of intertribal clashes, because warriors were able to range over distances previously unimaginable on foot. The gun, introduced to the Indians by French trappers and traders, made the hostile encounters far more deadly. White man’s diseases were deadlier still, decimating western tribes just as they had ravaged those east of the Mississippi. No one knows precisely how many succumbed, but in 1849 alone cholera carried off half the Indian population of the southern plains.

A grand irony of the Great Plains is that none of the tribes with which the US army would clash were native to the lands they claimed. All had been caught up in a vast migration, precipitated by the white settlement of the East.

This Indian exodus had begun in the late 17th century and was far from over when the Oregon Trail opened in 1843. As the dislocated Indians spilled on to the plains, they jockeyed with native tribes for the choicest hunting lands. The wars that were to come between the Indians and the US government for the Great Plains, the seat of the longest and bloodiest struggles, would represent a clash of emigrant peoples. A way of life was lost. And it was bloody.


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