The "Old West" that really existed began with Europeans becoming aware of the New World after the voyages of Columbus and others. The vast majority of the "Indian Wars" did not involve Indians in tipis and "rugged individualists" of Anglo-American extraction. They began with the Powhattan War in Virginia and became something of an expectation after King Philip's War in New England in 1674.
All of these are the result of European and Euro-American imperial expansion. With the rise of the new economic system that moved away from the old European feudal system, the search for resources and markets became a central activity of nation-states such as Spain, England, France, and the Netherlands. The prospects for individuals who had no access to land in Europe were greatly improved in the New World as well. This led to a clash of cultures that is best described as the "Indian Wars." By the time Euro-Americans arrived on the Great Plains, a pattern had been established for the usurpation of the natives' lands.
The story told in this essay begins with a clash between the land-hungry settlers on the central Great Plains and the native peoples of that region, namely the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache and, to a lesser extent, the Lakota, Shoshone, Utes, and a few other groups. During the Civil War, regular army troops who had been engaging Plains peoples since the early 1850s had been called back east to fight the Confederate Army. In Colorado Territory, a militia was formed known as the "100-Dazers" -- men who volunteered for the militia were given a horse, a gun, a bit of money, and served for 100 days. Many of these men were of the variety known as "Indian-haters," a tradition that went back to the beginning of European conquest.
One group of "100-Dazers" was led by the Methodist minister the Reverend John Chivington, AKA the "Fighting Parson." He and most of his followers were of a particularly virulent form of Indian-hater. Clashes between Indians and whites were nothing knew in the region, and often the bodies of the victims were maimed and trophies such as scalps and body parts were taken. These incidents happened on both sides.
In November of 1864, regular army Captain Edward Wynkoop told the Cheyenne peace chief Black Kettle that he and his followers could camp safely at Sand Creek, about 150 miles southwest of Denver. Black Kettle's band made their way to the spot, where these 500+ mainly women, children, and elderly made camp. On the morning of November 29, 1864, Chivington's band of 100-Dazers attacked the camp, killing 150-300 of these mostly defenseless Cheyenne and Arapaho. Some estimates of the dead are higher. White militiamen took "trophies" -- head scalps, pubic hair scalps from the women, ears, hands, men's scrota, etc. -- and brought them back for display at the theater in Denver. When whites back east heard of this, most were stunned and called for an investigation.
While this investigation went forward, retaliations occurred on the Plains from the Cheyenne war faction, known as the Dog Soldiers. Such was the tension in the region two years later when gold was discovered in Montana. Fort Laramie had existed on the Overland Trail for over thirty years, so gold-seekers naturally used it as a supply base as they blazed a trail to the gold fields known as the Bozeman Trail. This trail went through the heart of some of the best bison country on the High Plains in what is today eastern Wyoming. Indians like the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho, Crow, Shoshone and others were outraged. Oglala Lakota leader Red Cloud met at Fort Laramie with the Civil War veteran General William Tecumseh Sherman. As they negotiated, an army wagon train arrived carrying lumber for forts accompanied by supporting troops. It was clear to Red Cloud that the negotiations had been a deception and he stormed out of the fort threatening trouble. This trouble, which continued for the next two years, is known as Red Cloud's War.
The army proceeded to build three forts along the trail ostensibly to protect the fortune-seekers invading the Indians' lands. Two major battles occurred: the "Fetterman Massacre," and the "Wagon Box Fight," the first of which ended with a decisive Indian victory, the second had more of an ambiguous end. The end result was that after two years fighting and threats, the army abandoned the defense of the Bozeman Trail and the Indians burned the forts. The resulting treaty, known as the 2nd Treaty of Fort Laramie, (the first was negotiated in 1851), bore long-term influence the extends down the current day.
The 2nd Treaty of Fort Laramie guaranteed the Sioux Indians the right to lands west of the Missouri River to the western border of what is today North and South Dakota. This arrangement lasted until 1874, when Col. George Armstrong Custer led a group of goldseekers into the Black Hills, which the Lakota call Paha Sapa and consider sacred. Gold was found there, leading to another gold rush and whites flooded into the Sioux reserve. They built towns, established farms and ranches, and took advantage of army protection and the continually weakening condition of the Indians to establish their claims. In the 20th century, this discrepancy of ownership found its way into the court system, and in 1980 the Supreme Court ruled, in U.S. v. Sioux Nation, that the Black Hills did in fact belong to the Sioux tribe. However, they stressed that the Sioux could not take over white property rights; the whites would stay but the Sioux would be paid $110 million. The Sioux, asserting the sacredness of the Paha Sapa in their tradition, refused the money. This situation remains unresolved to this day -- the money remains in a trust fund drawing interest.
Meanwhile, in the Southern Plains, other events were unfolding that would lead to more conflict and, ultimately, the end of free-roaming native peoples in that region. Fur traders had been in the Great Plains region for centuries at this point, but the great bison herds still flourished because it was still uneconomical to process their think and ample hides for leather products. However, by 1870, John Wesley Mooar and his brother Josiah Wright Mooar developed a tanning process that was inexpensive enough to make a profit from the hides. Josiah came to Kansas and offered $5.00 a hide for dried bison skins. This created a powerful incentive to begin slaughtering the bison for profit, and in the short space of 15-20 years, the approximately 40 million bison on the Great Plains were nearly gone. The bison hide industry created great sums of wealth for fur dealers like John Jacob Astor, and outfitted the reinvigorated British Empire in bison leather.
In the southern plains, the bison hide industry was challenged by the powerful Comanche and their Kiowa and Kiowa-Apache allies. This challenge was known as the "Red River War." The best-known battles of this war were the "Battle of Adobe Walls," and the destruction of a large Indian encampment at Palo Duro Canyon, both of which took place in the Texas Panhandle region. In the end, the Indians were ordered onto a reservation near Fort Sill in Indian Territory (Oklahoma), and those who did not come in were considered fair game for the cavalry. This was the end of free roaming indigenous peoples on the southern plains.
In 1876, confrontations between Indians and whites on the northern plains were coming to a head. At the annual gathering on Greasy Grass Creek in modern-day Montana, a creek the whites called the Little Big Horn, 10,000 or so Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and others gathered for their annual celebrations before the summer bison hunt. This gathering around the summer solstice had been held since time immemorial, and reflected the season of the bison rut and other large mammals that also gathered together at that time.
The ambitious Brevet General / Colonel George Armstrong Custer -- he of the goldseekers wagon train in the Black Hills -- was determined to win a great victory over these Indians. Some thought that Custer was considering a presidential run as a hero of the Plains Indian Wars. On June 26, proceeding against the advice of his Crow Indian scouts, Custer led approximately 230 men into an attack on this Indian encampment, with a supporting force of several hundred more cavalry soldiers. In retrospect, and for some who were there at the time, this was a foolhardy and suicidal attack that ended in the death of Custer and his company. This event, known as "Custer's Last Stand," instantly transformed Custer into a national hero and inflamed public outrage against the Indians.
For their part, the Indians made for Canada, burning the grass behind them so the cavalry ponies would have no fodder. Among the Sioux, one group, led by the Minneconjou Lakota Holy Man Sitting Bull, made it to Canada and spend a couple of years searching for the scarce remnants of the bison herds to feed themselves. Another group, led by Crazy Horse, decided to stay in the homelands near the Black Hills and returned to Fort Robinson in modern-day northwest Nebraska. When the cavalry tried to arrest Crazy Horse, he resisted and was bayoneted in the back, dying in the night with his parents at his side. Sitting Bull, meanwhile, elected to return eventually, and enjoyed a short career in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. He toured Europe and North America, making himself even more famous. Tragically, Sitting Bull and his only son were murdered by Indian police in his home in 1890 when they cracked down on the Ghost Dance movement.