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The Long Death, a book review

Updated on January 9, 2012
The Long Death
The Long Death | Source

The Last Days of the Plains Indian

In 1840, the Great Plains were promised to the Indians forever. This is an old story and probably counter-productive to re-tell. During the course of events leading to the thinning out of Indians inside mid-America, White Americans did what they felt had to be done to wrest control of the heartland from Indians. In 1825, the Kansa and Osage tribes gave up Kansas and northern Oklahoma. Nebraska was acquired from eighteen treaties. The survivors of the Black Hawk War in 1832 ceded part of Iowa near the Mississippi. In 1830, Congress allowed the exchange of land in the east for land in the west. In efforts to keep Red Americans and White Americans apart, Indians were removed and, often enough, removed again. As the world they once knew disappeared, many took to drink.

In 1840, it is estimated that there were approximately 15 million buffalo in the U.S. With an abundance of land and sustenance, Indians might have endured an eternity on the Great Plains. Fortune should have smiled upon them. Instead, they encountered incredible hardships. It is a miracle that any at all survived. Stricken with cholera, smallpox, venereal disease, and measles, at least one tribe, the Mandan, was actually obliterated. Others, such as the Arikara and Hidatsa, were cut in half. Skirmishes were unavoidable. A Lieutenant Grattan died opposing Chief Conquering Bear, a Teton Sioux. In response, a Colonel William Harney and 1300 men set forth from Ft. Leavenworth. Harney and his men established a policy of collective responsibility. It did not matter who had brought about Grattan's death. Captives were taken to Ft. Laramie. Despite signaling for "peace", Indians who approached were deliberately shot at.

In 1790, President Washington told Indians that nobody could purchase their land except by means of treaties, in which case the government would protect their interests. It is difficult to reconcile Washington's promise with the millions of acres taken from the Sioux at 5 cents an acre. Payments might be delivered or not. Indians without land were herded onto reservations and compelled to wait for annuities. A trader, Andrew Myrick, is credited with having said, "Let them eat grass." He was killed by Little Crow and discovered with a mouthful of grass. Frontier justice offered little to ameliorate the situation. In the early 1860s, there were hundreds of trials, some lasting a mere five minutes, resulting in almost as many hangings.

Indians were sometimes led in chains through towns, subjected to pitchforks, hot water, and scissors. This is not to say that they were wholly innocent. Wagon trains were set upon, farms burnt to the ground, and mutilations followed murders. In 1865, William Tecumseh Sherman took command from Canada to Texas and west to the Rocky Mountains. Captain William J. Fetterman boasted of needing just eighty men to prevail upon any band of Sioux warriors. He blundered into an Indian camp that consisted of Crows, Oglalas, Miniconjous, Hunkpapas, Brules, and Cheyennes totaling some 4,000 men. He died from a suicide bullet. A Peace Commission met in Chicago and decided that Indians had to re-locate on reservations. It was not enough. An Idaho newspaper editorialized that blankets smothered in smallpox should be given to Indians who complain about White squatters. Custer and his 7th Cavalry overran Black Kettle along the Washita River in Oklahoma, imprisoned women and children, killed ponies, and confiscated buffalo robes, arrows, powder, lead, and dried meat.

Both Generals Sheridan and Sherman agreed that the extermination of the buffalo would help keep Indians on reservations. 1872 and 1873 were boom years for hides. Quanah Parker's Comanches harassed hide men, destroying whole towns in doing so. But they were no match for Colonel Nelson A. Miles, who entered the plains with 3,000 troops divided into 5 columns. White American attacks often left nothing of use in their wake. The Long Death, printed in 1964, is packed with anecdotes, facts, and figures. They are purposeful. This is homegrown American History. It is visceral and repugnant. It stands to reason that something ought to be done to make amends for so much gratuitous horror and disgust. Whether one reads this history or another, everything always adds up the same way. The Indian Wars were terrifying and went on a long time, but White Americans much more than Red were unjustified in terms of the use of treachery and abuse of human rights.

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