Robert M. Utley, The Indian Frontier, 1846-1890. Revised Edition. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003. Pp. xix, 325.
First published in 1984, The Indian Frontier, 1846-1890 was revised and then reissued in 2003. The revised edition is part of the Histories of the American Frontier Series published by the University of New Mexico Press. The rich narrative is supplemented by 99 illustrations and 12 useful maps.
According to the back cover, author Robert M. Utley is "a retired Chief Historian of the National Park Service and has written over fifteen books on a variety of aspects of history of the American West." In his Foreword, the eminent historian Howard R. Lamar called Utley "one of the most popular and productive historians of the American West" (xiii).
Of course, no historian who writes about the American frontier can avoid Frederick Jackson Turner's thesis first presented in 1893. In his Preface, Utley explains that as Turner saw things, experiences on the frontier--"a trader's frontier, farmer's frontier, rancher's frontier, miner's frontier"--are what made Americans and America exceptional. Turner did not completely neglect the Indians on the American frontier. However, he did treat them merely as "an influence in shaping the special American character" (xv). In other words, as Turner described things, Indians were not characters on the stage that was the American West. They were more like props in a drama that kept the spotlight on whites who were moving west. Nevertheless, unlike some other historians who regard "frontier" as just another f-word, Utley refuses to reject the Turner thesis. He prefers instead to treat it as "a conceptual framework, however simplistic, within which to develop themes of western American history" (xv). By design, Utley's work revises, qualifies, and supplements Turner's outlook. That is the book's most prominent feature from the standpoint of theoretical perspective. How could anyone move west in nineteenth-century America without encountering and dealing with Indians? Utley brings the obvious answer to that question into this exploration of the American frontier. Hence the title of his book.
What follows here is my summary, chapter by chapter. I made fuller notes for some parts more than for others. So, some chapter summaries are quite long, while others are much more concise.
Chapter One: The Indian West at Midcentury
Utley begins with the growing presence of white people in the Indian country during the 1840s. With the annexation of Texas in 1845 and the ensuing U.S.-Mexico War, American citizens moved further west into newly acquired lands. "[T]he United States at midcentury boasted a population of more than 20 million, a counting utterly beyond the comprehension of the western natives. By 1860, 1.4 million would live in the West; by 1890, 8.5 million" (4). The author discusses various influences that forever changed the Indian frontier: European diseases, the horse, and the gun. Dependence upon the gun changed balances of power and, of course, meant that Indians were dependent on the white man for gun "powder, lead, and repairs" (14). And, all such impact meant environmental change, what William Cronon has called Changes in the Land.
First contact between Indians and white men was almost always due to the arrival of a trader. This created new tastes and wants, especially liquor. The trader was most often the first white person an Indian ever saw, as opposed to a missionary. Utley summarizes a central point of this chapter as follows: Many natives of the Trans-Mississippi West had changed in response to the arrival and presence of white people "in or near their world." However, until the 1840s, "the changes had been evolutionary and mostly within the bounds of traditional culture. Henceforth they would be revolutionary and finally destructive of traditional culture" (26).
Chapter Two: Foundations of a New Indian Policy, 1846-1860
White imagination saw Indians in basically two ways: There was the good Indian, the noble savage, to be destroyed by civilizing him. Then, there was the bad Indian, the ignoble savage, to be destroyed by killing him. Either way, as part of the landscape of the frontier, Indians would have to be conquered (29-31).
When push came to shove, possessing Indian land was more important, more pressing than the question of how to civilize Indians (31). The making of treaties with Indians often ascribed to chiefs an authority that did not match up with tribal realities. Chiefs were not elected officials with constitutional authority. Indian politics operated much more by consensus. A chief's leadership utterly depended on a group that was willing to follow.
Founded in 1824, by 1890 the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs "was the most powerful force in the lives of Indians" (37). "The Indian Bureau had two purposes: to extinguish Indian land titles and to grapple with the vexing problem of what to do with people whose title had been extinguished. . . . Only in Texas was there no immediate question of title; on entering the Union, the state had retained jurisdiction over all its vacant land and refused to concede that the Indians owned any of it" (38). "Besides the army and the Indian Bureau, a third institution of government dominated Indian relations: Congress" (41).
The environmental impact of white westward travel and immigration was considerable. The arrival of white traders, and especially U.S. agents with their desire to establish treaties that favored the whites, treaties that Indian leaders often did not understand, led to a radical decline in Indian population (48-49).
Unlike the situation in the rest of America, Texans were having none of the treaty business. Texas never acknowledged Indian right to or ownership of any land in the state (52). Part of the "solution" to Indians in Texas was to drive them north of Red River into the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations, where the Texas government leased land from those nations for the incoming Indians (esp. 52).
Chapter Three: When the White People Fought Each Other, 1861-1865
Apache leaders in places like New Mexico began to having violent interactions with whites in 1860-61. Much of this was precipitated by the discovery of gold in old Spanish copper mines and the subsequent influx of miners (66). Following deadly encounters, the Apaches noticed soldiers marching away to the east. The Indians assumed that the whites were giving up and going away. Of course, what they did not realize was that whites were now mobilizing for the Civil War. But the whites were not gone for long. They soon returned to the Indian frontier due to "Abraham Lincoln's need for western gold and silver and western political support for the prosecution of the war." This "dramatized how little the war slowed the pace of the western movement" (72).
"No Indians experienced more trauma than the Five Civilized Tribes of the Indian Territory. Many of those people owned slaves and felt a natural affinity for southerners. Also, geographical proximity gave the Confederacy an edge over the Union. The Choctaws and Chickasaws went overwhelmingly with the South" (73).
Utley describes troubles in Minnesota, New Mexico, Colorado. He details the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado. "By 1865 military force as the solution to the Indian problem had achieved virtually unchallenged supremacy. In Indian matters President Lincoln had shown himself a humanitarian, but the struggle with the Confederacy ruled his White House years, and he left Indian affairs almost entirely to Congress and the Indian Bureau" (92).
Then, in 1864, U. S. Grant put John Pope in charge of the Great Plains. Pope basically regarded all Indians in that huge swath of territory as hostile. Many were, thanks to incidents like Sand Creek. Pope's policy was essentially war against all plains Indians, all the time. Many Indians fled north. Some of them were looking merely to escape. But others looked to join up with tribes of the northern plains in order to take the fight to the white man.
Utley tells the story of Adobe Walls in 1864. The War came to an end. Stories about Sand Creek horrified many Americans. So, there were new attitudes regarding Indian policy. Some argued for a policy of "conquest by kindness" (96-97). Thus, sometime around 1865, the U.S. political leaders spoke in terms remarkably different from previous years. Whereas the earlier times had been bloody, beginning in 1865 the language was rhetoric of peace, which was confusing to the Indians.
Chapter Four: War and Peace: Indian Relations in Transition, 1865-1869
This chapter describes a post-war period during which mistrust and atrocities on both sides led American federal policy in the direction of "the rifle" as opposed to "the peace pipe"; this, in spite of the peace rhetoric that became popular at war's end. In other words, by fits and starts U.S. policy towards the Indian became more aggressive and hostile. Thus, the years that immediately followed the war were characterized by broken treaties, ambushes, massacres, and the failure of the treaty policy. It is no coincidence that leaders of the U.S. Army at this time were battle-hardened veterans of the war.
Chapter Five: Grant's Peace Policy, 1869-1876
Grant began his presidency with the promise of a Peace Policy. At the same time, he said, "Those who do not accept this policy will find the new administration ready for a sharp and severe war policy" (128). So, although the official rhetoric emphasized peace, it seems that Grant's effective policy had two sides. Grant appointed Ely S. Parker, a full-blooded Seneca, Commissioner of Indian Affairs (130). Again, this was part and parcel of a dedication to "conquest by kindness." Still, Grant's policies were enacted by dozens of army officers, not to mention that the Indian Bureau was part of the War Department. Nonetheless, there were sometimes genuine attempts at kindness and justice (132).
Utley describes the frustrations for both Indians (in his specific example, Apaches) and U.S. representatives to Indians. The Great Father was slow in making decisions and providing the promised means of survival. Frequently, after a long wait, the Indians would be delivered a unsatisfactory message. However, some officials like Vincent Colyer and General Oliver Otis Howard did well as advocates of the Indians and made good decisions.
Utley turns to the Fort Sill Agency in the western Indian Territory. Kiowas and Comanches were the tribes of interest here. Lawrie Tatum, a determine Quaker became agent. Tatum tried to get the Kiowas to stop raiding in Texas. Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson at Fort Sill was the military complement to Tatum's agency. Grierson was devoted to the peace policy, even though that meant that some of his military peers looked down on him.
Ultimately, the Salt Creek Prairie Massacre of 1871 frustrated Tatum and set off William Tecumseh Sherman. Satanta, a Kiowa chief, was proud and unrepentant. Like most tribes, encroachment by whites and U.S. federal policy divided the Kiowas. The Kiowa war chief was Lone Wolf. Kicking Bird led the Kiowa peace faction (see photos pp. 144-45).
The final paragraph of the chapter reads, "But in essence Grant's Peace Policy was chiefly about peace, and peace it did not achieve. The public could thus hardly be faulted for failing to note the persistence of the Peace Policy when war so dominated the Indian news. Indeed, the era of the Peace Policy featured some of the bitterest warfare in the history of Indian relations" (154).
Chapter Six: Wars of the Peace Policy, 1869-1886
" 'The campaigns in Arizona did not owe their ultimate success to any particular Waterloo-like victory, as much as they did the covering of a great deal of ground by a comparatively small number of men, permitting the Indians no rest and rendering any and every hiding place insecure.' " (155, quoting a report from 1890).
Utley relates the army's Walter Schuyler and his troops tracking down Apaches in Arizona in 1873 (155-58). The freedom of the Kiowas and Comanches came to an end in 1875 (160). The general rule was: Those Indians on the reservation are friendly and the federal Indian Bureau is responsible for them; Those off the reservation are hostile and the army must be responsible for them (161). This made sense, but the realities were never quite that simple (162-63). When war was brought to Indians, it tended to be the "total war" made (in)famous by the likes of Sherman and Sheridan during the Civil War (164).
"Man for man, the [Indian] warrior far surpassed his blueclad adversary in virtually every test of military proficiency; but unit for unit--however great the numbers--the Indians could not come close to matching the discipline and organization of the army. When Indians made the mistake of standing and fighting on the army's terms, they usually lost." However, the west was not won as a result of military conquest. Instead it was "an aggressive and highly organized society" (166).
Events like the Modoc War on the west coast in 1872-73 and especially "Custer's Last Stand" in 1876 marked the demise of the Peace Policy (171). Utley also tells of the Red River War of 1874-75.
Finally vanquished, the Nez Perces wound up in I.T., just like the Modoc had before them, in spite of promises made to the Nez Perces by the army. By 1881, only the Apaches "had not yet been made to face the truth that the reservation represented their only possible destiny" (187). Their leaders were Victorio and Geronimo. The reservation designated for them was a terrible place to live: no game, lots of snakes, etc. Eventually, Geronimo and other Apaches gave up and "the Indian Wars of the United States came to a close in Skeleton Canyon, Arizona, on September 4, 1886" (196). The Apaches were loaded up on trains that took them to Florida.
Chapter Seven: The Vision of the Reformers, 1865-1890
The chapter begins by describing the Mohonk House resort in upstate New York. The Smileys, Quaker twin brothers, were the owner-operators. Beginning in 1883, this was the cite of an annual Mohonk Conference of reform leaders and organizers, self-appointed friends of the Indians. The conference did not include Catholics, nor groups who fought for the right of Indians to simply be Indians. The official name of the gatherings was the Lake Mohonk Conference of the Friends of the Indians.
The emphasis of virtually all of these reformers was education. Utley tells the story of how in the 1870s and 80s especially, it seems, various crusaders, leaders, and reformers fighting in behalf of their visions for Indians were active and influential in American politics. For example, Helen Hunt Jackson, who published A Century of Dishonor in 1881, hoped that her book would do for Indians what Uncle Tom's Cabin did for slaves. Another factor that promoted reform interest were the stories about and statements from Indians themselves. These "aroused public sympathy and reinforced what the crusaders were saying" (201).
Such interest in Indians led to cooperation. The greatest organization of the time was the Indian Rights Association, founded and led by William Welsh. Groups like this one set out to "civilize" Indians. "This vision of the ideal Indian sharply delineated the paramount self-image of American society in the late nineteenth century. It was a vision of an 'Americanized' American Indian. By the 1880s and 1890s, despite conventional platitudes about separation of church and state, 'Americanism' represented virtually a fusion of nationalism and Protestantism" (203).
According to reformers, the first step was to "detribalize" Indians, that is to "individualize" them. "Once the individual had broken free of the tribal heritage, the reformers' program would power the final stage, the leap into the mainstream of American life" (204). Eventually, "all Indians could be submerged in the body politic of America" (205).
"In the Indian reform crusade of the 1880s, four issues overshadowed all others, both in their potential consequences for the Indians and in the zeal with which the reformers attacked them: land, education, law, and purification of the Indian Bureau. Give the Indians fee ownership in their own plot of land. Educate them in preparation for citizenship and self-support. Extend law for their protection against whites and other Indians. Upgrade reservation management to speed the civilization process and the dissolution of the reservations" (205).
Henry L. Dawes, U.S. senator from Massachusetts, was the champion of severalty for Indians (206). His leadership led to the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887 (207).
Beginning in the 1880s, the U.S. began appropriating funds for the establishment and operation of schools among the Indians. By then, of course, church groups had been conducting educational work for many years, especially Roman Catholics. Various denominations had conducted virtually all formal schooling among the Indians. Thus, they received much of the funding that the federal government had appropriated. This was true because government schools could not set up and start running as fast as the money was becoming available. The churches were more than willing to accept any surplus funds. This situation naturally generated religious contests for government money.
Captain Richard Henry Pratt was founder and president of the Carlisle School, Pennsylvania, the greatest of the off-reservation boarding schools for Indians. Pratt spoke of a sudden and total immersion "in our civilization" (211).
"Not amid the cushioned comforts of Lake Mohonk, but on the reservations, where spoilsmen ran the programs, were the theories of the reformers put to the test. Lake Mohonk provided the perfect setting for spinning the theories, for it so perfectly mirrored the life and values of the reformers themselves, and therefore the life and values considered ideal for the Indians. But the polished lobby of Mohonk House differed from the hard environment and society of the reservation as night differed from day, and what seemed so ideal and attainable at Mohonk proved considerably less so on the reservation. There, to their pain and sorrow, several generations of Indians were fated to grapple with the legacy of Mohonk" (217-18).
Chapter Eight: The Reservation, 1880-1890
Utley narrates the obliteration of the buffalo in the 1870s and 80s. This "doomed the Plains Indians' way of life and forced them to settle on the reservations." How? Because going off reservation was for the purpose of hunting buffalo. The animals also provided the means of survival when Indians killed one. So, the demise of the buffalo basically took all the fun out of going off the reservation.
Utley distinguishes between nonprogressives (traditionalists) versus progressives among the Indians (223). A third distinction can be described as those who resisted when they could, but who gave in when they had to (225).
The Sioux began to experience the confinement of the reservation, and agents discouraged the hunt because hunting, it was said, perpetuated in the Indians "all the cruel and wicked propensities" (226). The vision quest was directly related to the hunt and to warfare. So, due to reservation life, the vision quest fell into irrelevance (230). It was much the same story for the sun dance as well (230-31).
" . . . the main explanation for the spread of Christianity lay in the nature of the Indian spiritual belief, which did not bar the new from living comfortably next to the old--so long as the Christian holy men did not demand too insistently that the old be cast aside. The Indian spiritual life centered on a quest for personal power. The white man visibly possessed power. Therefore, his God might also be petitioned for power along with the traditional Sioux deities" (231).
"Like Christianity, education elicited ambivalent reactions from the Sioux. On the one hand, they sensed its importance in helping them to cope with the white people in the new world forced on them. On the other hand, they feared what it would do to the hearts and minds, indeed the Sioux identity, of their children. On both counts, of course, they were right" (231).
Federal officials pressed individual homesteads and farming on the Indians (232). Major General George Crook to the leaders of the Sioux Indians: "It strikes me that you are in the position of a person who had his effects in the bed of a dry stream when there was a flood coming down, and instead of finding fault with the Creator for sending it down, you should try and save what you can" (236).
In 1890, President Harrison announced that the land ceded by the Sioux was now open to settlement, news which came as a shock to the Sioux (239).
Chapter Nine: The Passing of the Frontier, 1890
The "spoils system" had one of its most abusive manifestations at the Pine Ridge reservation in Dakota. Two incompetent, desperately in-debt government agents were there: Royer and Gleason. Around this time, a desperate attempt by the Sioux and other tribes showed up in the form of the Ghost Dance. The dance had apocalyptic dimensions. Its participants hoped for the emergence of a world of bliss. And, it promised protection from the white man's bullets and cannon balls. In the standoff between the two sides, Sitting Bull was killed. Then, there was a melee in which 150 more Indians were killed, and 50 wounded. "Instead of armed challenge to the reservation, the Ghost Dance was a desperate bid for divine salvation where all else had failed. It ended in violence because of an incompetent Indian agent and a tragic accident born of mutual distrust, misunderstanding, and fear" (248-49).
Utley relates the histories of Indian Territory, Oklahoma Territory, and early statehood. There was no Indian warfare in Alaska. There just weren't many Indians there, and the land was so vast.
The Dawes Act succeeded in only one of its goals: it moved Indian land into white ownership. All of the other idealistic goals of the act never came true for Indians. Still, Utley insists that it is unfair to refer to 19th reformers "racists."