Native Americans in the Western United States

In the arid West and Southwest of what is now the United States, white explorers and settlers encountered many Native Americans between the 1500s and 1800s.

Dec 19, 2021By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA
native american history indian war era frontier


From the era of Spanish Conquistadors to the Indian Wars of the 1870s, Native Americans in the West and Southwest of what is now the United States have had a significant impact on American culture. Take a look at some of the rich cultures and interesting history of Native American tribes in these regions, including their relationships to the natural environment, European explorers, and American settlers. From their first encounters with the Spanish to the modern Indian Reservation system, Native Americans faced daunting challenges. However, they also helped develop our modern culture and ways of adapting to the environment, creating lasting legacies.


Native Americans’ First Contact With Europe: Francisco Coronado and the Conquistadors

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Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado in the American Southwest in 1540, via Navajo People


Although Columbus landed in the New World in 1492, it would take almost 50 more years for the Spanish to arrive in the Southwestern United States. After colonizing the Caribbean, the Spanish first moved inland in 1519 when conquistador Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico. Allegedly, the Aztecs assumed he was Quetzalcoatl, a deity who was prophesied to return about that same time. This gave Cortes and his army of 600 men the ability to easily enter the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. Within two years of warfare, aided by Old World diseases against which the Aztecs and other Native Americans had no immunity, the mighty Aztec Empire had completely fallen.


In 1540, fellow conquistador (conqueror) Francisco Coronado went north from Mexico into what is now the Southwestern United States. He was inspired by the return of a Spanish priest who reported a “vast empire” in what is now northern New Mexico. Seeking the rumored “Seven Cities of Gold,” Coronado formed an expedition and headed north from Mexico’s west coast. He encountered Native Americans in present-day Arizona and unfortunately treated them with violence and aggression when he did not discover gold. In 1542, he returned to Mexico unsuccessful. However, some of the priests he had brought north on his expedition chose to remain with the natives to attempt to convert them to Christianity.


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Spanish conquistador Juan de Onate in 1598, who explored west Texas and New Mexico, via the Bullock Museum, Austin


Other conquistadors followed in exploring the West and Southwest, including Juan de Onate. Considered one of the last conquistadors and closing the era of Spanish exploration, Onate crossed the Rio Grande River between modern-day Mexico and the US, where the city of El Paso, Texas now stands. He met members of the Mansos tribe and adopted trade routes already used by Native Americans for Spanish use. Although he sought gold like Coronado and similarly found none, his adoption of existing Native American knowledge helped establish trade and found the modern city of El Paso.

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New Spain In the Southwest and West

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A map of New Spain, which occupied the Southwest and Western United States until 1821, via the Texas State Historical Association


For the next two hundred years, Native Americans in the Southwest and West coexisted with the Spanish, who set up the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Spanish relations with Native Americans were complex and, like the English in the Northeast, alternated between periods of peaceful trade and violent warfare. Much of New Spain in the modern-day United States was sparsely settled by the Spanish, especially the arid Southwest.


Some tribes, such as the Coahuiltecans and Jumanos, allied with the Spanish to help protect against the Apaches and Comanches, which were more aggressive tribes coming into modern-day Texas from the north. In New Mexico, the Pueblos revolted against the Spanish in 1680 and forced them out of Santa Fe, their regional colonial capital. However, as was common during Spanish-Native warfare of the era, the Spanish eventually returned with greater firepower and retook the lost territory. However, the Spanish realized that they would be better off allying with the Pueblos against hostile tribes like the Apaches, Comanches, and Utes.


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A photograph of a Zuni adobe single-family home, via the National Archives, with Ruins of an Ancestral Puebloan village in modern-day Arizona, via the Library of Congress


To the West, in Arizona, Spanish settlement occurred even more slowly. Eventually, enough Spanish encroachment occurred by the late 1740s to result in an uprising by the Pima Indians, which resulted in a Spanish fort (a presidio) being built at Tubac in 1752. By the early 1800s, the Spanish had discovered the preserved ruins of the Ancestral Puebloans, also known as the Anasazi, in the modern-day Four Corners region where the states of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona meet.


Throughout the era of Spanish colonization, major efforts were made by Catholic priests to convert Native Americans to Christianity. As in Mexico and the rest of New Spain, these efforts to assimilate Native Americans into Spanish culture created a Mestizo caste of mixed Spanish and Native American heritage. Since few women from Spain traveled to the New World, many Spanish men who were explorers or settlers took Native American wives. This intermarriage also occurred in modern-day Texas, where individuals with a more European, or “white,” appearance were given higher social status.


Native Americans Pushed Westward

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A map of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, which transferred land from France to the United States, via the Compromise of 1850 Heritage Society


As the Spanish slowly settled the Southwest and West, the English colonies in the Northeastern United States had become densely settled. After the French and Indian War, New France ceased to exist. Much was given to Britain, and the Louisiana Territory west of the Mississippi River was given to Spain in a secret treaty in 1762. Soon afterward, settlers from the thirteen English colonies, which would soon become the new United States of America, streamed westward over the Appalachian Mountains. This began a continuous trend of Native Americans being pushed westward by the growing United States.


In 1803, the young US purchased the vast Louisiana Territory from Napoleon Bonaparte in France, which had itself taken the land back from Spain. The Lewis and Clark Expedition explored this new land the very next year, eventually reaching the Pacific Ocean. In addition to mapping territory and describing new animal species, such as the grizzly bear, the expedition established diplomatic ties with Native American tribes in the West and Northwest by trading goods. As the US expanded into this new territory, relations with Native Americans were complex and uncertain.


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An image of opposing perspectives on forcing Native American tribes to relocate, via the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC


In 1830, US President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which forced Native American tribes to relocate west of the Mississippi River. The president gave tribes new lands in the West in exchange for existing tribal lands in current US states. However, this new land was unfamiliar to the tribes of the Eastern US and of lesser quality of settlement. Many did not want to leave their ancestral homes and resisted. In 1838, the infamous Trail of Tears saw thousands of Cherokee from the Southeastern United States forced to march to new “Indian Territory” in the modern-day state of Oklahoma.


Ultimately, many tribes were forced to relocate to Oklahoma, including the Choctaw, Creek, and Chickasaws. The US government used alternating methods to convince them to move, ranging from payment to treaties – many of which were broken – to physical force. Tribes were also forced to relocate westward from the North, with tribes in the Northwest Territory region – now the states of Michigan and Minnesota – being forced toward Nebraska. Some attempted to remain and assimilate as the government desired, only to be later stripped of their lands anyway.


Mexican Cession Leads to New US-Native Relations

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A map of the territorial concessions made by Mexico following the Mexican-American War overlaid against modern US state borders, via the University of Wisconsin, Madison


While Native Americans were forcibly relocated westward, Americans were also eyeing territory that belonged to Mexico. In the early 1840s, large-scale Indian Raids by the Comanche and Kiowa killed thousands in towns in northern Mexico. American observers saw Mexico’s inability to stop the raids as a sign of its military weakness, while Mexican observers felt that the US was tacitly encouraging the raids to open up the land for white settlers. Some attribute the deteriorated relations between Mexicans and Native Americans to the loss of respectable presents or tribute given to native tribes by the Spanish. When Mexico replaced new Spain in 1821, the traditional gifts stopped.


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A map showing Native American tribes and conflict with Mexico circa 1844, via the American Historical Review


When war broke out between the US and Mexico in 1846, sparked by alleged Mexican incursions into the new US state of Texas, the US could easily invade and dominate northern Mexico. The years of Indian Raids supposedly helped with America’s easy invasion, as northern Mexico put up little organized resistance. However, the war was swiftly won when the US also attacked in the south, invading by sea close to Mexico City. By 1848, the war was over, and the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, followed shortly thereafter by the Gadsden Purchase, completed the United States’ southern border.


Now the United States encompassed a new tremendous swath of territory, including additional Native American tribes in the modern-day states of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California. Almost immediately, the US desire to remove Native Americans from desired land was manifested here as well: In 1852, a federal Indian agent advised moving Native Americans in southern California onto reservations.


The US Civil War Out West

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An 1862 illustration of Delaware Indian scouts who assisted wagon trains and scientific explorations in the Rocky Mountain region and westward, via the New York State Library


The large Mexican Cession territory became embroiled in new controversies. Would the resulting US states be slave or free? How would the states be settled and incorporated into the union? How to deal with new Native American tribes and the Hispano culture of the region? When war erupted in 1861, Native Americans were also embroiled in the fighting. Some volunteered for service with the Union, and some for the Confederacy. In the West, the Union raced to formulate a comprehensive policy to prevent New Mexico territory from falling to the Confederacy.


Both the Navajo and Apache took note of the growing Civil War and hoped to maneuver advantageously while the US government was occupied. The Apache under chief Mangas Coloradas tried to seize the opportunity to retake control of their lands, but this resulted in bloody combat with the Union. Coloradas attempted to negotiate peace but was tortured and killed by US soldiers. The swift betrayal of the chief and later mutilation of his corps by the US military in 1863 resulted in widespread anger among the Apache. Additionally, there was the knowledge that widespread settlement of Native American lands would commence after the Civil War ended.


The Indian War Era In the West and Southwest

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A map of Indian War era posts, tribes, and battles (1860-1890), via the US Army


Immediately following the end of the US Civil War in 1865, settlement of the west recommenced. When the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, Americans could cross the continent from east to west on a single train journey. This technological feat significantly hastened the settlement of the West. It also increased conflict with the Native American tribes that remained on their traditional territory, as settlers increasingly encroached on this land. Whenever Native Americans retaliated against settlers, the US Army was called in to “pacify” the area.


The Indian War era from 1865 to 1890 saw the last large-scale resistance of Native Americans in the West. The Black Hawk War (1865-72) saw Native American uprisings in Utah Territory among the Utes, Navajo, and Paiutes against Mormon settlers that were crushed in 1872 by the arrival of Army troops. In West Texas, frontier post forts were constructed and staffed during this era to protect settlers against the Apache and Comanche. In 1886, the last large-scale US Army operation against Native Americans in the Southwest ended when Apache chief Geronimo surrendered.


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A compilation of images representing the Indian War era of America’s western frontier, via Texas Beyond History


The Indian War era in the West and Southwest is culturally prominent due to the 20th century “cowboys and Indians” motifs and stereotypes. This brief period of occasionally intense conflict has been memorialized in various forms of media, especially Western films. Typically, films, books, and artwork made by white creators during the 20th century depicted Native Americans as aggressive instigators of conflict, such as raiding wagon trains and frontier cabins unprovoked. Only recently has a more thoughtful and critical look at this era begun, acknowledging that much land was stolen from Native Americans.


Native American Reservations In the West and Southwest

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Native American Reservations in the Southwest today, via the Department of Justice


Following the end of the Indian War era, most Native Americans were settled on Indian Reservations across the West and Southwest. The Bureau of Indian Affairs oversees this land, which occupies a unique place in American culture and governance. Federally recognized tribes and reservations are immune from state law but must comply with federal law. Controversially, many reservations are mired in poverty, often as the result of being on unsuitable land.


Some reservations in the West and Southwest have built casinos, as they are exempt from state laws banning organized gambling. Others have utilized the land for tourism. Many reservations are still economically underdeveloped, and it can be very complicated to plan industrial or commercial development on tribal land. While many are working to improve the lives of those who are facing unemployment and poor health on reservations, Native Americans still frequently face discrimination in American society.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.