Native Americans in the Midwest United States

The Great Plains region, part of Midwestern America, was of particular importance to both Native Americans and frontier settlers. Let’s look at how the cultures met in the 19th century.

Dec 20, 2021By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA

native americans midwest history Battle bighorn plains indian


Originally part of New France, the American Midwest was populated by many Native American tribes when the United States began expanding westward. Beginning with the Northwest Territory, US westward expansion brought white settlers into conflict with various Native American tribes. During the 1800s, Manifest Destiny, immigration, and homesteading caused cultural clashes as settlers encroached on traditional Native American lands. After the US Civil War, rapid settlement of the Midwest through homesteading led to the brief but intense Indian War era, which ended in 1898 with the tragic massacre at Wounded Knee. Here is a look at the history of Native Americans in the Midwest!


Early European Settlement In Native American Territory: New France

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A drawing of a man of the Fox tribe around 1720 by a French explorer, via the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC


In the centuries after Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas, France explored and occupied the eastern half of North America’s interior while Britain claimed the east coast. In what is now the Midwest, New France was the colonial territory. However, unlike the English, the French settled their vast American territory only sparsely, with few major towns. French holdings in modern-day Canada were more popular for settlement and fur-trapping. However, the modern city of St. Louis, Missouri began as a French outpost after a land grant from the king.


In New France, positive relations between French fur trappers and settlers and the Native Americans were initially encouraged. Due to the low number of French, negotiations and trade were far safer than displays of force like those used by the Spanish to the south and English to the east. However, some conflicts did occur, as the French would pick sides among warring tribes. Much of the political maneuvering of the French among conflicting tribes was driven by competing with the English, with France backing whichever tribe was opposed to the tribe backed by the English. Most notably, the French allied with the Choctaw during their wars against the English-allied Chickasaw during the early 1700s.


The French and Indian War

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A painting of Native Americans during the early days of the French and Indian War, via the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC


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By the early 1750s, tensions had risen sharply between the French and English in what is now the eastern part of the Midwest. The English colonies, having grown considerably, looked to expand westward into the Ohio River Valley. However, the French had built forts in this territory in anticipation of English encroachment, and they had powerful Native American allies. In 1754, Virginia militia commander George Washington famously attacked these French forts, sparking the French and Indian War. Despite initial French victories, Washington’s daring made him a war hero both in the English colonies and in England itself.


In the Midwest, the French were aided by the Delaware and Shawnee tribes. These tribes preferred the French to the English, who were seen as much more eager to encroach on Native American lands. The Illinois people also supported the French, having grown close to them through trading. Trading agreements often created military alliances, as allowing one’s European ally to be driven from an area may mean being denied trade by the victorious other European power.


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French and Native American forces attack the British in 1755, via the Illinois State Museum, Springfield


As the war dragged on and became embroiled in the wider Seven Years’ War, the French lost several Native American allies as they made separate peace agreements with the English, who had become the winning power. When the war ended in 1763, New France ceased to exist, and the Ohio River Valley now belonged to the English. This opened a new era of conflict, as settlers from the thirteen English colonies along the east coast could now migrate west without worrying about the French.


The English created the Proclamation Line of 1763 to keep colonists from moving west of the Appalachian Mountains to reduce hostilities. However, many went west anyway and encroached on Native American lands, sparking conflicts. Colonial resentment toward the Proclamation Line, coupled with higher taxes to pay for the French and Indian War, eventually sparked the American Revolution a decade later. As during the French and Indian War, tribes created alliances with the two warring powers based on which one seemed to offer the tribes a better chance of keeping their lands and ways of life.


Northwest Territory

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A map showing the expansion of the early United States during the 1780s, via the Indiana State Library, Terre Haute


After the American Revolutionary War concluded with the Treaty of Paris (1783), the new nation quickly looked to expand westward. The area south of the Great Lakes was known as the Northwest Territory and was quickly sought by settlers. Despite the area already being settled by Native American tribes, the new US government was eager to see it occupied by white settlers to claim it. In 1784 and 1785, modern surveying techniques were implemented to allow non-wealthy settlers to claim smaller lots than the giant land grants of previous decades. Meanwhile, the Land Ordinances of those same years called for Indian removal from areas to be settled.


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An 1846 engraving of the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers during the US Army’s attempt to remove Native Americans from the Northwest Territory, via the Indiana State Library, Terre Haute


In 1794, the US Army was used to help defeat resisting tribes in the Northwest Territory. A campaign by General Anthony Wayne culminated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers and caused many tribes to accept the end of resistance. The 1795 Treaty of Greenville opened large tracts of land in modern-day Ohio and Indiana for white settlement. In compensation, the US government paid the tribes with goods. However, due to their loss of arable land, many tribes quickly became reliant on these produced goods.


The use of trading houses in the Northwest Territory helped create a vicious debt cycle that forced Native Americans to continue to sell their lands. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson wrote favorably about this process to future President William Henry Harrison. Thus began decades of two difficult choices for Native American tribes: Either migrating westward or assimilating into white culture by farming on fixed plots.


Pressure Placed On Native Americans

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A picture of American Fur Company buildings in the 1820s, via Minnesota Indian Affairs Council


In the northern Midwest, fur trading was a major industry in the early 1800s. The American Fur Company, upon achieving a monopoly on trade with Native Americans, quadrupled its prices! This forced many tribes into debt and resulted in the sale of tribal lands. The government could do this even more easily than private companies, as the government did not need to make a profit on the goods it initially sold to Native Americans. By “hooking” tribes on cheap manufactured goods, the government or trading companies could then raise prices until Native Americans were forced to sell their lands to pay off debts.


Combined with these devious business practices was often the application of alcohol. Historians debate whether alcohol was pushed on Native Americans, many of whom in the Midwest had not experienced it until around 1800, by whites (Europeans and, later, Americans), or was simply the result of cultural exchange. Either way, Native Americans with little or no experience with alcohol struggled to cope with the substance after coming into contact with hard-drinking frontier trappers, traders, and settlers. Agreements between Native Americans and whites could be made with copious amounts of alcohol involved, resulting in poor outcomes for the tribes.


Native Americans Pushed West of the Mississippi

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A map showing Native American tribes slated for relocation west of the Mississippi River, via the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC


In the 1830s and 1840s, Native Americans in the Northwest Territory that were deemed not sufficiently assimilated into white culture were relocated west of the Mississippi River as part of the Indian Removal Act. Many went to Oklahoma, which was dubbed “Indian Territory” at the time, while others went west into the northern Midwest. This resulted in conflicts with new tribes, as well as Native Americans struggling on unfamiliar lands. Having left traditional lands made tribes even more reliant on a negligent, or even hostile, US government.


When forced to relocate, some tribes largely disintegrated and parts merged into other tribes, making a historical record difficult to formalize. Many tribes in the East were forced to migrate west into Ohio, which was the “original” Indian Territory prior to the designation of Oklahoma as such, and some went west into Kansas and Oklahoma in the 1840s. Periodic uprisings occurred in retaliation to this forced relocation, such as the Black Hawk War of 1832 in Wisconsin and the Sioux Uprising of 1862 in Minnesota.


Homesteading and Destruction of the Plains Buffalo

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Settlers heading to the Midwest and West after the Homestead Act of 1862 was passed, via the National Archives


In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, which allowed settlers to lay claim to 160 acres in the Midwest and West. If the settlers had “improved” the land over a period of five years, meaning to farm it, they could apply to a government land office to own the land permanently. This cheap land meant a rush of settlers into the Midwest, which caused several changes detrimental to Native Americans in the region. The rush of change was compounded only seven years later when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, allowing people to cross the entire continent from east to west by train.


Native American tribes living on the Midwestern Great Plains relied heavily on the American bison, or “buffalo,” for survival. They used all parts of these large animals for meat, threat, clothing, and even water containers. Settlers and professional hunters massacred the bison by the thousands, knowing that their destruction would drive away Native Americans. The US Army participated in this indirect pacification of Native Americans by guiding hunts. In less than a century, the bison population plummeted from around 30 million to only a few hundred! Without their traditional source of food and other organic supplies, Native Americans had difficulty resisting being moved onto reservations.


The Indian War Era In the Midwest

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An image depicting US Army General George Custer in his infamous final battle against Native Americans in 1876, via WGBH Educational Foundation


Homesteading and the rapid destruction of the Great Plains buffalo were forcing Native Americans to move onto reservations, or land set aside by the government for tribes. Unfortunately, this land was often of low quality and undesirable. Some tribes resisted the move to reservations or, once on them, left. Clashes with settlers led to the Army being called in. After the end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865, the Army was freed up to focus on pacifying – by force – the remaining Native American tribes in the Midwest and West.


In the late 1860s, a young Civil War officer became noted as a top Indian fighter: General George Custer. Hoping to spark a conflict, Custer led a survey expedition into the Sioux tribe’s most sacred lands in 1874. Angered by white miners streaming into the area, thousands of Native Americans prepared to revolt. They left the reservations and united under chief Sitting Bull.


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A famous painting of the Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand, via Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody


On June 25, 1876, a combined force of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors under chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse attacked General Custer and his two hundred men. Heavily outnumbered, Custer and his men were all killed in the iconic Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand. This unexpected battle was the worst US Army defeat during the entire Indian War era and shocked the public. Unfortunately, it reinforced pre-existing prejudices held against Native Americans and strengthened the Army’s resolve to use force to pacify the frontier.


The US government demanded that the Sioux, Lakota, and Cheyenne return to the reservations, or they would not receive their rations of food. Small bands of Native Americans continued to resist but were continually targeted by the Army. In 1881, chief Sitting Bull finally surrendered, ending the era of organized, widespread Native American resistance in the Midwest.


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A photograph of teepees on the plains in an area similar to the 1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee, via Constituting America


The final “battle” of the Indian Wars occurred on December 29, 1890, in North Dakota. The Sioux, now on reservations after the surrender of Sitting Bull nine years earlier, were performing a ritual known as the Ghost Dance to drive the whites from their lands. Settlers complained about the dance, which was convincing many Native Americans that they needed to re-adopt traditional customs. Tensions rose when Sitting Bull was accidentally killed during an arrest of Ghost Dancers.


On that fateful day, the US Army had surrounded a band of Lakota Sioux and demanded they surrender their weapons. As this was being done, a fight broke out between a soldier and a Sioux, resulting in a shot being fired. In the ensuing fighting, 25 US soldiers were killed, along with as many as 300 Sioux. The mismatched ability of the two forces, which saw the U.S. Army wielding Gatling guns and artillery, has caused many observers to label the tragedy a massacre rather than a battle. Some have opined that the Army intentionally killed more Native Americans than necessary as revenge for the Battle of Little Bighorn more than two decades earlier.


Reservations In Midwest

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A map showing the distribution of Native Americans today in the United States, via the Rural Assistance Center and Vox


After the Massacre at Wounded Knee, virtually all Native Americans either lived on reservations or had largely assimilated into white culture. Today, reservations are spread across the United States, mostly in the West and Midwest. Oklahoma, the southernmost state of the Midwest, remained known as Indian Territory until the early 1900s when it gained statehood. Other large reservations exist in the northern Midwest in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota. Sadly, living conditions on most reservations are poor and have been equated to those of Third World countries. Hopefully, having more Americans know the proud and vibrant history of Native Americans will help erase prejudice and allow Native Americans better social and economic opportunities.

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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.