THE TELEGRAPH / much more; I’m posting the section beginning with U.S. Independence
Columbus, greed, slavery, and genocide: what really happened to the American Indians
In 1793, once the American War of Independence had concluded with the Treaty of Paris, the “Indian Question” became a domestic matter for the new American administration.
Alongside growth in the African slave trade, the slavery of Indians continued undiminished right up to the general abolition of slavery in 1865. For instance, in 1861, in Colusa County, California, Indian boys and girls of three and four years old were still being sold for small sums. Such child slaves were often kidnapped and sold by traders, secure in the knowledge that the parents could do nothing, as Indians could not give testimony in court against whites.
As the settlers pushed across the Plains and the West, tales of whooping, tomahawk-wielding, Indians slaughtering whites became ever more widespread. But it is noteworthy that, pre-colonisation, many of the Indians in the area did not have violent cultures. Among some tribes, sneaking up on an enemy and touching him with a weapon, stick, or even a hand was traditionally deemed the highest form of bravery. However, in the face of continual attacks, the Indians learned to respond with violence.
As alien as it may seem now, by the late 1700s, many American leaders were openly advocating the destruction and extermination of the encampments and tribes. For instance, in 1779, a decade before he became first president of the U.S., General George Washington told the military commander attacking the Iroquois to: (Granted, the Iroquois were quite savage themselves, with an ongoing practice of cannibalism and torture of captives. The war on the Iroquois can be seen as an American desire to eliminate the competition.)
… lay waste all the settlements around … that the country may not be merely overrun but destroyed
and not to:
… listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected.
He insisted upon the military need to fill the Indians with a:
… terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.
Other presidents were more explicit still. In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson told his Secretary of State for War to use “the hatchet” and that:
… we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated or is driven beyond the Mississippi … in war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them.
It was a theme Jefferson was to return to several times, freely using words like “exterminate” and “extirpate”.
Several decades later, in 1829, Andrew Jackson was elected president, although few now remember he had sacked Indian villages of “savage dogs”, made bridle reins of their flayed skin, sent souvenirs of corpses to the ladies of Tennessee, and claimed, “I have on all occasions preserved the scalps of my killed”.
The language of extermination coming from the top was also mirrored at state level. For example, Governor Peter Burnett of California stated in 1851 that war would:
… continue to be waged between the races until the Indian becomes extinct.
And the following year his successor, Governor John McDougal, reiterated the sentiment, urging that the whites’ war against the Indians:
… must of necessity be one of extermination to many of the tribes.
All the while, elements within the press supported the incitement to mass murder. L Frank Baum (most famous as the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) was editor of the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer in South Dakota. In it, he wrote:
The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are. (20 December 1890)
He returned to the same theme the following week:
The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination [sic] of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. (29 December 1890)
These seem to have been fairly standard and established views among sections of the population. A generation earlier, in 1864, the Rev. William Crawford had written of the prevailing opinion in Colorado:
There is but one sentiment in regard to the final disposition which shall be made of the Indians: ‘Let them be exterminated — men, women, and children together’.
And, sure enough, one of the worst atrocities of the 1800s soon followed — the infamous November 1864 massacre at Sand Creek, familiar to anyone who has seen the 1970 film Soldier Blue, groundbreaking for its graphic depictions of the slaughter.
The Cheyenne and Arapaho men of Sand Creek were away on a buffalo hunt, leaving around 600 women and children together with some 35 braves and 25 old men. When the American cavalry approached, the elderly chief, Black Kettle, emerged with his family. He waved a white flag and an American flag, and explained that the village had already voluntarily surrendered all its weapons to prove they were peaceful. All the while, he reassured his people not to be afraid. However, the Cavalry commander, the Rev. Col. John Milton Chivington, a devout Methodist pastor and elder, was an extremist in no mood for peace. “I long to be wading in gore”, he had announced a few days earlier:
Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! … I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. … Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.
The stomach-turning notion that “nits make lice” was one of his favourite justifications for the wholesale butchery of Indian children. Accordingly, at Sand Creek he sent in his 700 troops, who slaughtered the entire village, including a six-year-old girl waving a white flag. When they were done, they scalped the bodies, hacked off fingers and ears for jewellery, and sexually mutilated a number of the corpses.