Plains Indians

The Plains Indians ranged over a geographical area from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from Canada in the north to Texas in the south. The Arapaho, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow, Kiowa and Sioux were all nomadic tribes and relied heavily on hunting buffalo. They also lived in portable skin tents (tipis).

The Arikara, Mandan, Osage and Pawnee were semi nomadic tribes. They spent part of every year in fixed villages where they raised crops. For the rest of the year they went on hunting trips for buffalo and lived in tipis.

Every part of the buffalo was used. They provided them with food (meat), shelter (buffalo skin tipi covers), clothing (hide robes), fuel (dried buffalo dung), tools (horn spoons and bone hide scrapers), weapons (buffalo hide shields and bow strings) and equipment (ropes and rawhide envelopes for storing food). They also used hoofs to make glue, they turned bones into ornaments and buffalo tails became a fly swish.

In 1849 Francis Parkman wrote: "The buffalo supplies the Indians with the necessities of life; with habitations, food, clothing, beds and fuel, strings for their bows, glue, thread, cordage, trail ropes for their horses, covering for their saddles, vessels to hold water, boats to cross streams, and the means of purchasing all they want from the traders. When the buffalo are extinct, they too must dwindle away."

Plains Indians caught and trained wild horses. They also stole them from enemy tribes. The different tribes also bred their own animals and became excellent horsemen. The greatest achievement of a warrior was to touch a member of an enemy tribe in combat with the hand or a stick (count coup) and to escape back to his own people.

In the second-half of the 19th century European buffalo hunters, armed with powerful, long-range rifles, began killing the animal in large numbers. Individual hunters could kill 250 buffalo a day. By the 1880s over 5,000 hunters and skinners were involved in this trade. It is claimed that the killing of buffalo was supported by the U.S. military in order to undermine the survival of the Plains Indians.

In 1800 there were around 60 million buffalo in North America. By 1890 this number had fallen to 750. The Plains Indians had now no means of independent sustenance and had to accept the government policy of living on Indian Reservations.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) George Ruxton, Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains (1847)

The Sioux are very expert in making their lodges comfortable, taking more pains in their construction than most Indians.

They are all of conical form: a framework of straight slender poles, resembling hop-poles, and from twenty to twenty-five feet long, is first erected, round which is stretched a sheeting of buffalo robes, softly dressed, and smoked to render them watertight. The apex, through which the ends of the poles protrude, is left open to allow the smoke to escape. A small opening, sufficient to permit the entrance of a man, is made on one side, over which is hung a door of buffalo hide. A lodge of the common size contains about twelve or fourteen skins, and contains comfortably a family of twelve in number. The fire is made in the centre immediately under the aperture in the roof, and a flap of the upper skins is closed or extended at pleasure, serving as a cowl or chimney-top to regulate the draught and permit the smoke to escape freely. Round the fire, with their feet towards it, the inmates sleep on skins and buffalo rugs, which are rolled up during the day, and stowed at the back of the lodge.

In travelling, the lodge-poles are secured half on each side a horse, and the skins placed on transversal bars near the ends, which trail along the ground - two or three squaws or children mounted on the same horse, or the smallest of the latter borne in the dog travees. A set of lodge-poles will last from three to seven years, unless the village is constantly on the move, when they are soon worn out in trailing over the gravelly prairie. They are usually of ash, which grows on many of the mountain creeks, and regular expeditions are undertaken when a supply is required, either for their own lodges, or for trading with those tribes who inhabit the prairies at a great distance from the locality where the poles are procured.

There are also certain creeks where the Indians resort to lay in a store of kinnik-kinnik (the inner bark of the red willow), which they use as a substitute for tobacco, and which has an aromatic and very pungent flavour. It is prepared for smoking by being scraped in thin curly flakes from the slender saplings, and crisped before the fire, after which it is rubbed between the hands into a form resembling leaf-tobacco, and stored in skin bags for use. It has a highly narcotic effect on those not habituated to its use, and produces a heaviness sometimes approaching stupefaction, altogether different from the soothing effects of tobacco.

(2) Nelson Miles, Personal Recollections and Observations (1896)

While the vast herds of buffalo, deer, elk, and antelope remained, they were sure of food and raiment. They were, however, soon to be deprived of their abundant riches. The wave of civilization was moving over the western horizon. Its onward march was irresistible. No human hand could stay that rolling tide of progress. The pale faces moved over every divide; they cordelled or pushed their boats up every river. They entered every valley and swarmed over every plain. They traveled in wagons and prairie-schooners, on foot or horseback. Herding their little bands and flocks of domestic stock, they built their homes on every spot of ground that could be made productive. One great cause of disaffection among the Indians was the destruction of their vast herds of buffalo, which seemed like ruthless sacrifice.

Within a few years millions of buffalo were killed for their hides, and thousands of white men, the best rifle-shots in the world, were engaged in the business. The buffalo, like the Indian, was in the pathway of civilization. Now the same territory is occupied by innumerable numbers of domestic animals that contribute untold wealth to our entire country.

(3) Harper's Magazine (12th December, 1874)

The vast plains west of the Missouri River are covered with the decaying bones of thousands of slain buffaloes. Most of them have been slaughtered for the hide by professional hunters, while many have fallen victims to the sportsmen’s rage for killing merely for the sake of killing. These people take neither hide nor flesh, but leave the whole carcass to decay and furnish food for the natural scavengers of the plains.

Our front-page illustration represents a party of professional hunters, numbering six or eight, who have come upon a large herd of buffaloes. The first shot brings down a splendid animal, wounded purposely in a manner not to kill but to make him "pump blood," that is to say, to bleed profusely. Others of the herd gather around their wounded comrade, and appear to be too much stupefied to avoid danger by flight. The hunters kill as many as they can, until the survivors at last take fright and gallop off.

Then the "stripping" begins. The hides are taken off with great skill and wonderful quickness, loaded on a wagon, as shown in the background of the picture, and carried to the hunters’ camp. Our artists spoke with the hunters on the plains who boasted of having killed two thousand head of buffalo apiece in one season. At this rate of slaughter, the buffalo must soon become extinct. Already there is a sensible diminution of the great herds on the plains, and from many places where they were once numerous they have disappeared altogether. Some of the railroads running far out into the prairies have regular trains for parties of amateur hunters, who fire upon their victims from the car windows. Thousands of buffalo were killed in this manner, besides other kinds of wild game, and their carcasses left to decay on the ground along the line of the railroad.

The indiscriminate slaughter of the buffalo has brought many evils in its train. Among other bad consequences it has been the direct occasion of many Indian wars. Deprived of one of their chief means of subsistence through the agency of white men, the tribes naturally take revenge by making raids on white settlements and carrying off stock, if they do not murder the settlers.

(4) The Times (7th July, 1876)

So heavy a blow has seldom, indeed, been struck at the regular troops of a civilized Power by a barbarous enemy... It is inevitable that such a disaster should sting the American people almost more as an insult than as an injury; but though the threatened retaliation will be severe, we cannot censure it severely, or contend that it is not dictated by a natural impulse.... We cannot doubt that the recital will kindle a flame in the United States before which the Indians will be driven back upon the alternative of death or deserts more barren and distant even than those of the present "reserves." The people of the United States, and especially the men of the West, who alone in this generation have been brought into actual contact with the Red Indians, have been little under the influence of those humanitarian ideas which are found to plead so powerfully for a mollification of English policy when we have to deal with inferior races. The conduct of the American Government towards the Indians of the Plains has been neither very kindly nor very wise; but its restraining influence, not always implicitly obeyed, has drawn loud complaints from the settlers of the frontier lands.... The borderers will certainly make the disaster to General Custer's command an excuse for forcing upon the Government a war of extermination or of expulsion.

(5) Chicago Tribune (7th July, 1876)

It is time to quit this Sunday-school policy, and let Sheridan recruit regiments of Western pioneer hunters and scouts, and exterminate every Indian who will not remain upon the reservations. The best use to make of an Indian who will not stay on a reservation is to kill him. It is time that the dawdling, maudlin peace-policy was abandoned. The Indian can never be subdued by Quakers, and it is certain that he will never by subdued by such madcap charges as that made by Custer.

(6) New York Times (12th July, 1876)

It is even desirable that our defeats should impel us to wage war in the sharp, vigorous manner which is the truest mercy to friend and foe. But it is neither just nor decent that a Christian nation yield itself to homicidal frenzy, and clamor for the instant extermination of savages by whose unexpected bravery we have been so sadly baffled.

All through the West there is manifested a wild desire for vengeance against the so-called murderers of our soldiers. The press echoes with more or less shamelessness the frontier theory that the only use to which an Indian can be put is to kill him. From all sides come denunciations of what is called in terms of ascending sarcasm "the peace policy," "the Quaker policy," and "the Sunday-school policy." Volunteers are eagerly offering their services "to avenge Custer and exterminate the Sioux," and public opinion, not only in the West, but to some extent in the East, has apparently decided that the Indians have exhausted the forbearance of heaven and earth, and must now be exterminated as though they were so many mad dogs... We must beat the Sioux, but we need not exterminate them.

(7) Reverend D. J. Burrell, sermon in Chicago on the battle of the Little Bighorn (August, 1876)

Who shall be held responsible for this event so dark and sorrowful? The history of our dealings with these Indian tribes from the very beginning is a record of fraud, and perjury, and uninterrupted injustice. We have made treaties, binding ourselves to the most solemn promises in the name of God, intending at that very time to hold these treaties light as air whenever our convenience should require them to be broken.... We have driven them each year further from their original homes and hunting-grounds.... We have treated them as having absolutely no rights at all.... We have made beggars of them.

(8) Francis Parkman, History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851)

The word prisoner, as applied to captives taken by the Indians, is a misnomer, and conveys a wholly false impression of their situation and treatment. When the vengeance of the conquerors is sated; when they have shot stabbed, burned, or beaten to death, enough to satisfy the shades of their departed relatives, they usually treat those who survive their wrath with moderation and humanity; often adopting them to supply the place of lost brothers, husbands, or children, whose names are given to the successors thus substituted in their place. By a formal ceremony, the white blood is washed from their veins; and they are regarded thenceforth as members of the tribe, faring equally with the rest in prosperity or adversity, in famine or abundance. When children are adopted in this manner by Indian women, they nurture them with the same tenderness and indulgence which they extend, in a remarkable degree, to their own offspring; and such young women as will not marry an Indian husband are treated with a singular forbearance, in which superstition, natural temperament, and a sense of right and justice may all claim a share. The captive, unless he excites suspicion by his conduct, or exhibits peculiar contumacy, is left with no other restraint than his own free will. The warrior who captured him, or to whom he was assigned in the division of the spoil, sometimes claims, it is true, a certain right of property in him, to the exclusion of others; but this claim is soon forgotten, and is seldom exercised to the inconvenience of the captive, who has no other prison than the earth, the air, and the forest. Five hundred miles of wilderness, beset with difficulty and danger, are the sole bars to his escape, should he desire to effect it; but, strange as it may appear, this wish is apt to expire in his heart, and he often remains to the end of his life a contented denizen of the woods.