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Westward Expansion: Effects of Manifest Destiny on Native Americans

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While most people believe that the idea of Manifest Destiny was primarily beneficial for American citizens, it ultimately did more harm than good, as many conflicts with the land, people, and animals arose with Native Americans. White settlers moving west found that the Native Americans were getting in their way so they dealt with this by killing them, which was occasionally influenced by money from the government. If they decided not to kill the Natives, the Americans would move the Natives onto small pieces of land that they didn’t use. The white settlers exploited the well-maintained resources on the land that they stole from the Natives, going as far as causing the bison to go nearly extinct.

As the white settlers moved west, they demanded more land for farming and mining, forcing the Natives onto reservations in which conditions were rarely ideal. The first instance in which the removal of Natives was seen was in 1830 with the Removal Act, passed by Congress with the support of President Andrew Jackson (Miller 11). Further amplified by the implementation of this act, between 1816 and 1850, over 100,000 Native Americans from 28 different tribes were forced west past the Mississippi River (Nabokov 148). Most of these tribes were relocated to what the whites called the “Indian Territory”, which is currently known as the state of Oklahoma (Nabokov 148). During 1838, the final removal of the Cherokees took place from their previous home in Georgia. The trail they formed on their way west is what is known as the Trail of Tears, where over 25% of the 16,000 Cherokee perished (Miller 11). Roughly around the time that the Removal Era ended during the 1850s, the Reservation Era came into place. With the opening of the Oregon Trail in 1841, the California Gold Rush starting in 1848, and the advancement in transportation, whites flooded towards the West Coast (Miller 12). The whites came up with treaties determining which pieces of land were to be used as reservations for the Native Americans. Unfortunately, they discovered that they actually gave too much land to the Natives and created more treaties to shrink the land farther (Miller 12). On these reservations, the Natives were controlled by a central government which ended up being run by corrupt officials. In order to help this and improve beneficial services to the Natives, President Grant gave the management of reservations to the military in 1869 (Miller 13). In 1871, Congress had to end their ability to make treaties with the tribes due to power struggles between the House and the Senate (Miller 13). A big change occurred in 1887 when the General Allotment Act was introduced, which divided tribal land into small plots (Miller 14). This is different than how it had been previously because Native Americans have always shared what they owned, including land. The allotted land was given in square chunks creating a checkerboard effect between land owned by Native Americans and the colonists, which can still be seen today (Miller 15). Not only was land divided, but the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs controlled how life was on the reservations in an attempt to assimilate the Natives (Miller 14). Between 1871 and 1934, the Natives lost two-thirds of all of their land, reducing from 138 million acres to 48 million acres (Miller 15).

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As land disputes between the Native Americans and the colonists became more prominent, fights broke out between the two, causing many deaths, of which the majority were Native American. Not only were Native Americans killed in these wars, but during the California Gold Rush, the U.S. government encouraged the killing of the Natives, resulting in a dramatic population decrease. One of the big conflicts between the Natives and the U.S. Government was the Sand Creek Massacre. On November 29, 1864, the First and Third Colorado regiments massacred more than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho Natives, including the women and children (Cobb). Colonel Chivington and his 200 troops killed the fleeing Natives who were being led by Black Kettle, the leader of the Cheyennes (Hoig 4). Anyone who was left after the killings were held prisoner in Chivington’s camp (Hoig 155). Roughly twelve years later on June 25, 1876, as miners were rushing into the Black Hills in South Dakota for gold (Trafzer 1806), the U.S. Seventh Cavalry, led by General George Armstrong Custer, attacked the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes (Elliot). Custer greatly underestimated the amount of Natives in the village, guessing less than 2,000 when in reality there were an estimated 8,000 Natives, 3,000 of those being soldiers led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull (Digital History). The tribes were successful and defeated General Custer and his troops. Unfortunately, Sitting Bull ended up having to surrender a year later to the white troops and was forced onto a reservation (Welch 22). Out of fear of a Native American rebellion, the Seventh Cavalry forced the Sioux to surrender their weapons on December 29, 1890 (ushistory.org). An unknown person took the first shot which marked the start of the Wounded Knee Massacre. Spotted Elk, also known as Big Foot, the tribal chief, was shot down along with an estimated 300 other Natives. Some Natives died immediately from bullet wounds while others died later on because of the cold and of sickness. The Wounded Knee Massacre is known as the last battle fought during the American-Indian Wars (ushistory.org). Once the plains were cleared of Natives, the whites headed further west. One of the main events during the mid-1800s that increased the flow of people exponentially was the California Gold Rush. This didn’t have a happy ending for the Native Americans because many of the new settlers in California didn’t want the Natives in their way so they started killing them. Within the first two years of the Gold Rush, roughly 100,000 Natives died from murder, enslavement, disease, and malnutrition (Trafzer 1806, 1808). This is seen in a quote by Mark Johnson, “It is a gruesome detailing of the purposeful, explicit intention to wipe out, exterminate, annihilate, mass murder, starve to death, burn out, extirpate, kill every single Indian in every tribe.” As Natives started to realize that they were out to be killed by a large portion of the colonists, they started to leave the area. Another reason why they left is because they were taken as slaves and the women were sexually abused (Trafzer 1828). Before the Gold Rush in 1846, there were 150,000 Native Americans in California. By 1880, there were only 16,277 Natives left (Johnson).

The white colonists, knowing that wildlife held a crucial role in both the culture and survival of the Natives, had exterminated many important animals, the main one being the bison. A combination of poor farmland and the near extinction of one of the main food sources for the Natives, the bison, led to forcing the Natives to rely on the government more for help. Before the whites came to North America, there were between 30-60 million bison. By the late 1800s, there were around 1000 bison (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). These mass killings of bison happened for a few reasons, some being for the money, for sport, and to help other animals such as cows have a better environment to live in without bison. On the economic side, bison hides became very popular in the mid-1850s. St. Louis was producing around 100,000 robes made of bison hides every year (Hill). By 1871, people had learned how to tan bison hides which made them look nearly identical to cow leather. Hunters would kill hundreds of bison every day and sell these hides for $3.00-$3.50 each at railheads (Hill). The killing of bison helped increase the population of cows because the bison would not only disturb other animals and destroy crops, they would eat the grass that the cows needed to survive (Hill). Decreasing the population of bison made it so this wasn’t a problem anymore. For the last reason, bison were killed purely for sport (Newton). People would go to the herds and shoot all day long trying to kill as many bison as possible, leaving the meat there to rot.

During the 19th century, there was a major increase in American westward expansion with the idea of Manifest Destiny, a term created by John L. O’Sullivan. Although this expansion had some positive impacts for America by allowing more land for farming, opening opportunities for finding more natural resources, and being the inspiration of new inventions, the Native Americans were greatly affected with this change. By being forced onto reservations, massacred across the United States, and having the bison being brought to near extinction, Native Americans had lost most of what they previously had before the European colonists came to North America.

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