An Analysis of the Impact of American Westward Expansion on the Native Americans

Native Americans and the American West In 1844, John L. O’Sullivan, editor of the Democratic Review, composed the phrase the “Manifest Destiny” as American westward expansion to the Pacific and cultural superiority of “inferior people.” One group of these “inferior people” were Native Americans, who died off from American diseases, such as smallpox, and advanced weapons, including rifles and cannons. Not only did the Americans gun the Native Americans down, but when Native Americans acquired European weapons, they altered their own geography by pushing other tribes across the Great Plains.

Beginning in the 1860’s, many notable battles between settlers and Native Americans occurred, including the Sand Creek and Fetterman Massacres, Little Bighorn, and Wounded Knee. While some Americans waged war on the Native Americans, others advocated for peace. 

President Ulysses S. Grant offered appointments to many reformers that founded organizations such as the Indian Rights Association and the Women’s National Indian Association. America also attempted to “civilize” these “inferior people” through Indian boarding schools, and the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, the latter of which failed.

The settlement of the American West impacted Native Americans through guns and disease, forcing them to change culture, and removing them from their homeland. Some Native Americans were killed from warfare with the American settlers and the majority of them died from European diseases. In order to settle the Great Plains of eastern Colorado, the United States military killed many Native Americans in the Sand Creek Massacre. Colonel John M. Chivington led 700 soldiers to a Native American village of 100 lodges on Sand Creek.

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In the encampment were 500 Cheyenne and Arapaho who lived under the leadership of chief Black Kettle. Black Kettle believed that his tribe was under the protection of U.S. Army. Nevertheless, Chivington launched the attack on November 29, 1864. Most of the fighting took one mile above the river, in the “sand pits,” where the Native Americans dug trenches to defend against Chivington’s two Mountain Howitzer cannons. The total death count for the Native Americans was 150, comprising mostly of women, children and the elderly, and yet only 10 Americans died (Scott 59-60). The Sand Creek massacre undermined American protection of Native Americans because the Coloradoan soldiers attacked despite the U.S Army’s false promise to safeguard the Native Americans. Moreover, the Sand Creek massacre also killed and intimidated the Native Americans because Chivington murdered 150 innocent lives with advanced guns and cannons, that the Native Americans could not defend against. Furthermore, the Battle of Wounded Knee was another event that was responsible for the slaughter of many Native Americans. In order to stop the Native American Ghost Dance, the U.S. Army sent a majority of its troops in the December of 1890 to Wounded Knee Creek. When surrounded by armed soldiers and four rapid fire cannons, the Native Americans surrendered. 

Colonel Forsyth and his men began to search the resisting Native Americans for weapons when the white flags went up, but then a shot rang from the council circle. As a consequence of the gunshot, the American troops fired against the defenseless Native Americans , and they killed 300 (Maddra 41-43). The Battle of Wounded Knee proved that Native American rituals that banish the white settlers were a hoax because Forsyth massacred 300 Native Americans even though the Ghost Dance was supposed to make the Americans disappear. Additionally, the Sand Creek Massacre showed the American perceived social superiority over the Native Americans because they searched the Native Americans for weapons as if they were criminals and the Americans the police. In the same way as the Sand Creek Massacre, the Battle of Wounded Knee was evidence for superior American weaponry including rapid fire cannons, that the Native Americans had no answer for.

However, European disease was the biggest contributing factor to the death of Native Americans. American settlers nearly annihilated Native American populations with European diseases like smallpox, influenza, malaria, measles, and yellow fever. Medicine men and women tried to cure these diseases through a variety of healing devices including plants, pollen, feathers, and stones. When these methods proved futile, medicine men and women resorted to singing, dancing, praying and using rattlers or medicine sticks to heal the patience spiritually (Eastman 101). European diseases wiped out the most Native Americans because they weren’t advanced enough to have proper healing practices. Therefore, the diseases spread fast and hit hard. Just as the Battle of Wounded Knee created doubt about Native American rituals, the inability to prevent disease spiritually created doubt about Native American healing ability because spiritual healing was rendered ineffective. Native Americans assimilated through Indian boarding schools and changed their rituals in response to the settlement of the West. Indian boarding schools in the West integrated Native Americans into Western culture. 

American settlers believed that Native Americans should speak English, become Protestant, and farm the American way. To accomplish this goal, Americans built Indian boarding schools, which took Native American children from their homes and forced them to assimilate into American culture. Some children enjoyed this experience, such as Frank Mitchell, a Navajo boy, who received more food at school than he was ever fed at home. However, most children feared the schools, such as Gertrude Simmons, who cried out when her hair was being cut (Littlefield 9-15). Indian boarding schools may have slightly benefitted some Native Americans because they provided children with food, water, shelter, and safety from being attacked. However, Indian boarding schools made Native Americans lose a sense of selfidentity because they were forced change their language, religion, and culture. Case in point, Dr. Charles Eastman was a man who was assimilated into American society through Indian boarding schools. Dr. Charles Eastman was a medicinal doctor, who practiced traditional healing techniques with fellow healers. Eastman grew up on the Pine Ridge reservation, which had an Indian boarding school within it. He was born a Sioux and given the name Ohiyesa at birth, but then his name was changed to Charles at boarding school (Henretta Et. Al. 534). Charles Eastman’s cultural change was marked by his name change because Ohiyesa was a very Sioux name, by then it became Charles, which was a very American name. 

Eastman’s cultural change also occurred because instead of using Native American spiritual ad cultural healing techniques, he used real medicine to heal patients. Not only did Indian boarding schools created cultural blending, but the Native American Ghost Dance also exemplified syncretism. When praying to the Great Spirit through the Ghost Dance, Native Americans believed that their fallen brethren would resurrect and join them in the fight against the white man. They also believed that herds of buffalo and horses would drive the white man back as well. If the white man were to escape death, they believed that the Great Spirit would turn them into fish (To Wipe out the Whites 1). The white man forced the NAtive Americans to change culture because they decimated the Native American population. Facing defeat, the Native Americans had to call the Great Spirit to return to their side through the Ghost Dance in order to push them back with reborn Native Americans and buffalo. In order to settle the west, the American government and settlers removed Native Americans to Indian Reservations through Indian removal acts and treaties. Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act relocated all Native Americans west of the Mississippi River. The Indian Removal Act declares, “That from after the passage of this Act, it shall be unlawful for any Indian or Indians to remain within the limits of this state, and that any Indian or Indians that remain or may be found

within the limits of this State, shall be captured and sent west of the Mississippi” (The Seminoles 6). The Indian Removal Act removed Native Americans away from their homeland because it forced southeastern Native American tribes, such as the Seminole and the Cherokee, away from the southeast and into the midwest. Andrew Jackson believed the act benefited the Native Americans because he thought that it gave them a permanent place to stay, rather than be killed when Americans wanted to settle the land. Conversely, the Native Americans that were removed West of the Mississippi were again relocated to Indian Reservations. Native Americans believed that portions of the country were specifically designated to them. However, these treaties were never ratified by the Intercourse Act of 1834, so they had no claims to the land. Therefore, Native Americans had to move to reservations so settlers could use the land to dig for gold or farm (The Indians in California 2). Indian reservations relocated Native Americans because American settlers needed the land to farm and search for gold. Most Indian reservations were located in the Southwest, so many Native American tribes coming from the Great Plains, midwest, or northwest had to travel long distances to the Indian Reservations. 

In addition, Indian Reservations also impacted Native Americans because there was higher unemployment, less housing, and worse medical care on the reservations. In conclusion, American settlers of the West killed Native Americans through guns and disease, changed their traditions, and relocated them across the continent. America acquired much of this new land from purchases and treaties. The war with Mexico ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848, where Mexico ceded one-third of its land for only fifteen million dollars. Expansionists also settled on the Gadsen Purchase, which allowed James Gadsen to build the transcontinental railroad. The third transcontinental railroad was built because American settlers needed a way to transport goods and people to the newly settled American West. As a result, the settlement of the American West also impacted Asian Americans because they made up the majority of the workforce building the transcontinental railroad. They worked long hours and in unforgiving weather, sometimes only completing eight inches of track a day. Nowadays, there are more than half a million Native Americans living in the United States. They are free to live wherever they please, but a lot of them still live in the 300 federal or 21 state Indian Reservations. While Native Americans still try to preserve their culture and arts, some are finding it necessary to assimilate into American culture in order to gain an education and money.

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An Analysis of the Impact of American Westward Expansion on the Native Americans. (2021, Dec 21). Retrieved from

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