~ Geoffrey C. Ward - The West
~ Richard White & New Western History
~ Frank McLynn - Wagons West
~ Robert Utley - The Life and Times of Sitting Bull
~ Return to main Americas page


This book is the companion to the PBS TV series of the same name produced by Ken Burns.

Over the centuries, the West has been the repository of the dreams of an astonishing variety of people. The story of the West was once told as an unbroken series of triumphs - the victory of 'civilization' over 'barbarism', a relentlessly inspirational epic in which greed and cruelty were often glossed over as enterprise and courage. Later, that epic would be turned upside down by some, so that the story of the West became another - equally misleading - morality tale, one in which the crimes of conquest and dispossession were allowed to overshadow everything that ever happened beyond the Mississippi. The truth about the West is far more complicated, and much more compelling... in the often stirring story of the West, a human price was paid for every gain.
        - Stephen Ives and Ken Burns, preface to the book

"It's a landscape that has to be seen to be believed. And as I say on occasion, it may have to be believed in order to be seen."
        - N. Scott Momaday, Kiowa poet

"Greed, folly, inquisitiveness, love, courage, ambition, and hope - these have always been elemental to the human story. They are timeless. Each generation reenacts them anew... What separates those same stories when they occur in the West is the landscape. It exposes everything to a harsher, clearer light. It, too, seems elemental and timeless. And, as a projection screen for the looping reels of human history, it is, well, monumental."
        - Dayton Duncan, "Monument Valley" essay

By the 1690s, the horse had already reached the Plains tribes of Texas. By 1700, it had reached the Kiowa and Comanche in what is now Colorado... a mounted hunter could in one day kill enough buffalo to feed and clothe his family for months. Soon, the Cheyenne were following the buffalo on horseback and raiding other tribes to add to their pony herds. The Great Plains, which had been sparsely occupied mostly by agriculturalists, suddenly became a crowded meeting ground for some 30 tribes from every direction. The Cheyenne and the Crow abandoned their fields and permanent villages altogether to become nomadic hunters. Soon the horse was so central to the lives of some western peoples that they literally could not imagine a time when they had managed to survive without it.

But if some Indian peoples were strengthened by the coming of the horse and the gun and trade goods, all were threatened by still another legacy of the Europeans: disease for which they had no immunities. Smallpox swept across the Plains well in advance of the whites who had brought it with them, and reached the Northwest in 1782. There, it may have killed half the Blackfeet, as well as half the Nez Perce, occupants of the grassy plateau between the Cascades and the Rockies in what is now Idaho, who had yet to even see one of the white men who had now twice transformed their world.

"A man could not even court a girl unless he had proved his courage. That was one reason so many were anxious to win good war records... The women even had a song they would sing about a man whose courage had failed him... It was hard to go into a fight, and they were often afraid, but it was worse to turn back and face the women."
        - John Stands in Timber of the Cheyenne

Thomas Jefferson faced a delicate political situation in 1802. The United States ended at the Mississippi. Britain occupied Canada and now claimed the Oregon country, spreading west from the Rockies to the Pacific, and north from Spanish California to Russian Alaska. Spain also claimed the rest of the vast, mostly unmapped territory 'Louisiana', that stretched from the mouth of the Mississippi to the Pacific and from Minnesota to the Rio Grande... Napoleon Bonaparte dreamed of carving out a vast New World empire, centered in New Orleans and stretching far into the Caribbean. Britain was certain to try to stop him, and if war came between the Old World's mightiest powers the President feared the United States would have to wed itself to the British fleet.

Since 1528, Europeans from different nations had been entering the West from different directions, pursuing different myths. Without help from the native peoples who had lived on these lands for thousands of years, none would have survived for long. Yet each intruder had laid claim to the region as if he were the first to discover it, as if the people already living on it whose worlds had been changed forever did not exist. Now it was the Americans' turn.

"What is the right of a huntsman to the forest of a thousand miles over which he hs accidentally ranged in quest of prey? Shall the field and the valley, which a beneficient God has formed to teem with the life of innumerable multitudes, be condemned to everlasting barrenness?"
        - John Quincy Adams

"I have held my hands in an ant hill until they were covered with ants, then greedily licked them off. I have taken the soles of my moccasins, crisped them in the fire, and eaten them."
        - Jospeh Meek, on the trials of being a Mountain Man

"The Sabine River is a greater saviour than Jesus Christ. He only saved men when they die from going to Hell, but this river saves men from prison."
        - Anonymous view of the river bordering the US and Mexico-controlled Texas

"My people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them."
        - Brigham Young, Prophet of the Mormons

By 1848, the United States claimed almost all of the West. The Louisiana Purchase, the annexation of Texas and Oregon, and the war with Mexico had stretched the nation's boundaries all the way to the Pacific. But the West was still American in name only. Few people east of the Mississippi were anxious to venture into its forbidding interior. It still seemed too distant, too dangerous. Then gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill and everything changed - for California, for the West and for the country.
Some 80,000 men swarmed into California in 1849. More than half of them in their twenties - "a gray beard was almost as rare as a petticoat", one man remembered - and most of them hurried to one or another of the small, single-street settlements that grew up almost overnight wherever gold was found. Gold-seekers were delighted by the weather and dazzled by the landscape. But everything cost too much. Digging for gold was hard, monotonous and mostly unrewarding. It combined, one miner said, "the various arts of canal-digging, ditching, laying stone walls, ploughing and hoeing potatoes..."

Roughly two-thirds of the forty-niners came from the United States and two-thirds of them were from New England.... California now had more immigrants than any other part of the United States. Nine out of ten of them were men.

There was no longer room in California for the first Californians. Thousands of Indians died from diseases the white man had inadvertently introduced among them, but thousands more were killed deliberately. Before the forty-niners came there were some 150,000 Indians in California. By 1870, there would be fewer than 30,000. It was the worse slaughter of Indian people in United States history.

By 1852, the surface gold in California was all but gone. Most of what gold remained could no longer be retrieved by a single miner with a pick or shovel or pan, no matter how hard he worked. It lay at the bottom of rivers, in veins of quartz that could only be reached by deep shafts, or hidden in hillsides from which it had to be blasted by powerful streams of water. Big machinery required big money. California's goldfields were soon controlled by investors with headquarters in San Francisco, and worked by miners who labored for a weekly paycheck... discouraged forty-niners made strikes in other parts of the West, and following a pattern set in California that would be repeated again and again all over the West, wherever gold was discovered, Indian peoples suddenly found themselves outnumbered in their own land.

To secure southern support, Senator Stephen A. Douglas overturned the Missouri compromise of 1820 and proposed to carve from part of the old Permanent Indian Territory two altogether new territories, Kansas and Nebraska. The people of those territories, not Congress, were to be allowed to decide for themselves about slavery. Douglas believed it would help unite the country by allowing a railroad to link the Atlantic and Pacific. Instead, by leaving it to a few thousand settlers to decide the momentous question of slavery in the western territories, it would tear the country apart.
When the day to vote came, nearly 5000 armed pro-slavery men from Missouri flooded across the Kansas border, seized polling places, cast four times as many ballots as there were voters in the territory, and installed a legislature that made it a crime even to criticize slavery. Free-Soilers countered with their own election. Kansas now had two governments. Its people were about to go to war with one another... during the next three months, more than 200 men would die in "Bleeding Kansas".

"This country is worthless. Think the country was never intended for white folks. The first man that ever came... ought to have been killed by the Idians."
        - Simeon Crews, soldier in Confederate invasion of New Mexico

"The great Pacific Railway is commenced... Immigration will soon pour into these valleys. Ten millions of emigrants will settle in this golden land in twenty years... This is the grandest enterprise under God!"
        - George Francis Train

The Chinese railway workers had advantages over their white counterparts, "they do not drino or fight or strike," wrote the journalist Charles Nordhoff. They arrived at the work site already divided into smoothly efficient work gangs, usually from the same province and speaking the same dialect. They fell ill less often too, because they drank only tea made from boiled water, and consumed a more varied diet than their white counterparts.

"We intend to try and vote the Chinaman out, to frighten him out, and if this won't do, to kill him out."
        - Denis Kearney, founder of San Francisco's Workingmen's Party

At one time, 30 million buffalo may have blanketed the Plains. But by the late 1860s, their numbers had already drastically declined - reduced by competition for winter fodder with the horse, by diseases carried by the emigrants' oxen and loss of grasslands to the overland trails, by hunting that had provided meat first to fur trappers and then to railroad crews, and by the buffalo-robe trade that encouraged Indians to kill more than they needed.

Charles Goodnight served as a scout for the Texas Rangers during the civil war, fighting Comanche and learning lessons about surviving in inhospitable country that would serve him well for the rest of his life. Most important was reading the signs of nearby water: the presence of mesquite bushes, he discovered, meant there was likely to be water without three miles; a swallow flying low, with an empty beak, was headed toward water; one with mud in its beak was coming straight from it.

For all the romance that grew up around the cattle drives almost as soon as they began, it was a distinctly unromantic business, and the workingmen who made the cattleman's profits possible labored for wages so low and under conditions so difficult and dangerous that only a third of them were willing to undergo them more than once. Most cowboys were young, the average age was 24, and slightly built - big men were too hard on the horses. Most cowboys were Texans, and many were ex-Confederate soldiers whose feelings about northerners had not improved since the Civil War. Whatever their background, almost all cowboys were poor, willing to work 17-hour days, seven days a week for up to four months at 30-45 dollars a month.

Pinkerton agents acted as Union spies during the Civil War, and afterward helped break up the labour unions and chased embezzlers and robbers for the railroads. The term 'private eye' was inspired by their symbol.

The western army had an impossible job - policing some 2.5 million square miles of land between the Missouri and the eastern slope of the Sierras. It was never more than 15,000 men, scattered among 100 forts and outposts, yet they were somehow expected to defend settlers, ranchers, miners, railroad crews; keep thousands of Indians confined to their reservations - and keep tens of thousands of whites out of Indian lands. But even though army pay was low - just 13 dollars a month - steady jobs were scarce during the economic slump that followed the Civil War.

For three months in 1876 the Nez Perce would lead the United States Army on one of the most remarkable pursuits in American military history... with the hope of finding friends and sanctuary on the northern Plains gone, they fastened on one last chance for escape. Sitting Bull had found safety in Canada. They would head north across Montana to join him. At first it seemed nothing could stop them. They crossed the Yellowstone River, then the Musselshell, and finally, in late September, the Missouri, where they easily drove off a detachment of troops at Cow Island and helped themselves to an army supply depot. They had now come more than 1700 miles across some of the most rugged terrain in North America; fought in 17 engagements against more than 2000 soldiers and Indian scouts; suffered hardships, disappointments and the loss of loved ones. But they had beaten or eluded every army sent against them.

"Nowhere, not at sea, does a man feel more lonely than when riding over the far-reaching, seemingly never-ending plains..."
        - Theodore Roosevelt

"In Europe we have cities wealthier and more populous than yours and we are not happy. You dream of your posterity; but your posterity will look back to yours as the golden age, and envy those who first burst into this silent, splendid Nature..."
        - James Bryce

"It is a cruel country as well as a beautiful one. Men seem here only on sufferance."
        - Ethel Waxham

By 1877, the American conquest of the West was nearly complete; for every Indian in the West, there was now nearly 40 whites, homesteaders had ploughed up the plains that had once nourished the buffalo and, as the Indian wars drew to a close, the last obstacles to complete American domination seemed to drop away. From now on, there would be less and less room for those who didn't conform to American ways. But then, in one savage winter the newcomers would learn just how 'wild' the West could really be - and that no matter how many of its native peoples were subdued, conquest of the western landscape could never be complete.

[Featured essay: "The Pioneer in the American West" by John Mack Faragher]
One of the greatest mass migrations in American history began in 1815. With Indian resistance in the Mississippi Valley broken by the victories of American forces during the War of 1812, thousands of families in Pennsylvania and Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee packed their goods and poured west into Alabama, Missouri and Illinois. Within five years the population of Missouri nearly triped and there was comparable growth all along the frontier. From 1810 to 1820 the proportion of Americans living west of the Appalachians rose from 15 to 27%.

Contemporaries christened this mass movement 'the Great Migration', a phrase rich with historical associations. It was the name the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay gave to their Atlantic crossing of the 1630s, the name claimed by pioneers headed overland for the Far West in the 1840s, and the name historians apply to the migration of tens of thousands of black people from the rural South to the industrial North in the 20th century. We Americans have always had itching feet. The movement of people from one place to another is one of the most important factors in our history.
The pressing American need for elbowroom was so strong that by the time of the Revolution, in typical American communities in all regions of the country, at least four out of ten households packed up and left every ten years. We have always been a people in motion.

The riddle of community in the American is resolved by recognising the coexistence of both the 'movers' - the transient majority who farmed for a time before pushing on - and the 'stickers' - the men and women who persisted on the land and rooted themselves in the community during the first decades of settlement, intermarried with each other, and passed their farms on to their children. The westward movement is the story of the choices of families in both groups.

[Featured essay: "Other Wests" by Richard White]
The West could have been different. Events are patterned; history is not random; but the world is also surprising... it is certainly a legitimate function of history to produce a usable past. But there is a danger in our obsession with mapping out the routes to the present, because in doing so, we slice off all that is not 'relevant' and this distort the past. We eliminate its strangeness. We eliminate, most of all, its possibilities. History should do more than just validate the inevitability of the present... Because the 19th century West did not hold within it a single genetic code that caused the modern West to flower like a rose, western historians should at least show a decent curiosity about how it might have been, about other potentials resting within the western past.

The United States at one time demanded much more land than it now claims in western North America and at other time was willing to settle for much less than it now possesses. That the boundaries came out as they did has often surprised both 19th century observers and modern historians. That the West is where it is turns out to the sum of American power, interest, and contingency. As contingent as the boundaries might be, they influenced all that followed. The vast new territories forced the United States to face the issue of slavery. The Mexican War thus begat the Civil War. And before the Civil War, American settlement produced two Wests: a southern backcountry and a northern one. After the Civil War, all this changed. There was a single West when Americans crossed the Mississippi. The triumphant North and the new and stronger federal government, not the defeated the South, shaped the West.

When we pick our symbols of the encounter between migrants and natives, we encapsulate our assumptions. We think of mounted warrios of the Great Plains confronting covered wagons. We think of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. We think of Wounded Knee. We think of constant and inevitable conflict. There were, however, other encounters that indicate other possibilities.

Historical accounts often re-create the semblance of contests, but because we know the ending, the alternate possibilities of the past never seem quite real. History ordains and explains the winner... history becomes a thoroughfare leading to the present. It is lined by graveyards of failed possibilities. Writing history in terms of the present has its virtues, but it can be an odd procedure. Presentism can yield what might be called the horseshoe crab theory of history, where signs of the present in the past come to define the past. The horseshoe crab is 425 million years old. An evolutionary winner, it has survived while the vast majority of what once surrounded it has vanished. But to think we can understand that past as if its true significance resides in producing the horseshoe crab for posterity is slightly mad. In the past it mattered no more than the rest of the teeming life of the ancient seas. Its survival into the present doesn't alter its role in the past. The past existed on its own terms. By revealing to us the contingency of the present, how different alternatives existed in the past, history indicates that small changes in one time can yield large differences in another. It restores agency without eliminating the large forces that shape all our lives. In this wider past among the unmarked graves of the West we might make history more than a way either of celebrating ourselves or of resigning ourselves to the present.


The new history [of The West] has not yet created anything equal to the power of the discarded myths in capturing the national imagination, rallying the nation, or sustaining progressive reform. On the contrary, the revisionists seem to need those myths as foils for their own contentions.
        - Peter Schrag, "The Burden of Western History" in "American Prospect"

Failure Studies.
        - Novelist Larry McMurty's opinion on aspects of 'New Western History", "New Republic"

The narrative of the Old Western History is the story of a journey, a challenge, and a dual transformation of land and people... One reason the New Western History has failed to displace it in the popular imagination is that it lacks an equally gripping and ultimately satisfying narrative.

American expansion involved more than a gain in territory, although the growth of the American nation at the expense of Mexico, France, Great Britain, and the independent Indian tribes of the West was its most obvious attribute. Expansion also involved the growth of federal power and the gradual creation of a bureaucratic state in the West. Each of these aspects of expansion reinforced the other. The American nation that began to expand westward was neither militarily formidable nor a centralized state. How relatively weak and disorganized the United States was in the first years of the nineteenth century became apparent in the almost comic-opera maneuvers of the Louisiana Purchase.... From the time that they had occupied the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, Americans had worried about Spanish possession of New Orleans. That city controlled the mouth of the Mississippi, and the Mississippi was then the only practical route by which Americans living along the lands it drained could market their crops. The Spanish cession of Louisiana to France threatened this American outlet to the sea. By regaining the vast territory of Louisiana, the world's most powerful nation, France, had replaced the decrepit Spanish empire not only in New Orleans but also all along the western borders of the United States.... In 1802, with Louisiana still under Spanish control, the event that the Americans had long dreaded finally happened: Spanish officials shut New Orleans to American commerce. President Jefferson, who had already instructed his envoy to France, Robert Livingston, to see if he could purchase New Orleans, assumed that the Spanish closure was the work of Napoleon... Lewis and Clark traveled through a world where Indians maintained their political, military, and economic significance. They came, as Europeans had usually come, seeking Indian allies against rival European powers and attempting to open trade relations. Politically, Americans treated Indian tribes as miniature nations existing within the boundaries of the United States.
        - from "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West"

The federal government's role in distributing lands meant that American citizens in the West felt the presence of the federal government far more directly than did citizens elsewhere. That presence was supposed to be temporary, because the public domain, it was thought, would in time become entirely private property. But that did not turn out to be true. The federal government did not distribute all the public lands in the West. The government retained so much land that western states would stand in a different relationship to the central government than would those of the East. In the West the same basic land system created earlier in the East yielded different results. The differences were not intentional. Congress wanted to replicate existing landholding patterns, agricultural systems, and republican institutions in the West. The federal bureaucracies of the land office and the territorial system were only to be a giant administrative scaffolding from which officials and citizens together would build models of the older states. When they were finished, the scaffolding would come down and the new states would stand as duplicates of the old.... The Land Ordinance of 1785 created simple procedures for the acquisition and distribution of public lands... Federal ownership of the public domain gave the central government a distinctive permanent presence in the West, but for most of the nineteenth century an equally obvious governmental presence came through the territorial system. For a good part of the late nineteenth century the federal government administered much of the American West as a colony of the United States. The territories could not elect their highest officials nor pass their own laws without federal supervision. Only Texas and California skipped the territorial period and immediately entered the Union as states.... Westerners often compared their condition to that of the thirteen colonies before independence. They had a much greater sense of the federal government as an obtrusive presence in their lives than did other Americans.
        - from "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own"

The rise of the West to a position of power within the United States has paralleled the rise of the United States to world power. In both cases the key event was World War II.... During the Depression, government controls over the economy had been extensive by previous standards, but they seemed like only friendly advice when compared to the economic planning that took place during the war. Because the destiny of the West had long been linked to federal activity, dramatic changes in federal power and federal policy had powerful repercussions west of the Missouri. Never in western history did changes come so quickly or have such far-reaching consequences as between 1941 and 1945. It was as if someone had tilted the country: people, money, and soldiers all spilled west. That tilt came from the federal bureaucracies, which devoted a disproportionate share of their enlarged resources to western development.
        - from "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own"

The ideological inconsistencies of westerners, from conservatives to environmentalists, are in large part a legacy of their past. For most of its history the West has been a collection of politically and economically weak localities that have sought to grow or survive by making accommodations with powerful outside forces. The most significant of these forces have been the federal government and eastern corporations. Only the federal government and eastern banks, financiers, and corporate leaders could provide the capital necessary for western development, and political and economic careers in the West have accordingly depended on the ability to obtain funds from one source or the other. Individualism and localism of a sort have been possible within this context, but self-reliance or independence have often been more rhetorical positions than actual ways of life.... Federal influence in the modern West remains as pervasive as ever, and indeed is probably more pervasive than ever before, but the nature of federal influence has grown far more complicated. In a world where westerners exert great influence within the government and its bureaucracies, where California and Texas have economies larger than most countries, and where local challenges to federal programs are commonplace, the federal government cannot dictate. Federal bureaucracies have sought to absorb localism in the West rather than override it. They have repeatedly succeeded in doing so.
        - from "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own"


The westward movement would eventually become a mass phenomenon that would take 250,000 people to the West before the American Civil War. The early pioneers had one golden rule: follow the rivers. Many of the notorious problems of the latter stage of the California-bound journey derived from one simple fact: there were no clear rivers to follow, only the ice wall of the Sierra Nevada blocking the way.

For many, the route will be a trail of tears: for the old and sick who should never have gone along; for the infants who were too young to endure the rigours of the trek; for the stupid and careless who will fall victim to drowning, accidentally discharged firearms or death by wagon wheel; for the unlucky who succumb to disease or straggle and fall victim to Indian arrows. Soon, the trail will be clear, for it will be marked by the bleaching bones of oxen, horses and mules and the crude graves of humans. It is the the survivors who will forge the myth of the golden age under canvas.

Wagon-train emigration required one to be on an equilibrium point in terms of social stratification: too rich and there was no reason why one should want to move; too poor, and there was no way one could. By and large, the overlanders came from the 'middling sort' - previously prosperous farmers, traders and artisans who had fallen on hard time because of the depression but who still had sufficient savings to get to the West before being sucked into terminal financial quicksands.

"Their idea of a bath was to place their clothing on an anthill and let the ants eat off the lice and nits."
        - description of the 'Mountain Men' who acted as guides to the pioneers

Cholera was essentially a product of impure water, a disease that was imperfectly understood at the time. Pioneers knew that it was unpleasant to drink from stagnant pools, but did not realise that it was also dangerous. Killing bacteria by boiling was  something they did by chance, not design; only the American mania for hot coffee warded off greater fatalities.

"Cautious, polite, hopeful, courageous, prudent, plain, domestic, generous, attached to friends, firm, persevering, successful... born to command."
        - praise for Elisha Stephens, captain of an 1844 train

Before 1849, serious crime, and therefore serious punishment, was rare on the overland trails. People who could afford the wagon journey west had no reason to commit crime; and for the most part, the dispossessed and wretched of the earth, the social aresenal of criminals, were not present on the plains. Second, the entire ethos of the Midwest in this era militated against crime. Rugged individualism took the form of indiscipline and reluctance to obey orders, but it was a pride-driven ideology, fuelled by notions of 'honour' and the populist conviction that no man should be able to tell another what to do. There was little economically-based envy, resentment of the good fortune of others, or hypertrophied egotism of the "what's in it for me?" variety, and still less, in pioneer society, was there the notion that to lift a finger or get out of bed at all required financial compensation. Many instances of generosity and altruism were recorded on the overland trail which were all the more remarkable for being performed in a context where it was much easier to cheat, lie, steal, be a coward or behave despicably that under the watchful eyes of conventional society.

It is a good story, in the Aristotelian tradition of a tale which even if it did not actually happened, might have happened, even should have happened.

"If a man is predisposed to be quarrelsome, obstinate or selfish from his natural constitution, these repulsive traits are certain to be developed on a journey across the plains. The trip is a sort of magic mirror, and exposes every man's qualities of heart connected with it, vicious or amiable."
        - Edwin Bryant, pioneer of 1846

The Donner disaster was the greatest debacle in the entire history of the wagon trains, even if the death toll on the Meek cutoff in 1845 was probably higher. 42 emigrants and 2 Indian guides died, however, 47 surived, and nearly all went on to live normal lives. Of course, the Donner tragedy was no more a typical outcome for an emigrant journey to the west coast than the Titanic disaster was typical of transatlantic travel by liner. But in both cases the enemy was complacency: in such situations eternal vigilance is needed, for having seemingly overcome nature, mankind often forgets how thin is the margin of victory. It is not the death toll that most shocks readers of the Donner disaster but the rapid descent of human beings into the heart of darkness. At all moments, it seems, civilization skates on thin ice.

The long-term effects of the Donner tragedy on emigrant travel were slight, one is tempted to say non-existent. In retrospect then, the story of the Donners had a greater moral signifiance than historical. It is a classic tale of heroes and villains, which seems to have almost every ingredient: cowardice, incompetence, venality, embezzlement, murder, cannibalism and madness on the one hand; stoicism, will power, endurance, compassion, generosity and humanity on the other. The Donner tragedy illustrates a perennial truth. There are almost no depths of infamy to which human beings can sink, but they are also capable of godlike courage, nobility and self-sacrifice.

The 19th century saw the American character at its best, and the best of that best was probably evinced on the wagon trains west. It is the intrepidity, self-reliance and mutal cooperation, albeit faltering, that most attracts us to the wagon train pioneers. It is true that there were no heroes of the calibre of Shackleton on the trail... Villains, whether of the active kind like Keseberg, or the passive variety like Midshipman Woodworth, seem thicker on the ground, but maybe this is only because Webster-like dark hues naturally make more impression than quiet, sober, decent individuals. Why, after all, does Macbeth impress more than Mr Pickwick? The overland emigrants have an archetypal significance in American history, representing as they do all the ideals of republican virtue and self-help endeavour.


Originally, the Sioux consisted of seven autonomous but related groups. Although they had never assembled at one time and place, they claimed a unity born of shared culture, history and especially language. In the dialect of the eastern tribes, they called themselves Dakota, or ally. In the dialect of the western tribes they word became Lakota. Whites called the Dakotas and Lakotas Sioux, a corruption of a Chippewa word signifying enemies. In time, Dakotas and Lakotas also answered to Sioux.

The four eastern tribes, sometimes collectively labelled Santees, lived along the Minnesota River, the Dakota heartland in the early 18th century. They hunted the animals of the prairie and forest, fished the rivers, and harvested wild rice. They moved about mostly on foot and led a semi-sedentary existence. The so-called middle tribes of Dakota, the Yankton and Yanktonai, had abandoned the woodlands for the prairies east of the Missouri River. They followed the buffalo on horseback but also retained many customs of their kinsmen to the east. They were a bridge between the Eastern and Western Sioux and shared the traits of both. Still farther west, the seventh group in turn divided itself into seven tribes. Collectively known as Tetons as well as Lakotas, they spoke the Lakota dialect and by Sitting Bull's time had transformed themselves into true horse-and-buffalo Indians. The seven were Oglala, Brule, Miniconjou, Two Kettle, Sans Arc, Hunkpapa and Sihasapa. The last were Blackfeet Sioux, not the Blackfeet tribes farther to the northwest. The Lakota culture was hardly a generation old at the time of Sitting Bull's birth. Only around the beginning of the 19th century were the Lakotas transformed from pedestrians to mounted nomads.

The few whites who had reached the upper Missouri conveyed nothing of the magnitude and complexity of the world from which they came and very little of its habits of behaviour and thought. Yet within Sitting Bull's lifetime the white world would overwhelm the Hunkpapa world. When Sitting Bull entered the world, whites in threatening numbers lived no closer than 500 miles to the southeast.

The Fort Laramie Treaty caused much trouble and set the stage for other troublesome treaties to follow. Even if all Lakota chiefs had understood the promise and intended to try, they could not have ended intertribal warfare. It was too deeply embedded in the culture of every tribe... the factionalism cut two ways, vertically and horizontally. The issued pitted band against band. More vehemently, it pitted youth against old. Older men dreamed of peace and did not object strenuously to taking the white man's presents. Young men had no patience with peace talk. War offered the only path to honor, status and rank, and they saw no reason why they should not, as their fathers before them, gain recognition by accumulating Hohe scalps or stealing Crow ponies. If the old men prevailed, the traditional path to these rewards would be blocked.

This was the kind of warfare Sitting Bull and his people understood the honor of coups and ponies, the satisfaction of killing traditional enemies, the sense of tribal power that came from seizing and holding hunting grounds and serving notice on all peoples that the buffalo belonged only to the Sioux and their friends. Men could flaunt  their bravery, inflict damage on the enemy, and when they were tired of fighting simply call off the battle and go home. When as old men the warriors of this time recounted the battles of their youth, they remembered mainly who were bravest, who counted the coups, and who died. The details of battlefield movements, even of individual deeds, blurred in the shadow of the honor roll. When pressed, they would talk about their battles with the white soldiers, but they plainly preferred to recall the glories of war with enemy tribes. That was real war, war understood by both sides, war that conferred honor and prestige without threatening tribal survival. That threat came from white people. They fought a different kind of war, a serious, unremitting war not confined to the battlefield, one the Sioux never really understood.


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