The Scorched Earth Campaign Against the American Indians

An excellent article in Indian Country Today highlights the strategy used to kill of American Indians and Alaska Natives across the North American continent: destroy their economic base and reorganize their society.

Genocide by Other Means: U.S. Army Slaughtered Buffalo in Plains Indian Wars

As long as the North American buffalo roamed free and bountiful, the Plains Indians were able to remain sovereign.


As the U.S. government and its restless people looked to expand westward after the Civil War, they started to infringe upon Indian lands. During the Plains Indian Wars, as the U.S. Army attempted to drive Indians off the Plains and into reservations, the Army had little success because the warriors could live off the land and elude them—wherever the buffalo flourished, the Indians flourished.


During the Indians’ clashes with settlers, prospectors and U.S. Cavalry to protect a last bastion of their food supply in what became known as Red Cloud’s War, U.S. Army Captain Fetterman bragged, “With 80 men I could ride through the whole Sioux Nation.” He soon got the chance to back up that boast: Captain Fetterman and his men met with some representatives of the Sioux Nation and their allies, led by Crazy Horse, on December 21, 1866, in the Powder River Basin, and the result of that battle is remembered in history books as the Fetterman Massacre—all 81 men in his party were slain. It was the Army’s worst defeat on the Plains until the Battle of Little Bighorn, 10 years later, and forced it to pull out of the area after the Fort Laramie Treaty was signed in April 1868.

Plains Indian Warriors, lightly armed, and out numbered, wrecked havoc on the US Cavalry during the Plains Wars. They used hit and run tactics, attacked supply lines, and when faced with a superior force, simply took to their horses and left, leaving the US Cavalry to wander the great plains, chasing an enemy that was no longer there. How did the US subdue us, then?

General William Tecumseh Sherman, who had broken the back of the South during the Civil War with his ruthless March to the Sea, helped negotiate the Fort Laramie and 1867 Medicine Lodge treaties that were supposed to end U.S. hostilities with northern and southern tribes. But that’s when officers started thinking about a new strategy. Sherman knew that during the Civil War the Confederates’ means and will to fight were extinguished by his brutal—and brutally effective—”scorched earth” policy that decimated the infrastructure of the South. Why couldn’t the same strategy be applied to Indians and their buffalo? Greymorning said, “The government realized that as long as this food source was there, as long as this key cultural element was there, it would have difficulty getting Indians onto reservations.”

Isenberg said, “Some Army officers in the Great Plains in the late 1860s and 1870s, including William Sherman and Richard Dodge, as well as the Secretary of the Interior in the 1870s, Columbus Delano, foresaw that if the bison were extinct, the Indians in the Great Plains would have to surrender to the reservation system.” Colonel Dodge said in 1867, “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone,” and Delano wrote in his 1872 annual report, “The rapid disappearance of game from the former hunting-grounds must operate largely in favor of our efforts to confine the Indians to smaller areas, and compel them to abandon their nomadic customs.”

This flies in the face of the myth that settler’s were simply peacefully homesteading unclaimed and unused land. On the contrary, it took an active military campaign with a scorched earth policy executed by the largest empire this world has ever seen to dislodge the Plains Indians from their homelands. The conquest of North America represented large scale race replacement and genocide.

Today we are confined to reservations. The white man is here to stay. The white man as a whole is not our enemy, as their existence as our neighbors is largely peaceful. Rather, the enemy continues to be the institution that cleared the way for white settlement; the same institution that continues to oppress us through theft of resources, destruction of our traditional way of life, and brainwashing of our children: the US Government, the BIA, and any and every Federal department that maintains a presence on our lands. Include on that list any corporate entity that collaborates with federal or state authorities to plunder our lands and people.


About Vince

I am a Tlingit, born and raised in Tlingit Country, and a proud member of the Tlingit Nation.
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5 Responses to The Scorched Earth Campaign Against the American Indians

  1. Pingback: The Scorched Earth Campaign Against the American Indians | Lingit Latseen

  2. Pingback: Attack the System » Blog Archive » The Scorched Earth Campaign Against The American Indians

  3. Curt says:

    To say the U.S. government “cleared the way” for white settlement isn’t entirely accurate as settlement had already been occurring for the first half of the century and much of it was quite peaceful. Things took a much more dramatic change during the Civil War allowing for a much faster expansion and displacement.

    Also, I don’t think the U.S. was the largest empire the world had ever seen at the time.

  4. ravenwarrior says:

    Conflict between American Indians and settlers goes back to the 1600’s with the Pequot War, and the Pueblo Revolt. The French and Indian War and the Revolutionary war saw tribes allying with whichever side they thought would halt encroachment on their lands. It was hardly a peaceful process. But you’re right. Some of it was peaceful. Disease cleared out much of the eastern seaboard, leaving it open for more peaceful settlement.

    No, the US wasn’t the largest empire at the time. So I’m exaggerating a bit and I appreciate you keeping me in check. But I contend that US imperialism began with forts in Indian Country.

  5. Curt says:

    I was being specific to the historic territory held by the Plains Indians per the article above, so I don’t think the conflicts you’ve mentioned are fully applicable. Don’t get me wrong, there definitely were conflicts, but comparatively little.

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