White emigrants of the overland trail era are often credited with disrupting Native American societies, causing sweeping changes in in their cultures, and precipitating wars. This is not entirely untrue, but the Oregon Trail was merely one chapter in a much longer history.
The larger truth is that native lifestyles were disrupted by other Indians and by the arrival of Spanish horses well before the United States came into existence, wars and irreversible cultural changes were caused by government policies older than the Oregon Trail, and most contact between emigrants and Indians on the overland trails was peaceful.
Plains Indians were in a constant battle over homelands as migrating tribes shoved aside previous occupants, and the policies of the US government served only to further complicate this situation. In 1824, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was established — not as an independent federal agency, but as a part of the War Department. During the Jackson presidency, a policy of Indian removal was implemented and the “five civilized tribes” of the northeast were forcibly relocated to the plains. As missionaries were moving to Oregon, the Cherokee Nation was following their Trail of Tears to Indian Territory.
Into this uncertainty came the covered wagons headed for Oregon and California. The emigrants distrusted and misunderstood the Indians, seeking revenge for any transgression, no matter how petty. Some emigrants actually shot at Indians for target practice, and guns always came out when Indians stopped by a pioneer encampment to trade. Minor skirmishes were labeled massacres in the press, and the number of dead grew with each retelling of the story at forts and trading posts across the West.
The first group of Indians encountered by emigrants headed west were the “civilized” tribes of the plains: the Fox, Sauk, Shawnee, and Potawatomi of the lower Missouri Valley. They readily learned English and assumed many customs of the whites. Passing the Methodist Shawnee Mission School, established in 1839 in Indian Territory just over the Missouri state line from Westport, marked the edge of white civilization.
Surrounding the “civilized” Indians were two groups of “friendlies,” unassimilated but nonhostile tribes. One group included the Oto, Missouri, and Winnebago tribes. The other included the Omaha, Quapaw, Osage, Kansa (or Kaw), and Ponca Indians.
Upon reaching the Platte River basin, emigrants came into contact with the tribe believed to be the original (in historic times, at any rate) inhabitants of the Great Plains: the Pawnee. The four main tribes – Grand, Noisy, Wolf, and Republican River — were mainly farmers. Wars with the Sioux were gradually reducing their numbers, estimated by Lewis and Clark to be around 10,000. The cholera epidemic of 1849 killed perhaps half of those remaining. The Pawnee rarely fought with whites, and they were trusting enough to sell the Army a site for a new fort to protect the overlanders. The Union Pacific even hired them as guards against the Sioux.
The next group encountered were the Arapaho and Cheyenne. The Arapaho were religiously opposed to war. Closely associated with the Cheyenne, they were known for their friendliness and desire to trade. The Cheyenne were originally corn farmers from Minnesota but were forced to become buffalo-hunting nomads by the raiding Sioux. In 1840, the Arapaho and Cheyenne aligned with the Sioux, Kiowa, and Commanches against white settlement and the Pawnee, Shoshone, and Utes. They were guests of the Sioux when Custer and his men rode into battle at the Little Big Horn in 1876.
The Indians causing the most change on the Plains were those who called themselves Dakota (or Lakota or Nakota – whites with different accents heard the Indian words differently). The Chippewa called them Naudewisioux, the “snake” or “enemy,” and French trappers shortened the name to Sioux. They had migrated to Nebraska and Wyoming by way of Manitoba and the Dakotas, and their arrival on the Great Plains precipitated a long period of warfare and skirmishing with the tribes they pushed aside. There were fourteen main Sioux tribes, of which the best known were the Oglala, Brule, Teton, Santee, Blackfoot, Hunkpapa, Miniconjou, and Two Kettle. Some Sioux farmed corn and augmented this with buffalo, game and fish. Others were nomadic, moving entire villages seasonally. They were a powerful and proud people, and when pushed by settlers they responded with hostility. On August 9, 1854, along the Oregon Trail near Fort Laramie, the Grattan Massacre marked the start of a 36 year period of intermittent warfare between the United States Army and the Sioux tribes.
A highly respected leader of the Sioux during this period was Chief Red Cloud. In 1866, he demanded the abandonment of two forts along the Bozeman Trail. He was defeated after an attack on Fort Laramie. Chief Crazy Horse won infamy and immortality among whites when he led the Sioux against Colonel Custer and the 7th Cavalry along the Little Big Horn River. Custer’s troops were wiped out. Word of the massacre reached the East Coast population centers on July 4, 1876, and newspapers gave it front page coverage the following day — the day after the United States of America celebrated its 100th birthday. The timing was a remarkable coincidence, and it surely contributed to the hostile attitude of many whites toward the Indians.
The final battle of the Sioux Indian War was at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890. Younger braves had been dancing the Ghost Dance, a religious movement that preached invincibility and promised the return of the great buffalo herds that had been slaughtered by white hunters and settlers. Indian Agents, fearing another uprising, demanded the Sioux be rounded up and moved to Pine Ridge Reservation. Some 350 Miniconjou Sioux were surrounded by 500 soldiers of the reconstituted 7th US Cavalry, the same unit embarrassed at the Little Big Horn. The 120 men of the Sioux band were turning over their weapons when a rifle went off. The soldiers started shooting at anyone that moved, including women and children. They even used field artillery against the Indians, many of whom were unarmed. Over 300 Sioux were killed; 31 soldiers died in the crossfire. Congress, swept up in the hysteria of the times along with most everyone else, awarded several Medals of Honor to soldiers at Wounded Knee.
In 1973, Indian activists seized the site of Wounded Knee to publicize the plight of American Indians. Congress was asked to pay compensation to descendants and build a memorial to the fallen Sioux. Instead, the Indians got a statement of “deep regret” that the massacre had taken place.
West of the Rocky Mountains, emigrants on the Oregon Trail encountered several bands they knew as the Snake River Indians. These were the intermarried Shoshone and Bannocks. Related tribes encountered along the California Trail included the Paiute and Ute Indians. The Shoshone, in particular, were friendly to whites. Credit goes to Lewis and Clark for reuniting a Shoshone chief with his sister, their interpreter and guide, Sacajawea. The Shoshone assisted mountain men and Mormons alike. Chief Washakie was a friend of Jim Bridger, and he helped whites with safe passage and boasted that he had never killed a white person.
The same could not be said for the Bannocks. The Massacre Rocks Incident and the Ward Massacre are blamed on the Bannocks. The 1878 Bannock War was caused by a decrease in buffalo and loss of hunting land. It started with the arrest of two drunken Indians who’d taken potshots at teamsters along the Trail and ended when Chief Buffalo Horn was killed, possibly by members of his own tribe.
Farther down the Snake River, the emigrants encountered the Nez Perce, French for “pierced nose.” Their contact with whites was entirely positive from the arrival of Lewis and Clark until the time that gold was discovered on their land. It was then determined by white authorities that the Nez Perce would be better off on a reservation. Young Chief Joseph, however, had promised his father he would never give up the Wallowa Valley.
When Joseph refused to accept transfer to a reservation in 1877, the Nez Perce War began. Joseph continually outwitted and embarrassed the Army in what is now a legendary campaign that is still studied by aspiring officers in armies around the world. When it became clear that the Army would accept neither defeat nor compromise, Joseph decided to take his people to Canada, beyond the reach of American soldiers. Slowed down by women, children, and all of their possessions, they still kept ahead of the cavalry. They were captured only one day away from the border north of Yellowstone when the commander of the pursuing Army forces telegraphed ahead to another unit to cut them off. Joseph’s surrender included the famous words, “I am tired of fighting. The little children are freezing to death. I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
From the crest of the Blue Mountains to the crest of the Cascades, the emigrants met the Cayuse, Walla Walla, Umatilla, Tenino, and Tygh Indians. Closely associated with, but not as friendly as the Nez Perce, they tolerated Oregon Trail traffic for the first few years. This ended when a measles epidemic at the Whitman Mission led to the killing of the Whitmans by Cayuse warriors in 1847 and the ensuing Cayuse War. The Cayuse were defeated by a volunteer army organized by the American Provisional Government and the British Hudson’s Bay Company, and in 1851 they merged with the Nez Perce. In 1855 the Teninos, Wascos, Paiute, Tygh, and Klickitats merged into the new Warm Springs tribe. They held on to their traditional fishing rights along the Columbia River. Many pioneer diaries include references to looking down from the high cliffs to see Indians fishing for salmon at now-inundated Celilo Falls.
In the Lower Columbia and Willamette Valley itself, there were estimated to be over 5000 Chinook and Kalapuya Indians of various tribes before the arrival of Euro-Americans. Most of the 800 Multnomah Chinook Indians were killed by a malaria epidemic caused by a single Swedish trading ship. Other tribes suffered similar fates. The remainder of the Chinook and Kalapuya Indians were almost finished off by traders who brought malaria and smallpox, diseases to which the natives had no resistance. By 1910 the Kalapooya tribal groups were all but extinct, with only remnants of the Tualatin, Santiam, and Yamel (Yam Hill) tribes, and there were fewer than 50 surviving Clackamas Chinookans. These survivors were sent to the Grand Ronde Reservation. For some, the Oregon Trail was more disruptive than for others.