The Native American population was decimated within the space of 50 years. How did such a population reduction occur?

Two things happened:

    i) all surviving Native People were forced to live in reservations by the end of the Nineteenth Century

    ii) the buffalo herds were all but wiped out thus severely hindering the natural living patterns of the Native People

The impact of these can be seen in the following table :

  1840 1885
Estimated number of Native People 500,000 270,000
Estimated number of bison 13,000,000 200

In 1823, the American government decided to move the Native People to the Great American Desert. This started in June 1825 and lasted until 1840. Those Native People who survived the journey called it the "Trail of Tears". The land was offered by the American government as it was worthless and they wanted the Native People moved away from what can be classed geographically as 'middle' America to make expansion west more attractive to those whites who wished to do so.

The land in the Great American Desert was given to the Native People in 1840 "for as long as the stars shall shine and the rives flow."

In 1848, the Californian Gold Rush started and many white prospectors needed to cross this land to get to California. This could only lead to conflict and many whites died in the ensuing fights. The government resorted to a "policy of concentration". Each tribe in the Great American Desert was given a parcel of land with free areas in between so that white settlers could travel through to the west without being attacked. The tribes agreed to this and "an everlasting and effective" peace was signed. It lasted three years.

In 1859, gold was discovered in Colorado. In one year 25,000 prospectors crossed Native People territory looking for gold. More followed and fighting ensued once again. This time the number of prospectors was greatly multiplied by those who followed and provided the prospectors with what they needed - cooks, beer makers, shop keepers etc.

In 1861, the government ordered the Native People to give up all their land. They refused and war broke out. It was to last until 1864 until an uneasy truce broke out. In 1864, people from the Cheyenne tribe were massacred at Sand Creek.

After 1867, cattle barons decided that the land the Native People had was perfect for their cattle. The government of the day had a choice of two policies for solving the problem:

   i) they could start a campaign to kill off all the Native People. However, just 2 years after the end of the Civil War, people were unwilling to accept yet more bloodshed.

   ii) they could be put in guarded camps called reservations. Here they would live behind barbed wire and the white settlers would be safe.

The government decided on ii). Young male warriors would not accept this and war broke out in 1868. Many white settlers were killed and it became clear to the government that getting the Native People peacefully into reservations would not work. They then decided to attack the Native People at their most vulnerable - in the winter when they stayed in one place and did not move around.

From 1868 to 1874, a cruel but successful campaign took place whereby the Native People were attacked - as was their source of food, the buffalo. Millions of buffalo were slaughtered in a matter of years. Lack of food forced the Native People to accept reservations. Malnutrition was common in these camps and and the death rate was high as the figures in the table at the top indicate - near enough 50% in matter of 45 years.



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