Unit 5: 1850-1900

1850-1900 Native American nations did not agree to take the same side during the Civil War and this led to deep and long-lasting divisions in some tribes. Treaties and federal policies had reduced Indian populations and land holdings to a minuscule fraction of their original size resulting in vast tracts of land being available for non-Indian settlement and development. During the Civil War the federal government concluded that it was no longer feasible to allow Western tribes a free existence; they would be confined to reservations. During this period of American history, attitudes and policies toward Indians were largely paternalistic and focused on controlling Indians and forcing them to change. The Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 was another attempt at forced assimilation of Indian people. Nineteenth century federal Indian policy has had a long-lasting effect on the social and emotional lives of Native American people.


1851 The Treaty of Ft. Laramie between the United States and Northern Plains tribes.

1853-1856 United States acquires 174 million acres through 52 treaties, all broken by whites.

1854 U.S. Cavalry officer, William Grattan, initiates a major conflict with the Sioux.

18551The Hellgate Treaty is signed.

1858-1859 Gold is discovered in Colorado.

1864 The Navajo people are forced on the “Long Walk” to Bosque Redondo.

1864 Three hundred Cheyenne and Arapaho are killed at Sand Creek Massacre.

1865 The U.S. government gives contracts to missionaries to start Indian schools.

1866-1868 War for the Bozeman Trail includes Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho under Red Cloud, Second Ft. Laramie Treaty.

1868-1869 The Southern Plains War involves Cheyennes, Sioux, Arapaho, Kiowa and Comanches.

1869 President Grant’s Peace policy instituted; lasts until 1871.

1869 Ely Parker (Seneca) becomes first Indian Commissioner of Indian Affairs.


The Transcontinental railroad is completed and joined at Promontory Point, Utah.

1871 The U.S. Congress passes law forbidding further treaties with Indian tribes.

1871 Western Indians not to leave reservations without permission of agents.

1871 White hunters begin wholesale killing of buffalo.

1874 Gold is discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota; miners ignore treaties.

1876 The Battle of the Little Bighorn occurs; Custer is defeated.

1876-1877 Sioux War for the Black hills under the leadership of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

1877 The Nez Perce take flight under the leadership of Chief Joseph.

1878 Congress provides for Indian police.

1879 Richard Pratt starts Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania to assimilate Indians. The U.S. government boarding schools are started.

1881 Sitting Bull and his band surrender at Ft. Buford, North Dakota.

1881-1886 Apache resistance happens under the leadership of Geronimo in the Southwest.

1885 The last great herd of buffalo is exterminated. The Louis Riel Rebellion occurs.

1887 Congress passed the Allotment Act (Dawes Act) and gave individual Indians parcels of land and opened up surplus to whites.

1890 The Ghost Dance Movement led by Wovoka (Paiute) gains influence. The Wounded Knee Massacre is in South Dakota.

1890-1910 The population of Indians fell to a low point of less than 250,000 in the United States.

1. Students will review maps to see how tribal lands in the United States were reduced to their present reservations. Discuss what these lands were taken for or how they are used today.

Students should understand that this period nationally (1870-1900) saw the end of wars between the U.S. government and American Indians. Treaties and federal policies had reduced American Indian populations and land holdings to a miniscule fraction of their original size. This results in vast tracts of land being available

for non-Indian settlement, agricultural development, mining and ranching. During this period of history (1870-1900), national attitudes and policies toward Indians largely focused on controlling Indians and forcing them to change. Indians were basically confined to their reservations and forced to adopt totally foreign ways of life – plow farming and ranching being notable examples. Federal Indian agents exerted a great deal of control on reservation lands. These agents were often corrupt, stealing the annuities and commodities that were intended for the Indian communities. This effort was reinforced by various Christian religious denominations who were given exclusive contracts to send missionaries to certain reservations. Missionaries often used assimilation strategies that were demeaning and brutal. Traditional religious practices were outlawed.

2. Read Children of the Boarding Schools and discuss. Create a chart that describes what children in Native American boarding schools were forced to learn. 

This period of American history also saw the advent of the boarding school era, a time in which American Indian children were forced to attend schools far from home and family, and where their traditional ways of life were totally banned and severe punishments were exacted for even speaking a tribal language. Students will discuss and analyze the federal policy of assimilation, that is, forcing Native Americans to adopt the culture and ways of mainstream Americans. 

3. Explain why Native Americans were forced onto reservations. Describe the life many experienced on reservations. 

During the Civil War the federal government concluded that it was no longer feasible to allow the Western tribes a free existence; rather, it was decided that Native Americans would have to give up their traditional nomadic lifestyle and accept living in confined reservation areas. Many tribes – including the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, Southern Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Western Apache – did not submit willingly to this new policy, and they remained largely unconquered until the 1880s. From 1866 to 1886, federal troops campaigned continuously against the Western tribes. After the Civil War, the Five Civilized

Tribes of the Indian Territory acquiesced to the surrender of the western half of Indian Territory to the national government. This forced ceding of land that was the government’s penalty on tribes for their earlier alliances with the Confederate states. In fact, the Seminole were forced to cede their entire reservation to the United States. Federal officials wanted the western half of Indian Territory for the express purpose of relocating tribes from other sections of the west. 

4. Explain the Dawes Act. Make a list of what these types of "Acts" intended to accomplish for the United States Government?

The Dawes Act was another government attempt at forced assimilation of Native American people. The Act specifically attacked the important traditional Native American social principle of communal land ownership. Dividing tribal lands among individual owners not only contradicted the traditional Native American concept of communal property, but it also affected tribal identity by undermining tribal cohesiveness. In addition, its implementation eroded the traditional Indian concept of extended families by separating family members from one another often by many miles. National Native American policies of the late 19th century further damaged and brought turmoil into the lives of Native Americans who were already reeling from the devastating effects of the Indian wars and forced life on reservations. Misguided attempts at assimilation had the effect of destroying community cohesiveness and the social and cultural fabrics of tribes and creating a sense of alienation. The actions of this era led to various social ills for many Native Americans including extreme poverty.

5. Working in pairs, students write articles summarizing the Battle of the Little Bighorn or about the Nez Perce and Chief Joseph or another such incident that affected tribal communities between 1850-1900. 

MINNESOTA SOCIAL STUDIES CONTENT STANDARD(S): 16. Rivalries among European nations and their search for new opportunities fueled expanding global trade networks and, in North America,

colonization and settlement and the exploitation of indigenous peoples and lands; colonial development evoked varied responses by indigenous nations, and produced regional societies and economies that included imported slave labor and distinct forms of local government. Analyze the impact of European colonization within North America on indigenous nations; analyze the impact of indigenous nations on colonization. Analyze how the expansion of United States territory and redefinition of borders affected the relationship of the United States with other nations, provided land for settlement, and resulted in political conflict. 

19. Regional tensions around economic development, slavery, territorial expansion and governance resulted in a civil war and a period of Reconstruction that led to the abolition of slavery, a more powerful federal government, a renewed push into indigenous nations’ territory, and continuing conflict over racial relations. (Civil War and Reconstruction: 1850—1877)

20. As the United States shifted from its agrarian roots into an industrial and global power, the rise of big business, urbanization and immigration led to institutionalized racism, ethnic and class conflict and new efforts at reform. (Development of an Industrial United States: 1870—1920) Explain changes in federal Indian policy, especially in the areas of removal, sovereignty, land ownership, education and assimilation; describe the impact of the federal policies and responses by indigenous nations. (Development of an Industrial United States: 1870—1920)