A Columbus Day Exploration of Indigenous American History


On this day each October, we observe the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas in 1492. However, the often-devastating impact of “Western” influences on indigenous Americans has led some to be wary of celebrating the man who started it all. As a solution, many have begun to counter-celebrate with “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” in honor of American Indian history and culture.

Regardless of your stance on Columbus Day, one thing is certain—albeit dark at times, American Indians have a rich and storied history which is forever entwined with the evolution of the United States. Join us as we explore that history with HeinOnline’s American Indian Law Collection and other relevant databases.

American Indian Law Collection

With more than 2,000 titles unique to this collection and more than 1.3 million total pages dedicated to American Indian Law, this library includes an expansive archive of treaties, federal statutes and regulations, federal case law, tribal codes, constitutions, and jurisprudence. This library also features rare compilations edited by Felix S. Cohen which have never before been accessible online.

If you don’t yet subscribe to the American Indian Law Collection, follow the link below to start a trial today.

A History of the Indigenous Peoples of America

Exploration and Colonization

Columbus’ discovery of new land in the Western Hemisphere marked a turning point for European expansion. The New World promised exotic foods, untold riches, abundant resources, and the potential for new knowledge. For the indigenous peoples who lived there, however, this historic discovery took a darker turn.

Throughout the two centuries following Columbus, a surge in European exploration and colonization led to a precipitous decline in the native population in a variety of ways, including unfamiliar and deadly diseases, violence, displacement, and enslavement. On the positive side, European arrival brought flora and fauna, religion, and social norms previously unknown to the natives, and from which many would benefit in the future. However, as European powers began to settle on American lands, initial treaties of peace between colonists and natives soon devolved into conflict.

  • 1621: Massasoit—leader of the Wampanoag tribe—visits the newly established Plymouth Colony in New England, exchanges gifts, and signs a peace treaty which will be honored for more than 50 years.
  • 1675: For nearly three years, the colonists of New England (along with native allies Mohegans and Pequots) fight the Wampanoags and other tribes in King Philip’s War. Today, it is widely considered to be the deadliest war in colonial American history. Learn more about the relationship between the pilgrims and the Wampanoags.
  • 1754-1763: A number of tribes take sides in the French and Indian War between France and the British colonies. Those invested in the northern fur trade side with French forces.
  • 1763: After the war, the 1763 Treaty of Paris places French territory (already inhabited by Indians) into the hands of the British. Following the treaty, King George III of Great Britain issues the Royal Proclamation of 1763, delineating a portion of the territory as an Indian Reserve and forbidding British settlement there.

Revolution and the Young Republic

The Revolutionary War forced indigenous American Indians to choose sides once again. In the hopes of ending further colonial expansion, most tribes sided with the British. After the war, the second Treaty of Paris ceded significant North American territory from the British to the new United States of America. Learn more about the signing of the 1783 Treaty of Paris.

The newly established U.S. government was thus awarded its independence and additional land, but also native unrest in its new territories. As a result, U.S. policy toward Native Americans quickly evolved and conflicts inevitably ensued.

  • 1789: The U.S. Constitution is signed, including the Indian Commerce Clause. The clause gives Congress the power to facilitate trade with Indian tribes and is later referred to in part as the basis for federal power over American Indians.
  • 1790: The first Nonintercourse Act, the first law to regulate relations between American Indians and colonists, is signed. The act further defines “Indian country” as “the United States west of the Mississippi and not within the states of Missouri and Louisiana, or the territory of Arkansas.”
  • 1794: The Battle of Fallen Timbers ends major hostilities between the United States and American Indian tribes allied with British-Canadian forces. The tribes’ defeat prompts many tribe leaders to sign the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, relinquishing much of their territory to the U.S. federal government.
  • 1803: The United States acquires the territory of Louisiana from France in the Louisiana Purchase, nearly doubling the size of the country with land already settled by American Indian tribes. The four decades following the purchase would lead to the removal of many of these tribes from the land and would culminate in the Trail of Tears.
  • 1811: Governor William Henry Harrison of the Indiana Territory leads 1,000 men to disperse hostile tribes after learning they are receiving British support. Shawnee tribe leader Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa arrange to meet peacefully with Harrison. In the meantime, members of the tribes attack the U.S. troops, resulting in the Battle of Tippecanoe, a primary catalyst for the War of 1812.
  • 1812: The War of 1812 begins between the United States and United Kingdom and their respective American Indian allies. Tecumseh aligns his remaining forces with the British and plays an integral role in the siege of Detroit.
  • 1815: The war results in the Treaty of Ghent, under which the United States and United Kingdom receive all lands they held prior to the start of the war.

The Age of Manifest Destiny

Throughout the 19th century, many in the United States held firmly to the belief that their nation was destined to extend its sovereignty across the whole of North America. The New World had become an experiment in democracy and freedom. With new land came the promise of spreading these institutions and, in the minds of many, bettering the world for it. Unfortunately for American Indians, U.S. expansion meant encroachment on or annexation of their land. The solution to this problem was to continuously relocate tribes as U.S. territory expanded … until there was no more land available for relocation.

  • 1816: The First Seminole War begins in Spanish Florida after General Andrew Jackson leads troops into the area to end raids from Seminole tribes on Georgia settlements.
  • 1819: The Adams-Onís Treaty ends long-standing border disputes between Spanish Florida and the United States. Under the treaty, Spain cedes the territory of Florida to the U.S. government. With the territory comes the indigenous Seminole tribes, among others.
  • 1823: The Treaty of Moultrie Creek is signed between the U.S. and Floridian American Indians, eliminating all Seminole land claims and establishing an Indian reservation in Florida.
  • 1830: President Andrew Jackson signs into law the Indian Removal Act, authorizing the systematic relocation of American Indian tribes to a dedicated “Indian Territory” west of the Mississippi River.
  • 1831: Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont witness first-hand the removal of Choctaw Indians from Memphis, Tennessee. De Beaumont states: “We … watch the expulsion … of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples.” Discover de Tocqueville’s views on the American Indian issue in HeinOnline’s interactive digital edition of his classic work Democracy in America.
  • 1838: When some tribes fail to comply with the Indian Removal Act, armed government authorities force their relocation, compelling them to walk what would later become known as the Trail of Tears. During the Cherokee relocation alone, between 2,000 and 8,000 of the 16,500 relocated American Indians perish on the trail.
  • 1851:  Congress passes the first Indian Appropriations Act, allocating funds for the creation of a system of Indian reservations protected by the U.S. government. This act sets the precedent for modern-day reservations.

Civil War and Reconstruction

By the 1860s, the United States was facing a crisis greater than that of American Indian resistance—the country had expanded to include 34 states with opposing goals and ideologies. Northern states focused on industrial expansion and innovation while the South remained agricultural and heavily dependent on slavery—an institution strongly opposed by the North. The American Civil War began, and more than 20,000 American Indians fought for both sides. Federal preoccupation with the war (and post-war recuperation) led the U.S. government to renege on treaty promises and fail to pay for its use of Indian lands, causing numerous conflicts:

  • 1862: Increased hunger in the Dakota tribes due to a lack of U.S. support leads Dakota bands to attack hundreds of nearby settlers. After a brief military tribunal, 303 Dakota men are sentenced to death; ultimately, 38 are hanged in the largest mass execution in United States history. Subsequent battles between the U.S. and Dakota bands later become known as the Dakota War of 1862.
  • 1864: The U.S. Army attacks a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, killing hundreds of tribe members. Later known as the Sand Creek Massacrethe event is the offshoot of a year-long Colorado War between the United States and Cheyenne, Arapaho, Brulé, and Lakota peoples.
  • 1871: The second Indian Appropriations Act holds that the United States no longer recognizes any group of Indians as an independent nation. Instead, all Indians are treated as individuals and legal “wards” of the federal government. The act nullifies all previous existing treaties signed between the United States and Indian tribes, better facilitating the country’s acquisition of indigenous land.
  • 1874: Lieutenant Colonel George Custer embarks on an expedition into the Black Hills of South Dakota to investigate the potential for gold. Instigating the Black Hills Gold Rush, the expedition and its aftermath encroaches on prior U.S.-Sioux treaties which had promised to protect sacred land.
  • 1876: The Great Sioux War begins due to the competition over the Black Hills. The most famous battle of the war, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, becomes known as Custer’s Last Stand due to the total casualties of 270 U.S. soldiers, including Lt. Col. Custer. View a map of the battle in the American Indian Law Collection.
  • 1887: The Dawes Allotment Act divides tribal reservations into individual plots of land to be purchased by Indian heads of families. The division of communal tribal land is intended to break up tribal communities and open the remaining land to other settlers.
  • 1890: In fear of the “Ghost Dance” religion spreading throughout the Lakota reservation, a detachment of the U.S. army is sent to disarm the camp. The intrusive search antagonizes the tribesmen who begin the Ghost Dance, ultimately leading U.S. troops to open fire. Later known as the Wounded Knee Massacre, hundreds of Lakota and 25 U.S. soldiers are killed. View a map of the Wounded Knee battle in the American Indian Law Collection.

The Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

The dawn of the 20th century in the United States brought the promise of new industries, rapid technological advancement, and a clearer path toward becoming a world superpower. Toward this end, assimilation of American Indians into Western culture became a priority. In the latter half of the century, however, an American Indian push for self-determination emerged alongside the civil rights movement, transforming U.S. legislation and policy into the 21st century.

  • 1917: The United States enters World War I. More than 12,000 American Indians join the fight.
  • 1924: In part to recognize the efforts of American Indians in World War I, the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 grants U.S. citizenship to the indigenous peoples of the United States.
  • 1928: Commissioned by the federal government, the Meriam Report criticizes the overall conditions of Indian reservations and boarding schools, launching a reform of American Indian policy.
  • 1929: The first and only American Indian Vice President, Charles Curtis, takes office.
  • 1934: The Indian Reorganization Act is signed into law as the premier piece of legislation under the proposed “Indian New Deal.” The act seeks to preserve American Indian culture by restoring tribal management of land and other assets, while also improving the conditions of Indian reservations. The rest of the deal improves American Indian education, health care, and religious rights.
  • 1941: The United States enters World War II. More than 44,000 American Indians join the fight.
  • 1956: The Indian Relocation Act is passed as part of the United States’ Indian Termination policy, another attempt at American Indian assimilation. The act encourages American Indians to leave their reservations to become a part of urban areas.
  • 1968: The Civil Rights Act is signed into law, including Title II-VII: Indian Civil Rights Act, guaranteeing that the Bill of Rights applies within Indian tribes.
  • 1975: The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act is signed into law, reversing the termination policy of decades prior. View the legislative history of the act in the American Indian Law Collection.
  • 2009: President Barack Obama signs the Native American Apology Resolution, a joint resolution of Congress acknowledging the centuries of oppressive policies, violence, and neglect inflicted on American Indian tribes by the United States.

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