It is ironic that while the United States was fighting to free the slaves from 1861-1865, genocide against Native Americans was still the order of the day.
We are approaching the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, a major turning point in the Civil War, but it was business as usual when it came to the U S Government’s handling of Indian affairs.
I thought about this while drafting an article about Gettysburg and Vicksburg on the eve of the sesquicentennial observances of those momentous events (that article will be published in an upcoming edition of Citywatch and my blog). As I was writing, my eye caught a headline in the Los Angeles Times LATEXTRA section: “Uncovering a grim chapter.”
It told the story of a massacre of 35 Paiute Indians at Owens Lake in 1863 at the hands of a US Cavalry detachment and a group of settlers. Many of the Indians were shot while swimming to safety. As in most conflicts between Indians and settlers, persistent encroachment by whites stressed the resources of the Paiutes.
I have driven US 395 through the Owens Valley countless times. There is no marker or any information available. Surprisingly, I have not seen anything commemorating it at the Paiute Palace Casino in Bishop.
The Owens Lake massacre was not a unique event during the period. A quick stroll through history exposes several bloody encounters, with the Indians suffering the most by far. Here are a few.
The largest of them was the Dakota War of 1862 fought in Minnesota. Although the Sioux launched the initial hostilities, killing up to 800 settlers, it was the dishonest treatment they received at the hands of the government that pushed some tribes to engage in violence. Nevertheless, the attacks were directed at defenseless civilian farmers rather than government outposts – not a smart move. Please play the video for a brief summary of the war.
Federal troops under the command of General John Pope crushed the uprising.
For Pope, it must have felt like vindication after he was soundly defeated at the battle of Second Bull Run not long before.
For the Sioux, it was a disaster. Thirty-eight braves were executed in what was the largest mass execution in the history of the nation. Many survivors were driven to Fort Snelling under custody of the army, further crushing their way of life.
The Bear River Massacre in Idaho resulted in the deaths of 280 Shoshone Indians in 1863. The Shoshone were Sacajawea’s people. It was a regiment of California volunteers that led the assault. They reportedly killed women and children after the outcome had been decided.
A smaller, but perhaps more publicized, bloody encounter occurred at Sand Creek in 1864. Colonel John Chivington ordered an attack against a Cheyenne camp whose inhabitants had made peace with the government. The soldiers took scalps and gunned down women and children. What made Sand Creek different from other atrocities was that it sparked a Congressional investigation. Unfortunately, no one was punished, including Chivington. He was forced to resign and led a long life, occasionally “entertaining” groups with his war stories.
The US Congress in Spielberg’s Lincoln was not quite the principled body as depicted. While they tackled the shame of slavery, they completely ignored the plight of Native Americans.
It also did not help that many of the best and brightest who could have humanely intervened in Indian affairs were absorbed in the struggle for the Union, fighting for either side.