The time period of the American West being settled was revolutionary and well documented, as it was only about two hundred and fifty years ago. During this time, many myths were created which continue to be portrayed today in forms of present texts. Despite the idea that settlers who moved west faced violent encounters with Native Americans, settlers however, were threatened by many things much worse than Native Americans.
Everybody has a personal stereotype they give Native Americans, but the general consensus today and in the western expansion era was that Native Americans were violent and wild indigenous people. For example, we hear many stories of how Native Americans attacked Americans in the woods with guerrilla warfare in almost every primary education textbook. As people moved west, tales were being spread of how settlers were fighting off these dirty, vicious people as they traveled through their territory. There were many attacks on settlers by Native Americans except they were not in the sense of a family passing thought getting randomly killed by the natives. The attacks were along the lines of the natives attacking large groups such as army bases in towns and attacking that particular town where settles have settled down and now live.[i] There were also many battles the other way around, where Americans would lead an attack on the Native American tribe[ii]. The attacks that did occur were organized and for the most part a planned event[iii].
To disprove the myth that settlers traveling west had to fight off Indians on their westward journey, we must look at how this stereotype of the Indians came about. Native Americans welcomed the European people at first and taught them how to live in this new environment[iv]. Native Americans were seen as peaceful people. Both parties respected one another and for the most part left each other alone. Although from the start, the settlers felt superior to the Native Americans and this idea would start the entire problem[v]. As towns grew settlers became more of a presence of power to Native Americans, and decided the Native Americans could no longer stay on their land and needed to make room for the whites as they now wanted this land[vi]. As we relocated thousands of Native Americans, this caused huge tension and out lash by the tribes as they wanted their homeland back. The natives now had to live amongst other tribes with all new boundaries[vii]. Settlers at that time tried to settle things peacefully with treaties with the Natives but most were short lived[viii]. The treaties were intended to restore peace between the two and make agreements for the natives to be content with the new land they were moved to[ix]. As most of these treaties were failing war broke out, yet still the United States wanted to settle things peacefully by making agreements with tribes to help them fight other tribes that were enemies of each other[x]. The Pawnee tribe helped protect the railroad as it was being built across Nebraska, during that same time, the army was fighting the Sioux and Cheyenne with the Pawnee on America’s side[xi]. During the homestead period, most Indians were moved to live on reservations, which were much smaller. These treaties gave legal rights to the government to occupy the land in which the native’s ounce lived[xii].
If the pioneers and settlers weren’t threatened by Indians as much as we think, than what did they faced as they traveled west? Settlers had many serious problems stacked up against them as they were traveling, if they did encounter any natives they were anything but violent; rather friendly and the two did simple trades with each other[xiii]. Looking at the famous Oregon Trail, there were far greater threats to the settlers than the native people. One of the greatest threats to the settler’s lives was the weather. Mother Nature was unpredictable as they crossed the mountain ranges[xiv]. If settlers left to early on their trip, there would not be sufficient grass on the plains for their livestock to eat. In the cases where settlers left late, they faced cold winter weather stranding them. Both instances could lead to death on the trail, and it is said one in ten died due to weather related circumstances[xv]. Another serious threat to the settler’s lives was the cholera disease, in most extreme cases two thirds of the group died from this infection[xvi]. Settlers traveling west on the Oregon Trial also faced death by their own kind, such as mistakes like guns going off unexpectedly. They also could be ran over by their own wagon carrying one thousand pounds of food or more[xvii]. If their wagon broke an axle on the trail and there was no spare, they would have to abandon the wagon and continue on foot with whatever they could carry, leading to more difficulties along the way increasing risk of death[xviii]. On the Oregon Trail, there were no cases of travelers battling Indians to fight their way through the west. There were however, much more pressing issues that could cause death and endanger the settlers more than the native people of the land.
The journey pioneers and settlers embarked on traveling west, was a major feat of accomplishment. One aspect of the trip settlers did not face despite the given reputation of Native Americans being violent people who the settlers had to battle off as they crossed though their lands, the settlers worried and died from far different things. This is a common misconception in today’s world that is portrayed through many books and films. This myth is still present today because America wants to remember people of this era as tuff, and rugged explores who concurred the west and these so called violent indigenous people. The west is home to many ideas of untamed and wild lands, anyone who ventured west had to battle every aspect of this landscape. These facts don’t add up as there were treaties in place, allowing for the passage of settlers through native lands and the causes of death they did face were far from encounters with native people[xix]. Battles which took place were planned events on towns and tribes, and well documented[xx]. With no instances where natives were lashing out at independent settlers. The myth of settlers battling natives is another false piece to this ideal that we continue to call the west.
[i] Garrick Mallery, “New perspectives on the west,” PBS, 2001, http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/resources/archives/six/bighorn.htm
[vii] NA, “Native Americans and settlers,” Nebraska Studies, 2006, http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0500/frameset_reset.html?http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0500/stories/0503_0107.html
[viii] Thomas Jefferson, “The Avalon Project,” Yale Law School, 2008, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/jeffind5.asp
[x] Native Americans and settlers, http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0500/frameset_reset.html?http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0500/stories/0503_0107.html
[xiii] Todd Underwood, “The Oregon Trail,” Frontier Trails, 2000, http://www.frontiertrails.com/oldwest/oregontrail.htm
[xx] Native Americans and settlers, http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0500/frameset_reset.html?http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0500/stories/0503_0107.html