The end of the Native American way of life

The Battle of the Little Bighorn only seemed like a Sioux victory. In fact, it was the start of the total defeat of the Sioux. Before long the US government had completely defeated the Native Americans, and their way of life was destroyed over the next 15 years.

Key steps

November 1876

The US Army began winter campaigns against the Sioux, starving them into surrender. Colonel Mackenzie destroyed Dull Knife's Cheyenne camp - driving the Cheyenne into the hills to survive the winter without any food.

January 1877

Chief Sitting Bull fled to Canada. He joined a Wild West show, but eventually returned to join the reservation.

October 1877

Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé tribe tried to flee to Canada, but was intercepted. "I will fight no more forever". he vowed.


Richard Pratt opened the first boarding school for Native American children.


The Sioux were given cattle and forced to become cattle-herders.

1881 (-1887)

Geronimo led a series of rebellions by the Apache warriors, but eventually had to surrender and become a vegetable farmer.


The Bureau of Indian Affairs issued the Code of Religious Offences, banning Native American religious customs such as the Sun Dance.


The Dawes Act divided the Native American reservations between the different families.


The Oklahoma Land Run. The government split 2 million acres of former 'Indian territory' into 160 acre plots, and people had to race to claim a plot. The race began at noon on 22 April 1889 and by next day all the land was claimed.


A medicine man called Wovoka started a Ghost Dance - although it was peaceful, the Army, fearing a rebellion, tried to arrest Sitting Bull, who was taking part (he was killed during the attempt). Then when Sioux Chief Big Foot, trying to avoid the trouble, led his people to Wounded Knee Creek, they were massacred by the US Army.

Why did the white Americans win the West?

White Americans won the West because everything was on their side. The Native Americans fought bravely, but the odds were completely against them.

Wounded bodies on the battlefield

A contemporary painting of the Wounded Knee Creek massacre, where troops attacked the Ghost Dancers, 29 December 1890

  1. Little Bighorn - the massacre of Custer's regiment caused thousands of 'Custer's Avengers' to join up, and it made the US Army determined to hunt down and destroy the Native American warriors.
  2. Lies - the US government made promises which it later broke.
  3. Economy - the US government had unlimited men and money. After the Little Bighorn, the Sioux had to disband their army because the land could not support so large a group for long.
  4. Technology - the US Army had access to repeating rifles, machine guns, cannons and the telegraph. The Native Americans had to buy rifles, and used smoke signals to communicate.
  5. Railroads - thousands of white Americans and US soldiers could travel to the West in hours by railroad.
  6. Slaughter of the buffalo - after the 1870s, white hunters destroyed the buffalo, not only for their hides, but partly to destroy the Native Americans, whose way of life depended on these animals. By 1895, less than a thousand buffalo remained on the Great Plains.
  7. The US Army was too big and strong for the Native American warriors. It controlled the Plains from a system of forts.
  8. Reservations destroyed the Indian way of life, because people on them were forced to become farmers. Many warriors became alcoholics. The influence of the chiefs declined, because the reservations were run by agents. The Code of Religious Offences destroyed the Native American religion, and the Dawes Act ended community ownership.
  9. Education - the Indian boarding schools (which the children were made to attend) forced Native American children to become 'white'. They were beaten if they even whispered in their own language - the motto of one school was "kill the Indian to save the man".

Revision tip and answer preparation

Revision tip

To familiarise yourself with the facts in this Revision Bite:

  • Draw a timeline showing ten steps that led to the end of the Native American way of life.
  • Draw a spidergram showing nine reasons why white Americans won the War for the West.

Answer preparation

As part of your revision, think about the arguments and facts you would use to explain:

  1. What the purpose and effect was of the reservations.
  2. Why the Native Americans lost the battle for the Plains.
  3. How important the Battle of the Little Big Horn was in the eventual defeat of the Plains Indians.
  4. How successfully the so-called Indian problem was resolved.

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