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View series: The United States: a territorial history

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The Plains Indians

This map is part of a series of 20 animated maps showing the history of The United States: a territorial history.

On the Great Plains of the Midwest, the nomadic Indian tribes followed the bison, their main source of livelihood. However, between 1865 and 1875, the bison population was destroyed and the Indians were forced to abandon their traditional way of life. At the same time, the arrival of settlers, partly due to the search for gold, introduced new illnesses, such as smallpox and cholera, which decimated the Indian population.

Until 1890, conflicts between the American government and the Indian tribes broke out on numerous occasions: the Comanches in Texas, the Sioux in the Great Plains and the Navajos and the Apaches in the south-west.

At the famous battle of Little Bighorn, the Sioux led by Sitting Bull ambushed General Custer killing him and his 200 men. This sudden and dramatic defeat did little to stop the arrival of settlers or Indian skirmishes.

Another tragic battle took place in South Dakota where the cavalry was forcibly escorting a tribe of Lakota Sioux towards the reserves. In a very tense situation, a random shot led to the killing of at least 250 Indians, including a large number of women and children.

The massacre of Wounded Knee is generally considered the last episode of the Indian wars.

In 1887, the General Allotment Act distributed the reserve lands to Indians on the basis of individual property. But despite the generosity of this measure, it merely served to break down tribal structures and led Indians to dabble in property speculation.

It increased pressure on Indian territory in Oklahoma and in 1889 some sections were offered to settlers, leading to a rush for land and the gradual disappearance of territories that had been set aside for the Indians since 1828.