Like many topics, the expansion into the West and the wars with the Indians (Native Americans) gets some short blurbs in history class before moving onto the next era. The Oregon Trail, ’49 Gold Rush, Pony Express, famous cowboy outlaws, Transcontinental Railroad, wagon trails and Custer’s Last Stand are among the familiar touchstones.
Yet he details of this history are far more vivid, fascinating and, sometimes, disturbing.
These three books, by different authors, serve as a trilogy to the western expansion and the “Indian Wars” of the 1800s: The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History and The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Most now understand that pushing out the natives was often driven by greed and viewing them as primitives. Custer is no longer a hero. Few, though, know how brutal those wars were, or the hardships of settlers caught in the middle. Nor were many of the Indian nations peaceful peoples. Even fighting among themselves, their warfare was barbaric. That doesn’t justify their extermination; nor does their defense justify all of their own actions. Sometimes, in real history, it’s hard to pick out the villains and heroes. Other times, they aren’t who you thought they were.
For better or for worse, this was a defining era in U.S. history. It is a reminder, that in the not so distant past, people could be convinced to take terrible actions. A much greater nation managed to emerge from the blood and dust, so we should be thankful for that. Now we must respect the past so the wrongs don’t become our future, and those who should have lived are finally remembered.