Conquest or Westward Expansion?: Native Americans and the Stories We Tell

Why do Americans shy away from calling westward expansion an act of conquest?
A chapter of The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

For Your Consideration:
  1. Why do textbooks write about about “Westward Expansion” and not “Conquest of the Native Americans”?  
  2. How does avoiding words like conquest, subjugation, extermination, terror, or even genocide when discussing Native Americans shape the way that Americans see themselves and their country?  Would it be more honest to use these words, or doesn’t it matter?
  3. According to this article, did the US really purchase Louisiana from France?  Money is one way of measuring cost – do you think it is the most relevant way of measuring the cost US territorial expansion?
  4. native-american-nationsHow does this map complicate the story of westward expansion as it is told in your history textbook?  If this map were more widely seen, would it have an impact on the way Americans viewed their country?
  5. The past is done and settled.  The conquest of Native Americans cannot be undone, and no one is asking you to give up your home or try to walk back time.  Our ancestors “won.”  But this argument is going to make some of you – and some of your parents – mad.  Put it into words – why might the idea of identifying westward expansion and Indian removal as conquest make modern Americans uncomfortable?  
  6. Compare the catalog of US-Native American conflicts summarized on Wikipedia with those included in your classroom US history textbook.   Choose three events, each from a different period or region in US history and try to locate them in your US history textbook.  
    • A) If the event is included in your textbook, pay close attention the words the author uses to describe the event.  Are words like conquest, massacre, removal, or rebellion applied?  If so, how?  Are natives either directly or indirectly portrayed as the sole or primary aggressor?  What specific actions and grievances caused the situation to escalate?  What happened to native peoples in the aftermath of the event?   What is the modern status of that native group?  What other questions are you left with?
    • B) If the event is not mentioned in your text, write a paragraph or two that could be included in the next edition of your textbook, answering the questions posed in part A.  Choose your words deliberately to ensure clarity and balance.

Key points:

  • While it is difficult to determine exactly how many Natives lived in North America before Columbus, estimates range from a low of 2.1 million people to a high of 18 million.
  • By 1900 the indigenous population in the Americas declined by more than 80%, and by as much as 98% in some areas. The effects of diseases such as smallpox, measles and cholera during the first century of colonialism contributed greatly to the death toll, while violence, displacement and warfare by colonizers against the Indians contributed more to the death toll in subsequent centuries.
  • Words shape the way we think about the world around us.  Stories shape the way we think about ourselves.
  • The language we use often obscures the unflattering relationship between the United States and the many Name American peoples who once controlled the entirety of what is today the US.
  • We cannot undo the past, but should we make an effort to ensure that the stories we tell are not simply the ones that make us feel better about ourselves?

The Stories We Tell

All nations tell stories about themselves.  These stories contribute to a people’s common identity.  Most stories about the United States focus on one or more of a few themes, but perhaps no theme is more prevalent than that of progress.  The story of the United States is said to be one of progress – from east to west, from tyranny to the consent of the governed, from repression to greater freedom and inclusion of diverse groups into what it means to be an American.  In each one of these narratives, the United States progresses – from small to large, from underdog to the greatest nation on Earth, from ignorant to enlightened.  

As in most nationalist stories, the United States is the hero, the good guy, the one we are rooting for – my country, right or wrong, in the words of Stephen Decatur.

But consider the flip side of all of this progress:

Indigenous Native Americans are not fully present in many overviews of United States history.  In popular textbooks like The American Pageant or United States History: Preparing for the Advanced Placement Exam, Native Americans appear seemingly at random intervals, showing up to menace or threaten settlers, popping up on the frontiers before being vanquished, never to be heard from again.  

The source of this conflict – the deliberate invasion and colonization of their rightful land by American settlers – is often left unspoken, as if the violent, nonnegotiable removal of native peoples were not actually US policy, as if each clash between the US and native peoples did not follow a fairly prescribed pattern of encroachment, squatting, violence, and removal.  Instead, these textbooks speak of Pontiac’s Rebellion, Tecumseh’s WarGeronimo’s resistance, or the Ghost Dance Movement as seemingly isolated episodes, fleeting, atypical moments of activity and action on the part of especially stubborn, especially violent Native Americans in an otherwise heroic, just, and preordained US expansion from east to west.  

In fact, while these events are notable for the level of organization and scale of resistance on the part of Native Americans, they are quite typical of the centuries long pattern and policy of colonization and conquest that resulted in United States control of a large portion of the North American continent.  Despite the fact that most textbooks treat these are isolated events, they are part of one larger, continuous, and deliberate war on native peoples.

For comparison, look at how your textbook treats the United State’s European rivals.  Britain and Russia are the great archenemies for vast swaths of US history, engaging in nuanced dances over territory and influence.  They are devious – often, the antithesis of all that is right and good about the United States.  They are discussed under the category of foreign policy.

But Native Americans are the villains of the week, often appearing from nowhere and acting aggressively for unclear reasons.  Because the United States drew its own borders around the historical territories of these peoples, swallowing them whole with no prior consent, Native Americans were treated as a domestic problem, not a foreign one – effectively a rebel threat from within, allowing for a special level of brutality in their dispatch.  

In its effort to summarize US history, your textbook ignores the fact that contact and conflict between these peoples and the United States – its frontier settlers, its military, and its government – has been constant, ongoing, and evolving since the first English colonies were forcefully established in Virginia and Massachusetts some 400 years ago.  

American Progress, an 1872 painting by John Gast, is an allegorical representation of the modernization of the West. Here Columbia, a personification of the United States, leads civilization westward with American settlers. She literally brings light from the East into the darkness of the West, stringing telegraph wire as she sweeps forward; she holds a school textbook that will instill knowledge upon benighted peoples. Notice in particular, the Native Americans scattering, fleeing with the other wild animals at her approach.

Native Americans are inconvenient, a counterargument to modern ideas of American progress.  They do not fit with the story that the United States likes to tell about itself – that we are a humane, just people.  The Declaration of Independence says that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.  And yet, even though they resided – and still reside! – within the territory that the United States has claimed for itself, Native Americans have rarely given that consent.  And when they have, it has usually been under duress, typified by the Treaty of Fort Jackson, in which even “civilized” Creek who had allied themselves with the Americans – actively fighting in a war against other, rebellious Creeks – were still forced to cede their lands.  

The United States likes to think of its history as largely peaceful, punctuated with periodic wars.  

In fact, for its first century, the United States was almost perpetually waging a secret war in plain sight against indigenous nations.  This war was made secret through the power of stories and words.  Your textbook carries on this tradition, talking about Native American conquest as a series of distinct battles and isolated rebellions belonging to natives, never instigated by whites.  This war was made secret through polite words like removal and expansion, treaty and purchase, annex and cession instead of uglier words like conquest, subjugation, extermination, terror, or even genocide.

Conquest, subjugation, extermination, terror, and maybe even genocide against native peoples in the name of the United States and its European predecessors occurred almost constantly for the better part of 400 years.   

You think you live in a peace-loving country, but when it is laid out like this, it becomes uncomfortably obvious that you don’t.  

So let us speak frankly:

In portraying westward expansion as progress – the inevitable, manifest destiny of the US to extend its borders to the Pacific – while simultaneously emphasizing the exceptional concern of the United States for human rights, while suggesting that conflict with Native Americans came in the form of isolated rebellions and wars named for individuals, your history textbook minimizes the degree to which the US relationship with Native Americans is one of sustained conquest, colonialism, and often outright extermination. 


The Words We Choose

Textbooks do not shy away from speaking of Spanish conquest of the Aztec and Inca.  In fact, when I Googled the definition of the word while researching this essay, I retrieved the following result – that is literally the dictionary definition of the word:

Conquest: the subjugation and assumption of control of a place or people by use of military force     “the conquest of the Aztecs by the Spanish”

Why do those same textbooks avoid usage of the word conquest in the context of Thomas Jefferson, who purchased Louisiana (from France, without regard for or consent from any of the native peoples who actually lived there, as if my neighbor in Florida had the authority to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge), or of Andrew Jackson, who merely annexed Florida against the will of the Seminoles and Spanish, and who simply removed the Cherokee in spite of that people’s sovereignty over their land?  

The innocuously named Sullivan Expedition, which, during the Revolutionary War, destroyed more than 40 Iroquois villages – populated by men, women, and children – along with their stores of winter crops, sending the survivors as refugees into British Canada has never even been mentioned in any textbook I’ve seen.  And what of Custer, who made his last stand while attempting to capture Sioux women, children, elderly, and disabled to serve as hostages and human shields?  

Students are usually taught that the age of US imperialism and conquest starts in 1898 with the Spanish American War.  But what about the previous century of conflict with dozens of native peoples – who, after armed conflict, forfeited their lands and often their identities to victorious US soldiers and settlers?

Do none of those events qualify as acts of conquest?

It may not be the place of textbooks to place judgement – but is it possible to use words that are so value-neutral that they obscure the truth of what happened?  Is it possible that excluding stories like that of the Sullivan Expedition is a selective bias on the part the part of the author, likely unintentional, but harmful all the same?  Is that story insignificant, or a significant omission, a detail that paints a different, unfamiliar portrait of the US?

When Sauk leader Black Hawk led his people back from a winter stay in Iowa to their homeland in Illinois in 1832 to plant corn, the squatter settlers there claimed they were being invaded, bringing in both Illinois militia and federal troops. The “Black Hawk War” that is narrated in history texts was no more than a slaughter of Sauk farmers. The Sauks tried to defend themselves but were starving when Black Hawk surrendered under a white flag. Still the soldiers fired, resulting in a bloodbath. (Text from An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States)

Look, too, at how these individual conflicts are named – King Philip’s War, Pontiac’s War, Tecumseh’s War, the Red Stick War, the Black Hawk War, or the Seminole Wars.  What you call a thing matters, and each of those names implies that the Native Americans were the primary aggressors.  Why are none of these conflicts named for the US military men, the settlers, the squatters, and informal militias whose actions of encroachment or violence set the stage for the conflict in the first place?

The very word “war” implies a conflict between somewhat equal sides.  However, each one of those conflicts is more accurately characterized by threatened, often weakened native people standing their ground and asserting their independence in the face of a questionable or overreaching treaty, illegal squatting from European-US settlers, and the deliberate destruction by those settlers of native farmland, hunting grounds, and economic capacity.  Typically, each of these wars ends with the hunting and extermination of the native aggressor, and the punishment and removal of the whole native people by guilt of association – usually even those who allied themselves with US forces.  

Or, to put it in simple terms – the conquest of native peoples.

What words would you choose?

Political scientist Guenter Lewy says the label of genocide is not applicable and views the “sad fate” of the Native Americans as “not a crime but a tragedy, involving an irreconcilable collision of cultures and values. […] The new Americans, convinced of their cultural and racial superiority, were unwilling to grant the original inhabitants of the continent the vast preserve of land required by the Indians’ way of life.”

Native American Studies professor Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz says, “The colonization of America was genocidal by plan, not simply the tragic fate of populations lacking immunity to disease. In the case of the Jewish Holocaust, no one denies that more Jews died of starvation, overwork, and disease under Nazi incarceration than died in gas ovens, yet the acts of creating and maintaining the conditions that led to those deaths clearly constitute genocide.”

In words so poetic one such as Jefferson would likely have been proud to have written them, the Shawnee Tecumseh attempted to unify all native peoples left east of the Mississippi River, saying, “Brothers — My people wish for peace; the red men all wish for peace; but where the white people are, there is no peace for them, except it be on the bosom of our mother. Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pokanoket, and many other once powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and the oppression of the White Man, as snow before a summer sun. Will we let ourselves be destroyed in our turn without a struggle, give up our homes, our country bequeathed to us by the Great Spirit, the graves of our dead and everything that is dear to us? I know you will cry with me, Never! NEVER!.”

Further Reading

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann.