The West: Won or Lost?

Author: Stacy Marie Snyder
School: Orange County High School
Grade Level: High School
Time Estimated: 6 days, 90-minute periods

This elective course, The History and Sociology of Social Injustice, examines social injustice (persecution through genocide) from ancient times to the present. The goal is to allow students to examine eras and events that they might not have been able to examine in-depth in an SOL class from varying points of view. This mini-unit falls in the middle of a larger unit (Crisis in America: the Clash of Cultures) that included Native American history prior to 1492 and the conflict that ensured after “discovery.” Students have been introduced to the motivations of settlers who were streaking across the continent and they also have learned previously about some of the actions taken by these settlers and the government to deal with populations of Native Americans often living on coveted land. By the end of our examination of the Plains, students will be able to make some educated assumptions about what history holds for Native Americans and also be able to examine how the tumultuous events of the 19th century have shaped relations between the United States and Tribal Nations in the 20th century. Most students in the class are motivated learners; however, the class is also open to students who have not passed an SOL test or class. It is possible that some of the students enrolled in the course will be working towards proficiency in an SOL class or on an SOL test.


Historical Background:

The civilizations that flourished in the Americas prior to 1492 had been molded and shaped by their environment. Kinship networks or extended families were the backbone of political and social structure of most tribal communities. Religiously, stories that were shared orally from generation to generation were similar especially those concerning creation. Native American religious life was centered on the belief that to be in harmony with nature was paramount. Due to these religious beliefs, they did not believe that the land could be owned nor did they believe in the enslavement of others. While there were striking similarities that speak to a common ancestry, each tribe considered itself separate and different from other tribes. These diverse tribes interacted with one another violently in times of war and peacefully through trade. The economic development of the Americas rivaled other regions of the world as goods from one coast were traded on the other and to all areas in between. The trails that crisscrossed the continent create a diverse yet interconnected world.

The predominant view of white explorers and settlers was that they were interacting with savages. This belief in superiority led many to feel that they had the right to take the land for themselves and to enslave Native Americans for their own prosperity. While many attempted to understand the native cultures upon arrival, others found them to be savage and foreign. Because of this lack of understanding, their customs were often misunderstood. One such native practice that drove fear into the hearts of settlers on the frontier was the practice of kidnapping the enemy. While this practice had been used for centuries to normalize populations, it became increasingly popular as European wars and disease took their toll. For the settlers, who were economically motivated to adopt the enslavement of the native people, the idea of adopting a foreigner into the family to replace a lost family member was not even considered as an explanation lost settlers.

The economic motives of settlers were quite evident as they began to compete for the fur trade and signed financially motivated treaties with tribes they felt would comply. If there was not a symbiotic relationship developed out of mutual economic interest, the settlers began to find ways to take the land using European laws and customs. Almost immediately there were armed conflicts over land use and the concept of land ownership. From the Pequot War in New England to the Anglo-Powhatan Wars in Virginia, the settlers and the native peoples clashed violently. After these wars, settlers flooded to the interior with little resistance from other tribes who had learned the lessons of the Pequot and the Pamunkey. By the 19th century, most of the eastern tribes had been pushed steadily westward. There were periods of resistance to being placed on reservations; however, the voice of acculturation was growing from those who were a part of both the white and native cultures. Tribes who embraced the ways of America were not immune to tragedy as they too were pushed westward by the Jacksonian Era. Ironically the land in the west that had been set aside as Indian Territory also caught the attention of settlers. By the dawn of the Civil War, settlers were encroaching on ancient hunting grounds of the nomadic tribes of the Great Plains and on reservation lands of those Eastern Tribes who had been pushed west.

By 1861, the most able commanders had been called east to handle the ensuing crisis in the nation. This left small numbers of troops commanding posts and forts across the Great Plains. Their job was to ensure that settlers in their vicinity had protection if necessary and that the technology that connected the nation was kept intact and safe. Also, the troops defended the area from the Confederate western forces. Their job was compounded by the fact that overland trails were virtually closed by Native American “dog soldiers” who were railing against the growing numbers of settlers. In the Colorado territory, the population was expanding so rapidly that there was a call for quick statehood to allow for the election of republicans to join the Radical Republicans in Congress. Another effect of the growing population in Colorado was an escalation in violence between the white settlers and the Cheyenne. In Denver, fear led to a call for the extermination of the Cheyenne by many respected individuals.

Colonel John M. Chivington of the Colorado Volunteers, a former Methodist minister, began to preach against making a treaty with the Cheyenne. Despite the fact that the US Army had an agreement with Black Kettle, the Cheyenne Chief, to return to the reservation and the territorial governor was calling for making a treaty with the Cheyenne, Chivington began calling for what amounted to genocide. A band of Cheyenne under the leadership of Black Kettle, regarded as a peace chief, was camped at Sand Creek. Black Kettle was flying an American flag that was given to him as a gift by President Lincoln and a white truce flag, despite these signs of acquiescence and the fact that there was no known or believed connection between those at Sand Creek and the “dog soldiers,” Colonel Chivington led an attack on the unsuspecting village. Between two hundred and four hundred Cheyenne and Arapahos were ruthlessly murdered. Most of the victims, women and children, were sexually mutilated and scalped. Body parts were later exhibited as trophies to roaring crowds.

While the settlers in Colorado felt that they could breathe easier after the massacre, rumor of the massacre made its way eastward. Citizens in the east were shocked by the stories and their outcry led to Congressional hearings. In these hearings, it came to light that several members of the militia had attempted to plead with Chivington to not attack the defenseless village and that there were six soldiers who had refused to participate. Although Chivington was never punished for his role in the massacre, the stain of the event stayed with him for the remainder of his life.

The events that occurred during the US Civil War spoke of what was to come. The last frontier in the American West was the land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. While many had settled this land, it was sparsely populated as compared to the lands to the west of the Rockies. As more and more settlers streamed into this area, a more concentrated and organized removal plan was needed. The US Army stepped up to the challenge as Native American tribes were corralled and contained. This era is marked by atrocities that are similar in nature to the Massacre at Sand Creek. The settlers who laid the foundation for states like Wyoming were influenced by the hardships they faced. Just as the environment had shaped the tribal communities and created a diversity of cultures, the environment led to a growing divide between Eastern and Western Americans.

NOTE: See timeline and talking points following lessons and materials.


Major Understanding:

Students must understand that manifest destiny was a major disaster for most Native American tribes. As settlers arrived in “the new world” seeking a new and better life, they considered the indigenous population to be in the way. It is crucial that students grasp that the clash of cultures has led to some form of warfare that has lasted for over five hundred years. It is equally important for students to focus on the changing relationship between these cultures as the motivations changed. While much is known about the struggles after the Civil War, the period before and during the war in the west is equally tumultuous and must be studied to then be able to examine the shift in policy with regards to how to handle the Native American populations on the Great Plains. This study is truly the foundation to understand the treatment of Native Americans at the turn of and during the 20th century.



Students will:

  1. Explain the qualities of the vibrant cultures that existed in the “American West” by examining primary and secondary sources to understand the circumstances surrounding the Massacre at Sand Creek.
  2. Discuss the causal relationship between the movement westward and the decimation of Native American tribes and culture by examining primary and secondary sources to understand the circumstances surrounding the Massacre at Sand Creek.
  3. List and define various motivations that led many into the West by researching the points of view of leaders in the East and the West, civilian and military.
  4. Discuss how the advanced technology of the era expedited the rapid movement westward by watching a dramatization about the events surrounding the genocide.
  5. Analyze the growing disparity between the East and the West, especially in terms of attitude towards and beliefs about Native Americans by working in groups to create a storybook that demonstrate differing perspectives about the events surrounding the massacre.


Standards of Learning:

VUS.1 The student will demonstrate skills for historical and geographical analysis, including the ability to

  • a) identify, analyze, and interpret primary and secondary source documents, records, and data, including artifacts, diaries, letters, photographs, journals, newspapers, historical accounts, and art to increase understanding of events and life in the United States.
  • b) evaluate the authenticity, authority, and credibility of sources.
  • c) formulate historical questions and defend findings based on inquiry and interpretation.
  • d) develop perspectives of time and place.
  • g) apply geographic skills and reference sources to understand how relationships between humans and their environment have changed over time.
  • h) interpret the significance of excerpts from famous speeches and other documents.

VUS.8 The student will demonstrate knowledge of how the nation grew and changed from the end of Reconstruction through the early twentieth century by

  • a) explaining the relationship among territorial expansion, westward movement of the population, new immigration, growth of cities, and the admission of new states to the Union; noting that
    • the years immediately before and after the Civil War was the era of the American cowboy, marked by long cattle drives for hundreds of miles over unfenced open land in the West, the only way to get cattle to market. (VUS.8a)
    • following the Civil War, the westward movement of settlers intensified into the vast region between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean. (VUS.8a)
    • many Americans had to rebuild their lives after the Civil War and moved west to take advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave free public land in the western territories to settlers who would live on and farm the land. (VUS.8a)
    • southerners and African Americans, in particular, moved west to seek new opportunities after the Civil War. (VUS.8a)
    • new technologies (for example, railroads and the mechanical reaper), opened new lands in the West for settlement and made farming more prosperous. By the turn of the century, the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain region of American West was no longer mostly unsettled frontier, but was fast becoming a region of farms, ranches, and towns. (VUS.8a)