In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section American Indian Wars

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Biographies
  • Early Colonial Wars
  • Indians and the Wars for Empire
  • The Revolutionary Era
  • Wars for the Ohio Valley
  • The War of 1812
  • Wars of Indian Removal
  • Conflicts of the 1850s
  • The Civil War
  • The United States Army and the West

Military History American Indian Wars
Robert Wooster
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0010


Reflecting the society and culture in which they lived, early writers tended to portray the American Indian wars—defined here as military contests between indigenous peoples and Europeans and their descendants in the present United States from the founding of Jamestown to the end of the 19th century—as pitting “civilized” whites against “savage” Indians. Thus, many older works, which viewed those conflicts almost solely from the perspective of the invaders, appear biased and incomplete to the modern eye. Recent studies strive for better balance and grant Indians the agency to seek to determine their own destinies. Essentially, modern scholarship on these wars falls into several categories. Traditional operational histories, which offer detailed examinations of leaders, troop movements, battles, and logistics, remain a significant part of the literature. A second approach, different in emphasis but similar in its familiarity to military historians, focuses on questions of doctrine, tactics, and methods of making war. Still others place less weight on politics and more on culture, seeing wars and military institutions as reflecting a society’s values. Notions of identity, state-building, and colonialism feature prominently in such scholarship. Finally, research on the American Indian wars encompasses much multidisciplinary work, with archaeology and cultural anthropology offering important insights into how and why different peoples made war. The very best studies, of course, strive to blend each approach into a more compelling whole.

General Overviews

Because the wars between Indians and non-Indians in the present United States spanned nearly three centuries and encompassed an area two and one-half times the size of the European Union, historians have not viewed the totality of these conflicts in a comprehensive fashion. Rather, they have focused on more specific eras or themes. Steele 1994 surveys the colonial period, whereas Utley 2003 examines the latter half of the 19th century. Nichols 2013 suggests the inevitability of conflicts between Indians and the United States, while Vandervort 2006 compares the conflicts in the United States with those in Mexico and Canada. Hämäläinen 2008 and Secoy 1992 address the conflicts from the perspective of Plains Indians, with the former describing the rise and fall of perhaps the most feared tribal group in all of North America. In discussing the wars of the United States Army against the Indians, Wooster 2009 also emphasizes the institution’s nation-building activities. Anderson 2014 concludes that although policies against Indians amounted to ethnic cleansing, they did not amount to genocide. Similarly, Westermann 2016 argues that the conquest of the American West was fundamentally different from Nazi genocide during the Second World War.

  • Anderson, Gary Clayton. Ethnic Cleansing and the Indian: The Crime That Should Haunt America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.

    In this important analysis, Anderson demonstrates that although official policies frequently changed in detail or in implementation, they were consistent in seeking to take the Native Americans’ land and push them aside from whites.

  • Hämäläinen, Pekka. The Comanche Empire. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

    An ambitious narrative that posits the military and economic power of the Comanches within the purview of imperialism more commonly attributed to larger, more populous national states.

  • Nichols, Roger L. Warrior Nations: The United States and Indian Peoples. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.

    Through eight case studies, Nichols highlights the impact of local conditions and cultural differences in leading to conflicts.

  • Secoy, Frank Raymond. Changing Military Patterns of the Great Plains Indians, 17th Century through Early 19th Century. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

    Originally published in 1953, this pioneering monograph argues that the introduction of horses and guns in intertribal warfare hastened the decline of Apache military power but renewed Sioux expansion.

  • Steele, Ian K. Warpaths: Invasions of North America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    Stressing the mutual adaptations of technology, tactics, and strategy by all sides, Steele’s sweeping survey examines Indian, Spanish, Dutch, French, and British military efforts from the Spanish occupation of Saint Augustine, Florida, through the French and Indian War.

  • Utley, Robert M. The Indian Frontier of the American West, 1846–1890. 2d ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003.

    A classic blend of military and political history by the most acclaimed scholar of the wars against the Indians. The best single source for the latter half of the 19th century, slightly revised from the original 1984 edition.

  • Vandervort, Bruce. Indian Wars of Mexico, Canada, and the United States, 1812–1900. New York: Routledge, 2006.

    Much-welcomed comparative study that addresses the Indian wars of North America in a global context.

  • Westermann, Edward B. Hitler’s Ostkrieg and the Indian Wars: Comparing Genocide and Conquest. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.

    Comparing the Nazi conquest of eastern Europe to the United States expansion in the American West, Westermann sees many parallels, but he demonstrates that the latter did not approach the scope, ferocity, and single-mindedness of the former.

  • Wooster, Robert. The American Military Frontiers: The United States Army in the West, 1783–1900. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009.

    In the most recent one-volume assessment of the army’s role in the American West, Wooster contends that military affairs were an essential ingredient of western development.

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