If you live in the United States (and even if you don’t) you’ve heard about a number of the country’s prominent historical figures. But what about the history of those who were there before? Even many Americans know very little of Native American history.
One of many overlooked aspects of such history is the exceptional men who led various tribes as chiefs or war leaders. Many of them have been swept into the dustbin of history. Here are some of the greatest.
1. Black Hawk. A war leader of the Sauk tribe, Black Hawk was born in Virginia in 1767. Relatively little is known about him until he joined the British side during the War of 1812, leading some to refer to him and his followers as the “British Band.” A rival Sauk leader signed a treaty with the United States, perhaps because he was tricked, which ceded much of their land, and Black Hawk refused to honor the document, leading to decades of conflict between the two parties. In 1832, after having been forcibly resettled earlier, Black Hawk led between 1,000 and 1,500 Native Americans back to a disputed area in Illinois. That move instigated the Black Hawk War, which only lasted 15 weeks, after which around two-thirds of the Sauk who came to Illinois had perished. Black Hawk himself avoided capture until 1833, though he was released in a relatively short amount of time. Disgraced among his people, he lived out the last five years of his life in Iowa.
2. Tecumseh. Born in Ohio around 1798, Tecumseh early on took to traveling to frontier towns in Kentucky and Tennessee. After a number of Native American defeats, he left to Indiana, raising a band of warriors and becoming a respected chief. One of his younger brothers underwent a series of visions and became a religious prophet, going so far as to accurately predict a solar eclipse. Using his brother’s abilities to his advantage, Tecumseh quickly began to unify a number of different peoples into a settlement known as Prophetstown, better known in the United States as Tippecanoe. One day, while Tecumseh was away on a recruiting trip, future US President William Henry Harrison launched a surprise attack and burned it to the ground, killing nearly everyone. Still angered at his people’s treatment at the hands of the US, Tecumseh joined forces with Great Britain when the War of 1812 began. However, he died at the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813. Though he was a constant enemy to them, Americans quickly turned Tecumseh into a folk hero, valuing his impressive oratory skills and the bravery of his spirit.
3. Crazy Horse. A fearsome warrior and leader of the Oglala Sioux, Crazy Horse was born around 1840 in present-day South Dakota. One story about his name says that he was given it by his father after displaying his skills as a fighter. Tensions between Americans and the Sioux had been increasing since his birth, but they boiled over when he was a young teenager. In August 1854, a Sioux chief named Conquering Bear was killed by a white soldier. In retaliation, the Sioux killed the lieutenant in command along with all 30 of his men in what is now known as the Grattan Massacre. Utilizing his knowledge as a guerilla fighter, Crazy Horse was a thorn in the side of the US Army, through the famous Custer Battle of the Little Big Horn. A courageous warrior and leader.
4. Cochise. One of the great Apache Chiefs in history. In 1861, a raiding party of a different Apache tribe kidnapped a child, and Cochise’s tribe was accused of the act by a relatively inexperienced US Army officer. Though they were innocent, an attempt at arresting the Native Americans, who had come to talk, ended in violence, with one shot to death and Cochise escaping the meeting tent by cutting a hole in the side and fleeing. Various acts of torture and execution by both sides followed, and it seemed to have no end. But the US Civil War had begun, and Arizona was left to the Apache. Less than a year later, however, the Army was back, armed with howitzers, and they began to destroy the tribes still fighting. For nearly 10 years, Cochise and a small band of fighters hid among the mountains, raiding when necessary and evading capture. In the end, Cochise was offered a huge part of Arizona as a reservation. His reply: “The white man and the Indian are to drink of the same water, eat of the same bread, and be at peace.” Unfortunately for Cochise, he didn’t get to experience the fruits of his labor for long, as he became seriously ill and died in 1874.
5. Geronimo. Perhaps the most famous Native American leader of all time, Geronimo was a medicine man in the Bedonkohe band of the Chiricahua. Born in June 1829, he was quickly acclimated to the Apache way of life. As a young boy, he swallowed the heart of his first successful hunting kill and had already led four separate raids before he turned 18. Like many of his people, he suffered greatly at the hands of the “civilized” people around him. The Mexicans, who still controlled the land, killed his wife and three young children. (Though he hated Americans, he maintained a deep-seated abhorrence for Mexicans until his dying day.) In 1848, Mexico ceded control of vast swaths of land, including Apache territory, in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This preceded near-constant conflict between the new American settlers and the tribes which lived on the land. Eventually, Geronimo and his people were moved off their ancestors’ land and placed in a reservation in a barren part of Arizona, something the great leader deeply resented. Over the course of the next ten years, he led a number of successful breakouts, and he became a celebrity for his daring escapes. The rest of his history is indeed the history of Fort Sill and Southwest Oklahoma.
So leaders come in all shapes and sizes, races and ethnic beliefs. There are thousands more great Native American leaders; many leader in all walks of life today.
Lee Baxter is a former commanding general of Fort Sill.