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Texas | Columns | "It's All Trew"

Indian scouts
helped end the Indian wars

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew

America's tendency to become involved in seemingly endless wars dates back to 1866, just after the Civil War ended. The absence of a military presence on the western frontiers had allowed the Indian tribes to wreak havoc on settlers and travelers while raiding at will across the country.

Immediately after the Civil War ended, military units were dispatched west to quell the attacks. In 1866, an estimated 270,000 Indians, parts of 125 distinct groups, roamed within the U.S. boundaries. This was the start of a war fought mostly in the southwest, in which more than 1,000 engagements were fought over a 30-year period.

During this time, recorded and verified white casualties both civilian and military, numbered 2,571. Reports of these same engagements estimate 5,519 hostile Indians were killed. This is according to The Historical Atlas of the American West published by The University of Oklahoma Press.

Many reasons can be argued for this extended 30-year struggle. The one obvious reason was neither the white nor the Indian sides made any effort to understand each other's cultures or settle their differences. Each was determined to dominate the other.

Military forces of the time were trained to fight in the conventional Old World traditions. The Indians knew nothing of these tactics and fought a determined guerrilla war. Using their intimate knowledge of the terrain and living off the land as they fought, they left the military struggling to catch up while suffering from lack of supplies and relief caused by the political budgetary process. Doesn't this all sound somewhat familiar today?

A little-known fact, brought about by General George Crook, occurred when the U.S. Congress passed an act allowing the military to hire native Indians as scouts, not to exceed 1,000 in number, to guide and aid the Army in locating hostile groups. The reason for the need of the act as stated by General Crook, "When we use Indian scouts we find hostiles. When we don't use Indian scouts we don't find hostiles."

Obviously, the Indian scouts knew the terrain and the antagonist's thinking. Knowing the culture and being able to live off the land while scouting made them invaluable to the military.

Why did some of the Indian scouts turn against their contemporaries? The many tribes had warred against each other for centuries and this was a form of revenge. Others needed the job and money to send back to their families already living on reservations. A psychological side benefit, not realized at first, was the fact the scouts turning against the hostiles, was demoralizing to the hunted.

After the first few very successful engagements using scouts, hundreds of hostile groups surrendered and were sent to the reservations. Only a few renegade, hard-core bands continued to fight. Within a few months all Indian groups were subdued.

Few military records recognize the success of using Indian scouts because of racism and corruption among officers and Indian agents. However, enough records survived to leave no doubt the use of Indian scouts helped end a long and costly war.


Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew" January 31, 2008 Column



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