- Reconstructing the Great PlainsThe Long Struggle for Sovereignty and Dominance in the Heart of the Continent
The history of the Civil War era is in the midst of a western turn. Just as the historians of Early America have adopted a continental perspective for their field, so too have the historians of the Civil War era widened their optics. They have begun to see the separation of the histories of the Civil War and the American West as an artificial divide and to reveal how similar forces simultaneously transformed the South and the West during and after the war. They have, by any measure, been widely successful.1
With the West in the frame, Civil War America is expanding in scope and taking on new meanings. We are learning how western events and ambitions shaped the national struggles over race, freedom, and belonging and we are learning how those battles unfolded in the West, changing the region profoundly and irrevocably. Many of us now think of the years between 1845 and 1877 as the “Greater Reconstruction,” a period defined by three wars (the U.S.-Mexican War, the Civil War, and War against Native America), a continent-wide racial crisis, the extension of northern state power to the South and the West, and wholesale dispossession of native societies. The Civil War now looks less a war of liberation than of empire, a massive, sustained explosion of federal power that demolished the slave South and dismantled the indigenous West.2 This, then, is what the expanded history of the Civil War era looks like: not just one racial crisis but many, not just one conflict over the limits of federal authority but many, not just one rebellion but many, not just one killing field but many.
And yet the western story of the Civil War era is far from complete. The current master narrative is a clash between North and South in the West. Each region strove to bring the West into its respective empires—a contest that southern secession would bring to a fever pitch—sucking its various peoples into a distant storm. As in the East, regional animosity fueled unprecedented violence in the West, especially against Native Americans. Indeed, based on recent high-profile studies, it would seem that the western Indians’ story during the Civil War era could be told as [End Page 481] a series of massacres, conquests, and atrocities: the U.S.-Dakota War, the Bear River Massacre, the Sand Creek Massacre, the Long Walk of the Navajos, the Marias Massacre, and so on, all the way to Wounded Knee. In California, the Civil War era saw the intensification of a systematic slaughter of Indians that had unfolded under a state-sanctioned killing machine since the 1840s. In 1846, there had been about 150,000 Indians in California; thirty years later, 30,000 survived.3
The Civil War era now appears a formative phase in a long history of Native American dispossession and genocide that both preceded and followed the war. But while empire-building and ethnic cleansing destroyed numerous indigenous societies in the West, they do not define the Civil War era in the West. The American leviathan was not all-powerful, and its rise to continental hegemony was not inevitable, not even after it transformed into an imperial nation-state capable of inflicting enormous harm.4 If we shift our focus from battlefields—inevitably a narrow window—to regional power dynamics and from the abstractions of empire-building to the tangible workings of sovereignty and jurisdiction on the ground, a more complicated picture begins to emerge—one of indigenous declension, but also of indigenous resilience in the midst of an expanding American state.
Such uncertainties persisted throughout the Trans-Mississippi West, but they were most pronounced in the Great Plains, where the rising industrial giant faced enduring nomadic regimes. Indeed, as I will argue here, the post-war phase of the Greater Reconstruction saw much more than the consolidation of federal authority on a continental scale. In the interior grasslands, it saw a sustained and, when viewed from the East, utterly unanticipated reconstruction of nomad power.