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The Wild Frontier: Atrocities During the American-Indian War from Jamestown Colony to Wounded Knee

The Wild Frontier: Atrocities During the American-Indian War from Jamestown Colony to Wounded Knee

by William M. Osborn, Bob Loomis (Editor)

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The real story of the ordeal experienced by both settlers and Indians during the Europeans' great migration west across America, from the colonies to California, has been almost completely eliminated from the histories we now read. In truth, it was a horrifying and appalling experience. Nothing like it had ever happened anywhere else in the world.

In The Wild


The real story of the ordeal experienced by both settlers and Indians during the Europeans' great migration west across America, from the colonies to California, has been almost completely eliminated from the histories we now read. In truth, it was a horrifying and appalling experience. Nothing like it had ever happened anywhere else in the world.

In The Wild Frontier, William M. Osborn discusses the changing settler attitude toward the Indians over several centuries, as well as Indian and settler characteristics—the Indian love of warfare, for instance (more than 400 inter-tribal wars were fought even after the threatening settlers arrived), and the settlers' irresistible desire for the land occupied by the Indians.

The atrocities described in The Wild Frontier led to the death of more than 9,000 settlers and 7,000 Indians. Most of these events were not only horrible but bizarre. Notoriously, the British use of Indians to terrorize the settlers during the American Revolution left bitter feelings, which in turn contributed to atrocious conduct on the part of the settlers. Osborn also discusses other controversial subjects, such as the treaties with the Indians, matters relating to the occupation of land, the major part disease played in the war, and the statements by both settlers and Indians each arguing for the extermination of the other. He details the disgraceful American government policy toward the Indians, which continues even today, and speculates about the uncertain future of the Indians themselves.

Thousands of eyewitness accounts are the raw material of The Wild Frontier, in which we learn that many Indians tortured and killed prisoners, and someeven engaged in cannibalism; and that though numerous settlers came to the New World for religious reasons, or to escape English oppression, many others were convicted of crimes and came to avoid being hanged.

The Wild Frontier tells a story that helps us understand our history, and how as the settlers moved west, they often brutally expelled the Indians by force while themselves suffering torture and kidnapping.

Editorial Reviews

The real story of the efforts by the early settlers to move across the American West has been whitewashed from the mainstream history texts for some time now, claims Osborn. What he discovered was that more than 9,000 white settlers and 7,000 Indians perished in the ongoing conflict. The atrocities were a result of various factors: the use of Indians by the British to harass the settlers, the intense hunger of the settlers for land, and the U.S. government's own disgraceful policies toward the Indians.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Beginning with Indian attacks on Jamestown in 1622 and ending with the massacre of Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee in 1890, Osborn chronicles, often in lurid detail, the battles, skirmishes, raids and massacres perpetrated by whites and Indians on each other. The familiar names are here--Little Big Horn, Sand Creek, Fort Mims, Wyoming Valley--as well as now-forgotten minor actions that resulted in atrocities. Along the way, Osborn examines American attitudes toward Indians, perceptions of Indian culture (including warfare tactics, prisoner taking, religious beliefs and ideas about property) and resulting policies, and the effects of disease among Native Americans. Two appendices list in chronological order intertribal wars and deaths caused by settler and Indian atrocities. Osborn has calculated that for each of these 268 years of warfare, there occurred an average of 60 incidents per year, perhaps 16,000 incidents in total. Osborn, a retired Indiana lawyer whose Massachusetts ancestors had their house burned by members of an Indian tribe, has written this book as an attempt to understand the barbarity to which both sides resorted. He finds that hatred, revenge and cruelty all play varying roles, and he does not take the meanings of those terms for granted, offering example after example. Although not scholarly in terms of background and analysis, his stark journalistic approach will shock even those who have some knowledge of the ferocity of American frontier warfare. (Jan. 9) Forecast: Most Americans do not view the years 1622-1890 as the period of a 268-year war. After reading Osborn's book, they may. While not groundbreaking scholarship, this study could provoke heated discussion if taken by the media as a pretext for discussing America's relationship to terrorism. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Retired attorney Osborn takes issue with those who would portray the Indians as peaceful until the Europeans arrived and with those who would depict the settlers as upright and God-fearing. Marshaling the evidence from eyewitness accounts dating from Amerigo Vespucci to the massacre at Wounded Knee, he shows that the tribes were at war with one another long before the European migration spread across the continent and argues that the Indian Wars were really parts of a single conflict that lasted 268 years. But the main thrust of the book is that both sides were brutal to each other and individuals on both sides were responsible for touching off particular episodes, which escalated into full-scale conflicts. He does this in unflinching detail, recounting numerous scalpings, massacres, and other atrocities and concluding with a plea for both Native Americans and whites to put this terrible history behind them and go forward together for the betterment of both. This well-written book is recommended for both public and academic libraries.--Stephen H. Peters, Northern Michigan Univ. Lib., Marquette Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
"This is a deeply provocative book. It will disturb many people and anger others, and that is all to the good. Its unvarnished account of the darkest side of relations between Indians and whites tells us much that we would prefer not to know, or that we have deliberately forgotten, about the longest and most complex conflict in American history."
—Fergus M. Bordewich, author of Killing the White Man's Indian

"William Osborn's The Wild Frontier shows the dark side of our national history, a side that many people will find disturbing. Nevertheless, it is a story that must be told in order for us to achieve a better understanding of ourselves and our past."
—Charles M. Robinson III, author of The Men Who Wear the Star

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.23(d)

Read an Excerpt

The wild frontier commenced in 1607 with the arrival of the first permanent settlers and was declared ended by the Bureau of the Census in 1890. The war between the settlers and the Indians began in 1622 in Virginia and also ended in 1890 in South Dakota. The outcome of this war determined who would control the North American continent. It was played on a stage that was new to European peoples, and many of its dramatic events had not been seen before in history and would never be seen again. This was a first-time clash between 2 cultures. Robert Hughes, in Culture of Complaint, said, "Surprises crackle, like electric arcs, between the interfaces of culture." Surprises also crackle with atrocities. The war lasted 268 years, the longest in the history of our nation. The United States itself will not be 268 years old until the year 2044.

In The West: An Illustrated History, edited by Henry Steele Commager, an article by M. A. Jones pointed out that "the realities of frontier life have regularly given way to the requirements of myth." Myths cloud history and impair its classic function—to help us solve present-day problems. This accurate analogy has been drawn by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., in The Disuniting of America:

For history is to the nation rather as memory is to the individual. As an individual deprived of memory becomes disoriented and lost, not knowing where he has been or where he is going, so a nation denied a conception of its past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future. The Indians agreed. There is an old Sioux saying—"A people without history is like wind upon the buffalograss."

Military historian S. L. A. Marshall in Crimsoned Prairie said in some despair, "Taken as a whole, books about the Plains wars have one salient characteristic, that of discrepancy." As Carl Waldman noted in his preface to Who Was Who in Native American History:

A book covering such a wide range of material can be no more accurate than its sources. Much of the material comes from writers who were explorers, missionaries, traders, or army officers first, in addition to amateur historians or anthropologists. Hearsay and legend play a part in what has been passed down. Contradictions abound.

Edwin T. Denig, who lived with the Indians from about 1800 to 1850 and married 2 Indian women, noted another disagreement. "We find two sets of writers, both equally wrong, one setting forth the Indians as a noble, generous, and chivalrous race above the standards of Europeans, the other representing them below the level of brute creation."

Generally speaking, most of the earlier writers were settler advocates, while many who came later were Indian advocates. Fergus M. Bordewich, who spent much of his childhood living on Indian reservations, put it this way in his book Killing the White Mans Indian:

Until not long ago, Americans were generally taught to view the nation's westward movement as a saga of heroic pioneering and just wars that carried European immigrants from the shores of the Atlantic to those of the Pacific. At the center of that essentially mythic vision stood the Indian, simultaneously noble and barbaric, man of nature and bloodthirsty savage, and destined for tragic extinction. The epic of the Indian wars added color and grandeur to the saga of national expansion: in their apparent savagery, Indians dramatically underscored Euro-Americans' notions of civilization, while their repeated military defeats seemed unchallengeable proof of the white man's technological and moral superiority.

More recently, revisionist scholars and educators have tended to portray that same history as one of deep, unredeemed tragedy, of which the destruction of the Indian is a central, equally mythical example, apparent proof of the barbarism of Euro-American civilization.

The word settler is meant to include colonists, soldiers, militia, government people, farmers, hunters, trappers, merchants, miners, and other Americans who came in contact with the Indians between 1607 and 1890, as well as the English colonists before the American Revolution.

This war was a "complex and intense struggle," fought over a time span of more than 26 decades. Hundreds of Indian tribes were involved. The tribes were not only fighting one another, but the Dutch, the Spanish, the English, the French, and the settlers, often at the same time.

European wars were frequently fought in part in North America. Participation in those wars by the Indians depended upon the wishes of each tribe. During the American Revolution, most tribes sided with Great Britain. One author, Carl Waldman, in Atlas of the North American Indian, concluded that if the British had given the tribes better support, they "probably would have won the war."

No one knows for certain where the Indians originally came from. Some experts today believe that they came from some unknown part of Asia centuries ago over the Bering Land Bridge when Asia and America were connected. A growing number of other experts say the glacier there prevented use of the Bering route to our eastern seaboard until 11,500 years ago. These experts believe Asians and perhaps even Europeans hugged the ice sheets in animal skin kayaks and reached America long before the Bering people. There are also fairly recent archeological finds that hint that the Bering people may not have been in the first group to migrate to America. Anthropologist Walter Neves flatly stated, "We can no longer say that the first colonizers of the American continent came from the north of Asia." The Indians encountered in Virginia, Massachusetts, and elsewhere may or may not have been in the first group and, if not, would not have been the First Americans. The Indians had no word for themselves similar to the word Indian. According to Alvin Josephy,

Many groups of native Americans were given their historic names by white men who either contrived descriptive terms of their own for them (Creeks) or adopted expressions by which they were known to other tribes.

When they gave themselves a tribal name, however, as Clark Wissler in Indians of the United States noted, often it was something like "we, the people."

Some have referred to the skirmishes and battles considered here as the Indian wars. Others have preferred to call them simply one war, the Four Hundred Year War (1492 to 1890) or the Four Century War. The latter is the approach taken here because the separate "wars" have been characterized by Alan Axelrod in Chronicle of the Indian Wars as "barely differentiated."

Meet the Author

William M. Osborn was born and educated in Indiana and Michigan. He practiced law in Indiana for many years. Upon his retirement several years ago, he began researching this book about settlers and Indians, in part because the Massachusetts home of one of his father's ancestors was burned by Indians in colonial days and, according to family tradition, one of his mother's ancestors, a settler on the frontier, married a Cherokee named Lydia. That research resulted in The Wild Frontier. Osborn and his wife, Pat, spend half their time in Indiana and half in Florida.

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