The Mild, Mild West

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

It turns out that John Wayne movies might be more accurate than American history textbooks. “In contrast, an alternative literature based on actual history concludes that the civil society of the American West in the nineteenth century was not very violent,” economist Thomas J. DiLorenzo writes in The Independent Review.

DiLorenzo teaches at Loyola University in Maryland. He notes that, at least for the first half of the nineteenth century, “private protective agencies,” rather than government ones, maintained order.  “What were these private protective agencies?” he writes. “They were not governments because they did not have a legal monopoly on keeping order.”

“Instead, they included such organizations as land clubs, cattlemen’s associations, mining camps, and wagon trains.” It was when the federal government got proactive after the Civil War that problems, even calamities, ensued, particularly in dealings between Americans and Native Americans.

Before Fort Sumter, when Americans wanted land from Indians, they bought it. “By the twentieth century, some $800 million had been paid for Indian lands,” DiLorenzo notes. After Appomatox, the federales decided that land acquisition could be accomplished more cheaply  through raids rather than trades.  “Congress even voted in 1871 not to ratify any more Indian treaties, effectively announcing that it no longer sought peaceful relations with the Plains Indians,” DiLorenzo notes.

That would have been under the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant. Not so coincidentally, the national government’s more aggressive post-Civil War policy towards Indians was largely managed by generals victorious in the conflict, notably William Tecumsuh “March to the Sea” Sherman and Phillip Sheridan.

Sherman was not what modern-day scholars would call enlightened. If his reference to “the final solution to the Indian Problem” was an oblique one, his references to the Indians themselves were much more direct, like his raids on their villages.

Indeed, “[M]ost of the Plains Indian bands were in sympathy with the Southern cause” during the War Between the States, according to Indian Wars historian S. L. A. Marshall. Nor did Sherman got all warm and fuzzy over the plight of slaves: “The Indians give a fair illustration of the fate of the negroes if they are released from the control of the whites,” he once said.

“Sherman and Sheridan’s troops conducted more than one thousand attacks on Indian villages, mostly in the winter months, when families were together,” DiLorenzo writes. He also encouraged attacks on their food supply: “Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo is exterminated, as it is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance,” Sherman told a group of Texans who pleaded with him to stop the buffalo’s extermination.

Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.

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