Study Guide

Native American History People

  • Henry Knox

    Henry Knox (1750–1806) served as Secretary of War under President George Washington and as a Major-General during the American Revolution

    Born in Boston, he left school at age 11 to clerk in a bookstore—he owned his own book shop by the time the Revolution broke out in 1775. Despite having no significant military experience (he gained all his military knowledge from books), General Washington named Knox Chief of the Artillery during the siege of Boston in 1775. During the following winter, he commanded the expedition that returned 60 tons of artillery captured at Fort Ticonderoga to the Dorchester Heights outside Boston forcing the British to evacuate the city.

    As Secretary of War, Knox sought to place United States-Native American relations on a more positive footing. He rejected the premise, suggested by the Treaty of Paris and incorporated in early treaties signed with Native American nations at Fort Stanwix and Fort McIntosh, that all territories east of the Mississippi River had been acquired by conquest and so, Native Americans were a defeated, subject people. 

    Instead, he negotiated treaties based on the premise that Native American tribes, as the prior occupants of certain territories, possessed rights of the soil and that their lands could only be acquired legally through treaty or purchase. His implementation of these treaties, however, proved inconsistent. Knox authorized use of military force in the Northwest Territory to coerce land cessions from the Ohio Valley Indians.

  • Alexander McGillivray

    Alexander McGillivray (1750–1793) was a powerful Creek chief. In 1790, he negotiated the Treaty of New York, winning federal recognition of vast Creek territories in the southeastern United States. 

    McGillivray was only one-quarter Native American—his father was Scottish and his mother was half-French. But in the years following the Revolution, he rose to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful Creek chiefs. He was educated at British schools in Charleston and spoke five languages. As a young man, he used his skills and connections to build a thriving commercial empire among the southern tribes. By the time he was 30, he lived in a large home, owned more than 50 slaves, and was recognized as the Creek power broker by the British, Spanish, and Americans.

    Following the American Revolution, McGillivray successfully played American and Spanish interests against one another to win recognition of Creek territorial autonomy in the Southeast. At the Treaty of New York, he made minor concessions on an eastern border to win United States recognition of vast territories to the west. The Creek nation he secured included present-day Alabama and parts of Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Florida. 

    When the federal government failed to prevent white settlers from encroaching on Creek lands, as promised in the treaty, McGillivray signed the Treaty of New Orleans with the Spanish, committing the two nations to a collective resistance to American expansion in the Southeast.

  • Richard Henry Pratt

    Richard Henry Pratt (1849–1924) was the founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. 

    Born in New York, Pratt spent his youth in Indiana and served in the Indiana Volunteer infantry and cavalry during the Civil War. In 1867, he re-entered the military and was assigned as an officer to the Tenth United States Cavalry, a regiment of Black soldiers. Serving primarily on the Oklahoma frontier, Pratt was ordered to supervise the incarceration of 72 Native American prisoners at Fort Marion near St. Augustine, Florida in 1875. In this role, he began to develop the theories of education and assimilation that he would introduce at the Carlisle School in 1879.

    Between 1879 and 1904, Pratt administered the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. With annual enrollment averaging 1,000 students, the school taught core academic subjects, like reading and math, as well as vocational skills, to Native American students. More fundamentally, Pratt's school aimed to prepare the students for full assimilation in American life by wiping out their Native American identity. 

    "Kill the Indian, save the man," Pratt often said.

    On arrival, the students' long hair was cut and they were issued uniforms. They were told to select an English name and were forbidden to speak their native languages. The children were organized into military-type units and drilled in the school yard. A military-type court system enforced campus rules—offenders served time in the old barracks guardhouse. 

    To complete the process of acculturation, Pratt hired out the children for a portion of the year to neighboring farmers and manufacturers. The children provided cheap labor to their host families, but Pratt believed that the Native American students received a more valuable exposure to Anglo-American culture and lifestyle.

  • Major Ridge

    Major Ridge (1771–1839) was a Cherokee leader instrumental in reforming the Cherokee government and drafting its constitution during the 1820s. He's best remembered for signing the Treaty of New Echota surrendering Cherokee lands to the federal government in 1835. 

    Born in Tennessee, Kah-nung-da-tla-geh ("the man who walks on the ridge") received a traditional upbringing as a hunter and warrior. But as a young man, he joined a faction of nationalist reformers intent on modernizing certain aspects of Cherokee life while preserving Cherokee political autonomy. He urged reform of the blood law and the adoption of farming—he himself established a prosperous farm. Largely in order to protect the Cherokees from western expansionists, he led the efforts to centralize Cherokee governance leading to the adoption of a national constitution in 1827.

    Ridge supported Cherokee attempts to win legal protection in the U.S. courts against Georgia's efforts to win control over Cherokee lands. But ultimately convinced that the cause was hopeless, he led a tiny minority agreeing to sell tribal lands to the federal government in return for cash and new lands in Oklahoma. 

    After signing the Treaty of New Echota, he led a small group west to these lands. Ridge was vilified as a coward by the vast majority of the Cherokees who rejected this treaty and persisted in efforts to win recognition of their historic claims to their land in Georgia. When, three years later, this majority was forced to migrate west along the Trail of Tears, Ridge was labeled a traitor and "executed" in 1839.

  • Wovoka

    Wovoka, a.k.a. Jack Wilson (1856–1932) was a Paiute mystic responsible for the revival of the Ghost Dance in 1890. Born in western Nevada, he took on the name of the white rancher, David Wilson, on whose lands he lived during his youth. Some speculate that Wilson taught Wovoka to speak and read English and exposed him to Christianity.

    In 1889, Wovoka underwent a mystical experience during which, according to a later interview, he briefly died, ascended into heaven, and received the message he was instructed to disseminate among other Native Americans: history was approaching a watershed; God was preparing to cleanse the earth of evil and introduce a period of peace and abundance; soon the now-scarce game would return and Native Americans and whites would live in harmony.

    To prepare for this new age, Wovoka instructed Native Americans to lead purer lives and to perform the ritual of the Ghost Dance—a variation on the round, or circle, dance that had experienced a revival during the 1870s. Wovoka's message and the Ghost Dance spread first to the west and then to the Great Plains where, among the Lakota Sioux in particular, the dance took on a more militant and apocalyptic tone. Wovoka's promise of a new historical age was turned into a hope for temporal revenge—the cleansing of the earth was interpreted to include the destruction of the white race.

    Territorial authorities unnerved by the ideology and popularity of the Ghost Dance attempted to squelch it in 1890. These efforts led to the killing of Sitting Bull and the massacre at Wounded Knee. In the following years, participation in the Ghost Dance declined and Wovoka faded into obscurity.