The settlement of the American West, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans, remains one of the most seismic migrations in the history of the planet. In the consciousness of a young United States, this settlement defined how new Americans saw themselves, it defined how they understood their young nation’s destiny, and it is still looked back on by many as a triumphant achievement. It would be impossible to say “The settlement of the American West was a negative event,” just as it would be impossible to say “The settlement of the American West was a positive event.” However, we can try to understand what the positive and negative consequences of this settlement were, and perhaps come to a judgment about the process in general.
In reading the primary sources for this week: Chief Joseph on Indian Affairs (1877, 1879) and William T. Hornaday on the Extinction of the American Bison (1889) we are undoubtedly confronted with some of the sadder consequences of this irreversible process.
How can we, as historians, learn from these sources so that we can understand and help guide similar processes in the world today? What kind of processes of migration, conquest, and change in today’s world could better be understood by reading the words of Chief Joseph and William Hornaday?