Chapter 13 Conquest & Empire

[Public domain], via Harvard College Library.

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As railroads, farms, and cattle ranches disrupted buffalo migration patterns and settled the Great Plains, the region’s earliest inhabitants took notice. The situation was aggravated by the government’s desire to confine the Plains Indians to reservations, teach them to cultivate land like whites, and leave their hunting and roaming past behind. The Plains Wars which followed resulted in a series of forts along the major trails to the West. As the Plains Indians were increasingly neutralized by the government, the farmers could focus on big business as their primary adversary.

As in the East, expansion into the plains and mountains by miners, ranchers, and settlers led to increasing conflicts with the Native Americans of the West. Many tribes of Native Americans — from the Utes of the Great Basin to the Nez Perces of Idaho — fought the whites at one time or another. But the Sioux of the Northern Plains and the Apache of the Southwest provided the most significant opposition to frontier advance. Led by such resourceful leaders as Red Cloud and Crazy Horse, the Sioux were particularly skilled at high-speed mounted warfare. The Apaches were equally adept and highly elusive, fighting in their environs of desert and canyons.

The Plains Wars

The nomadic plains Indians had become efficient hunters and warriors due to the Spanish introduction of the horse in the 1500s. No longer did they find it necessary to frighten whole herds of bison over cliffs only to use a few animals. Their newfound abilities as horsemen had given them a ferocious edge over their prey and their enemies.

Endowed with all of humanity’s peculiarities, Indigenous Americans traveled, traded, made war and peace, and adapted to the cultures they came in contact with. If a neighboring people had found a better way to do something, it generally became an accepted practice. When Europeans arrived, Native Americans quickly adopted firearms, metal tools, and horses. So thoroughly was the horse adapted into indigenous culture that it became a fixture, ever-present from the beginning of time in native myth.

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In order to maintain peace between settlers, emigrants, and indigenous peoples, the government attempted to open a corridor through the Plains by pushing natives into northern and southern reservations. This, it was hoped, would allow safe passage of wagon trains; but a string of prairie forts was developed along this corridor for added security. The Horse Creek Council of 1851 established a large reservation in North Dakota and Montana---The northern boundary of this corridor. The southern boundary was established in 1853 at the Fort Atkinson Council in Kansas. Roughly, the agreement was that the tribes would stay on their side of the lines and the government would compensate for the lost land with annual payments and never violate the agreement.

Problems of Perception

Problems of perception and treaty failures ensured that peace would be short-lived. From the White perspective the presence of thousands of Indians at the councils lent legitimacy to the proceedings. The Indian viewpoint was that a few chiefs could not speak for the whole. Both sides mistakenly assumed that the government would be able (and willing) to channel settlement away from the reservations. Ultimately, the failure to make annual payments, new gold finds near Pike’s Peak, Colorado and the Black Hills of South Dakota, as well as the introduction of land-hungry settlers, sank the earlier agreements in a mire of blood and warfare.

“Battle of Little Bighorn.” By Kicking Bear [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“Battle of Little Bighorn.” By Kicking Bear [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

War came, among other things, due to gold, disruption, and treaty failures. In 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California, thus beginning the greatest migration of humanity in the Western hemisphere. Migrants went overland on the Oregon and California Trails, over oceans from as far away as China and Australia, and even from amongst indigenous peoples themselves.

Farming and ranching involved the obvious disruptions involved in permanent settlement of the land which hitherto had been occupied seasonally and briefly by Indians. Farmers put up fences to keep cattle out while ranchers put up fences to keep them in. Railroads bringing supplies to these settlers cut East/West across the prairie effectively creating a thousand-mile cattle guard which buffalo were hesitant to cross during their North/South migrations. Overland emigrants used up fuel, grass, and indigenous goodwill in great quantities, all of which eventually brought government involvement on the Plains.

Conflicts with the Plains Indians worsened after an incident where the Dakota (part of the Sioux nation), declaring war against the U.S. government because of long-standing grievances, killed five white settlers. Spontaneously, between five and eight hundred white settlers in territory ceded by the Sioux were then massacred, quite possibly without their even knowing of the government’s failure to uphold its treaty agreements. Bad feelings and racism on both sides turned to outright hatred and, over a period of a quarter century, the Plains Indians lost their homeland.

"White refugees during the Sioux Uprising". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Rebellions and attacks continued through the Civil War. In 1876 the last serious Sioux war erupted, when the Dakota gold rush penetrated the Black Hills. The Army was supposed to keep miners off Sioux hunting grounds, but effectively did little to protect Sioux lands. When ordered to take action against bands of Sioux hunting on the range according to their treaty rights, however, it moved quickly and vigorously.

Video (00:01:53):Custer (

In 1876, after several indecisive encounters, Colonel George Custer, leading a small detachment of cavalry encountered a vastly superior force of Sioux and their allies on the Little Bighorn River. Custer and his men were completely annihilated. Nonetheless the Native-American insurgency was soon suppressed. Later, in 1890, a ghost dance ritual on the Northern Sioux reservation at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, led to an uprising and a last, tragic encounter that ended in the death of about 150 Sioux men, women, and children

Long before this, however, the way of life of the Plains Indians had been destroyed by an expanding white population, the coming of the railroads, and the slaughter of the buffalo, almost exterminated in the decade after 1870 by the settlers’ indiscriminate hunting.

The Apache wars in the Southwest dragged on until Geronimo, the last important chief, was captured in 1886.

Geronimo. By Frank A. Rinehart [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Geronimo. By Frank A. Rinehart [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Government policy ever since the Monroe administration had been to move the Native Americans beyond the reach of the white frontier. But inevitably the reservations had become smaller and more crowded. Some Americans began to protest the government’s treatment of Native Americans. Helen Hunt Jackson, for example, an Easterner living in the West, wrote A Century of Dishonor (1881), which dramatized their plight and struck a chord in the nation’s conscience. Most reformers believed the Native American should be assimilated into the dominant culture.


Assimilation of the American Indian had been an on-again, off-again goal since at least as early as Thomas Jefferson’s administration. Now, toward the end of the 1800s, eastern interests sponsored these boarding schools which forcibly removed Indian children from their homes in the West and educated them back East. The federal government even set up a school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in an attempt to impose white values and beliefs on Native-American youths. (It was at this school that Jim Thorpe, often considered the best athlete the United States has produced, gained fame in the early 20th century.)

Dawes Severalty Act

In 1887 the Dawes (General Allotment) Act reversed U.S. Native- American policy, permitting the president to divide up tribal land and parcel out 160 acres of land to each head of a family. Such allotments were to be held in trust by the government for 25 years, after which time the owner won full title and citizenship. Lands not thus distributed, however, were offered for sale to settlers. This policy, however well-intentioned, proved disastrous, since it allowed more plundering of Native-American lands. Moreover, its assault on the communal organization of tribes caused further disruption of traditional culture.

"Ghost dance". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
"Ghost dance". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee

In the last major pan-Indian movement, the Ghost Dance was a rejection of Easterners attempts at assimilation. In 1889, Wovoka—a Paiute-- claimed a revelation instructing all Indians to forsake white ways, and to dance. Their reward would be the earth’s opening up and consuming all whites followed by a return of the buffalo and Indian lands. To this Sitting Bull added that the ghost dancer’s white shirt would stop white bullets. This, the Army took as an ominous sign of impending warfare and moved to stop the dance.

Mass grave for the dead Lakota after the conflict at Wounded Knee Creek.  By Northwestern Photo Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mass grave for the dead Lakota after the conflict at Wounded Knee Creek. By Northwestern Photo Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Video (00:04:54) Wounded Knee  (


The last decades of the 19th century were a period of imperial expansion for the United States. The American story took a different course from that of its European rivals, however, because of the U.S. history of struggle against European empires and its unique democratic development.

By John Gast (painter) (scan or photograph of 1872 painting) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
By John Gast (painter) (scan or photograph of 1872 painting) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The sources of American expansionism  in the late 19th century were varied. Internationally, the period was one of imperialist frenzy, as European powers raced to carve up Africa and competed, along with Japan, for influence and trade in Asia. Many Americans, including influential figures such as Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Elihu Root, felt that to safeguard its own interests, the United States had to stake out spheres of economic influence as well. That view was seconded by a powerful naval lobby, which called for an expanded fleet and network of overseas ports as essential to the economic and political security of the nation. More generally, the doctrine of “manifest destiny,” first used to justify America’s continental expansion, was now revived to assert that the United States had a right and duty to extend its influence and civilization in the Western Hemisphere and the Caribbean, as well as across the Pacific.

At the same time, voices of anti-imperialism from diverse coalitions of Northern Democrats and reform minded Republicans remained loud and constant. As a result, the acquisition of a U.S. empire was piecemeal and ambivalent. Colonial-minded administrations were often more concerned with trade and economic issues than political control.


The United States’ first venture beyond its continental borders was the purchase of Alaska — sparsely populated by Inuit and other native peoples — from Russia in 1867. Most Americans were either indifferent to or indignant at this action by Secretary of State William Seward, whose critics called Alaska “Seward’s Folly” and “Seward’s Icebox.” But 30 years later, when gold was discovered on Alaska’s Klondike River, thousands of Americans headed north, and many of them settled in Alaska permanently. When Alaska became the 49th state in 1959, it replaced Texas as geographically the largest state in the Union.

Spanish-American War

Spain and the United States came to blows in 1898 due to a long-standing Spanish presence in the Western Hemisphere and a new American presence in the Eastern. In the Western Hemisphere, Spanish possessions fell, over a period of several hundred years, to a combination of South American independence movements (inspired by American independence) and a growing sense of weakness in the Spanish empire itself. By the 1890s, Spanish possessions in the West had been whittled down to Cuba and a handful of islands and outposts. In the East, the Americans had been making their way across the Pacific in hopes of tapping the fabled and ever-elusive China market. Trade was forced upon Japan in 1850 and Hawaii in 1898. Spanish possessions, most notably the Philippines, were more extensive in this region and the American newcomers were not welcome.

Video (00:02:08)“A Newspaper’s War” (

‘War is Hell.’  Sherman Judge 4/1898 [Public domain], via
‘War is Hell.’ Sherman Judge 4/1898 [Public domain], via

The sunken USS Maine in Havana harbor. Author Unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
The sunken USS Maine in Havana harbor. Author Unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The immediate causes of the crisis were the combination of Spanish brutality in Cuba, American media coverage and the sinking of a U.S. Ship in Havana harbor. As one of the last toe-holds of Spain in the New World, Cuba would not be readily abandoned.

Localized dissent had been put down harshly by the empire and the Cubans subjected to extreme punishments by their Spanish overlords. As reports of concentration camps, torture and abuse drifted back to the U.S., newspapermen like Hearst and Pulitzer competed for newspaper sales by sensationalizing the news. Cartoons and half-truths demonized the Spanish while casting the Cubans as oppressed, freedom-loving folk. The press got wind of a letter, the De Lome Letter, in which the Spanish ambassador called President Mckinley “weak,” thus enabling Hearst and Pulitzer to realize their goal of actually ensuring the outbreak of war by fanning American outrage into cries for “war.” Finally, the U.S.S. Maine was sent to Havana harbor as a show of force to the Spanish, and support to the Cubans. When the Maine blew up (from still-unknown causes) killing 260 Americans and sinking in the harbor, the media hysteria that followed forced Mckinley’s hand and the war was on.

The war with Spain was swift and decisive. During the four months it lasted, not a single American reverse of any importance occurred. A week after the declaration of war, Commodore George Dewey, commander of the six-warship Asiatic Squadron then at Hong Kong, steamed to the Philippines. Catching the entire Spanish fleet at anchor in Manila Bay, he destroyed it without losing a single American life.

"Battle of Manila Bay," [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
"Battle of Manila Bay," [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, in Cuba, troops landed near Santiago, where, after winning a rapid series of engagements, they fired on the port. Four armored Spanish cruisers steamed out of Santiago Bay to engage the American navy and were reduced to ruined hulks.

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From Boston to San Francisco, whistles blew and flags waved when word came that Santiago had fallen. Newspapers dispatched correspondents to Cuba and the Philippines and trumpeted the renown of the nation’s new heroes. Chief among them were Commodore Dewey and Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, who had resigned as assistant secretary of the navy to lead his volunteer regiment, the “Rough Riders,” to service in Cuba. Spain soon sued for an end to the war. The peace treaty signed on December 10, 1898, transferred Cuba to the United States for temporary occupation preliminary to the island’s independence. In addition, Spain ceded Puerto Rico and Guam in lieu of war indemnity, and the Philippines for a U.S. payment of $20 million.

"Teddy's colts," at the top of the hill which they captured in the battle of San Juan." Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, 1898. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
'"Teddy's colts," at the top of the hill which they captured in the battle of San Juan.' Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, 1898. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Officially, U.S. policy encouraged the new territories to move toward democratic self-government, a political system with which none of them had any previous experience. In fact, the United States found itself in a colonial role. It maintained formal administrative control in Puerto Rico and Guam, gave Cuba only nominal independence, and harshly suppressed an armed independence movement in the Philippines.

Philippine Insurrection

Queen Liliuokalani, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Queen Liliuokalani, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Foreign colonies had been a western reality for four hundred years. Spain, France and England were the most experienced players, but Germany and Japan were engaged in a fast-paced game of catch up. Since being forcibly opened to western trade by the United States in 1850, Japan had been absorbing as much in the way of technology, tactics and knowledge as it could from the West. Both powers took a keen interest in the Philippines and this caused a quandary for the Americans.

Filipinos joy at being freed from the Spanish quickly faded when the Americans did not sail away --leaving in their wake a free and independent Philippines. Americans believed that the newly liberated Philippines would quickly fall prey to the waiting Germans or Japanese. Accordingly, they annexed the Philippines as a territory of the United States. When it became clear that there was no plan for eventual statehood (as in previous territories) and no meaningful say in their own governance, Filipinos began a four year insurrection which cost thousands of lives on both sides and which ultimately was defeated.

The Philippines eventually gained the right to elect both houses of its legislature in 1916. In 1936 a largely autonomous Philippine Commonwealth was established. In 1946, after World War II, the islands finally attained full independence.


        U.S. involvement in the Pacific area was not limited to the Philippines. The year of the Spanish-American War also saw the beginning of a new relationship with the Hawaiian Islands. Earlier contact with Hawaii had been mainly through missionaries and traders. After 1865, however, American investors began to develop the island’s resources — chiefly sugar cane and pineapples.

        When the government of Queen Liliuokalani announced its intention to end foreign influence in 1893, American businessmen joined with influential Hawaiians to depose her. Backed by the American ambassador to Hawaii and U.S. troops stationed there, the new government then asked to be annexed to the United States. President Cleveland, just beginning his second term, rejected annexation, leaving Hawaii nominally independent until the Spanish-American War, when, with the backing of President McKinley, Congress ratified an annexation treaty. In 1959 Hawaii would become the 50th state.

        To some extent, in Hawaii especially, economic interests had a role in American expansion, but to influential policy makers such as Roosevelt, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, and Secretary of State John Hay, and to influential strategists such as Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, the main impetus was geostrategic. For these people, the major dividend of acquiring Hawaii was Pearl Harbor, which would become the major U.S. naval base in the central Pacific. The Philippines and Guam complemented other Pacific bases — Wake Island, Midway, and American Samoa. Puerto Rico was an important foothold in a Caribbean area that was becoming increasingly important as the United States contemplated a Central American canal.

"US insular areas". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
"US insular areas". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

U.S. colonial policy tended toward  democratic self-government. As it had done with the Philippines, in 1917 the U.S. Congress granted Puerto Ricans the right to elect all of their legislators. The same law also made the island officially a U.S. territory and gave its people American citizenship. In 1950 Congress granted Puerto Rico complete freedom to decide its future. In 1952, the citizens voted to reject either statehood or total independence, and chose instead a commonwealth status that has endured despite the efforts of a vocal separatist movement. Large numbers of Puerto Ricans have settled on the mainland, to which they have free access and where they possess all the political and civil rights of any other citizen of the United States.


Panama Canal Map. Thomas Römer/OpenStreetMap data [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Panama Canal Map. Thomas Römer/OpenStreetMap data [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The war with Spain revived U.S. interest in building a canal across the isthmus of Panama, uniting the two great oceans. The usefulness of such a canal for sea trade had long been recognized by the major commercial nations of the world; the French had begun digging one in the late 19th century but had been unable to overcome the engineering difficulties. Having become a power in both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, the United States saw a canal as both economically beneficial and a way of providing speedier transfer of warships from one ocean to the other.

At the turn of the century, what is now Panama was the rebellious northern province of Colombia. When the Colombian legislature in 1903 refused to ratify a treaty giving the United States the right to build and manage a canal, a group of impatient Panamanians, with the support of U.S. Marines, rose in rebellion and declared Panamanian independence. The breakaway country was immediately recognized by President Theodore Roosevelt. Under the terms of a treaty signed that November, Panama granted the United States a perpetual lease to a 16-kilometer-wide strip of land (the Panama Canal Zone) between the Atlantic and the Pacific, in return for $10 million and a yearly fee of $250,000. Colombia later received $25 million as partial compensation. Seventy-five years later, Panama and the United States negotiated a new treaty. It provided for Panamanian sovereignty in the Canal Zone and transfer of the canal to Panama on December 31, 1999.

The famous Culebra Cut, Panama Canal, 1907.  By H.C. White Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The completion of the Panama Canal in 1914, directed by Colonel George W. Goethals, was a major triumph of engineering. The simultaneous conquest of malaria and yellow fever made it possible and was one of the 20th century’s great feats in preventive medicine.

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Francisco “Pancho” Villa wearing bandoliers in front of an insurgent camp. By Bain News Service derivative work: Hic et nunc [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Francisco “Pancho” Villa wearing bandoliers in front of an insurgent camp. By Bain News Service derivative work: Hic et nunc [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Elsewhere in Latin America, the United States fell into a pattern of fitful intervention. Between 1900 and 1920, the United States carried out sustained interventions in six Western Hemispheric nations — most notably Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua. Washington offered a variety of justifications for these interventions: to establish political stability and democratic government, to provide a favorable environment for U.S. investment (often called dollar diplomacy), to secure the sea lanes leading to the Panama Canal, and even to prevent European countries from forcibly collecting debts. The United States had pressured the French into removing troops from Mexico in 1867. Half a century later, however, as part of an ill-starred campaign to influence the Mexican revolution and stop raids into American territory, President Woodrow Wilson sent 11,000 troops into the northern part of the country in a futile effort to capture the elusive rebel and outlaw Francisco “Pancho” Villa.

Exercising its role as the most powerful — and most liberal — of Western Hemisphere nations, the United States also worked to establish an institutional basis for cooperation among the nations of the Americas. In 1889 Secretary of State James G. Blaine proposed that the 21 independent nations of the Western Hemisphere join in an organization dedicated to the peaceful settlement of disputes and to closer economic bonds. The result was the Pan- American Union, founded in 1890 and known today as the Organization of American States (OAS).

        The later administrations of Herbert Hoover (1929-33) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45) repudiated the right of U.S. intervention in Latin America. In particular, Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy of the 1930s, while not ending all tensions between the United States and Latin America, helped dissipate much of the ill-will engendered by earlier U.S. intervention and unilateral actions.


Newly established in the Philippines and firmly entrenched in Hawaii at the turn of the century, the United States had high hopes for a vigorous trade with China. However, Japan and various European nations had acquired established spheres of influence there in the form of naval bases, leased territories, monopolistic trade rights, and exclusive concessions for investing in railway construction and mining.


Idealism in American foreign policy existed alongside the desire to compete with Europe’s imperial powers in the Far East. The U.S. government thus insisted as a matter of principle upon equality of commercial privileges for all nations. In September 1899, Secretary of State John Hay advocated an “Open Door” for all nations in China — that is, equality of trading opportunities (including equal tariffs, harbor duties, and railway rates) in the areas Europeans controlled. Despite its idealistic component, the Open Door, in essence, was a diplomatic maneuver that sought the advantages of colonialism while avoiding the stigma of its frank practice. It had limited success.

A Boxer During the Revolt. By Department of the Army, Office of the Chief Signal Officer. ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A Boxer During the Revolt. By Department of the Army, Office of the Chief Signal Officer. ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, the Chinese struck out against foreigners. In June, insurgents seized Beijing and attacked the foreign legations there. Hay promptly announced to the European powers and Japan that the United States would oppose any disturbance of Chinese territorial or administrative rights and restated the Open Door policy. Once the rebellion was quelled, Hay protected China from crushing indemnities. Primarily for the sake of American goodwill, Great Britain, Germany, and lesser colonial powers formally affirmed the Open Door policy and Chinese independence. In practice, they consolidated their privileged positions in the country.

Japanese infantry marching through the main street of Seoul. By Hare, James H., 1856-1946. ed [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Japanese infantry marching through the main street of Seoul. By Hare, James H., 1856-1946. ed [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 A few years later, President Theodore Roosevelt mediated the deadlocked Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, in many respects a struggle for power and influence in the northern Chinese province of Manchuria. Roosevelt hoped the settlement would provide open-door opportunities for American business, but the former enemies and other imperial powers succeeded in shutting the Americans out. Here as elsewhere, the United States was unwilling to deploy military force in the service of economic imperialism. The president could at least content himself with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize (1906). Despite gains for Japan, moreover, U.S. relations with the proud and newly assertive island nation would be intermittently difficult through the early decades of the 20th century.

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