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Major Migrations of the U.S. Population, Native American Relocation

Native American allies, American Indian Movement, horse traders, Native American groups, major defeat

Before contact with European settlers, Native Americans lived primarily on the East and West coasts and along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The plains were rather sparsely settled until after the Spanish introduced the domestic horse to North America in the mid-17th century. Many tribal groups became horse breeders and horse traders, a new economic existence that sparked Native American migration to the plains in the 18th century.

Two centuries after Europeans arrived along the East Coast, Native American groups were forced to migrate west of the Appalachian Mountains, where they began settling among the indigenous people of the Ohio River valley and the Great Lakes region in the 18th century. Eventually, only scattered remnants of eastern nations remained in their original homelands, most often in the far north or south, and native people generally lived in poverty.

During the 18th century, Native Americans were sought as allies in clashes between European colonial powers. The British sought to guarantee their Native American allies the territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River as a refuge and buffer zone. This land was attractive to the settlers in the 13 colonies, however, and access to it was one cause of the American Revolution. Some settlers moved west even before the Revolution ended. The success of the colonies in the Revolution was a major defeat for Native Americans, who lost their British allies. The United States had no reason to seek alliances with native peoples after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 removed the French and Spanish as threats to the new country.

The new United States quickly moved to allow settlement of the West, despite earlier treaties with tribal groups. By the 1820s and 1830s, the federal government, the states, and pioneer pressure had forcibly removed entire groups to areas west of the Mississippi. The United States established a pattern of removing native peoples to land considered worthless, then forcibly uprooting these groups once again when white settlers sought to expand into the territory.

In the second half of the 19th century, the U.S. Army fought more than a thousand battles in an effort to place remaining Native American tribes on reservations throughout the West. These reservations removed native peoples from land that white settlers desired. The federal government also attempted, with various policies during the 19th and 20th centuries, to weaken tribal loyalties and to turn natives into “Americans,” that is Christian, English-speaking farmers. An 1887 law sought to break up the reservations by allotting farms of up to 60 hectares (160 acres) to Native American households. This left Native Americans even less living space, as any leftover land was given to white settlers. The process was also rife with corruption. Economic failure, sickness, and despair were too often part of life on the reservations. During the 1930s the Bureau of Indian Affairs sought to improve conditions for Native Americans, but with little overall success.

Beginning in the 1950s, large numbers of Native Americans moved into the cities, partly to find work and partly because government programs encouraged this movement. In 1968 Native Americans in Minneapolis, Minnesota, founded the American Indian Movement (AIM), inaugurating a new period of activism and pride. Today many Native Americans travel back and forth between cities and reservations, and although many tribes remain impoverished, others are enjoying newfound wealth from economic ventures such as casino operations, oil drilling, and artistic and fine craftwork.

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