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The Indian Wars

John G. Bourke. On the Border with Crook. Lincoln: University

of Nebraska Press, 1971. (originally published 1891.)

America's nineteenth-century Indian Wars are out of fashion today. The contemporary popular-culture version of these wars, in the movie "Dances with Wolves," is a cartoon image that simply stands old "B" western stereotypes on their heads, with noble Indians and brutalized soldiers. The only battles in the Indian Wars that remain household names today are an Indian victory, Little Big Horn, and the late episode at Wounded Knee, remembered now as a massacre rather than a battle. The only American military man now remembered as an "Indian fighter" is General George Custer (Other famous Americans were Indian fighters, notably President Andrew Jackson and many Civil War generals. But only Custer is now remembered for his exploits against Indians -- or rather, for Sitting Bull's exploit against him).

Yet the Indian Wars and the pacification of the frontier were important chapters in the history of the U.S. Army and of the nation itself. A vivid sense of this process, as seen by an observant and well-positioned eyewitness, is given by Captain John G. Bourke's account of his years as chief of staff to General George Crook, a period that spanned the crucial years from 1870 to 1886. General Sherman once called Crook the greatest Indian fighter the Army ever had; just one week before Little Big Horn, he fought and won one of the most decisive -- and now forgotten -- battles of the Indian Wars, the battle of Rosebud Creek. Later, Crook would work to establish peaceful relations with the Indians, and eventually he resigned his command in protest over the mistreatment of Indians.

Captain Bourke's account, originally published in 1891, is essentially a narrative of his experiences in Crook's command. In the course of his account, however, Bourke combines elements of a social history of the Western frontier,...

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