Manifest Destiny and the American Indian

Historic revisionists may argue that arrogance is the exclusive domain of the American people, but it is not. A belief in superiority is illustrated by Imperialism [1], practiced by all of the colonizing powers of Europe: Great Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden.  There is very little difference in the arrogance of these countries and that demonstrated by the United States’ Manifest Destiny.

John L O'Sullivan

John L. O’Sullivan

The idea of Manifest Destiny existed long before anyone called it that.  The first individual to use this term was John L. O’Sullivan.  He was the son of John Thomas O’Sullivan, who was an American diplomat and sea captain.  Descended from a long line of Irish expatriates and soldiers of fortune, John L. O’Sullivan had a strong sense of personal identity and self-worth. His father, the third baronet of the O’Sullivan name, became a naturalized American who served as a US Consul to the Barbary States.  After college, John L. O’Sullivan became a lawyer.  In 1837, he founded The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, which was based in Washington, D. C.  The magazine espoused the more radical forms of Jacksonian Democracy [2] and published essays by the most prominent writers in America at that time.  He was also an aggressive reformer in the New York legislature, where he led movements to abolish capital punishment.

In 1845, O’Sullivan published an essay entitled “Annexation,” which called upon the United States to admit the Republic of Texas into the Union.  In Washington, D. C., the conversation about Texas had been going on for a number of years; the US Senate was concerned about the expansion of slave states and the possibility of war with Mexico.  Nevertheless, Congress voted for annexation in early 1845, and everyone waited to see if Texas would accept the offer of statehood. Opponents of annexation were hoping to block it and it was at this time that O’Sullivan’s essay appeared in the July-August edition of his magazine.  O’Sullivan wrote, “It is now time for the opposition to the Annexation of Texas to cease.”  It was, he argued, a matter of the United States having a divine mandate to expand throughout North America.  He wrote, “… our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”  O’Sullivan used the same phraseology to address the United States’ ongoing boundary dispute with Great Britain in the Oregon territory.

Actually, the individual responsible for kick-starting America’s westward movement was none other than Thomas Jefferson.  It was a movement that began with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, became inspired by the expedition of Lewis and Clark (1805-1807), and one fueled by an explosive birth rate in the emerging United States —that, and sharp increases in immigration.

In 1800, the population of the United States was around five million people; it grew to 23-million by 1850.  Added to the explosion were two economic depressions: one in 1819 and another in 1839. Both of these had the effect of driving literally tens of thousands of Americans into the western territories.  Economically depressed citizens sought new opportunities to purchase cheap land and farm or ranch that land.  They did find opportunity in the west, of course, but they also discovered that along with these opportunities came great risk to themselves and their loved ones.

Even our earliest politicians intended to conquer the entire North American continent. The United States was a land of opportunity.  It was a land of vast resources.  All that needed to happen was for people to move west, to occupy and then defend these new territories.  In addition to sending Lewis and Clark on their mission to the Pacific, Jefferson also set his sights on Florida, then Spanish territory.  President Monroe settled this question in 1819, but left unsettled was a question of Texas, which, in 1824, became part of Mexico. Anglo-Americans who traveled to Texas found themselves involved in a war with Mexico in 1836.  They also found themselves confronted by tens of thousands of hostile Indians.

Texas became a Republic in 1836 and was admitted to the United States in 1845.  Manifest Destiny became the official philosophy of the United States and the refrain that fueled nineteenth-century territorial expansion.  The United States was destined by God to expand its dominion, spread democracy, and institute capitalism across the whole of the continent.

In 1846, the United States went to war with Mexico.  Several issues demanded settlement: admission of Texas and California as states, acquisition of additional lands in present-day Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming, and the placement of the United States’ southern border.  The United States won that war in 1848 but yet, to this day, people of Mexican heritage continue to believe that these lands were stolen from Mexico [3].

Manifest Destiny was also at the core of defining the United States’ northern border.  An 1842 treaty between Great Britain and the United States partially resolved this question but left open a decision about the Oregon territory, which included the area from the Pacific Coast to the Rocky Mountains, an area that now includes Oregon, Idaho, Washington State, and most of British Columbia.  War with Great Britain was avoided when both parties agreed to split the Oregon territory at the 49th parallel in 1846.

Along with acquired territory came questions about the people who lived in these lands, in some cases, for thousands of years.  What about them?  If the history of westward movement tells us anything at all, it is that (1) the American Indians were not willing to give up their lands without a fight, and (2) white settlers were not going to turn around and go home.  These new lands were the only home the settlers had.

Manifest Destiny caused the American people many problems, as well.  As western expansion continued, the American people found themselves increasingly more fractious over the question of slavery.  America’s splintered society led to an awful civil war.

If there is a frequent consequence to Manifest Destiny, it is conflict.  It led the United States to Central America (Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and Haiti) and across the Pacific Ocean (Hawaii, Philippines, and China).  Of course, in war, people die —sometimes in the most horrible fashion— which leads us back to western expansion and the plight of the American Indian.

Stated plainly, the American Indian was in America’s way.  The Indians wouldn’t give up their land without a fight, and the people who pushed against native tribes had nowhere else to go.  Westward migration was no longer a mere trickle after 1850 —it was a waterfall.  The Indians were being steadily overwhelmed by massive numbers of whites and their technologies, and yet, the Indians refused to relent.  They too had nowhere else to go.

To dislodge the Indians, politicians, army officers, Indian agents, and traders committed the worst possible iniquities imaginable.  The Indians were offered blankets infected with smallpox. Thousands died from the white man’s diseases.  Destruction of the American Bison became official policy.  “Kill every buffalo you can —every dead buffalo is an Indian gone” was a common refrain.  Standing ready to help speed along the demise of the American Indian was General Phil Sheridan who carefully studied the Civil War strategies of General William T. Sherman.  No one knew more about a scorched earth strategy than Sherman.

Let us now momentarily return to the post-Civil War period.  After General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and General Joseph E. Johnston’s surrender in North Carolina, the only significant Confederate force remaining was in Texas, under General Edmund K. Smith.  General Ulysses S. Grant, then serving as Commander-in-Chief of the Union Army, appointed Phillip Sheridan Commander of the Military District of the Southwest on 17 May 1865.  The Grant’s orders to Sheridan were to defeat Smith without delay and restore Texas and Louisiana to Union control.  General Smith surrendered his forces before Sheridan arrived in New Orleans.

Sheridan 001

General Phillip Sheridan, U. S. Army

General Grant was also concerned about the situation in neighboring Mexico, where 40,000 French soldiers propped up the regime of Austrian Archduke Maximilian.  Grant authorized Sheridan to gather a large occupation force and occupy Texas.  Sheridan mustered 50,000 men in three army corps, rapidly occupied Texas coastal cities, and began to patrol the US-Mexico border.  In time, France abandoned its claims against Mexico.

On 30 July 1866, while Sheridan was still in Texas, a white mob broke up the state constitutional convention in New Orleans.  In the melee, 34 blacks were killed.  The incident did not provide Sheridan with a good impression of Texas. In 1867, Sheridan was appointed the military governor of the Fifth Military District, which included Texas and Louisiana. Sheridan limited voter registration among former Confederates and then ruled that only registered voters (including freed blacks) were eligible to serve on juries.  Sheridan’s heavy-handed reconstruction policy led to the removal from office high officials in both Louisiana and Texas, including governors James M. Wells (Louisiana) and James W. Throckmorton (Texas).

General Sheridan and US President Andrew Johnson did not see eye-to-eye.  Johnson, convinced that Sheridan was an unprincipled tyrant, removed him as military governor.  In this post-Civil War period, the protection of the Great Plains fell under the Department of Missouri, an administrative area encompassing one-million square miles: all the land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.  In 1866, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock was assigned to command this department, General Grant believed that Hancock had mishandled his campaign to pacify the Plains Indians.  Numerous Sioux and Cheyenne raids attacked mail coaches, burned stage stations, killed the employees, killed and kidnapped a large number of frontier settlers. Under pressure from territorial governors, Grant turned to Sheridan.  In September 1866, Sheridan began a campaign near Fredericksburg, Texas to subdue Indians in the Texas Hill Country.

In August 1867, Grant appointed Sheridan to head the Department of Missouri.  He was ordered to pacify the Plains Indians. His troops, even after being supplemented by state militia, were too few to have any real effect.  To achieve his mission, Sheridan devised a strategy of attacking Comanche, Cheyenne and Kiowa winter camps.  He confiscated their supplies and livestock and killed anyone who resisted.  Without livestock, the Indians would starve; they could avoid starvation by agreeing to live on an Indian reservation.

When, in 1869, Ulysses Grant became the 18th President of the United States, he appointed General William T. Sherman General of the Army.  Sherman appointed General Sheridan to command the Military Division of Missouri —which included all of the Great Plains.  Encouraged by Sheridan, civilian hunters, trespassing on Indian lands, killed more than four million American Bison by the end of 1874. Sheridan said, “Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo is exterminated.”  The Texas Legislature considering outlawing the hunting of the buffalo on tribal lands, but General Sheridan personally appeared before the legislature and testified against such a policy.  He counter-argued, telling the Texans that they ought to give every buffalo hunter a medal, engraved with a dead buffalo on one side, and the image of a discouraged-looking Indian on the other.

Sheridan’s division conducted the Red River War, the Ute War, and the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877, which resulted in the death of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer.  In 1869, the Comanche War Chief Tosawi reportedly told Sheridan, “Tosawi good Indian.” Sheridan replied, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead [4].”


  1. Pratt, J. W. “The Origins of ‘Manifest Destiny’,”The American Historical Review, July 1927
  2. Wilentz, S. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, New York: Norton (2005)
  3. Golay, M. The Tide of Empire: America’s March to the Pacific: Era of US Continental Expansion, United States House of Representatives.


[1] Imperialism is the policy of extending the rule of an empire or nation over foreign countries, or of acquiring and holding colonies and dependencies.  Imperialism advocates sovereign interests over those of dependent states.

[2] Jacksonian Democracy was a movement for more democracy in the United States government in the 1830s.  Led by President Andrew Jackson, the movement championed greater rights for the common man and opposed aristocracy.  The movement was aided by the strong spirit of equality among the people of newer settlements in the South and West.  It was also aided by the extension of the vote in eastern states to men without property.

[3] Mexicans conveniently ignore the fact that Mexico stole these same lands from Spain.

[4] In the book titled, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, author Dee Brown attributed this quote to Sheridan.  The author’s source was Lieutenant Colonel Charles Nordstrom, U. S. Army, who was present when the conversation with Tosawi took place and passed the words on until they were remembered as “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”  General Sheridan denied that he had ever said such a thing.


About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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8 Responses to Manifest Destiny and the American Indian

  1. I suppose that we could say upon the discovery of the New World ensued the conflict between two civilizations that couldn’t coexist.

    Furthermore, it seems to me that there is plenty of “guilt” to go around. Few saints on either side in these long Indian wars.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      It is difficult for most Americans living to day to imagine what it was like to live in the time of European colonization. The refrain heard most often is that white people came to America to take the land that belonged to other people. The fact is that by the time the British colonized Jamestown in 1607, most of the Americas had been colonized (or claimed) by other European nations: Spain, Portugal, France, the Dutch. In the early 1600’s, Great Britain was not the strongest European power, but it was in their national interests to establish colonies in what remained of the lands in America, to take advantage of “unlimited” resources. Indigenous persons were not much of a consideration back then. Whether “right or wrong,” looking back in time through rose-colored lenses, of course, it doesn’t really matter now. It’s history. You can’t change history, but one can learn from it … and among these lessons is that there is not a single truth about these events; there are only perspectives, which always depend on how individuals view their world. Was there a downside to colonization? Of course. Were there any benefits? Of course. We are reminded of this by Rudyard Kipling:

      Take up the White Man’s burden —
      The savage wars of peace —
      Fill full the mouth of Famine
      And bid the sickness cease;
      And when your goal is nearest
      The end for others sought,
      Watch sloth and heathen Folly
      Bring all your hopes to nought.

      Thank you for your comment, AOW …


  2. Kid says:

    Sad time, but if we didn’t colonize, some other county(s) would have. Russia? Spain? France? England seems most likely though as they were running all over the globe.


    • Mustang says:

      The British have maintained ships since the tenth century, but the Royal Navy didn’t come into existence until the reign of Henry VIII. At the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the British navy was in no position to defend against the onslaught of around 130 or so Spanish ships. I think at that time, the British had 40 ships. Whatever ships they did have were decimated in the early1600s by Islamic raiders and it wasn’t until after 1650 that the British finally got serious about establishing a fleet to be reckoned with. You’re right, though. After 1710, the British Navy was not to be fooled around with. No navy, no colonies …


  3. A long the line of previous comments, it was more like Manifest Conflict.
    Inevitable. I’m glad the good guys won.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      I’m not completely certain that the days of “manifest destiny” are over. I keep thinking, for example, why the USA feels it is necessary to stick its nose into everyone else’s business. Why do we care who rules Libya, or Sudan, and why are we so bent on taking out Syrian President Al-Assad? Why are we providing arms to the Kurds? More to the point, how are any of these things in the US national interest? A truly great (powerful) nation exercises restraint and relies more on diplomats than it does its military. These two things I’m sure of: no one has a more capable, more lethal military than we do, and no other nation has as many incompetents in their department of state.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. BTW, I always wait to read your posts when I know I can savor them.

    Liked by 1 person

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