Peace And Friendship

This scene shows the historical irony of the Jefferson Peace Medal, juxtaposed against the image of Custer and the Little Big Horn.

Jefferson, when he sent out the Corps of Discovery emphasized to Lewis and Clark that they were to try and establish peaceful relations with the Indian tribes that they would encounter. As was customary at the time they took a variety of gifts for the Indians to show their good will.  Among these gifts were the Peace Medal’s. It appears that about 89 of these medals of different sizes were sent along with Lewis and Clark and were generally intended to be given as gifts to tribal chiefs of significance.

Lewis and Clark generally did have peaceful interaction with the many tribes that they encountered. Only one Indian was killed on the entire trip, and that was an act of self-defense.

Seventy years would pass from the end of the Lewis and Clark exploration to the battle of the Little Big Horn. By that time most of the tribes of the Plains, and Rocky Mountains ,had already been confined to reservations.Those 70 years of the frontier West were marked by unending conflict between European settlers, the American military, and the native tribes.


Elder of the Oglala Sioux tribe from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, holds an authentic Presidential Peace & Friendship Medallion from President Thomas Jefferson, Monday, Dec. 17, 2001, during a visit at St. Mary School in Elyria, Ohio, that was given to Indian leaders by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1803 (Photo/Paul M. Walsh)

While there is no justification for broken treaties and the massacres and atrocities on both sides, I don’t believe that there is any doubt that conflict was inevitable. The Native American Way of life; hunting and gathering, required a large amount of land.  European activities of farming, ranching, mining, and manufacturing, was not compatible with an” open range”. The “open range” way of life would not survive, not even for the Cattle Barons ,who would briefly follow on the heels of the Indians.

Many, many books have been written about George Armstrong Custer.  He clearly was a very effective cavalry leader during the Civil War.  I don’t think it’s even a stretch to say that he had a lot to do with saving the Union.  Leading his cavalry troops against Jeb Stuart, the vaunted cavalry leader of the South, he effectively kept Stuart out of Gettysburg, which was likely critical in the outcome at Pickett’s Charge.

Nevertheless, if anybody symbolically represents the conflict between the United States and Native Americans it would have to be Custer. A confidant of Gen. Philip Sheridan,they had a shared approach to dealing with Native American tribes, the policy of destroying their will to fight by destroying their means to fight, was a holdover from their Civil War strategy.  Destruction of the buffalo herds, village supplies, and their horse herds, where the basics of the strategy. They would pursue the Indians in their winter camps, and if their villages could be destroyed, the survivors would be left the choice of starvation or going on the reservation.

Custer had little regard for treaties with the Indians, or much respect for their culture.  Although  Indians may have been more favorably viewed in the settled eastern part of the state’s; out West they were still viewed as savages. Custer was the leader at the battle of the Washita where he attacked an essentially defenseless Cheyenne Indian village, and massacred most of the people in the village, including a majority who were  women and children. The Cheyenne tribe did not forget this. Neither did the at their allies the Sioux. He was well recognized at the battle of the Little Big Horn and his ears were punctured by the women of the tribe’s so that he could hear better in the afterlife.

From his home in Virginia Jefferson directed and monitored the education of Meriwether Lewis. Jefferson was intimately involved with the planning of the expedition. He was fascinated by the possibilities in this vast new territory. He directed that they bring back samples of Flora, fauna, and geological specimens.


It would prove that the bounty of the Plains and the Rocky Mountains was more than Jefferson, or anyone could have imagined, the conflict with the native tribes would be constant, and much worse than he had hoped.




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