The Longest War(s)

My friend Charlie texted me this morning to remind me that President Biden will announce today that he has ended America’s “longest war.” Charlie says that the Indian wars went on longer, that his people’s war, what we call the Nez Perce War, was one of the last of a continuing string of them, and that the suffering caused by Indian Wars cannot be measured.

I did a quick search and here’s what (connected to the History Channel, and owned by Simon and Schuster), says about Indian Wars:

“From the moment English colonists arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, they shared an uneasy relationship with the Native Americans (or Indians) who had thrived on the land for thousands of years. At the time, millions of indigenous people were scattered across North America in hundreds of different tribes. Between 1622 and the late 19th century, a series of wars known as the American-Indian Wars took place between Indians and American settlers, mainly over land control.”

But, you might argue, “that is a series of wars rather than one war.” And I’d argue that it is hard to draw the lines between Indian wars as it is to our wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

Back to the Indian Wars. does a quick brush on them––

The Seminole Wars—three are counted, and there are time lapses between 1 and 2 and 3, though one can imagine that the real-time of events were not so distinct—ran from 1816 to 1858, or 42 years.

Moving backward, the War of 1812, which pitted British and Indian allies, including Tecumseh, against the Americans, ended with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814. But treaty-making between the United States and Great Britain dragged on into 1918 and the Treaty of Oregon, which allowed for the “joint occupancy” of the “Oregon Territory” by the two nations. The issue was to be resolved in ten years, and was renewed twice and still undecided.

The Territory was actually occupied by numerous Indian tribes, with the UK and US jockeying for claims with fur traders and posts: the British trapping out of the beaver south and east of the Columbia, in an effort to make the region unattractive to the Americans; American missionaries; the Oregon Trail and thousands of American immigrants; and a resolution of the border at the 49th parallel in 1846.

“The result of negotiations was a border at 49 degrees north, which gave the British possession of Vancouver Island, an important acquisition for Britain and a concession for the United States. On August 14, 1848, Congress formally established the Oregon Territory, which embraced the present-day states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.”

The Territory filled with immigrants at the expense of tribes, was covered with treaties in the 1850s, ending at Walla Walla in 1855. They say that the Cayuse War stretched from 1847 to that Treaty, but dates are not certain, and in any case Modoc uprisings against settlement stretched at least from 1852 into the early 1870s—at least a 20-year stretch.

Meanwhile, treaty-making and breaking with the Nez Perce gave rise to the Nez Perce War of 1877—just 22 years after the solemn treaty promises of the United States to respect lands “reserved” for the Nez Perce in the 1855 Treaty at Walla Walla. Although the Bannock War come a bit later, in 1878, the five-month-long Nez Perce War is sometimes seen as the last of the Indian Wars (the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 can hardly be called a war).

And Geronimo’s conflicts with Mexican and American armies, from the advertised end of the Mexican American War in 1848 to his surrender to General Nelson Miles in 1886, is not counted a major Indian War. But Nelson Miles, the final captor of Geronimo, is the same Miles who pursued and pinned down the Nez Perce at Bear’s Paw, Montana in 1877.

There were numerous other wars, small and large, between Indians and whites, Indians and the US government—the Creeks, Saux, Fox, and the Sioux, the “Plains Indian Wars,” and battles with Apaches and Navajos in the Southwest tiIn other words, “Indian Wars” is shorthand for conflicts between white European settlers and indigenous nations that occupied the new United States for our first 100 years, and by any definition of armed conflict extended back another 155 years, to Jamestown in 1622.

I’ve not said anything about the suffering that Charlie brought up, the suffering that many in 3  Indian Country still feel today as the string of wars, treaties, usurpation of lands, and concurrent loss of hunting, fishing, and growing lands and introduction of European diseases—smallpox, measles, cholera, diphtheria, and many more—decimated tribal peoples. Direct deaths by wars and military actions must run in the hundreds of thousands, and death by famine, disease, and broken hearts in the millions.

Afghanistan is, by any long look at American history, a blip in the story of our wars.

Thank you Charlie for sending me to my books and sources, and to my keyboard!

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Image–Nez Perce War’s End at Bear’s Paw, 1877.



  1. Rich: I appreciate your observations here. We need to also keep in mind that in European history itself, we recount things such as the Peasant Wars and the 100 Years War, and so on that are aggregates of skirmishes and battles and pogroms and harassments carried out periodically and episodically. So, I think it is very well-taken that as a matter of fact, the long-standing pattern of massacres, germ-warfare, dislocation, forced marches, battles, etc., that have been waged for 500 years against the peoples indigenous to this continent could be considered to be the longest war fought by the United States.

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