Penn Press logo
Prairie Imperialists

In Prairie Imperialists, Katharine Bjork examines how the experiences of American Army officers on the domestic frontier shaped them for the later roles they played in U.S. expansion abroad in the Philippines, Cuba, and Mexico.

Prairie Imperialists
The Indian Country Origins of American Empire

Katharine Bjork

2019 | 352 pages | Cloth $55.00
American History / Native American Studies / Latin American Studies/Caribbean Studies
View main book page

Table of Contents

Introduction. Gray Wolves for Guánica

Chapter 1. Coming to Indian Country
Chapter 2. Scouting
Chapter 3. Right Kind of White Men
Chapter 4. Prairie Imperialists

Chapter 5. Spoil of the Spaniard
Chapter 6. The Buckskin Mantle
Chapter 7. Sultan of Sulu

Chapter 8. Spy Mission to Mexico: Lieutenant Colonel Robert Lee Bullard, 1911
Chapter 9. Washington and the Border: Brigadier General Hugh Lenox Scott, 1911-1916
Chapter 10. The Punitive Expedition: Brigadier General John J. Pershing, 1916


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Gray Wolves for Guánica

Nothing can be more preposterous than the proposition that these men were entitled to receive from us sovereignty over the entire country which we were invading. As well the friendly Indians, who have helped us in our Indian wars, might have claimed sovereignty of the West.
—"The United States and the Philippines," Address of Secretary of War Elihu Root, Canton, Ohio, October 24, 1900
On the afternoon of July 21, 1898, a flotilla of thirteen American ships set off from Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, "majestically plowing the waters of the deep in the direction of Puerto Rico," as the commander of the expedition later wrote. For the troops traveling belowdecks, conditions were far from majestic. In spite of the intense heat and close atmosphere on board, the transports steamed toward the island with lights extinguished and portholes closed so as to avoid detection. A hundred of the 3,554 men who had embarked for the mission were sick; some would die of typhoid. The high incidence of disease and death due to loosely diagnosed tropical fevers had already proved more deadly to American troops fighting in Cuba than the Spanish enemy.

Three days earlier, Santiago's central plaza had been the site of military pageantry as Spain's General José Torál formally ceded control of eastern Cuba to the Americans. As the Sixth Cavalry band played "Hail Columbia" and the Ninth Infantry presented arms, Spain's flag, which had flown over the island for almost four centuries, was hauled down and the Stars and Stripes hoisted above the provincial palace. From these rituals solemnizing Spanish surrender, the Cuban Army of Liberation, America's erstwhile ally, was conspicuously absent, deliberately excluded from participation in the ceremonies by the American occupying force. In authorizing its Declaration of War against Spain in the interest of liberating Cuba from Spain's colonial grasp, the U.S. Congress had disavowed any intention to exert its own claim of sovereignty over the island, but this did not mean that the United States meant to allow the Cubans unmediated self-rule. Exclusion of the Cuban military leadership from Santiago foreshadowed the ways the Americans would circumscribe Cuba's hard-won freedom well into the next century.

With Spanish surrender of all of Cuba seemingly imminent, the commanding general of the army, Nelson A. Miles, who had arrived in Cuba only the week before, was personally leading the hurried assault on Puerto Rico. "It was important to seize Puerto Rico and make secure some of the substantial fruits of victory, before the enemy, seeing the hopelessness of the struggle, sued for peace," explained Captain Henry H. Whitney. Disguised as a British sailor, Whitney had traveled to Puerto Rico two months earlier under the direction of the Military Intelligence Division. He had spent ten days reconnoitering in the southern part of the island, gathering information on Spanish troop strength and likely landing places. With information gleaned from Whitney's mission, Miles opted to land his forces at Guánica, which was the deepest harbor on the south coast for which the United States possessed a chart.

For the fifty-nine-year-old Miles, the naval assault on Puerto Rico presented a very different prospect from the kind of campaigning that had propelled his rise to the top rank of the Army. Like the rest of the frontier army following the Civil War, Nelson Miles had spent most of his career pursuing Indians who defied the government's policy of confining them to reservations. In the aftermath of the Battle of Little Bighorn, Miles was one of the officers who had carried out General Sheridan's call for total war against the Plains Indians most implacably. During the fierce Montana winter of 1876-77, Miles determined he would follow "the Indians . . . where they think we can not go," as he wrote to his wife. "It is only in that way that we can convince them of our power to subjugate them finally." Miles outfitted his troops in special winter gear: buffalo robe coats, leggings, mittens, and face masks cut from woolen blankets as well as pants, overcoats, and caps fashioned from robes by Cheyenne women they had taken captive. Thus fortified against the subzero cold and blizzard conditions, Miles's men had relentlessly pursued the Cheyenne and Lakota (Sioux) hunting bands who searched for game and camped with their families along the river bottoms of the remote Yellowstone country. The Lakota named him Bear Coat for the long overcoat trimmed in bear fur he wore under his military cape when he met the Indians in council to demand that they disarm and give up their ponies.

The following year, Miles had intercepted Chief Joseph and about four hundred Nez Percé in their epic 1,700-mile flight from Eastern Oregon to seek refuge in Canada, compelling their surrender just forty miles south of the border. Nine years after that, he commanded the forces that brought in Geronimo on the Mexican border and sent the Chiricahua Apache into exile in the East. Miles had also marshaled the massive force that converged on the South Dakota Badlands, leading to the massacre on Wounded Knee Creek in 1890.

Now Bear Coat Miles stood poised to lead an invasion of Puerto Rico. Even transported to the Caribbean in summer, Miles's perceptions reflected the indelible frontier imagery inscribed by his years spent in Indian Country. Describing the ships' stealthy approach along Puerto Rico's south coast he wrote: "One familiar with the western plains of a quarter of a century ago might well have been reminded of a pack of large gray wolves cautiously and noiselessly moving in the shades of night, or the dim light that ushers in the dawn, upon their prey." Indian Country—doctrinal and discursive—has been at the center of American imperial expansion and nation building for two and a half centuries. In this book, I examine how the historical experience of domestic Indian Country shaped efforts to bring new areas where sovereignty was contested under American control following the war with Spain. The book traces the trajectory and dynamics of U.S. expansion by following and contextualizing the colonial careers of a cohort of army officers from the frontier to overseas posts. More broadly, it examines how the army's conquests in the North American West generated a repertoire of actions and understandings that structured encounters with the racial others of America's overseas empire during and after the Spanish-American War. In the vanguard of that movement overseas, soldiers served as diplomats and colonial administrators with a range of portfolios, from economic development to education. They also performed the role of interpreters of primitive culture and arbiters of the capacity for self-government of the alien peoples who were incorporated into the expanded empire. The men profiled in this book also mirrored the ideas of the nation that sent them to implement its policies—and reflect its prejudices—overseas.

The book focuses on the role of the military in an ongoing colonial project, closely analyzing the actions and attitudes of a handful of officers in particular, while situating them in the larger frameworks that structured the practice of empire. In tracing the colonial careers of the men on whom my analysis centers, I have therefore paid close attention not only to the influence of their careers in the army but also to how their class, regional, and family backgrounds contributed to the actions they took in their roles as colonial administrators. Most important for my analysis is an examination of how the army's patterns of interaction with Indians at home played directly into the actions and habits of mind its officers directed toward the resistant subjects of the new overseas empire.

The American state project of consolidating territorial control over the continent entailed more than purely military conquest. And the same is true of the next phase of its expansion overseas at the turn of the twentieth century. Thus it was that General Miles, once established on Puerto Rican soil, addressed the island's residents in a register familiar to him from his days of conciliating and coercing Indians in the West. Following an uneventful landing at Guánica, Miles's forces moved on to take control of Ponce, the principal town on Puerto Rico's south coast. On the morning of July 28, General Miles raised the American flag over his headquarters in the customs house and issued a proclamation "to the inhabitants of Puerto Rico" in Spanish and English,

In the prosecution of the war against the kingdom of Spain by the people of the United States, in the cause of liberty, justice, and humanity, its military forces have come to occupy the island of Puerto Rico. . . . We have not come to make war upon the people of a country that for centuries has been oppressed, but, on the contrary, to bring you protection, not only to yourselves, but to your property; to promote your prosperity, and bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our government. It is not our purpose to interfere with any existing laws and customs that are wholesome and beneficial to your people so long as they conform to the rules of military administration of order and justice. This is not a war of devastation, but one to give all within the control of its military and naval forces the advantages and blessings of enlightened civilization.
Three weeks later in the far-off Philippines, another veteran Indian fighter named General Wesley Merritt issued a similar proclamation. Although the Spanish had capitulated to the United States, ten thousand American troops occupied Manila in a tense standoff with the forces of the recently declared Republic of the Philippines on its outskirts. Merritt's proclamation likewise alternated assurances of "beneficent purpose" with assertions of the absolute power of the United States to act as a "government of military occupation." By these ritual acts of proclamation and flag raising, U.S. commanders signaled America's claim over the Spanish colonies. As an occupying power, the United States promised protection and the "blessings of enlightened civilization" in exchange for recognition of its sovereignty and as a "reward" for "honest submission" to American authority.

At first it might seem that Generals Miles and Merritt, as the advance guard for American overseas occupations of uncertain duration, were called on to improvise new words for the subject peoples their nation saw itself as liberating from the rule of a decadent empire. And yet there is something familiar about the messages each devised for the occasion, and in the attitude these frontier campaigners assumed in addressing their island audiences. Although delivered abroad, the generals' proclamations fell into well-established patterns developed over two centuries of talking to Indians across the expanding empire back home. In rhetoric and tone, there is little to distinguish the overtures of the newly arrived invaders of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines from hundreds of pronouncements made to the native nations of North America by military ambassadors from the Great Father dating back to colonial times. They are also consistent with the messages delivered by American commanders who proclaimed the end of Mexican sovereignty over the lands and people the United States conquered in its war with Mexico. Implicit in the language directed at Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Filipinos was the presumption that American sovereignty derived not only from its military defeat of Spain, but equally from the manifest superiority of the enlightened civilization it proffered. Such professions of beneficent intent rested on familiar assumptions of racial and cultural superiority.

Eight years before he raised the Stars and Stripes over the customs house at Ponce, Nelson Miles had sounded similar themes when he addressed Oglala Lakota chiefs Red Cloud and Little Wound on the subject of the Ghost Dance movement at the Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota. Miles had spoken then as the commander of the Division of the Missouri, with military jurisdiction over Indian Country. As in Puerto Rico, he claimed the mantle of upholding "order and justice." On that late October day in 1890, Miles had appealed to the Lakota leaders to suppress the "excitement" of the Ghost Dance "craze." As he would in his proclamation in Puerto Rico, Miles had stressed the sovereign power of American government and touted the benefits of submission to its authority. He began in a conciliatory vein, emphasizing the progress Indians had achieved toward becoming civilized: "It is not long since the Indians commenced to learn how to live and make themselves comfortable, and are getting horses and wagons and cattle, and they have made a very good beginning. . . . When we go back, we shall report to the Great Father that the Indians are well disposed, and are doing well." Such gains in civilization were precarious, however; they would be jeopardized by Indians "becoming foolish and crazy and carried away by excitement," Miles admonished. The general pointedly reminded the chiefs that "All men in this country—, red, white and black men, live under one government, and that government is sufficiently powerful to punish all evil doers who commit acts of lawlessness under pretence of religion or any other influence or excuse." Sovereignty and the authority to punish went hand in hand, but in Indian Country—and in American insular territories under military government—punitive violence was also deployed as a preemptive strategy for asserting sovereignty in places where the legitimacy of U.S. rule was rejected by the native inhabitants. As a colonizing power, the United States used punitive measures not just militarily, but also rhetorically. Violence underwrote sovereignty in situations where not only military control was in question, but also, more fundamentally, the moral or cultural claims on which sovereignty is premised, were at issue.

The proclamation Miles disseminated among the Puerto Ricans might have served just as well to make the other point he tried to impart to the Lakota chiefs in 1890: it was not his intention, nor that of his government, to interfere with "existing laws and customs" as long as they were "wholesome and beneficial," which, of course, the Ghost Dance was not, in the government's view. American legal doctrine recognized Indian nations as "distinct, independent political communities," yet the United States acted in myriad ways that contradicted those principles of autonomy and self-rule. This was one of the anomalies that defined Indian Country as a colonial space within the American nation-state, one that would be replicated in the insular territories abroad where sovereignty was equally constrained and the limitations the United States placed on the peoples it incorporated into its empire were justified by familiar arguments about their unfitness for self-government.

Two weeks after his conference with Red Cloud and Little Wound, General Miles summoned nearly a third of the army to the Dakota Badlands. Five thousand troops converged on the Pine Ridge and Standing Rock Reservations in a massive show of force intended to intimidate those Indians who just months before had been coerced into forfeiting nine million acres as their Great Sioux Reservation was broken up and land that had been promised them in perpetuity was made available for white settlement.

Said to be the largest army concentrated in one place since the Civil War, soldiers arrived by train from as far away as California, Colorado, and Texas. On December 29, an inept attempt to disarm Big Foot's band of Miniconjous led to the tragedy of the Wounded Knee massacre: more than two hundred people were killed, including women and babes in arms; many others were wounded.

Eight years after the massacre at Wounded Knee, Bear Coat Miles became the first of four veterans of the Indian Wars who served in succession as military governor of Puerto Rico. In the Philippines, all four of the commanding generals who led the campaign to put down Filipino resistance to U.S. rule from 1898 to 1902 were also veteran frontier Indian fighters. Meanwhile, in Cuba, Leonard Wood, whose rough-riding career had its origins in the Apache Wars, transitioned from being governor of Santiago to serving as military governor of all of Cuba during the crucial years 1899-1902, during which time he superintended the process of demobilizing the Cuban Army of Liberation and installing a framework for circumscribing Cuba's sovereignty for the next three decades.

Popular accounts of the War of 1898 and its aftermath in the Philippines, Cuba, and the other colonies of Spain that became American protectorates or outright possessions in 1898 tend to stress the novelty of the moment when the United States landed troops overseas and installed its first colonial regimes abroad. According to the textbook view, the Spanish-American War represents the moment the United States emerged on the world stage and began to grapple with the challenges and contradictions of having an empire. In contrast to this view of U.S. colonies as an aberration or afterthought in the nation's course of development, there is another well-developed strain in the history of U.S. empire that focuses on continuity, rather than disjuncture, in American territorial expansion at the end of the nineteenth century. It is this tradition of examining the legacies and transformations of ongoing practices of American empire that I follow in this book.

Of particular significance for my analysis of how colonial relations abroad were patterned on domestic Indian policy is an oft-cited but little heeded article published by Walter L. Williams in 1980. Williams's article, "United States Indian Policy and the Debate over Philippine Annexation: Implications for the Origins of American Imperialism," which appeared in the Journal of American History, made a compelling case for considering U.S. relations with Indians as a form of domestic colonialism. He demonstrated that turn-of-the-century politicians on both sides of the annexation question, as well as leaders in the fields of religion, philanthropy, and the military, all invoked the precedent of U.S. relations with Indian wards as a model for overseas colonial relations. Nineteenth-century Indian policy, wrote Williams, "served as a precedent for imperialist domination over the Philippines and other islands occupied during the Spanish-American War."

Among the institutions surveyed in Williams's article—Congress, the Supreme Court, religious denominations, and philanthropic Friends of the Indians—the frontier army receives some attention. Williams spends a few pages analyzing continuities between the army's most recent experience of Indian Wars in the West and the idea that American soldiers abroad viewed—and fought—the 1899-1902 insurrection in the Philippines as more of the same.

Although Williams focused his analysis on the Philippines, his observations on the continuity of personnel and the saliency of their recent Indian fighting for subsequent colonial policy making applies equally to the U.S. military enterprise in Cuba and Puerto Rico. In one sense, none of this is remarkable. In the three decades following the Civil War, the army's main function was to support the westward course of territorial expansion, a task that involved policing Indians and enforcing Grant's Peace Policy of confining them to reservations and defining as hostile those who resisted. In a calculation of the cost of the nation's Indian Wars, the U.S. Census Office reported in 1894 that the government had spent $800 million on military actions against indigenous people since independence. Excepting the War of 1812, the U.S.-Mexican War, and the Civil War, "at least three-fourths of the total expense of the army is chargeable, directly or indirectly, to the Indians," the report found.

The army sent overseas in 1898 was preeminently an Indian-fighting army, in other words. Military historians have certainly taken note of this fact. In his book about the U.S. War in the Philippines, David Silbey makes this connection explicitly. Brian McAllister Linn's definitive histories of the Philippine-American War acknowledge the Indian fighting backgrounds of individual commanders as they trace institutional continuities between the frontier army and the adaptation of that army to the requirements of colonial service abroad.

Senior military leaders—men like Miles, Merritt, and Wood—who led invasions and commanded the initial occupation of Spain's former colonies, are important to our story of the domestic Indian Country roots of overseas colonial rule. These generals all have their place in the chapters that follow. To describe the arc of imperial expansion, however, the book focuses in greatest detail on the experiences of three junior army officers.

The men profiled in these pages, Hugh Lenox Scott, Robert Lee Bullard, and John J. Pershing, were all shaped as soldiers and as future colonial officials by their formative experiences in what each of them referred to as "Indian Country." Like others in the military enterprise of which they were a part, each internalized ways of behaving in Indian Country that shaped his actions in later colonial appointments in Cuba and in the Philippines. In 1916 all three played prominent roles directing the massive force of roving occupation known as the Punitive Expedition dispatched across the border by President Woodrow Wilson, in which northern Mexico figured as the new Indian Country.

Upon graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1876, 1885, and 1886 respectively, each of the officers whose career is traced here received a commission on the frontier which involved him in the final skirmishes, punitive expeditions, and policing actions that were hallmarks of Indian fighting on the Great Plains and in the borderlands in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

During the time he was stationed at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, Hugh Lenox Scott served as Geronimo's jailer, and also commanded a troop of Indian scouts in which he served. Mustered out of service in 1897, the Kiowa, Apache, and Comanche scouts of Fort Sill's Troop L constituted the last of such units of indigenous auxiliaries created by Congress in 1866 for service in the Territories and Indian Country. In his later career as a colonial official in Cuba and the Philippines, and as special emissary to Pancho Villa, Scott drew heavily on his experience of frontier warfare and diplomacy and especially on methods he had developed for interacting with wild men.

Born on a cotton plantation in Alabama in 1861, William Bullard changed his name to Robert Lee in honor of the Confederate general and claimed to be the first southerner to carry that name back to West Point after the Civil War. Following his graduation in 1885, Bullard took part in the last campaign against Geronimo on the Arizona-Sonora border. At the start of the Spanish-American War, Bullard leveraged his home-state connections to get command of a black volunteer regiment.

Like Bullard, John J. Pershing began his army service chasing Apaches in the borderlands. When Nelson Miles summoned troops from all over the West to form a cordon around the Sioux reservations during the Ghost Dance scare, Second Lieutenant Pershing was part of an eight-company contingent of the Sixth Cavalry that made the train trip from New Mexico to South Dakota, along with all their horses and mules. In the aftermath of the Wounded Knee massacre, Pershing remained on the Pine Ridge Reservation until the company of Oglala scouts he commanded was disbanded the following summer. From policing Indians on both the Mexican and Canadian borders in the 1880s and 1890s, Pershing's career followed the trajectory of American expansion to Cuba and the Philippines. Twenty-three years later, in the final year of his governorship of Moro Province in the Philippines, Pershing's efforts to disarm Tausug warriors on the island of Joló would again lead to fear and resistance and a desperate last stand by Tausug men, women, and children inside the fortified mountain crater of Bud Bagsak in June 1913. In the military assault on that stronghold, Pershing deployed two specially organized companies of Moro Scouts as well as Philippine Scouts. Key to the army's ability to track, engage, and treat with Indians in the West, indigenous auxiliaries (scouts, interpreters, and constabulary) became an integral part of pacification in the Philippines and Cuba as well. In 1916 the Punitive Expedition led by Pershing crossed the border in pursuit of Francisco "Pancho" Villa just seventy miles south of Fort Bayard where Pershing had begun his career in Indian Country thirty years earlier.

The origins of Indian Country can be traced to the commitment of Anglo-American colonists to racial exclusion. In contrast to the French and Spanish who regarded native populations as "intrinsic to their imperial projects," the British sought to distance and exclude natives, both politically and geographically. By 1700 English maps of America began to include discrete areas of Indian Country as a spatial representation of the separateness of native politics and nations, depicted beyond boundaries drawn to demarcate the "frontier or wilderness."

Following its victory over France in the Seven Years' War, Britain's Proclamation of 1763 articulated the concept of Lands and Territories beyond the reach of European settlement that were to be reserved "for the use of the said Indians." This commitment to racial separatism was inscribed in the far-reaching Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts of the 1830s, in which the geographical limits of Indian Country were pushed further west and the content of native sovereignty was further circumscribed. Nineteenth-century Indian Country fulfilled the role envisioned on the early maps; it was the place to which America's unwanted Indians could be removed. Federal legislation for Indian Country both recognized it as a place where Indian law and custom held sway, but also regarded the people living there as in need of civilizing. As William Unrau put it, "The Indian country of 1834 was as much a place for controlling human behavior and modifying culture as it was a physical space simply to be occupied by a displaced people in need of security and the means of survival." Throughout the nineteenth century, a succession of Anglo-American institutions were put in charge of civilizing and pacifying—and expropriating—the native peoples of the continent: the Bureau of Indian Affairs, denominational churches, and the army. The Indian Bureau, as Brian DeLay has pointed out, was a colonial office focused on the domestic sphere long before the War Department created the Bureau of Insular Affairs to coordinate policy making for the new island possessions.

Just as it had in federal relations with Indians, a commitment to mediated and circumscribed sovereignty also went along with colonial assessments of the backwardness and the lack of capacity for self-government of the peoples of America's new possessions after the war with Spain. At the same time, Indian Country has also always referred to the places, and to the people acting in them, where the expansive sovereignty claims of the United States have been challenged and checked. In other words, limits on effective sovereignty in Indian Country cut both ways. The United States acted to curtail self-determination by natives, but just as the Lakota and Apaches had, Cubans, Filipinos, and other colonized peoples contested and evaded many of the forms of control the United States sought to impose on them.

Between its use by the British Crown as a way of designating Indian territories west of the Appalachian Divide that should remain beyond the reach of land-hungry American colonists to its invocation by soldiers in twenty-first-century wars of counterinsurgency, the concept of Indian Country has undergone changes both in meaning and in the contexts in which it is used. However, the original sense of being considered a place "apart from the lands of the whites," has endured, even as the practical meaning of Indian autonomy within those lands continued to be subject to constraints imposed by the United States. In the 1830s, the limits on Native sovereignty were elaborated in several consequential Supreme Court cases. In 1831 the Supreme Court found that, in spite of their recognition in treaties with the United States, Indians were not "foreign nations" but "domestic dependent nations," subject to the authority of the United States. In outlining a "protected nation status" for Indian tribes, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote: "[Indians] occupy a territory to which we assert a title independent of their will. . . . Meanwhile they are in a state of pupilage. Their relation to the United States resembles that of a ward to his guardian." The status of the Cherokee Nation, whose appeal of the Indian Removal Act led to Justice Marshall's decision, became a precedent for the relationship of the United States to its insular territories and their inhabitants that was taken up by the court in the early years of the century. Like the Cherokee Nation, Cuba was recognized by the United States as a nation able to conduct its own affairs while simultaneously remaining under the "pupilage" of the United States. Cuba was recognized as a foreign country and yet remained "subject to control and even legislation from the United States." Passed by Congress in 1901, the Platt Amendment placed limits on the sovereignty of the new government of independent Cuba even before it was formed. The amendment prohibited Cuba from entering into treaties with a "foreign power or powers," placed limits on the new nation's ability to contract a public debt, and obliged Cuba to provide the United States with a permanent naval station at Guantánamo Bay. Finally, the measure included a provision establishing the right of the United States to intervene for the "maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property and individual liberty." When the U.S. Military Government withdrew from the island in 1902, it left Cuba a protectorate. Puerto Rico, which the United States claimed outright, was defined as "a territory appurtenant and belonging to the United States, but not a part of the United States." Cuba and Puerto Rico were recognized as separate nations, but were subject to the sovereignty of the United States in varying degrees. The Philippines, too, remained under American rule, direct or indirect, for more than three decades.

Finally, no survey of the meanings of Indian Country is complete without noting that, for millions of Native Americans, the phrase connotes both home and homeland. Indian Country refers to geographical as well as cultural spaces within the United States that remain separate and distinct. Indian Country "may comprise ancestral territories and reservations, refer to sacred spaces, be framed by wins and losses in federal acknowledgement battles, and crosscut rural and urban environments," according to anthropologist Stephen Silliman. "It is a metaphor for what it means . . . to be Native American in the contemporary United States."

Although each of them emphasized a different aspect of its practice and lore, by the end of their time in Indian Country, Hugh Lenox Scott, John J. Pershing, and Robert Lee Bullard all expressed veneration for a combination of skills and traditions collectively referred to as "scouting." Long a distinctive part of American frontier warfare, the use of scouts—both native and white—became central to the army's prosecution of wars of Indian dispossession and pacification as the country expanded westward after the Civil War. Drawing on the role that the Indian scouts played in the West, in its next phase of imperial expansion, the U.S. Army looked for ways to organize native auxiliaries to support the occupation of the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.

The word scout comes from the Latin auscultare: to listen. In the military sense, scouting means reconnoitering, "searching out the land." By the time Colonel Bullard's white volunteer regiment in the Philippines adopted the name "Bullard's American Indians," however, the resonances of scouting far exceeded its narrow military definition. As Americans contemplated a diminishing frontier, the scout emerged as a nostalgic emblem of a heroic past. Bullard conveyed some of the mystique associated with the figure of the scout in an unpublished story he wrote about the Philippines: "No amount of learning or philosophy or civilization ever quite takes a man beyond a secret willingness, even longing to be trapper, ranger, hunter, woodcraftsman or fighter of savages or outlaws, all in one word, scout. In this the high and the low, civilized and savage, the general and the private soldier, differ not. Emperors and kings, princes, leaders, teachers, the greatest that the world has held, have aspired to the qualities, the name and reputation of scout." In Bullard's rhapsodic account, the appeal of scouting is primordial and universal; it is democratic in the sense that it has the power to overcome differences among men regardless of their station in life. Scouting, he suggests, transcends social class. All these attributes help explain the late nineteenth-century enthusiasm for forms of recreation and hobbyism loosely based on scouting and romanticized ideas of frontier manhood.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a time when the appeal and significance of scouting transcended its roots and function in military practice. As other historians have noted, it was no accident that the popularization of scouting in civil society occurred as the last Indian Wars were playing out in the American West and at the height of racialized colonial expansion by European powers in Africa and Asia. Such civilian and hobby scouting reflected ideals of manhood in an industrializing America as well as the politics of race and empire. The real key to the appeal of scouting, however, lay in its ability to furnish models for bridging that other gap alluded to in the story, the gap between civilized and savage, the very gap that preoccupied so many of the scientists, moralists, and colonial administrators of the day. In particular, organizations that emerged to promote Indian scouting for boys were interested in harnessing the inborn natural longing for the salutary primitive pursuits, identified by Bullard, to channel them for the good of the young scouts as well as in the service of empire. Less recognized is the way native scouting developed as an embodiment of colonial policy and racial relations within the military itself. Finally, army officers in command of Indian Scouts, including Hugh Lenox Scott, served as frontline ethnologists. In this way, military scouting reinforced and informed late nineteenth-century theories about the very nature of the categories civilization and savagery themselves.

In another sense, the logic of empire rendered all colonized people scouts. After the first American troops landed on Cuban shores in June 1898, U.S. General William Shafter offended some Cubans, who had been fighting for their independence from Spain for thirty years, by suggesting that their role should now be to serve as scouts for the newly arrived American troops, who were unfamiliar with the country and in need of orientation. In the context of their most recent experience of pacifying the West, the arrangement made sense to the Americans. According to this view, the role of the invading force was to take over command and apply superior force of arms to impose order. The expected role for the natives in this scenario was to provide local knowledge and act in a supporting role.

As the theater of resistance to U.S. expansion shifted from the Great Plains and the desert Southwest to a new island empire in the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, the ethnographic knowledge and experience of dealing with primitives imputed to military men like Scott became valorized as an asset for colonial service. Similarly, officers like Bullard and Pershing who had commanded African American troops, were regarded as particularly suited for roles in the pacification and administration of colonial peoples overseas. That experience of "commanding men of other than [his] own race and color," as Pershing put it, was variously acquired by white officers in the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Regiments (the famed Buffalo Soldiers) or through association with one of the immune regiments, like the Third Alabama Colored Volunteers organized by Bullard, who were specifically recruited for war in the tropics because of their supposed innate resistance to diseases such as yellow fever and malaria.

Our analysis begins by revisiting some key events that have played a significant role in the national epic of westward expansion. Throughout these episodes in which American sovereignty claims were contested on the ground—from the northern Great Plains, to the Sierra Madre, to southern Luzon—a focus on the thoughts, actions, and reactions of three army officers, Scott, Pershing, and Bullard, allows us to trace continuities in the process of extending territorial and overseas empire. Contextualization of the lives and careers of these frontier soldiers, including an examination of their family, regional, and political affiliations also sheds light on the deep interconnections between overseas colonialism and the racial dimensions of political and social life at home—in peace and war.

Penn Press | Site Use and Privacy Policy
Report Accessibility Issues and Get Help | University of Pennsylvania
Copyright © 2021 University of Pennsylvania Press | All rights reserved