Long before Christopher Columbus stepped foot on what would come to be known as the Americas, the expansive territory was inhabited by Native Americans. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, as more explorers sought to colonize their land, Native Americans responded in various stages, from cooperation to indignation to revolt.
After siding with the French in numerous battles during the French and Indian War and eventually being forcibly removed from their homes under Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, Native American populations were diminished in size and territory by the end of the 19th century.
Below are events that shaped Native Americans’ tumultuous history following the arrival of foreign settlers.
1492: Christopher Columbus lands on a Caribbean Island after three months of traveling. Believing at first that he had reached the East Indies, he describes the natives he meets as “Indians.” On his first day, he orders six natives to be seized as servants.
April 1513: Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon lands on continental North America in Florida and makes contact with Native Americans.
February 1521: Ponce de Leon departs on another voyage to Florida from San Juan to start a colony. Months after landing, Ponce de Leon is attacked by local Native Americans and fatally wounded.
May 1539: Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernando de Soto lands in Florida to conquer the region. He explores the South under the guidance of Native Americans who had been captured along the way.
October 1540: De Soto and the Spaniards plan to rendezvous with ships in Alabama when they’re attacked by Native Americans. Hundreds of Native Americans are killed in the ensuing battle.
C. 1595: Pocahontas is born, daughter of Chief Powhatan.
1607: Pocahontas’ brother kidnaps Captain John Smith from the Jamestown colony. Smith later writes that after being threatened by Chief Powhatan, he was saved by Pocahontas. This scenario is debated by historians.
1613: Pocahontas is captured by Captain Samuel Argall in the first Anglo-Powhatan War. While captive, she learns to speak English, converts to Christianity and is given the name “Rebecca.”
1622: The Powhatan Confederacy nearly wipes out Jamestown colony.
1680: A revolt of Pueblo Native Americans in New Mexico threatens Spanish rule over New Mexico.
1754: The French and Indian War begins, pitting the two groups against English settlements in the North.
May 15, 1756: The Seven Years’ War between the British and the French begins, with Native American alliances aiding the French.
May 7, 1763: Ottawa Chief Pontiac leads Native American forces into battle against the British in Detroit. The British retaliate by attacking Pontiac’s warriors in Detroit on July 31, in what is known as the Battle of Bloody Run. Pontiac and company successfully fend them off, but there are several casualties on both sides.
1785: The Treaty of Hopewell is signed in Georgia, protecting Cherokee Native Americans in the United States and sectioning off their land.
Native American Leaders
1788/89: Sacagawea is born.
1791: The Treaty of Holston is signed, in which the Cherokee give up all their land outside of the borders previously established.
August 20, 1794: The Battle of Timbers, the last major battle over Northwest territory between Native Americans and the United States following the Revolutionary War, commences and results in U.S. victory.
November 2, 1804: Native American Sacagawea, while 6 months pregnant, meets explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark during their exploration of the territory of the Louisiana Purchase. The explorers realize her value as a translator
April 7, 1805: Sacagawea, along with her baby and husband Toussaint Charbonneau, join Lewis and Clark on their voyage.
November 1811: U.S. forces attack Native American War Chief Tecumseh and his younger brother Lalawethika. Their community at the juncture of the Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers is destroyed.
June 18, 1812: President James Madison signs a declaration of war against Britain, beginning the war between U.S. forces and the British, French and Native Americans over independence and territory expansion.
March 27, 1814: Andrew Jackson, along with U.S. forces and Native American allies attack Creek Indians who opposed American expansion and encroachment of their territory in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. The Creeks cede more than 20 million acres of land after their loss.
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May 28, 1830: President Andrew Jackson signs the Indian Removal Act, which gives plots of land west of the Mississippi River to Native American tribes in exchange for land that is taken from them.
1838: With only 2,000 Cherokees having left their land in Georgia to cross the Mississippi River, President Martin Van Buren enlists General Winfield Scott and 7,000 troops to speed up the process by holding them at gunpoint and marching them 1,200 miles. More than 5,000 Cherokee die as a result of the journey. The series of relocations of Native American tribes and their hardships and deaths during the journey would become known as the Trail of Tears.
1851: Congress passes the Indian Appropriations Act, creating the Indian reservation system. Native Americans aren’t allowed to leave their reservations without permission.
October 1860: A group of Apache Native Americans attack and kidnap a white American, resulting in the U.S. military falsely accusing the Native American leader of the Chiricahua Apache tribe, Cochise. Cochise and the Apache increase raids on white Americans for a decade afterwards.
November 29, 1864: 650 Colorado volunteer forces attack Cheyenne and Arapaho encampments along Sand Creek, killing and mutilating more than 150 American Indians during what would become known as the Sand Creek Massacre.
November 27, 1868: General George Armstrong Custer leads an early morning attack on Cheyenne living with Chief Black Kettle, destroying the village and killing more than 100 people, including many women and children and Black Kettle himself.
1873: Crazy Horse encounters General Custer for the first time.
1874: Gold discovered in South Dakota’s Black Hills drives U.S. troops to ignore a treaty and invade the territory.
June 25, 1876: In the Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” Lieutenant Colonel George Custer’s troops fight Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, along Little Bighorn River. Custer and his troops are defeated and killed, increasing tensions between Native Americans and white Americans.
October 6, 1879: The first students attend Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, the country’s first off-reservation boarding school. The school, created by Civil War veteran Richard Henry Pratt, is designed to assimilate Native American students.
December 15, 1890: Sitting Bull is killed during a confrontation with Indian police in Grand River, South Dakota.
December 29, 1890: U.S. Armed Forces surround Ghost Dancers led by Chief Big Foot near Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota, demanding the surrender of their weapons. An estimated 150 Native Americans are killed in the Wounded Knee Massacre, along with 25 men with the U.S. cavalry.
January 29, 1907: Charles Curtis becomes the first Native American U.S. Senator.
September 1918: Choctaw soldiers use their native language to transmit secret messages for U.S. troops during World War I's Meuse-Argonne Offensive on the Western Front. The Choctaw Telephone Squad provide Allied forces a critical edge over the Germans.
June 2, 1924: U.S. Congress passes the Indian Citizenship Act, granting citizenship to all Native Americans born in the territorial limits of the country. Previously, citizenship had been limited, depending on what percentage Native American ancestry a person had, whether they were veterans, or, if they were women, whether they were married to a U.S. citizen.
May 1942: Members of the Navajo Nation develop a code to transmit messages and radio messages for the U.S. armed forces during World War II. Eventually hundreds of code talkers from multiple Native American tribes serve in the U.S. Marines during the war.
March 15, 2021: Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico is confirmed as secretary of the Interior, making her the first Native American to lead a cabinet agency. “Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me fierce," Haaland Tweeted after her confirmation. "I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”