When white settlers first landed in America and encountered Native Americans, there were some friendly meetings, some skirmishes and a few massacres as the two sides mixed, but eventually the settlers’ superior numbers and firepower drove the Indians from their lands along the Eastern Seaboard. Later, the United States government offered Native Americans treaties, guaranteeing them land further west if they would vacate their homeland. Time and time again, such treaties were broken by the United States, but most tribes continued signing new ones, trusting they would be honored.
Then there were the Native Americans who wanted no part of treaties, reservations or coexistence with the white man. Warriors such as Geronimo, Crazy Horse and others waged war against the U.S. in a bid to retain their homelands. Following is a list of the 10 fiercest Native American chiefs. It’s purely subjective and open to debate, yet this list highlights the warriors who were persistent in fighting settlers and/or the U.S. military, eluded capture for many years and in the process left a path of death, destruction and fear in their wake.
The Ottawa chief Pontiac was born around 1720 near present-day Detroit, and although his early history is sketchy, he became a well-known warrior for his activities during the French and Indian War. Pontiac allied with New France in a losing bid to stop incursion by British colonists into the Great Lakes region. After the war, Pontiac became upset with new British trading policies. The chief met with leaders from several other regional tribes to form an organized resistance against the British. The resulting uprising, known as Pontiac’s Rebellion, or Pontiac’s War, began as Pontiac led an attack on Fort Detroit in May 1763. Emboldened by the attack, other warriors destroyed eight other forts from Michigan to western Pennsylvania, killing hundreds of British. Although unsuccessful in taking Fort Detroit, Pontiac’s warriors laid siege for almost six months before withdrawing. Three years later, in exchange for his own amnesty, Pontiac signed a treaty with the British, angering many Native Americans. Pontiac was killed in 1769 by a member of another tribe, possibly in opposition to his pro-British decisions.
9. Little Crow
Born around 1810, Little Crow was chief of the Mdewakanton Dakota Sioux, literally outdueling his brother for the top position. He had several clashes with the U.S. military during a war bearing his own name, Little Crow’s War, more commonly known as the Dakota War of 1862. Upset about broken treaties, Little Crow and his followers launched an uprising that led to the deaths of a significant but unknown number of settlers in southern Minnesota. More attacks on civilians followed until Little Crow and his warriors suffered a defeat and fled to Canada. Little Crow was shot and killed by a settler in Minnesota in 1863.
8. Black Hawk
Black Hawk, a war chief for the Sauk tribe in the Midwest, killed and scalped his first Indian as a young teen, and spent his early adult years building a reputation as a feared warrior in raids against other tribes. He led his warriors against American forces in the War of 1812, but after the war, Black Hawk signed a treaty with the U.S.
Many years later, in 1832, Black Hawk broke the treaty when he moved more than 1,000 Sauk and Fox Indians from Iowa east into Illinois, land the Sauk leaders had ceded to the U.S. many years before. Black Hawk’s intentions were peaceful — he just wanted to resettle on his tribe’s former homeland — but settlers in the region were alarmed. Militiamen launched a preemptive strike, and Black Hawk’s warriors struck back with a decisive victory, launching the Black Hawk War. The U.S. rallied forces from throughout the Midwest to the battle, and forced Black Hawk and his followers to flee to Wisconsin, where they fought several battles before surrendering. Black Hawk and the other tribal leaders underwent a whirlwind journey after the war. They met with President Andrew Jackson; were imprisoned for a few weeks in Virginia; then they were taken on a tour of New York City and other large Eastern cities, where huge crowds turned out. Black Hawk died at age 71 in his village in Iowa in 1838.
Born near present-day Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1768, Tecumseh spent much of his life trying to unite tribes from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico in a bid to stop the progress of white settlers. Tecumseh became chief of the Shawnee tribe in 1808 and along with his younger brother, Tenskwatawa, succeeded in building a confederation of Indians in the Ohio Country.
Tecumseh urged other tribal leaders to stop signing treaties with the U.S. Tecumseh’s anger over unfair treaties came to a head in 1810, when he led a war party of several hundred men to confront Indiana Territory Governor William Henry Harrison at his home. Tempers flared, swords were drawn, but U.S. soldiers intervened and Tecumseh and his party left. The next year, while Tecumseh was trying to rally Indians in Alabama, Harrison took the opportunity to eliminate the threat posed by Tecumseh. Harrison and his troops routed Tecumseh’s tribe in the Battle of Tippecanoe (an achievement Harrison used to boost his successful bid for the U.S. presidency a few years later). Tecumseh sided with the British in the War of 1812 and was instrumental in several battles, including the capture of Detroit, before being killed in a battle in Ontario, Canada in 1813.
6. Red Cloud
Red Cloud was chief of the Oglala Lakota Indians and led them in what came to be known as Red Cloud’s War from 1866–1868. Incensed that the United States planned to build the Bozeman Trail through Indian territory in what is now north-central Wyoming, Red Cloud organized a war party of several thousand Arapaho, Cheyenne and Lakota Indians. The Indians’ attacks on forts and travelers ultimately led to the infamous Fetterman Massacre, in which a party of up to 3,000 Indians ambushed 80 U.S. troops. Although Red Cloud endorsed the attack, he was not present as Indians killed and mutilated the troops, striking fear into settlers and U.S. troops in the area. The U.S. government abandoned the trail and withdrew from the area, making Red Cloud the lone Native American chief to defeat the U.S. military in a war.
In 1868, Red Cloud signed a treaty with the United States, costing him support among his tribe, especially after the terms of the treaty were broken. He died in 1909 on the South Dakota reservation set aside in that 1868 treaty.
Angered by European settlements in what is now Virginia, Opechancanough (1554-1646) became a feared warrior and eventually chief of the Powhatan Confederacy. Powahtan’s anger at the settlers led him to orchestrate two of the deadliest massacres in what is now the United States. One day in March 1622, Powhatan Indians launched a surprise attack and slaughtered almost 350 men, women and children, more than a quarter of the settlers in the area. This sparked a 10-year war between the two sides. Opechancanough eventually signed a treaty to end the hostilities in 1632, but he wasn’t done yet. In 1644, when he was more than 90 years old, he planned an attack that killed 500 settlers in the area. A couple of years later, Opechancanough was captured and was shot to death by a soldier while being held prisoner.
4. Sitting Bull
The spiritual and war leader of the Hunkpapa Sioux, Sitting Bull was a thorn in the side of the U.S. military for more than a decade beginning shortly after the Civil War, when he and his followers began raiding U.S. forts along the Missouri River. He’s best known, of course, for his role in defeating Lt. Col. George Custer and his troops at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Although Sitting Bull did not participate in the battle, he was instrumental in recruiting thousands of Indians to the Sioux cause. He did this partly by offering generous supplies, but also by sharing revelations he’d had about an Indian victory over U.S. forces.
After that battle, the U.S. stepped up anti-Indian efforts in the region, and Sitting Bull and a couple of hundred followers fled to Canada. In 1881, Sitting Bull surrendered, and he spent the next couple of years imprisoned. For a brief time in 1884 he traveled with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show but continued to show his defiance toward whites. He was returned to Standing Rock Agency in South Dakota where he was shot and killed by reservation police in a dispute in 1890.
Known as “The Apache Napoleon,” Cochise was war chief of the Chiricahua Apache tribe and fought tirelessly against the American and Mexican armies and settlers for many years. Cochise originally befriended white settlers until he was wrongly accused of kidnapping and several of his relatives were executed in retaliation in 1861. From that point on, Cochise made it his mission to kill as many white men as possible in Arizona. The following year, Cochise and his followers took on the U.S. Army in the battle at Apache Pass. Although he lost that engagement, Cochise continued his attacks on settlements and travelers on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border until signing a peace treaty with the U.S. in 1872. He died on a reservation a couple of years later.
2. Crazy Horse
Oglala Lakota war chief Crazy Horse had already earned a reputation as a fierce warrior during the 1850s and 1860s in skirmishes with other Plains Indian tribes. He also planned and even served as a decoy in the 1866 ambush in which a couple of thousand Indians massacred 80 U.S. soldiers from Fort Kearney in Wyoming.
Crazy Horse is best known, however, for his role in two major events in 1876. First, he led more than 1,000 warriors into battle against a similar number of U.S. troops in southern Montana. Although the fight was a stalemate, Crazy Horse’s actions prevented those troops from advancing a few days later to another nearby battle — the Battle of the Little Big Horn. That likely helped ensure the Indians’ success in that famous battle. Although Crazy Horse’s exact role in that event is uncertain, he was an active participant as Indians massacred Lt. Col. George Custer and 267 soldiers.
Crazy Horse was finally forced to surrender in 1877 and was sent to the Red Cloud Agency in Nebraska, where he was killed during an argument with soldiers four months later.
While other warriors on this list were mainly motivated by opposition to white settlers and the U.S. military, Geronimo’s main motivation was revenge: When Geronimo was 28, Mexican soldiers killed his mother, wife and three children in a raid on their camp.
Revered for his guerilla tactics in battle and considered by many to have mystical powers that protected him in battle, the Apache warrior led numerous raids from 1858 to 1886 in Arizona, New Mexico, and west Texas against settlers and both the Mexican and American armies. The elusiveness of Geronimo and his followers was extraordinary. At one point in 1886, Geronimo and 38 other men, women and children evaded capture from a force that included some 8,000 American and Mexican troops.
But after decades of raids and escapes, Geronimo finally surrendered in 1886. Regarded by the public as the “wickedest Indian who ever lived” for his refusal to seek peace and his ruthlessness in battle, Geronimo earned notoriety in the years following his surrender and was even featured in the World’s Fair of 1904. He died of pneumonia in 1909 in Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, unrepentant to the very end. On his deathbed, he told a relative, “I should never have surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive.”