What were the major characteristics and leaders of the Indian nations living west of the Mississippi in 1860? 

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pholland14 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is hard to categorize all the native Americans living west of the Mississippi in 1860 through a few characteristics.  The Plains Indians were heavily dependent on their horses and following the buffalo.  While they did winter in river valleys, most of the spring and summer grazing season was spent in warfare against other tribes and hunting the buffalo.  Indian warfare was not about how many people could be killed, but rather how brave one's fighters were.  It was considered honorable to touch your enemy in battle, and it was common for a group of young men to steal another tribe's horses.  

Around the Pacific Coast and Snake River in Idaho, fishing was common.  Many Indian groups around the Oregon Trail had already become dependent on forts and trading posts, and the gatherer tribes of northern and central California had been nearly driven to extinction due to the California gold rush and the Spanish mission movement.  The Indian of the American Southwest such as the Apache conducted raids against American mining camps, Mexican settlements across the border, and Navajo herdsmen.  The Navajo were mainly known for their sheep and their elaborate dress and artwork.  

Tribes did not have one leader who spoke for the whole nation, much to the consternation of the American government, who wanted to sign treaties with one group in order to get land rights.  Many tribes also had war chiefs and shamans, so the word "chief" can mean different things here.  Cochise was a leader of the Comanche Indians during the Red River War, and Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were leaders of the Lakota Sioux.  Red Cloud also led the Lakota in the late 1860s in the effort to keep the settlers off the Bozeman Trail, and he is the only native leader to have a successful war against the U.S.  Geronimo was one of the last Apache leaders to surrender his small group, and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce nearly escaped with his band to Canada in a chase that was chronicled by the major newspapers in the East.