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Research & Thoughts

History Lesson #14: Breaking the Myth of the "Drunken Indian"

Whiskey is given as a reason the western American Indians were conquered after the Civil War.  Actually the knowledge that the Indians got easily "hooked" on alcohol goes back much earlier, during colonial times. In 1826 the American Temperance Society formed, as a response to the problems caused by drinking and indigenous contact.


But a year later, a drunken party between white lead miners and Ho-Chunk in Wisconsin led to whites abducting their women, the cause of what's been called "Red Bird's War." But the story of the drunken party was buried, and instead they were referred to as savage, attacking for no reason. 


In 1862, this was noted:


"I remember," said Private Chauncey Cooke, with orders to go after the Sioux, "father saying that the buffaloes and Indians would disappear about the same time … hunters would slay the buffaloes for their skins and the white man's whiskey was as surely slaying the Indian."


In my work on the Indian wars west of the Mississippi River, I discovered issues that give us a more balanced slant on what happened with alcohol, once tribes were introduced to it, one that shows how accurate Mr. Cooke's comment was to his son, and how we can't understand history without attitude.


First, it was believed in the 1800s that whiskey was medicinal. Paste Magazine noted that the consumption of alcohol in the 1800s was almost beyond belief, much of it 45% higher than today. 1830 was the peak of alcohol consumption; likely due to the temperance movement noted above. But that only meant that alcohol consumption began to be controlled.


Here's a quote about an army private's rations:


"One private listed rations consisting of bread, pork, beans, crout (as in sauer?), sugar, dry apples, coffee and whiskey."


This doesn't surprise me; I started having trouble eating pork and fried foods, so I got in the habit of getting whiskey whenever I ordered a hamburger, because it made me feel nauseous otherwise. Then I was put on a low-fat diet because of my gall bladder. Imagine all those aching gall bladders due to pig overconsumption in the 1800s. Indians also were quoted as saying pork made them sick as early as 1868. 


But even if it was medicinal, it still could make men crazy drunk -- and that effect as well-known. Here's what happened during the sacking of Richmond in 1865:


"A police force organized to protect every street. The Confederates started fires and set off arsenals of gunpowder on the way out of town. The City Council members, fearing what might happen if people got hold of whiskey, rolled the barrels to the curbs and emptied contents into the gutters."


Notice it doesn't say which army they worried about; likely both sides had reasons to get drunk at that time.

When the soldiers headed west to protect the frontier, they found that every "pilgrim room," probably the early name for stage stations, had groceries and whiskey for sale. One might suspect the quality of that whiskey, and the going rate for something men learned to crave because it made them feel better. Whiskey dealers could actually be a plague on the army as they marched, indicating that the officers tried on numerous occasions to chase them off.

The following quote indicates that those whiskey peddlars didn't care who they sold (or traded) their rotgut to:


"That summer the Kiowa, Comanche, Southern Cheyenne, and Arapahoe gathered around Fort Larned, as per treaty, to receive their annuities, but because of delays in Congress Wynkoop had to turn many away empty. Traders with whiskey took advantage of this unhappiness, creating an atmosphere of disgruntled and drunken Indians, who would trade a pony for ten gallons of whiskey."


While we cannot say for sure that medicinal is why whiskey was given to Indians as part of their annuities (I found nothing yet to verify this), there is another factor that played into the drunkenness that was noted in tribes after the Civil War.  


When Indians were first given rations from the government in exchange for land, whiskey was included at the treaty signing to make them more convivial to the land deal. Whiskey was used, then, to get them to sign.


But with the growing temperance movement, whiskey could become harder to find. There were also scrupulous fort commanders, like Major Alex Chambers, who made sure there was no whiskey included in their rations at Fort Fetterman in 1871. This demonstrates what we'd expect -- whiskey included with the pork rations.


One belief recently proved patently untrue -- although how can you prove the past on a current population? -- is that Indians could not metabolize alcohol the same way as whites, or had not built up a tolerance. There have been numerous recent studies done on this to demonstrate they react to liquor the same way as whites. It's instead more likely that those times of increased inebriation were a direct result of designed land grab.


One of the things I was able to demonstrate in my book is how President Grant kept looking for proof that the Indians broke the Fort Laramie treaty terms so the government could take the Black Hills. Getting them drunk might have worked; however, by this time, it would seem, the Indians had gotten the drinking among their people under control due to people like Chambers,  Indian Agent Saville, temperance, and their own growing understanding of white ways.


The soldiers themselves were not always a good influence on the Indians: "G.W. Ingals, Paiute Indian agent, testified that soldiers and Indians got drunk together. "There is a great deal of debauchery among [soldiers] in relations with the Indians and a great deal of drunkenness among themselves."


The soldiers, too, tended to overindulge, most because of boredom and lack of fight around the forts. Here's from Fort Larned in Kansas:


"To amuse themselves, soldiers got drunk and stole goods from the commissary. What started as the theft of a few vegetables to ward off scurvy turned into taking whatever they could get their hands on. A Board of Survey, composed typically of the post's captain and two first lieutenants, investigated missing items such as brown sugar, potatoes, green coffee, turnips, ham, tobacco and canned lobster. Yes, lobster. Post trader stores sold alcohol to soldiers, sometimes inferior whiskey at ridiculous prices."


Finally in 1918 alcohol was prohibited on reservations. This was two years before the rest of the US population faced Prohibition.


Soldiers and Indians alike got their hands on too much Kentucky fluid, but the reasons were different; for the Indians, it was a means of control and further degradation, to demonstrate that, see, they're not as good as whites.

The image lingers today of the "drunken Indian," which, as shown in my book, was vastly over-simplified. Here's a statistic that's interesting:


"The results from the first survey showed that the majority (59.9%) of Native Americans abstained. Only a minority (43.1%) of whites did so. About 14.5% of Native Americans were light/moderate drinkers. That compared to 32.7% of whites. The rates of heavy drinking and of heavy episodic ('binge') drinking were almost identical. The results of the second survey were similar."


This article is my attempt to show that there is attitude in history, and no reason ever to stereotype anyone. Don't hate being politically correct. Hate history that doesn't show you the truth.



Author, "Civil War & Bloody Peace: Following Orders," 2nd edition published 2021.

"Alcohol Problems & Solutions," 2016, https://www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org/drunken-indian-fact-fiction-native-american-drinking-studied/ .

Robert Miller and Meril Hazlette, "Drunken Indian Myth Distilled into Reality through Federal Indian Alcohol Policy." Arizona State Law Journal, Vol. 28, No. 1, 1996.

"Stereotype of the Drunken Indian, 2012, https://apihtawikosisan.com/2012/10/the-stereotype-of-the-drunken-indian/.

See author's work on Red Bird's War, https://www.westernmagazinedigest.com/2020/02/red-birds-war-what-really-happened-in.html 

"The Ignoble Savage: The Drunken Indian," 2012, https://www.historyonthenet.com/authentichistory/diversity/native/is2-drunk/index.html 

"When Americans Drank Whiskey like it was Water," 2018, https://www.pastemagazine.com/drink/alcohol-history/the-1800s-when-americans-drank-whiskey-like-it-was/#comparing-drinking-rates-1830-vs-2018 .

"From Medicine to Modern Revival," 2015, https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/07/09/420970854/from-medicine-to-modern-revival-a-history-of-american-whiskey-in-labels .

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