10 Famous Native Americans

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A Brief History

Earlier today, we noted how on April 5, 1614, Pocahontas married John Rolfe.  In honor of the great historic union between not just two lovers, but people representing two culture (one English and the other Native American), we celebrate 10 of history’s most famous Native Americans, focusing on those north of what is today the border between the United States and Mexico.  A potential future list could concern famous Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans.

Digging Deeper

10. Squanto

Known for helping Pilgrims cope with life in North America at the Plymouth colony, Squanto went to Europe several times and became well known.  In 1994, a movie, Squanto, A Warrior’s Tale was made.  Not a lot is known about Squanto’s time other than with the White people, though he may have been a fugitive slave captured by a competing tribe.  He died of fever in 1622 while leading a sea borne expedition around Cape Cod for the Pilgrims to find a new source of food.  He had been the last surviving member of the Patuxet people, his fellow tribesmen dying off due to an epidemic while Squanto was in Europe being shown off by his English abductors.

9. Tecumseh

He twice led confederations of tribes against US settlers, but was killed in 1813 by troops led by William Henry Harrison who later used this victory to propel him into the presidency.  Highly respected and known as an inspiring orator, 4 US Navy ships have carried his name and numerous towns and cities have as well.  Canada has named a ship after him and has put his image on the quarter coin in 2012.  Numerous schools bear his name and a well known brand of small engines is named Tecumseh.

8. Ira Hayes

One of the flag raisers on Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima, he struggled with alcoholism and underemployment after the war. Johnny Cash sang a song about him, and he is depicted in movies about Iwo Jima.  A movie of his life story was made in 1961 called The Outsider. Hayes joined the Marine Corps in 1942 at the age of 29, and became a Paramarine.  He fought at Bouganville before Iwo Jima, and struggled with the fame of having been in the famous Joe Rosenthal photograph of the flag raising on Mt. Suribachi.  He died in 1956 when mugged after gambling, not the often referred to drowning in a puddle passed out drunk.

7. Jim Thorpe

The Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon and pentathlon was perhaps the greatest athlete of his era.  He played professional football, baseball and basketball and was voted Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century.  Thorpe played baseball, football and golf professionally, and in 1922 became the first president of the American Professional Football Association, the league that became the National Football League.  He died of heart failure in 1953 at the age of 65.

6. Sacagawea

Of Shoshone heritage, she served as a guide for the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  In 2000, she appeared on a US one dollar coin, holding her baby.  Her work guiding and interpreting for the Expedition was of vital importance.  She had been sold into a forced marriage to a French Canadian (Quecois) trapper at the age of 13, and died in 1812 at the age of 24 (White history), or perhaps at the age of 95 in 1884 (Comanche and Shoshone history).

5. Pontiac

An Ottawa Chief, he led a war against British European settlers  by allying with the French and uniting many Native American tribes from 1763 to 1766.  The French and Pontiac’s Indian warriors lost the War (Seven Years War, also known as The French and Indian War).  Pontiac lived until 1769, murdered in what is present day Illinois at the age of 49 by a disgruntled Peoria Indian angry that Pontiac had killed the warrior’s brother in 1766.   A now defunct car company was named after him, as was Pontiac, Michigan.

4. Crazy Horse

Considered by many to be the greatest American cavalry leader of all time, he defeated Custer at the Little Big Horn and was murdered while in captivity.  He was of the Oglala Lakota people, born at an unknown place and date (around 1840-1845).  Prior to gaining fame fighting White people, Crazy Horse was an accomplished warrior fighting other Native American tribes.  His father was also named Crazy Horse, but gave that name to his son when Crazy Horse (#2) became a strong young man, the father taking an alternate name (Worm!).  In 1870 Crazy Horse was shot in the jaw by a fellow Lakota warrior over a dispute concerning Black Buffalo Woman, whom Crazy Horse had taken for his own wife while she dumped her other husband, No Water.  Despite the shooting and bad blood, the two warriors made peace.  Crazy Horse achieved his greatest fame in the defeat of Custer in 1876.  He was murdered/assassinated in 1877 in the custody of the US Army while struggling with a guard when he was being taken into custody under false pretenses.  Native American scholars dispute the part about struggling with a guard and claim the killing was just murder.  An enormous monument started in 1948 in the Black Hills will be the largest sculpture in history when complete.  Crazy Horse has appeared on a US postage stamp.

3. Sitting Bull

One of the most respected chiefs in the last years of Native American freedom before all tribes were subdued and put on reservations, his craggy face is the image of wisdom and sadness.  Having been the spiritual leader of the tribes untied against the US Army in the wars that included the massacre of Custer’s 7th Cavalry in 1876, Sitting Bull surrendered himself and his people when he had no further choice.  He became a celebrity and appeared in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.  He was gunned down at the age of 59 in 1890 by suspicious White soldiers when Sitting Bull had called for a Ghost Dance, an activity banned by the Whites.

2. Geronimo

Although not a great chief by Native American standards, he did fight a fierce guerrilla war against whites determined to steal Apache land.  For some reason, people yell his name before jumping out of airplanes and high places!  Born in 1829 in Mexico, Geronimo fought both Americans and Mexican Whites until finally surrendering in 1886.  He lived until 1909, a surprising old age for a veteran of so many battles.  In his later years he became a celebrity and sold autographs and photos of himself with paying customers!  He was featured at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis where he is said to have ridden a Ferris Wheel.  Did you know that!?!

1. Pocahontas

The first Native American documented to have married (John Rolfe NOT John Smith!) a European settler and became a celebrity of her day.  She traveled to England and took the name Rebeccah, becoming quite the sensation.  Unfortunately, she took ill when about to start the voyage back to American and died at the tender age of 20 in 1617.  She was of the Tsenacommacah people of Virginia.  Though interesting enough, her life story has become highly romanticized.

Question for students (and subscribers): Who is your favorite Native American?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Boyer, Dawn D. Descendants of Pocahontas & John Rolfe: Of Virginia and North Carolina. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012.

Bradley, James and Ron Powers. Flags of Our Fathers. Bantam, 2006.

Robertson, Wyndham. Pocahontas, Alias Matoaka, and Her Descendants Through Her Marriage at Jamestown, Virginia, in April, 1614, With John Rolfe, Gentleman (Classic Reprint). Forgotten Books, 2012.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.