Saying That Las Vegas Is the Deadliest Massacre in American History Ignores Our Past

Yellow caution tape at a police crime scene

Crime scene tape surrounds the Mandalay Hotel. | Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

The mass shooting in Las Vegas was a terrible tragedy. The fact that one shooter can hole up in a room high atop the Mandalay Bay casino-hotel, break out a few windows, and fire thousands of rounds of ammunition into a crowd of concert-goers means we have failed as a society. What the solution to the problem is, well, we will leave that for others to debate.

With 59 dead and hundreds more injured, Vegas proved to be one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history. However, several news outlets got it wrong when they reported that it was the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Not only is that false, it’s not even close.

Let’s take a quick look through our ugly and painful history of several deadly American massacres we tend to sweep under the rug, despite their breathtaking death tolls. Historians believe No. 7 involved around 300 people being killed.

*Note: Many reports clarified Las Vegas as the deadliest mass shooting in modern history. The point that creating such distinctions ignores America’s bloody history is still valid, and these incidents — several of which involve deaths accumulated not via mass shooting — are still of tremendous importance.

1. 1850 Bloody Island Massacre

Native chiefs on horseback, wearing long, feathered headdresses.

Circa 1900: native chiefs on horseback, wearing long, feathered headdresses | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Bloody Island Massacre took place in 1850 in the Clear Lake area of California. The Pomo were a Native-American tribe that had been enslaved and abused by settlers Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone, forced to build structures and do work as cowboys. Pomo families were starving from the lack of food, so Pomo Chief Augustine’s wife fashioned a plan.

The Chief’s wife poured water into Kelsey’s gunpowder, making him susceptible to an attack. Kelsey was killed by the Pomo, who took food back to their starving families. But on May 15, the United States Cavalry arrived to punish Augustine’s tribe for Kelsey’s death. The official account says that 60 Pomo were killed, primarily older men, women, and children, as many of the men were out hunting. But unofficial numbers suggest that the total dead could’ve been up to 200.

2. 1864 Fort Pillow

Manassas Battle

July 21, 1861: a violent exchange between the Yankees and Confederates | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Fort Pillow, Tennessee, massacre in 1864 was one of the more brutal moments in the Civil War. Between 500 and 600 men fighting on the side of the Union surrendered to the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. Traditionally, the troops – primarily African-Americans and Confederate deserters – would be taken as prisoners of war. However, the Confederate army and Forrest did not want to treat these men as regular prisoners, instead opting to slaughter them.

This is a historical sticking point. The Confederate army denied that any such event happened, although they admit that a battle did occur at Fort Pillow. Even though the South denied the atrocity, the Union army was outraged at the treatment of their soldiers and subsequently refused to take part in prisoner swapping. And despite the pleading of the Confederacy to the contrary, the evidence of the Fort Pillow slaughter was just too strong to have been simply Northern propaganda.

3. 1873 Colfax riot

An image of the people of Colfax, Louisiana circa 1873

An image of the people of Colfax, Louisiana, circa 1873 | songswann77 via YouTube

In 1872, Louisiana had a hotly contested governor’s race that was extremely split among racial lines. The state went to the Republican candidate, which angered many white Democrats. This frustration bubbled up in racial tension, and it came to a head in Colfax, Louisiana, on Easter Sunday in 1873.

More than 300 armed white men, including members of white supremacist organizations such as the Knights of White Camellia and the Ku Klux Klan, attacked the Courthouse building. When the militia maneuvered a cannon to fire on the Courthouse, some of the sixty black defenders fled while others surrendered.

When the leader of the attackers, James Hadnot, was accidentally shot by one of his own men, the white militia responded by shooting the black prisoners. Those who were wounded in the earlier battle, particularly black militia members, were singled out for execution.

In the end, over 150 African-Americans were killed by the armed militia, and nearly a third of those were killed after the battle was over. Police from New Orleans were on the scene the next day and arrested 97 men, who were charged with breaking a law that would become known as the Ku Klux Klan Act. But eventually, the few men that saw prison time would be released less than two years later.

4. 1890 Wounded Knee

Sitting Bull sits with three other Native Americans and their interpreter

Sitting Bull sits with three other Native Americans and their interpreter. | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1890, there was a movement among Native Americans called Ghost Dance. The idea was that Natives were being sent to reservations because they had abandoned their traditional customs, and through Ghost Dance and rejection of the ways of the white man, they would be restored to their land and non-Natives would be cast out. This, of course, worried the United States government.

Believing Sitting Bull to be a Ghost Dancer, reservation police attempted to arrest the famous Sioux chief. In the process, Sitting Bull was killed, and tensions became worse.

On December 29, the U.S. Army’s 7th cavalry surrounded a band of Ghost Dancers under the Sioux Chief Big Foot near Wounded Knee Creek and demanded they surrender their weapons. As that was happening, a fight broke out between an Indian and a U.S. soldier and a shot was fired, although it’s unclear from which side. A brutal massacre followed.

At Wounded Knee, at least 150 Native Americans were killed – and around half were women and children. Other estimates have the death toll considerably higher, however.

5. 1917 East St. Louis race riot

A mass grave site following the East St. Louis race riots.

A mass grave site following the East St. Louis race riots | Making Noize Media via YouTube

The race riot in East St. Louis, Illinois, began in June of 1917, and lasted three full days before the National Guard was brought in to mitigate the situation. It began when the primarily white workforce of the Aluminum Ore Company went on strike, leading to African-Americans being brought in across the picket line. That created the tension, but the violence began when rumors of a white man robbed by a black man at gunpoint popped up. That led to people pulling African-Americans off trolleys and beating them, people firing guns at African-American homes, and homes being set on fire.

At least one family actually fled across the Mississippi River to safety in St. Louis, fashioning a raft out of old doors and leftover firewood. The official death total was 39 African-Americans and nine white people, but the unofficial count over the entire three-day period was that well over 100 were dead – the vast majority African-American. While not characterized as a mass shooting, this one is still important to know about.

6. 1919 Elaine race riot

A newspaper headline from Elaine, Arkansas

A newspaper headline from Elaine, Arkansas | Arkansas Tourism on YouTube

Another one escapes the title of “mass shooting,” but all the valid points remain. The 1919 Elaine, Arkansas race riot began with a simple meeting of African-Americans inside a church. Mostly sharecroppers, the meeting was intended to discuss a way that they could obtain a higher wage for their cotton crops. But during the meeting, several white men showed up at the church and antagonized the black guards protecting the group outside.

It’s unknown who fired first, but a shootout left one of the white men dead another one badly injured. This caused fear among the white people in the heavily black area.

The concerned whites formed a mob numbering up to 1,000 armed men, many of whom came from the surrounding counties and as far away as Mississippi and Tennessee. The mob upon reaching Elaine began killing blacks and ransacking their homes.

Local white newspapers reported deliberately planned black uprisings, further inflaming tensions. By October 2, U.S. Army troops arrived in Elaine and the white mobs began to disperse. Federal troops and remaining citizens rounded up and placed several hundred blacks in temporary stockades. Reports of torture occurred, and the men were not released until they had been vouched for by their white employers.

In total, it is estimated that over 200 African-Americans were killed in the Elaine race riots.

7. 1921 Tulsa race riot

A horrifying image from the Tulsa race riots.

A horrifying image from the Tulsa race riots | NattieG CherryCheeks707 via YouTube

The 1921 race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, began with a young African-American man riding an elevator with a white woman. Some sort of incident occurred between the man, Dick Rowland, and the young woman, leading to the man being arrested by Tulsa Police. What exactly happened isn’t really known. Gossip spread through the white communities and the events became more and more extreme with each telling.

Within days, large segments of Tulsa – heavily occupied by African-Americans – were burning, and mobs were out for blood. White rioters looted the area and attacked people that got in their way. The Governor of Oklahoma declared martial law, and sent in the National Guard, but by then the damage had been done. The violence lasted only around 24 hours, but historians believe that somewhere around 300 people died in Tulsa.

Credit to Samuel Sinyangwe on Twitter for first pointing several of these out.

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