The Union’s 1865 Civil War victory marked the beginning of a new American order that brought change to every corner of the reunited nation. Although the former Confederacy was the focus of many Reconstruction policies, it was the American West that was truly transformed in the decades following the Civil War. The growing power of the federal government, which helped the Union end the Civil War and enact emancipation, also had long lasting consequences for the settlement of America’s western territories. With the Civil War finished, the American military apparatus, substantially larger than it had been in the antebellum period, began to move westward, quickly transforming “the Great Plains [into] the most violent place in North America.” Railroad infrastructure and federal policies like the Homestead Act (1862) helped stimulate westward migration on an unprecedented scale. Increased federal intervention in the West also slowed the transition of the region’s territories to statehood, thereby allowing “the federal state a stronger hand in western economic and political development.”
The decline of Native American political autonomy in the second half of the nineteenth century was one of the results of increasing national authority that also irrevocably changed the character of the American West. With its powers invigorated by the demands of war, the federal government, having abolished slavery, turned in the post-war period to address its remaining, and largely western, racial and moral problem groups: the Mormons, the Chinese, and Native Americans. Native American populations, living at various stages of what nineteenth-century Americans called civilization, proved a particularly tricky segment of the population to integrate into the American body politic. The nineteenth century’s Indian “Problem” or “Question” took many forms; American policymakers had to determine what was to be done about hostile tribes still vigorously resisting relocation, how reservations would be managed, and how to “kill the Indian but save the man” through various civilizing projects. Preparing Native Americans for the new social and political order of the postwar United States necessitated new approaches to Indian policy, producing a massive and multifaceted Reconstruction program that forever altered Native American life and the contours of the American West.
Reconstructing Indian Policy after 1865
When the Civil War ended in 1865, Americans returned with renewed focus to address the nation’s varying Indian affairs, demonstrating a commitment to western “expansion and development few in antebellum American would have thought possible.” Indian wars during the Civil War, such the Dakota War/ Uprising of 1862, and wartime atrocities like the Sand Creek massacre (1864) produced significant humanitarian outcry and verified the need for considerable reform to federal-Indian relations. In March 1865, Congress tasked a joint special committee with inquiring “into the present condition of the Indian tribes, especially into the manner in which they are treated by the civil and military authorities of the United States… and examine fully the conduct of Indian agents and superintendents.” Known as the Doolittle Committee, the investigators documented a substantially declining Native population and produced an extensive list of fraud and corruption charges in their final report. Renewed warfare on the Plains and along the Bozeman Trail further supported the Doolittle Commission’s findings in favor of reform. In 1867 Congress created the United States Indian Peace Commission, designed to put the task of negotiating with Native American tribes in the hands of “civilian and military leaders with interest and competence in Indian affairs.” Chaired by the deeply religious Nathaniel G. Taylor and including General William T. Sherman, the Peace Commission recommended Native Americans be moved to separated districts where agricultural education programs and missionary support would prepare them to join white civilization. The Commission achieved peace for only a short time and with the renewal of hostilities in 1868 reformers redoubled their efforts in tackling the continuing Indian Problem.
Ulysses S. Grant’s “Peace Policy,” beginning in 1869, served as “the formal answer to the demands for reform” and put into practice the evangelical reformist traditions that had first mobilized against the moral problem of slavery. The Peace Policy aimed to solve the issue of Indian agency corruption by placing agency control in the hands of twelve different Christian denominations, among which the Methodists and Quaker Society of Friends dominated. Hoping that “humanity and kindness [might] take the place of barbarity and cruelty” in Indian affairs, the peace policy desired to relocate Indian tribes to reservations for their protection and education. Those who refused reservation life, however, would be treated with “all needed severity,” subject to punishment “for outrages according to their merits, there by teaching it is better to follow the advice of the Government.”
Grant’s peace by choice or force policy occurred in tandem with the demise of the treaty making system. Based on humanitarian concerns regarding the power imbalance between the federal government and tribal leadership negotiating treaty terms, the abandonment of the treaty tradition “was part of a movement to end Indian tribal organization and make Indians wards of the government and ultimately individualized citizens.” This change in policy, however, was not the result of reformers’ efforts but the resolution of political conflict between the Senate, the governmental body with which treaty making powers reside, and the House of Representatives, which had to appropriate funds for treaties it had no power to influence. Promising to uphold treaty agreements already in place, the Indian Appropriation Act of 1871 formally ended the long-standing treaty tradition. Despite these formal changes, the practice of acquiring Native approval to formal agreements continued past 1871, although now both houses of Congress were involved in shaping the terms of such arrangements. Operating together, the end of treaty making and the prominent role Christian reformers played in Indian affairs represented considerable changes to federal Indian policy and practice, speeding along the erosion of Native American sovereignty.
Despite these new policies’ successes in chipping away Native American tribes’ autonomy, working to transform Indians into wards of the state, the Grant administration’s peace policy proved hard to sustain. Despite the hope that church-run agencies would be far less corrupt than their predecessors, Christian denominations struggled to administer the agencies under their control, also failing to manage “practical operations within an old political system.” Missionary boards struggled to find a sufficiency of competent Christian agents and navigate the pressures of political patronage at the same time. Interdenominational rivalries, rather than concern about Native Americans’ welfare, often motivated Christians to apply for agency appointments, while mission projects abroad drained the number of missionaries willing to work stateside. By the end of Grant’s presidency (1877), church-appointed agents were declining. The failure of church leadership to solve the Indian Problem proved that the “good intentions of Christian men were not enough to correct evils of a complex nature or overcome a long history of mismanagement.” By 1882 the churches had fully retreated from their active role operating Indian agencies, marking the end of one of the central tenets of the Peace Policy.
1849 – 1870s: Western removal, Indian wars, and treaty making
- 1849: Indian Office moved to the newly created Department of the Interior
- 1854 – 1890: Sioux Wars (Dakotas, Minnesota, Wyoming)
- 1862: Homestead Act passed
- 1868 – early 1880s: Grant administration’s “Peace Policy” in effect
- 1868: Indian agencies placed under the management of twelve Christian denominations by President Grant; Native Americans denied the right to vote under the 14th Amendment
- 1872 – 1873: Modoc War (Northern California)
- 1876: Battle of the Little Bighorn (southern Montana); Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and the 209 soldiers fighting under him are killed while only 32 Native American casualties
- 1877: Nez Perce War (Oregon, Idaho, Montana)
1870s – 1920s: Allotment and Assimilation projects
- 1871: Treaty-making abolished, gold found in the Black Hills, South Dakota
- 1878: Indian Police created
- 1879: Richard Pratt founds the Carlisle Indian School, the first non-reservation Indian boarding school funded by the United States
- 1883: Courts of Indian Offenses established, designed to restrict the traditional cultural practices of Native Americans; Ex parte Crow Dog holds that unless permitted by Congress, federal courts could not try cases already tried by tribal councils.
- 1885: Major Crimes Act passed, expanding the power of the federal judiciary in Native American crime cases. The Act placed the crimes of murder, manslaughter, assault with intent to kill, burglary, larceny, rape, and arson under federal jurisdiction even if they were committed by a Native American against another Native American in Native territory
- 1886: Geronimo leads Chiricahua Apache band in resistance to tribal relocation to a reservation; United States v. Kagama establishes the concept of Native American “protection” as justification for federal interference in intra-tribal affairs.
- 1887: Dawes Act passed, allowing for the survey of tribal land and its division into allotments for individual Native Americans; Native languages banned in schools
- 1889 – 90: Ghost Dance Movement; Wounded Knee massacre
- 1890: The 1890 census records a Native population of 237,196 people, an all-time low in American history.
- 1898: Curtis Act marks the end of tribal communal jurisdiction
Despite its name, the Peace Policy period witnessed the significant continuation of western Indian wars. Although sectional politics raged fiercely in the Reconstruction era, the pacification of western tribes proved a rare point of agreement between Northerners and Southerners “even as they fought over the proper role for the federal government, the rights of the states, and the prerogatives of citizenship.” Promoting the reservation system as the first step towards peaceful and civilized life, Grant’s Peace Policy did have need of American military support as any hostile resistance to reservation life was to be met with military action. Francis A. Walker, Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1871 until 1872, originally aimed to avoid warfare, calculating that “expensive as is the Indian service at present conducted in the interest of peace, it costs far less than fighting.” Despite its costs, military force was an acceptable means of discipline even for reformers who saw the success of the reservation policy necessitating that Indians “be made as comfortable on, and as uncomfortable off, their reservations as it was in the power of the Government to make them.” The strategic use of American military force, however, quickly turned into full warfare. Raids by Kiowas, Comanches, and Cheyennes continued relatively unchecked until 1875, while the Modoc War (1872- 73) in northern California and southern Oregon resulted in the heinous murder and scalping of American peace representatives. The horrors of the Modoc War, combined “with an endless array of political scandals and violence in the states of the former Confederacy,” began the considerable decline of popular support for the Grant administration’s southern and western reforms.
Military and settler invasions of the Black Hills in the 1870s forced the Sioux, already divided between those who had accepted reservation life and those who refused it, to take up arms to defend their sacred lands. Demanding that all non-reservation Sioux arrive on agency land by January 31, 1876, Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan promised to hunt down any who had not taken up reservation life after the deadline. Still, “the Lakotas and Northern Cheyennes refused. That summer, as the nation celebrated its centennial, the allied tribes won two victories in Montana: first at the Rosebud and then at the Little Bighorn,” the U.S. Army’s greatest defeat during the western Indian wars. Heavy reinforcements broke and scattered the Lakota-Cheyenne alliance in 1877; famed resistance leader Crazy Horse surrendered, while Sitting Bull fled to Canada. The Pacific Northwest was also rocked by Indian war, as the United States’ longest tribal friendship ended in the summer of 1877. Resisting removal from their homeland, a significant contingent of Nez Perce trekked over 1,500 miles, failing to reach the safety of Canadian border by less than 50, in the “nation’s last Indian war.”
As the Indian wars that characterized the 1860s and 70s proved, the U.S. army was as important an agent of control and management in Indian affairs as any other government-sponsored agency. Sharing the same end goals, “to locate the Indians on reservations with set boundaries where they could be educated and trained for American citizenship,” the army and the Indian Office worked together in reconstructing Native American life after the Civil War. It was the military, however, that was best equipped to respond when Native Americans refused removal to reservations or when relations with encroaching white populations turned hostile. By October 1883, just as the death knell rang for the church-appointed agency system, General William T. Sherman announced the resolution of the Indian Question by military means: “I now regard the Indians as substantially eliminated from the problem of the Army. There may be spasmodic and temporary alarms, but such Indian wars as have hitherto disturbed the public peace and tranquility are not probable.” Citing the railroad and the western migration of white farmers as important developments, Sherman saw the army as a “large factor” in ending “the great battle for civilization with barbarism.” Although most of the Indian wars had concluded by the early 1880s, the Indian Problem was alive and well as most Native Americans were still living on reservations, far from reformers’ designs of total assimilation into American life and citizenship.
Education and Cultural Assimilation Initiatives
With the end of the military and church-run agency phases of Indian policy in the early 1880s, “the drive to acculturate and assimilate the American Indians” rose to the forefront of Indian reform initiatives in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Christian reformers again took center stage, although this time avoiding “direct participation in Indian administration.” Instead, voluntary associations, made up of various “Friends of the Indians” and other Christian humanitarians, advanced their cause by garnering public support, lobbying Washington policy makers, and investigating Indian affairs on the ground. With renewed focus and vigor, and motivated by “an ethnocentrism of frightening intensity,” American reformers sough to answer once and for all the continuing Indian Problem.
Education was central to the project of turning “the individual Indian into a patriotic American citizen, indistinguishable from his white brothers.” As the Lake Mohonk Conference of 1884 reported, “good results flowing from the education (industrial, intellectual, moral and religious) of Indians has been confirmed… Education is essential to civilization… [the Indian] must have a Christian education to enable him to perform duties of the family, the State, and the Church.” Groups like the Indian Rights Association and the Women’s National Indian Association advanced educational initiatives by supporting schools on and near reservations, while also stressing the “importance of taking Indian youth from reservations to be trained in industrial schools placed among communities of white citizens.”
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School stood as the model of off-reservation Indian education in America. Founded by the Civil War veteran Richard Henry Pratt in 1879, the Carlisle School allowed Pratt to finally enact his educational philosophy that insisted “upon complete integration of the Indians into white society.” Finding little to no value in traditional Native American culture, Pratt ran his school intending to use education to “kill the Indian… and save the man.” Lecturing widely with the added benefit of fame won by Carlisle’s excellent football team, Pratt convincingly demonstrated “that Indians were indeed educable and could take their places in white society.” Despite his successes, however, Pratt proved unwilling to compromise or recognize other educational philosophies and was ultimately dismissed from his position at Carlisle in 1904. While Pratt’s goals to completely eradicate Indian culture via education were deeply misguided, “his part in awakening public opinion to the capabilities of the Indians and in mobilizing forces to promote their education” proved the most enduring aspect of his complicated legacy.
As one of the strongest civilizing tools available, “the boarding school, whether on or off the reservation, was the institutional manifestation of the government’s determination to completely restructure the Indians’ minds and personalities.” Designed to prepare Indian children for assimilated life, boarding schools emphasized a practical education that would individualize students by teaching them skills associated with professional trades. Indian education was also a means of Christianization, intimately tied to the concurrent project of Americanization – both would prepare Native American children for civilization and citizenship. Given the importance of formal schooling in preparing Native Americans to fully enter American society, officials used a variety of means to obtain students. Although persuasion was the much-preferred method for filling school rosters, when met with resistance “many U.S. authorities turned to more coercive means to obtain children, including the withholding of rations and the use of military force.”
Once in school, students received their American Christian educations entirely in English and were prohibited from engaging in Native cultural practices or maintaining their traditional dress. Many boarding schools exhibited a military style of organization and procedure, including required uniforms and stern discipline practices. Corporal punishment was a common means of discipline within boarding schools; however, although some incidents of extreme cruelty did occur, reformers actively debated the merits of moral influence as opposed to physical punishment in enacting discipline. In practice, “school officials employed a variety of techniques to keep students in line… and many conscientious employees went out of their way to avoid corporal punishment.”
Student sickness and death from disease was another all too common characteristic of boarding school life. Although there was no systematic effort to gather data on Indian health in the nineteenth century, some student populations were almost entirely decimated by disease, particularly tuberculosis and trachoma. “The boarding school itself was a major contributor to the spread of disease” and so plagued where Indian schools that the improvement of Indian health became a subject producing a series of serious reforms at the beginning of the twentieth century. Despite the fact that boarding school life was not easy, some students did enjoy and benefit from the new opportunities Indian schools provided. As one Navajo student recalled, “When I entered school… there was plenty to eat there, more food than I used to get at home… The clothing I got there too gave me joy. I was proud to look at the clothes and the shoes, and to walk around in them.” Many former students of industrial schools also appreciated the skills they had been taught and the new jobs they could now perform. Writing back to his alma mater, a Carlisle graduate, living and working in Galena, Kansas as a plumber, commented, “I do most heartily thank the Indian Training School at Carlisle, for giving me an education and a trade that I can work at. I see now it comes very handy.” Characterized by both coercion and material uplift, the education of Native Americans proved one of the most powerful and long lasting efforts to reconstruct Indian life in an American image.
Although education has always played a role in Americans’ designs to civilize Native Americans, the Indian school system only really took off following the Dawes Act of 1887 and under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson Morgan, commissioner of Indian affairs from 1889 until 1893. A long-time educator, Morgan wanted a “comprehensive system of education modeled after the American public-school system, but adapted to the exigencies of the Indian youth, embracing all persons of school age, compulsory in its demands and uniformly administered.” Morgan, however, struggled to address opposition posed in the form of the Catholic mission schools and most importantly Indian parents. Acceptance of education offerings varied widely from tribe to tribe and from family to family. In response, Morgan authorized Indian police to act as “as truant officers in compelling attendance” when persuasion did not prove effective. Aiming to educate Native Americans “not as Indians, but as Americans,” Morgan’s vision of a national Indian school system became the standard form of Indian education in the United States. By 1895 the reforms of “the previous decade had produced an impressive educational program. The national government was spending over $2 million annually to support two hundred institutions.” Although no single series of reforms closed the Indian Question successfully in the nineteenth century, education was one of the most widely supported initiatives available to the federal government, while the confidence in its power to Americanize Indian subjects meant its continuation well into the twentieth century.
Classroom Suggestions: Check out the Maryland Council on Economic Education’s multi-period history activity plan on boarding school assimilation programs, available at http://www.econed.org/wp-content/uploads/Carlisle-Lesson.pdf. The Library of Congress also offers a lesson plan on American Indian reservation controversies during the 1870s and Native American boarding schools.
Century of Dishonor
In the second half of the nineteenth century, America’s “Indian Problem” was a pressing issue that commanded the attention of policy-makers, newspapers, settlers, humanitarians and Christian reformers. Having thoroughly repudiated the validity of slave labor through war and constitutional amendment in the 1860s, the federal government turned its attention and its newly expanded prerogatives and powers to a series of western problem groups: Indians, Mormons, and Asians. Reformers addressed America’s Indian Problem with focused attention, but the issue was always tied to the other racial policies of postwar America, just one element of the Reconstruction era desire to consolidate America’s territory and citizenry and to finally define the nature and boundaries of national citizenship rights.
As a result of newly freed energies for reform at the close of the Civil War, federal Indian policy underwent considerable reorganization as Americans sought to finally work out a place for Native Americans in the post-war United States. The reforms designed to prepare American Indians for life in a free labor, individualized property-owning, increasingly homogenized United States were diverse and numerous, including military and Christian initiatives ranging in methodology from persuasion to physical force. Still, by the end of the century the Indian Question had not been satisfactorily answered. The significance of the multitude of reforms aimed at Native Americans in this period lies not in their ability, or lack there of, to disappear Native Americans into the national body politic. It is rather what they reveal about the scope, aim, and accomplishments of America’s Reconstruction government. Reconstruction was as important for Native Americans as it was for former slaves, but also far less positive. The sheer number of reforms made and the damage they did to Native sovereignty, independence, and culture demonstrate the considerable effort Reconstruction Americans spent in integrating western spaces and peoples to the rest of the United States. In attempting to respond to the perceived problems Native American life presented to American designs for one nation indivisible, policy-makers and reformers produced a series of Reconstruction projects that profoundly remade the American West in the wake of the Civil War.
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