Introduction

Prior to the Civil War, relations between Americans and the native population had been marked by encroachment on Indian land, some cooperation, occasional alliances against common enemies, misunderstanding, violence, expulsions from traditional lands, treaties, promises, missionary work, and more violence. After the war ended, the United States had to address again the question of what to do about Native Americans. President Grant hoped for something better than what history had so far recorded. He inaugurated what came to be called Grant’s peace policy (see Ely S. Parker, Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, December 23, 1869, and Grant’s Speech to Red Cloud and Red Dog, May 28, 1872).

Ely S. Parker (in his letter to Harriet Converse, 1885) and Susan La Flesche (in her essay, “The Home Life of the Indian,” June 1892) explain some of the changes that occurred in Native life, both individually and collectively, because of or despite Grant’s efforts.


Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, made to the Secretary of the Interior for the year 1869 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1870), 3–6. Available from Internet Archives at https://goo.gl/e5urvE. Ely S. Parker (1828–1895) was a Seneca Indian who studied to be a lawyer, was not allowed to become one because Native Americans at that time were not citizens (in 1924 by act of Congress they became so), then became an engineer, met Ulysses S. Grant while working in Galena, IL, joined the Union Army during the Civil War, and became Grant’s secretary. He was present at Appomattox when Lee surrendered. After the war, Parker served as Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1869–1871). He was accused of misusing funds, resigned, but was later cleared. His letter to Harriet Converse refers to this episode.


Sir: As required by law, I have the honor to submit this, my first annual report of our Indian Affairs and relations during the past year, with accompanying documents.

Among the reports of the superintendents and agents herewith, there will be found information, with views and suggestions of much practical value, which should command the earnest attention of our legislators, and all others who are concerned for the future welfare and destiny of the remaining original inhabitants of our country. The question is still one of the deepest interest, “What shall be done for the amelioration and civilization of the race?” For a long period in the past, great and commendable efforts were made by the government to accomplish these desirable ends, but the success was never commensurate with the means employed. Of late years a change of policy was seen to be required, as the cause of failure, the difficulties to be encountered, and the best means of overcoming them, became better understood. The measures to which we are indebted for an improved condition of affairs are the concentration of the Indians upon suitable reservations, and the supplying them with means for engaging in agricultural and mechanical pursuits for their education and moral training. As a result, the clouds of ignorance and superstition in which many of these people were so long enveloped, have disappeared, and the light of Christian civilization seems to have dawned upon their moral darkness, and opened upon a brighter future. Much, however, remains to be done for the multitude yet in their savage state, and I can but earnestly invite the serious consideration of those whose duty it is to legislate in their behalf, to the justice and importance of promptly fulfilling all treaty obligations and the wisdom of placing at the disposal of the department adequate funds for the purpose, and investing it with powers to adopt the requisite measures for the settlement of all tribes, when practicable, upon tracts of land to be set apart for their use and economy. I recommend that in addition to the reservations already established, there be others provided for the wild and roving tribes of New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada; also for the more peaceable bands in the southern part of California. These tribes, excepting the Navahos in the Territory of New Mexico, who under the Treaty of 1868, have a home in the western part of the Territory to which they have been removed, have no treaty relations with the government, and if placed upon reservations, it will be necessary that Congress, by appropriating legislation, provide for their wants, until they become capable of taking care of themselves. In the other Territories, as also in Oregon and the northern part of California, the existing reservations are sufficient to accommodate all the Indians within their bounds; indeed, the number might with advantage be reduced; but in Montana there is urgent need for the setting apart permanently suitable tracts for the Blackfeet and other tribes, who claim large portions of that Territory and are parties to treaties entered into with them last year by Commissioner W. J. Cullen, which were submitted to the United States Senate, but have not been finally acted upon by that body. Should the treaties be ratified, the required reservations will be secured, greatly to the benefit of both Indians and citizens.

Before entering upon a resume of affairs of the respective superintendencies of agencies for the past year, I will here briefly notice several matters of interest which in their bearing upon the management of our Indian relations, are likely to work out judging from what has been the effect so far, the most beneficial results.

Under an act of Congress approved April 10, 1868, two million dollars1 were appointed to enable the President to maintain peace among and with various tribes, bands and parties of Indians; to promote their civilization; bring them, when practicable, upon reservations, and to relieve their necessities, and encourage their efforts at self-support. The Executive is also authorized to organize a Board of Commissioners, to consist of not more than ten persons, selected from among men eminent for their intelligence and philanthropy, to serve without pecuniary compensation, and who, under his direction, shall exercise joint control with the Secretary of the Interior over the disbursement of this large fund. . . .

In regard to the fund of two million dollars referred to, it may be remarked that it has enabled the department to a great extent to carry out the purpose for which it was appropriated. There can be no question but that mischief has been prevented and suffering either relieved or warded off from numbers who otherwise by force or circumstances would have been led into difficulties and extreme want. By the timely supplies of subsistence and clothing furnished, and the adoption of measures for their benefit, the tribes from whom the greatest trouble was apprehended have been kept comparatively quiet, and some advance it is to be hoped, made in the direction of their permanent settlement in the localities assigned to them, and their entering upon a new course of life. The subsistence they receive is furnished through the agency of the commissary department of the Army, with, it is believed, greater economy and more satisfaction than could have resulted had the mode heretofore been followed. In this connection I desire to call attention to the fact that the number of wild Indians and others, also not provided for by treaty stipulations, whose precarious condition requires that something should be done for relief and who are thrown under the immediate charge of the department, is increasing. It is therefore, a matter of serious consideration and urgent necessity that means be offered to properly care for them. For this purpose, in my judgment there should be annually appropriated by Congress, a large contingent fund similar to that in question, and subject to the same control. I accordingly recommend that the subject be brought to the attention of Congress.

With a view of more efficiency in the management of affairs of the respective superintendencies and agencies, the Executive has inaugurated a change of policy whereby a different class of men from those heretofore selected, have been appointed to duty as superintendents and agents. There are doubtless just grounds for it, as great and frequent complaints have been made for years past, of either the dishonesty or inefficiency of many of these officers. Members of the Society of Friends,2 recommended by the society, now hold these positions in the Northern superintendency, embracing all Indians in Nebraska; and in the Central, embracing tribes residing in Kansas, together with the Kiowas, Comanches, and other tribes in the Indian country. Other superintendencies and agencies, excepting that of Oregon and two agencies there, are filled by Army officers detailed for such duty. The experiment has not been sufficiently tested to enable me to say definitively that it is a success, for but a short time has elapsed since these Friends and officers entered upon duty; but so far as I can learn, the plan works advantageously, and will probably prove a positive benefit to the service, and the indications are that the interests of the government and the Indians will be subserved by an honest and faithful discharge of duty, fully answering the expectations entertained by those who regard the measure as wise and proper.

I am pleased to have it to remark that there is now a perfect understanding between the officers of this department and those of the military, with respect to their relative duties and responsibilities in reference to the Indian affairs. In this matter with the approbation of the President and yourself a circular letter was addressed to this office in June last to all superintendents and agents, defining the policy of the government in its treatments of the Indians, as comprehended in their general terms, viz3: that they should be secured their legal rights; located, when practicable, upon reservations; assisted in agricultural pursuits and the arts of civilized life and that Indians who should fail or refuse to come in and locate in permanent abodes provided for them, must be subject wholly to the control and supervision of military authorities, to be treated as friendly or hostile as circumstances might justify. The War Department concurring, issued orders upon the subject for the information and guidance of the proper military officers, and the result has been harmony of action between [the] two departments, no conflict of opinion having arisen as to the duty, power and responsibility of either.

Arrangements now, as heretofore, will doubtless be required with tribes desiring to be settled upon reservations for the relinquishment of their rights to the lands claimed by them, and for assistance in sustaining themselves in a new position, but I am of the opinion that they should not be of a treaty nature. It has become a matter of serious import whether the treaty system in use ought longer to be continued. In my judgment it should not. A treaty involves the idea of a compact between two or more sovereign powers, each possessing of sufficient authority and force to compel a compliance with the obligations incurred. The Indian tribes of the United States are not sovereign nations, capable of making treaties, as none of them have an organized government of such inherent strength as would secure a faithful obedience of its people in the observance of compacts of this character. They are held to be the wards of the government, and the only title the law concedes to them to the lands they occupy or claim is a mere possessory one. But because treaties have been made with them generally for the extinguishment of their supposed absolute title to land inhabited by them, or over which they roam, they have become falsely impressed with the notion of national independence. It is time that this idea should be dispelled, and that the government cease the cruel farce of thus dealing with its helpless and ignorant wards. Many good men, looking at this matter only from a Christian point of view, will perhaps say that the poor Indian has been greatly wronged and ill-treated; that this whole county was once his of which he has been despoiled, and that he has been driven from place to place until he has hardly left to him a spot where to lay his head. This indeed may be philanthropic and humane, but the stern letter of the law admits of no such conclusion, and great injury has been done by the government deluding these people into the belief of their being independent sovereignties, while they were at the same time recognized only as its dependents and wards. As civilization advances and their possessions of land are required for settlement, such legislation should be granted to them as a wise, liberal and just government ought to extend to its subjects holding their dependent relation. In regard to the treaties now in force, justice and humanity require that they be promptly and faithfully executed, so that the Indians may not have the cause of complaint, or reason to violate their obligation by acts of violence and robbery. . . .

Study Questions

A. What reasons does President Grant give for his Indian policy? What are its key elements? What is Ely Parker’s criticism of the attitude of “good men” and Christians toward the Indians? How would he have responded to the efforts of the Women’s National Indian Association described by Susan La Flesche? What did Parker mean when he said that all his life he had occupied a false position? What was the cause of this? Do Parker and Susan La Flesche have the same attitude to the changes that have occurred in Indian life?

B. In what ways are the efforts of the federal government after the Civil War to deal with former slaves and Native Americans alike or dissimilar?

C. Compare the attitudes and policies towards Native Americans expressed here with those of the earliest European colonizers? What similarities or differences do you see in their underlying assumptions about the role of the native population in the future of what would become the United States?

Footnotes

  1. A sum equivalent to $33 million in 2017. Two million was 0.5 percent of the Federal budget in 1868. An equivalent percentage of the budget in 2017 would be roughly 18,000,000,000.
  2. the Quakers, one of several religious groups through which much of Grant’s Indian policy was administered
  3. that is to say