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.


“The Indians at the White House,” The Evening Star, May 28, 1872. Available at https://goo.gl/x5d18q. Red Cloud (1822–1909) was a leader of the Lakota Sioux, who accepted the reservation system, following Red Cloud’s War, which included an engagement with a detachment under the command of William Fetterman (the Sioux killed the entire detachment). A rough contemporary of Red Cloud, Red Dog was another Sioux leader.


I am very glad to see you here again, and to hear that you have tried so hard to carry out the promises made by you when you were here before – to keep the peace between your people and the whites. . . .

We want to do for you and your people all we can to advance and help them, and to enable them to become self-supporting. The time must come when, with the great growth of population here, the game will be gone, and your people will then have to resort to other means of support; and while there is time we would like to teach you new modes of living that will secure you in the future and be a safe means of livelihood.

I want to see the Indians get upon land where they can look forward to permanent homes for themselves and their children. The matter of the location of your agency we want to make agreeable to you, and also to the white people, and to regulate this you must speak to the Secretary of the Interior. I want you to have your talk with him. He tells me all that is said to him, and he speaks for me.

I do not want you and your people to go beyond the territory which has been guaranteed to you by treaty stipulations, except with your full consent; but I am going to suggest to you for your thought and reflection a movement – not for you to decide upon today, nor this year necessarily, but for you to think about taking into consideration the advantages that will be gained by it – and if you all consent I will state what we propose to do for you.

If, at any time, you feel like moving to what is known as the Cherokee country1 – which is a large territory, with an admirable climate, where you would never suffer from the cold and where you could have lands set apart to remain exclusively your own – we would set apart a large tract of land that would belong to you and your children. We would at first build houses for your chiefs and principal men, and send men among your people to instruct them so they could have houses for shelter. We would send you large herds of cattle and sheep to live upon, and to enable you to raise stock. To this end we would send, if you so desire, Indians who have been accustomed to live with white men, who would instruct you in growing and raising stock until you know how to do so yourselves. We would establish schools, so that your children would learn to read and to write, and to speak the English language, the same as white people, and in this way you and your people would be prepared, before the game is gone, to live comfortably and securely.

I say this only for you to think about and talk about to your people. Whenever you are ready to avail yourself of this offer, then you can talk to us, and we will do what I say. All the treaty obligations we have entered into we shall keep with you unless it is with your own consent that the change is made, or so long as you keep those obligations yourself.

Any reply that you wish to make you can make to the Secretary of the Interior. This you can put off until you have thought over the subject.

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. Grant is probably referring to Oklahoma, to which the U.S. government had relocated many tribes, including the Cherokee.