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date: 24 March 2017

Late 19th-Century U.S. Indian Policy

Summary and Keywords

As the Civil War ended and U.S. leaders sought ways to reconstruct a devastated nation, many turned to westward expansion as a mechanism to give northerners and southerners a shared goal. Simultaneously, though, the abolitionists and activists who had fought long and hard for an end to slavery saw this moment as one for a new racial politics in the postwar nation, and their ideas extended to include Native communities as well. These two competing agendas came together in a series of debates and contestations in the late 19th century to shape the way the federal government developed policies related to Native landholding and assimilation. Far from a unified and direct movement across the 19th century, from removal to reservations to land allotment, Indian policy after the Civil War was characterized by intense battles over tribal sovereignty, the assimilation goals, citizenship, landholding and land use, and state development. During this era, the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) became a meeting ground where policymakers and reformers debated the relationship between the federal government and its citizens and wards.

Keywords: peace policy, allotment, assimilation, boarding schools, sovereignty, Board of Indian Commissioners, peace commissions, Indian Rights Association, National Indian Defense Association, Women’s National Indian Association, Society of American Indians

In 1887, after several years of debate and controversy, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, or “Dawes Act,” and President Cleveland signed it into law. The goal of the policy was to break down tribal relationships and hasten Native assimilation into mainstream society. The law authorized “the president to allot tribal lands to individual Indians in designated amounts on reservations created by treaty, act of Congress, or executive order.”1 In practice, the Dawes Act provided that each head of family would receive a 160-acre plot of land on their reservation, while single people and orphans over the age of 18 would receive 80 acres and those under 18 would receive 40. The land allotments would be held “in trust” by the federal government for twenty five years, meaning that the families or individuals could not sell or lease the property. Eligible Native people had four years to select their allotments or the secretary of the interior could assign them. Additionally, there were several reservations excluded from the law, including the five “civilized” tribes and others in Indian Territory and the Seneca in New York, among others.

The history of the development of the allotment law and related assimilation programs, from the removals of the 1830s across the 19th century, has often been portrayed as an inevitable movement with little disagreement from contemporary policymakers or reformers as to whether or not it was a good idea. Yet, in actuality, it was the result of two decades of debate and controversy dating back to the end of the Civil War. In order to understand how and why the allotment law came to be, it’s important to acknowledge the efforts made by two generations of activists to contest ideas about the relationship between the federal government and its citizens and wards. While some in Congress and the military designed and implemented Reconstruction policy in the South, others turned their attention to the West. Initial Indian policy reforms in this period mirrored the hybrid public and private policy orientation and the experiments with compensatory legislation that were simultaneously being applied for freed people, but competing legislative and national goals related to westward expansion made the context and outcome quite different.

Optimism After the Civil War

Recently, scholars have begun to acknowledge how the experience of the Civil War helped motivate postwar reform initiatives in Indian affairs. Government officials, military leaders, and civilians alike sought peace and a return to normalcy after four long years of war. Many of them, reflecting on the idealism that had developed during the war, hoped their sacrifices would not have been made in vain. Indeed, the New York Tribune exclaimed “the new era has begun! … A new world is born.”2 For many reform-minded individuals, historian Mark Summers asserted, “it was a new world … the Civil War left them with a sense of purpose renewed … a new commitment to make America better, if only to requite the lives lost.”3 For Indian policy reform specifically, this optimism took the form of an articulation of new goals and practices for managing the OIA and working with tribal communities.

At the center of this shift was Ely S. Parker, a Tonawanda Seneca chief, personal friend to Ulysses S. Grant, and Civil War general. Parker participated in a series of postwar peace commissions in the West and South that brought together military, civilian, and religious leaders with varying levels of experience working with and living among Native communities. As these commissions met with Native nations, they mapped out a set of directives that form the core of the peace policy, the name commonly associated with a series of programs initiated by the Grant administration in the late 1860s and throughout the 1870s. These activists, with Parker at the helm placed a high value on enforcing the existing treaties, even deploying the military to do so. Parker especially, but others as well, wanted to provide indigenous nations with as much time as possible to assimilate into the broader United States by their own means. Parker was fully convinced of Native peoples’ abilities.4

Late 19th-Century U.S. Indian PolicyClick to view larger

Figure 1. “Colonel Ely S. Parker” (ca. 1865). The National Archives. ARC Identifier: 528267; Local Identifier: 111-B-4121.

Other components of these activists’ plans appealed to a wide swath of Reconstruction Era reformers and centered upon several related efforts, including improving the efficiency of Indian policy administration by consolidating power within the Office of Indian Affairs and streamlining the relationship between it and the army, providing oversight for the purchase and distribution of Indian treaty annuities and rations, and compensating Native communities for land loss and continuing colonialism.

The articulation of these ideas began in 1865 when Grant, acting as commanding general, sent Parker as a representative of the army in the commission established to meet with southern Indian nations, some of whom had signed treaties and fought alongside the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. The commission met with representatives from the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Seminole, Osage, Seneca, and several other nations at Fort Smith, Arkansas. Parker’s inclusion, as a Native American, appears to have sent an important message to the Indian delegates at the meetings, particularly the Choctaw and Chickasaw, who wrote, the “fact that the United States Government have seen fit to include a member of an Indian tribe, with its Commissioners, has inspired us with confidence as to its designs and desires … and we are anxious to have the benefit of his presence and counsel.”5

In 1867, reflecting on his postwar peace commission experiences and at Grant’s request, Parker sent a letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton outlining his thoughts on Indian policy reform. In the letter he described his program as one that would provide for “the establishment of a permanent and perpetual peace … between the United States and the various Indian tribes.”6 Parker’s ideas focused on oversight of policy administration by both Native and non-Native individuals and the establishment and protection of specific land rights for Native communities. He advocated for bureaucratic reform through the transfer of the OIA back to the War Department (it had been moved to the Interior Department in 1849) to curb corruption and insulate the Office from the influence of land and business interests. Parker also articulated his view that the government should provide money, goods, services, and new opportunities for Native people, particularly in the form of education, in an effort to compensate for dispossession and the history of colonization. He carried these ideas through additional peace commission work in 1867–1868, establishing himself as a key figure in OIA reform.

A Contentious Peace Policy and the End of Treaty-Making

In 1869, newly elected president Ulysses S. Grant appointed Ely Parker to be commissioner of the Office of Indian Affairs; he became the first Native American person to hold the position. At the head of this executive office, Parker began implementing many of the reforms he developed with allies throughout the 1860s. Early in his tenure, the new commissioner sought to root out corruption and mismanagement within the OIA and provide greater efficiency in policy administration by ending the practice of appointing “special commissioners” or “special agents” to carry out specific tasks on the reservations. He also aided the Society of Friends in helping to appoint new agents to many of the reservations. He believed that religious or military leaders were preferable to regular citizens in these positions.7

Parker’s OIA pursued three other reforms shortly after his appointment, and while it could not claim complete success in any of these ventures, it did attract the attention of proponents of westward expansion and rapid assimilation. First, Parker and his allies advocated moving the OIA back to the War Department. Some have argued that this indicated an interest in increased military action against Native communities, perhaps foreshadowing the so-called “Indian war” violence of the 1870s. However, Parker asserted that efficient and just administration would minimize the army’s involvement in the West and that the War Department after the Civil War arguably had the most well-developed bureaucracy of any executive agency. Second, the OIA worked to honor treaty agreements by pursuing additional funding and resources to provide food, goods, and opportunities for Native communities. This proved difficult due to well-entrenched, corrupt influences, including traders, suppliers, transportation companies, and policymakers, who made themselves rich by defrauding Native people and the federal government. Finally, Parker’s OIA endeavored to clarify Indian land titles and maintain Indian nations as distinct entities within the United States, even supporting the establishment of a Native-run coalition government in Indian Territory.8

As another component of new Indian policy, the U.S. Congress in 1869 authorized the president to establish a Board of Indian Commissioners (BIC) to oversee the purchase and distribution of goods in the Indian service. While Parker hoped that this group would include both Native and non-Native men, only the latter were appointed. The BIC began work quickly under the leadership of its first chairman, William Welsh, a Philadelphia philanthropist and Episcopal layman. While the board carried out its responsibilities, it also sought to expand its influence and shape Indian policy reform. The men of the BIC were business and transportation leaders as well as religious philanthropists, and they as well as their friends stood to benefit from Indian confinement and forced assimilation in the West. As such, the BIC’s policy advocacy rested upon the concept that the government held the power to coerce Native people to assimilate and advanced a policy agenda that focused on containing Indians on increasingly smaller reservations and cultural assimilation by any means necessary. Animated by Welsh’s evangelism, their driving philosophy argued that the wealthy, educated, Christian philanthropists of the United States understood the best interests of Native people—better than Native people themselves. These ideas put them at odds with Ely Parker, and the BIC worked to wrest power away from him.9

In December 1870, William Welsh published an open letter to the secretary of the interior alleging that Ely Parker was guilty of fraud and mismanagement in his leadership of the OIA, particularly in the purchase and transportation of goods for the Indian service.10 The House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations investigated the charges and after interviewing thirty-four men—contractors, federal officials, members of the BIC, military leaders, and Indian agents—it was determined that the charges were baseless.11 The committee exonerated Parker, but to him the message was clear. He would not be able to pursue his reform agenda against an entrenched political coalition that was deeply invested in western expansion, Indian confinement, and rapid, forced assimilation. He resigned his position as commissioner in the summer of 1871.

It’s no coincidence, then, that 1871 also marked the end of treaty-making between the United States and sovereign tribal nations. Congress ended the practice unilaterally by attaching a rider to the Indian appropriations bill declaring that no further treaties could be negotiated.12 This was a significant moment in the assault on tribal sovereignty; in essence, it represented the notion that from the perspective of Congress, tribal nations were completely subject to the federal government going forward. The same forces of confinement and expansion, what scholars refer to as “settler colonialism,” that conspired to oust Parker from his position motived this action by Congress.

Violence and Reform, Late 1870s and Early 1880s

Following Ely Parker’s ouster in 1871, the Grant administration’s Indian policy shifted. While officially still devoted to assimilation and “peace,” the OIA and U.S. Army took an increasingly hard-line stance as settlers flooded west and clashed with Native groups. Grant himself noted that if tribes did not accept the tenets of the peace policy and remain confined within the boundaries of the reservations, a “war policy” would be pursued.

The 1870s witnessed some of the most intense violence in the history of U.S.–Indian relations. The Great Plains and Far West erupted over the course of just a few short years. In 1870, the U.S. Army attacked a band of Piegan Blackfeet Indians in Montana Territory and killed more than 200 people, mostly women, children, and elderly men. In 1871, at Camp Grant in Arizona Territory, a coalition of American, Mexican, and Tohono O’oodham men attacked an Apache camp, killing nearly 150, all but 8 of whom were women and children. In 1872–1873, army soldiers fought a protracted war against the Modoc in northern California and southern Oregon. In 1874–1875, General Sherman’s troops engaged Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Kiowa soldiers in fourteen different battles in Northwestern Texas. In 1876, Lakota and Cheyenne troops with Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull clashed with General Crook’s soldiers and then General Custer’s 7th Cavalry in southern Montana. In the Northwest in 1877, the Nez Perce of the Wallowa Valley fought to keep their homes with Chief Joseph against the U.S. Army. These were only a few of the dramatic events that punctuated this era in Indian country. Reformers who had worked to develop the various parts of the peace policy witnessed these events with shock and disappointment. Believing that the post–Civil War peace policy model had failed, a new generation of reformers and policymakers worked to map out a new direction, and they hoped their goals could be accomplished quickly.13

In 1882, 31-year-old Herbert Welsh (William Welsh’s nephew) and Henry Pancoast, two philanthropic young men, traveled to the Great Sioux Reservation and visited several other Indian agencies in Dakota Territory and Nebraska. They were moved by the reservation poverty and hardships they witnessed on their trip, but also by the potential they saw for assimilation and the interest they believed Native people had for incorporation into mainstream American society. They returned east, to Philadelphia, and founded an organization to lobby the federal government for changes in Indian policy. They brought together forty philanthropists in the city, men with powerful business, industrial, and commercial interests, as well as religious and political leaders. They named their organization the Indian Rights Association (IRA). The new group claimed to offer new reform ideas, premised on the notions that the peace policy had failed and that the reservation system served as a disincentive for assimilation, but the IRA platform ultimately represented a constellation of policy directives directly connected to the work of earlier reformers, including William Welsh and the Board of Indian Commissioners.14

The general principles that guided the Indian Rights Association included support for allotment legislation, “practical” education, the extension of civil law to the reservations (indicative of the continued assault on tribal sovereignty), and immediate citizenship—all premised upon Indian confinement and a coercive form of assimilation. The marked difference between this program of reform and those championed by earlier generations had more to do with a timetable than actual policy innovations. For the IRA, these reforms needed to be instituted immediately. The IRA, in the 1880s, became part of a larger group of eastern philanthropists and activists interested in working toward Indian policy reform. Collectively, they referred to themselves as the “Friends of the Indian,” and along with the IRA, the Women’s National Indian Association, and the Boston Indian Citizenship Committee, they met each year at a resort owned by a prominent Quaker activist, Albert Smiley. The Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian featured lectures, discussions, and strategy sessions, and writers like Helen Hunt Jackson, whose Century of Dishonor (1881) had inspired so many of them, often attended and spoke.

The IRA made two decisions early in its development that proved significant for its reform agenda. First, building from a tradition established by the Society of Friends (Quakers), the IRA employed a full-time lobbyist in Washington, D.C. Herbert Welsh selected Charles C. Painter to serve in this position; he was an experienced advocate for African American rights and a faculty member at Fisk University. The second important decision was to create a Committee on Public Information within the organization. Through this committee, IRA members sought to shape the public discourse surrounding Indian policy by publishing and distributing pamphlets, writing letters to the editors of national and regional newspapers, and embarking on lecture tours throughout the United States.

The same year that Welsh founded the IRA, two other reformers, Thomas and Cora Bland, took over as editors of an Indian reform journal called The Council Fire. The journal had been the brainchild of Alfred Meacham, a former peace commissioner who served as a negotiator during the Modoc War in 1873, but when he passed away in 1882, his close friends, the Blands, took over. The Council Fire editors initially reached out to the IRA but soon came to realize that they disagreed in several fundamental ways. In fact, a few years later, Thomas Bland founded his own Indian policy advocacy group, the National Indian Defense Association (NIDA), to combat the efforts of the IRA.15 Founded in 1885, the NIDA almost immediately outlined a reform agenda that resembled Parker’s in many ways. NIDA members first argued that civil, criminal, and property laws of the United States should be used to protect Indian people within their communities against encroachments and actions of non-Native people. In addition they asserted that tribal sovereignty and land rights should be federally and permanently protected. Second, they took the stance that the “tribal condition,” which they defined as communal landholding and customary practices of tribal governance, should be maintained until, at a point in the future, Native people could be incorporated “into some political institution in harmony with the general system of our Government.” And finally, they contended that Indian communities should be given secure patents for their land to protect them from dispossession.16 For the next two years, the IRA and NIDA would battle each other through the press and before Congress, as the movement toward allotment and coercive assimilation intensified.

The Allotment Debate

Thomas Bland and the other members of the National Indian Defense Association asserted that land allotment legislation would disrupt the separation of the powers in the federal government by either strengthening or undermining the power of congressmen and senators. They also believed that land allotment would threaten the balance between state and federal authority to the detriment of all citizens. As they made these arguments, Bland and NIDA hoped to create a permanent alternative to the assimilation process, instead providing incentives to Indian communities and allowing Native people to embrace mainstream culture and societal values only if they chose to do so. They simultaneously suggested that the state itself should serve a protective role for the nation’s most needy and disenfranchised citizens and wards, much in line with larger populist agitation during this time period.17

Herbert Welsh and the Indian Rights Association lobbied for several pieces of legislation that featured allotting reservation lands and forced assimilation: the Sioux Bill, the Coke Bill (another precursor to allotment), and the General Allotment Act.18 As the IRA worked to build public support for these bills, it created many important alliances. Welsh, Rhoads, Painter, and other IRA leaders often spoke at the annual Lake Mohonk Conference of the Friends of the Indian, held in upstate New York at the behest of Quaker school teacher, Albert K. Smiley.19 The IRA also worked closely with the Women’s National Indian Association, the Boston Indian Citizenship Committee, and the Board of Indian Commissioners.20 The members of the latter often nominated Welsh and other leaders for subcommittee and advisory positions. Interested individuals like the Wahpeton Dakota physician, Charles Eastman, and his non-Native wife, Elaine Goodale Eastman, supported the IRA’s educational stance, as did Carlisle Institute director, Richard Henry Pratt.21 The IRA also established close relations with powerful senators such as Richard Coke and Henry Dawes.22

These assimilationist reformers operated with a certain amount of unanimity, as they all supported a similar model of Indian policy focused on dispossession and confinement. However, the NIDA represented a serious challenge to the success of their reform agenda, especially in the middle years of the 1880s, and the IRA took it very seriously.

The Forty-Ninth Congress engaged in considerable legislative wrangling leading up to the passage of the General Allotment Act. The first congressional debate happened on February 19, 1886, and several senators (many of them influenced by NIDA), such as Henry Teller, Preston Plumb, John Ingalls, Charles Manderson, and Samuel Maxey, raised significant opposition to its ideas. Bland observed that Senator Henry Dawes, the bill’s sponsor, “found himself at his wit’s end for arguments” and asserted that the opposing senators simply misunderstood the bill.23 Interestingly, Bland and NIDA chose not to raise any objections to the proposed bill during the congressional debates because it contained a clause requiring Indian approval before allotment could be enacted on any reservation. Bland stated, “it was pretty well guarded.” Before it passed the Senate, though, the provision was dropped, prompting Bland to “hope that it may be either amended, or defeated in the House.”24

Much to Bland’s and NIDA’s delight, the House Indian Committee amended the bill “so as to prevent its enforcement upon tribes of Indians until two-thirds of the men shall have signified their consent.” He assured the readers of the Council Fire that this amendment made the allotment bill “comparatively powerless” and would soon come to believe, following other 1886 NIDA victories, that the hardest battles were behind them.25

The first victory that year came in the form of the permanent suspension of Indian Agent Valentine McGillycuddy at Pine Ridge Reservation; Bland and his organization had protested his treatment of the Lakota there for years.26 Then, believing that the general allotment bill had lost momentum, the NIDA successfully blocked the IRA-supported Sioux Bill in March. Indeed in mid-1886, the allotment bill, following Senate approval, stalled in the House of Representatives. Despite IRA efforts, it would not come up for a vote by the time the session ended in August.27 NIDA’s opposition to land allotment received an important endorsement in late 1886 when President Cleveland suggested that he shared Bland’s philosophy. In a discussion with “that well-known friend of the Indians, Huldah H. Bonwill,” he stated, “we must not go too fast in this.” “I want practical suggestions,” he urged.28 NIDA celebrated its victories, preparing to go into 1887 with strengthened resolve.

The new congressional session opened on December 17, 1886, and before Christmas that year Congress passed a revised version of the allotment bill. The wording of the NIDA amendment had been changed to state that a reservation could not be abolished without Indian consent but allowed allotment to be implemented without consent. Although Bland noted the bill had been “so changed that Senator Dawes would hardly recognize it,” he concluded that it was “still a most vicious measure, and ought not to become a law.”29 The bill went to committee so that the differences between the Senate and House versions could be rectified, and a compromise bill—without the NIDA amendment—finally passed both houses of Congress. Despite his claim to want to move deliberatively, President Cleveland signed the bill into law on February 8, 1887.30 Shortly after the passage of the allotment law, Bland and the NIDA vowed to challenge its constitutionality in the court system. Unfortunately, the organization suffered a major setback that summer; the Blands were injured in a locomotive accident, and they were never able to assemble a legal test case.

Allotment in Practice

The allotment policy went into practice in the late 1880s and reflected an overarching assumption by many policymakers and reformers that tribal landholding practices and community cohesiveness on the reservations were inhibiting assimilation. By allotting tribal lands into individually held plots, these individuals and groups believed that they inspired individual economic initiative, broke down tribal community, reduced the costs of policy administration in the Office of Indian Affairs, developed commercial agriculture on the reservations, and opened “excess” Indian lands for white ownership.

It is important to note that while the initial act provided several “protective” features, including exemptions for Indian Territory and a provision establishing a 25-year “trust” period in which the federal government would maintain individual Indian land titles, the policy was amended several times. In 1889, 1891, and 1898, the provisions of the allotment act were extended to include previously exempted tribes and to allow for the allotment of land for cattle ranching. The 1891 act also created a process for inheritance. In 1906, the Burke Act allowed the secretary of the interior to forgo the 25-year trust period in many cases, resulting in significant fraud and land loss. This act also granted citizenship unconditionally at the end of the trust period for some but extended the waiting period for other Native people to become citizens of the United States, effectively allowing them to participate in the economic life of the nation but not the political one.

Several corollary programs were instituted by the Office of Indian Affairs during the allotment era in an effort to hasten assimilation and instill Euro-American gender/family roles among Native people. The OIA ran on- and off-reservation schools for Native youth, including boarding schools. Some Native children were forcibly taken from their parents to these schools. The children were taught English and other basic skills but were also forbidden from speaking their own languages, forbidden from learning about and practicing their own cultural ceremonies, and, in some cases, physically, sexually, and emotionally abused. The OIA also employed government farmers and school matrons on the reservations to aid Native men in learning commercial agricultural practices, instruct Native women in gender-appropriate domestic roles, and to run the schools. As with the boarding schools, there were abuses of authority, fraud, and mismanagement in these positions, too.

The boarding schools had others consequences, as well, including some that the federal government never intended. As they came together to support one another, Native students from different regions and tribal nations forged a pan-Indian identity that would animate Native activism into and through the 20th century. Furthermore, the students took advantage of many of the opportunities that the schools offered, including developing literacy in English and a working knowledge of American legal and political structures, as well as skills in science, math, and the arts.31 Some of these young men and women returned to their homes and found employment within federal agencies, while others pursued additional education and careers in activism and policy reform. Many of the most well-known men and women from the first boarding school generations came together in 1911 to form the Society of American Indians (SAI). For the next twelve years, SAI lobbied and proposed legislation, challenged Bureau of Indian Affairs policies, and sought to unite Native communities across the United States.32

After more than forty years in practice, the OIA investigated the effectiveness of the allotment policy and produced, in 1928, a document known as the The Problem of Indian Administration, or Meriam Report. The result of a lengthy study by the Institute for Government Research (later known as the Brookings Institute), the report revealed that the allotment program have been an abject failure. The report noted that in providing education and healthcare, the Indian Office was failing dramatically. Infant mortality among Indian people was double the national average. It also found that two-thirds of Native people earned fewer than $100 per year; that only about one third of Native people were literate; and that Indians died from tuberculosis at a rate seven times that of the general population and trachoma was commonplace. Finally, the report asserted that many of the problems pervading Indian communities derived from the land allotment policy. The Meriam team argued that “much loss of land and an enormous increase in the details of administration without a compensating advance in the economic ability of the Indians” had resulted from the Dawes Act. In fact, a main component of the policy authorized the federal government, once a reservation had been allotted, to sell or lease the remaining lands to non-Native settlers and land developers. Of the 155,632,312 acres Native people held in 1881, only 52,651,393 remained by 1933.33

The report suggested that the Office of Indian Affairs make significant changes—including greatly minimizing the number of fee patents it issued, ending the practice of leasing Indian land to non-Indians, and regulating the sale of inherited lands to non-Indians—in an effort to reverse harmful trends. In other words, it suggested that the best course of action would be to end the allotment policy. Although it was not tabulated in The Problem of Indian Administration, non-Native people, especially ranchers, homesteaders, land developers, and farmers, profited greatly from the opportunity to purchase newly opened reservation lands at a minimum. The federal government, too, used these funds to defray some of the costs of Indian governance. The Meriam Report’s researchers concluded that the Indian service needed to establish a fund that could be used to purchase, consolidate, and sell back reservation lands to Indians, giving them permanent and legally recognized title.34

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed John Collier Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Under Collier’s leadership, the OIA created and implemented a system of legislation for Indian affairs that reflected Roosevelt’s broader New Deal policies of social and economic reform. The Indian New Deal—Collier’s policy agenda on the federal level in the 1930s—was the culmination of twelve years of personal work among Indian people. As Commissioner of Indian Affairs, he reversed the coercive policies of the allotment era, beginning with the passage of the Wheeler-Howard or Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. This act “successfully ended land allotment, restored surplus land at various reservations, and provided funds for purchasing new real estate.”35 Though controversial, he consequently vowed to protect and foster Indian communities. Collier also played a key role in securing the passage of the Johnson-O’Malley Act, which allowed the secretary of the interior to “provide money for local assistance in the areas of Indian health, education, agriculture, and social welfare.”36 He also created a mechanism by which Indian communities could assert rights of self-government by writing constitutions of their own (following a boilerplate model), electing officers, and adopting law codes that the federal government then supported and protected.

Discussion of the Literature

Historical studies of late-19th-century Indian policy—both the peace policy and the allotment act—flourished in the mid- to late 20th century and initially typified the broader approach employed by early scholars of Native histories. These studies focused on federal policymakers and reformers as paternalistic and often well meaning, but ill informed, and portrayed Native people as passive victims with little room for agency.

Peace policy studies have generally focused on a constellation of initiatives enacted by the Grant administration in the late 1860s and throughout the 1870s. One of the most studied aspects of the peace policy is the Office of Indian Affairs effort to remove secular Indian agents and replace them army officers or representatives of various Christian churches (and mostly Quaker). A second element of the peace policy that historians of explored in detail is the establishment of the Board of Indian Commissioners and as a corollary, the other non-Native reformers, including religious leaders and former abolitionists, involved in policymaking at the time. Finally, the most thoroughly explored topic in post–Civil War Indian policy is the military component to westward expansion, especially the protracted and brutal warfare in the Great Plains and Far West. Taken together, these studies affirmed an assertion historian Francis Prucha made in his American Indian Policy in Crisis, that the peace policy was “a state of mind, a determination that since the old ways of dealing with Indians had not worked, new ways which emphasized kindness and justice must be tried.” He noted that the policy was made up of disparate elements and had no overarching ideological grounding that could be “precisely dated” or “rigidly defined.” However, more recent work has suggested that Native and non-Native leaders after the Civil War, at least initially, pursued a related set of goals designed to regularize Indian policy administration, consolidate power within the Office of Indian Affairs, honor treaty stipulations, clarify Indian land titles, and provide money, food, and educational opportunities for Native communities.

The development and administration of the General Allotment Act has attracted even more scholarly attention, although the basic contours of the historiographical development of this literature are similar. The first lengthy scholarly treatment of the policy was written by D. S. Otis and published in 1934, the same year it was repealed. He was a consultant for the Office of Indian Affairs, and in The Dawes Act and the Allotment of Indian Lands, he argued that the act’s passage was due to the lobbying of social reformers known as the “Friends of the Indian” but refrained from criticizing the act itself. Otis did not suggest that the act was flawed, but rather that “the Government failed utterly at the crucial point of the program’s administration.”37 His study focused on the bureaucratic mechanisms within and overall objectives and results of the policy, but he did not focus on how Native people responded to it. In 1940, Angie Debo published And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes, which offered a much more critical analysis and is still considered a classic study on the topic of allotment in Indian Territory today.

Top-down studies focusing on the paternalist efforts of the U.S. government during the allotment era characterized the prominent publications of the mid-20th century. J. P. Kinney’s sweeping study of Indian policy, A Continent Lost, A Civilization Won: Indian Land Tenure in America, viewed the allotment era as the culmination of two hundred years of work to assimilate and civilize Native people. In an apologetic tone, he asserted that reformers who lobbied for the policy probably did not recognize the dangers it posed to Indian land holdings.38 In the end, as his title suggested, Kinney viewed the Dawes Act as a successful and beneficial policy for Native people.39 Paternalism was also the focus of Loring Priest’s, Uncle Sam’s Stepchildren. He viewed the Dawes Act’s passage as the result of a balance between Eastern social reformers’ assimilative goals and Western land developers’ economic interests. Like both Otis and Kinney before him, Priest did not interpret allotment as a flawed policy, but rather contended that federal administrators were to blame for the eventual repeal of the act.40 The most influential of the mid-20th-century studies of allotment was Francis Prucha’s American Indian Policy in Crisis. He was more condemnatory toward the reformers and policymakers that lobbied for and created the allotment policy. Instead of excusing the creators and blaming the administrators, Prucha wrote, “We know now that the vision of these Christian reformers was clouded, that their goal of rapid and total assimilation for the Indians did not—indeed could not—work.” He went on, “With typical reformers’ zeal they swept criticism and opposition aside, for they knew they were supremely right. So much more tragic, then, was their ultimate failure.”41

The emergence of “New Indian History” following the political activism of the 1960s and 1970s brought with it a spate of new interpretations about the allotment policy. The most important and influential among these was Frederick Hoxie’s A Final Promise, which argued that there were actually two assimilation campaigns in the allotment era. During the first phase (1880s and early 1890s), “there was widespread interest in transforming Indians into ‘civilized’ citizens” and “politicians and reformers fashioned an elaborate program to incorporate native Americans into the nations.” Then, in the second phase (late 1890s–1920), he contended that “reacting to new, more pessimistic assessments of Indian abilities … policy makers redefined their objectives and altered the federal effort.”42 He concluded that the new direction, based on racist ideologies, intended to strip Native people of their property and force them to the fringes of American society. In his most cited chapter, entitled “The Irony of Assimilation,” Hoxie asserted that by the end of the allotment era “assimilation had come to mean its opposite,” in other words it no longer meant the total incorporation of Native people into the mainstream society.43

Among the corollary assimilation programs related to allotment, the boarding schools have probably received the most scholarly attention. David Wallace Adams’s Education for Extinction offered the first comprehensive study of federal boarding schools and narrated a similar timeline to Hoxie’s work above. While the program began with strong assimilationist goals, student resistance and school mismanagement, among other factors, disenchanted educators and the policymakers who had been the most enthusiastic supporters of system. Tsianina Lomawaima’s They Called It Prairie Light, about Chilocco Indian School, and Brenda Child’s Boarding School Seasons, about the Haskell Institute and Flandreau School, both provided deeper insights into the Native student experience and revealed simultaneously the heart-wrenching tragedies and amazing mutual support and triumphs that characterized it. Finally, Katherine Ellinghaus’s Taking Assimilation to Heart offers a fascinating examination of the ways in which white woman–Indian man intermarriage factored into the assimilationist ideology of Hampton Institute in Virginia.

More recent work, including Rose Stremlau’s Sustaining the Cherokee Family, Cathleen Cahill’s Federal Fathers and Mothers, Beth Piatote’s Domestic Subjects, and Boyd Cothran’s Remembering the Modoc War, intervene into this literature with added sophistication and complexity. Their work, among others, broadens the context in which late-19th-century Indian policy is examined. They explore the ways in which gender, race, labor, family relations, culture industries, and the press affected the development and administration of the Office of Indian Affairs.

Primary Sources

There is a wealth of primary sources related to late-19th-century U.S. Indian policy. For the text of specific federal laws, students and scholars can start with Charles Keppler’s five-volume collection Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties. During this period, the Office of Indian Affairs compiled voluminous annual reports—hundreds of pages each year. While these sources must be viewed with a skeptical eye, the Annual Reports of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs can provide an important window into policy administration. The National Archive and Records Administration’s Record Group 75, the Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, contains tens of thousands of pages of letters sent and received, financial records, hearings, memos, and other materials related to policy development and administration in this period. For more in-depth research, scholars should consult congressional documents relating to the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations because it was the responsibility of the committee to fund the Office of Indian Affairs and pay for treaty appropriations. Other hearings, peace commission reports, and memorials are available in the congressional record from this era as well. During the Grant administration, especially, there were numerous hearings and investigations into charges of corruption and mismanagement in the Office of Indian Affairs, and the testimonies generated in them also provide important insights. Some of these, especially during Grant’s second term, can be found in the National Archive’s Record Group 48, the Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior.

For students and scholars interested in the development of Indian policy in this era, a good starting place is Francis Prucha’s edited collection Americanizing the American Indian: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian,” 1880–1900. For further research on policy reformers, students and scholars can access the Indian Rights Associations papers, a collection of 136 rolls of microfilm. This cache of documents, meticulously collected and organized, includes correspondence, organizational records, printed materials, annual reports, and the papers of prominent members, such as Herbert Welsh. Additionally, the journal of the National Indian Defense Association, The Council Fire, is available on ten reels of microfilm. Finally, the Society of American Indians papers are also available widely, both on microfilm and online.

Further Reading

Adams, David W. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875–1928. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.Find this resource:

Bruyneel, Kevin. The Third Space of Sovereignty: The Postcolonial Politics of U.S.-Indigenous Relations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Cahill, Cathleen. Federal Fathers and Mothers: A Social History of the Indian Service, 1869–1933. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Child, Brenda. Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900–1940. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Cothran, Boyd. Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Debo, Angie. And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1940.Find this resource:

Deloria, Philip. Indians in Unexpected Places. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.Find this resource:

Denson, Andrew. Demanding the Cherokee Nation: Indian Autonomy and American Culture, 1830–1900. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Ellinghaus, Katherine. Taking Assimilation to Heart: Marriages of White Women and Indigenous Men in the United States and Australia, 1887–1937. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Genetin-Pilawa, C. Joseph. Crooked Paths to Allotment: The Fight over Federal Indian Policy after the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Gilbert, Matthew S. Education Beyond the Mesas: Hopi Students at Sherman Institute, 1902–1929. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Harring, Sydney. Crow Dog’s Case: American Indian Sovereignty, Tribal Law, and United States Law in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Hoxie, Frederick. A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880–1920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.Find this resource:

Jacobs, Margaret. White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880–1940. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Lomawaima, K. Tsianina. They Called It Prairie Light: The Story of Chilocco Indian School. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Osburn, Katherine. Southern Ute Women: Autonomy and Assimilation on the Reservation, 1887–1934. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Ostler, Jeffrey. The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Piatote, Beth. Domestic Subjects: Gender, Citizenship, and Law in Native American Literature. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013).Find this resource:

Prucha, Francis. American Indian Policy in Crisis: Christian Reformers and the Indian, 1865–1900. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976.Find this resource:

Rand, Jacki. Kiowa Humanity and the Invasion of the State. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Raibmon, Paige. Authentic Indians: Episodes of Encounter from the Late Nineteenth Century Northwest Coast. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Stremlau, Rose. Sustaining the Cherokee Family: Kinship and the Allotment of an Indigenous Nation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Tonkovich, Nicole. The Allotment Plot: Alice C. Fletcher, E. Jane Gay, and Nez Perce Survivance. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Troutman, John. Indian Blues: American Indians and the Politics of Music, 1879–1934. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Wilkins, David. American Indian Sovereignty and the U.S. Supreme Court: The Masking of Justice. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Wilkins, David, and K. Tsianina Lomawaima. Uneven Ground: American Indian Sovereignty and Federal Law. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.Find this resource:


(1.) General Allotment Act (or Dawes Act), Act of Feb. 8, 1887 (24 Stat. 388, ch. 119, 25 USCA 331), Acts of 49th Cong., 2nd Sess., 1887.

(2.) Quoted in Mark Summers, The Era of Good Stealings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 21.

(3.) Summers, Era of Good Stealings, 21.

(4.) For more on Ely Parker’s life and career, see Arthur C. Parker, The Life of General Ely S. Parker: Last Grand Sachem of the Iroquois and General Grant’s Military Secretary (Buffalo, NY: Buffalo Historical Society, 1919); William H. Armstrong, Warrior in Two Camps: Ely S. Parker, Union General and Seneca Chief (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1978); and C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa, Crooked Paths to Allotment: The Fight of Federal Indian Policy after the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

(5.) Documents relating to the negotiations of ratified and ungratified treaties with various tribes of Indians, 1801–1869, General Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs,
1801–1952, RG 75, NARA.

(6.) “Letter from the Secretary of War, Addressed to Mr. Schenck, chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, transmitting a report by Colonel Parker on Indian Affairs,” U.S. Congress, House Misc. Doc. No. 37, 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., 1.

(7.) Ely S. Parker to Sec. of the Interior Jacob D. Cox, June 7, 1869, Report Books of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1838–1881, vol. 18, 426, RG 75, NARA.

(8.) Ely S. Parker to Sec. of the Interior Jacob D. Cox, June 8, 1869, Report Books of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1838–1881, vol. 18, 390–391, RG 75, NARA; Ely S. Parker to Sec. of the Interior Jacob D. Cox, March 9, 1870, Report Books of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1838–1881, vol. 19, 237, RG 75, NARA: U.S. Congress, Congressional Globe, 41st Cong., 3rd Sess., pt. 3, 450–451.

(9.) 16 U.S. Statutes at Large 40. For more on the members of the Board of Indian Commissioners, see Genetin-Pilawa, Crooked Paths, 91–93.

(10.) U.S. Department of the Interior, Report of Honorable E.S. Parker, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, to the Honorable Secretary of the Interior, on the Communication of William Welsh, Esq., Relative to the Management of Indian Affairs, 1870, 1, Ayer Collection, Newberry Library, Chicago, IL.

(11.) U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Appropriations, Affairs in the Indian Department, 41st Cong., 3rd Sess., 1871, H. Misc. Doc. 39.

(12.) For more on this congressional rider, see Kevin Bruyneel, The Third Space of Sovereignty: The Postcolonial Politics of U.S. Indigenous Relations (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 69.

(13.) There are many studies of the violence in the 1870s, but for an excellent recent example, see Boyd Cothran, The Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Makin fog American Innocence (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

(14.) For the best account of Herbert Welsh’s life and the early history of the Indian Rights Association, see William T. Hagan, The Indian Rights Association: The Herbert Welsh Years, 1882–1904 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1985).

(15.) For the best description of Thomas Bland’s life and the history of the National Indian Defense Association, see Jo Lea W. Behrens, “‘In Defense of Poor Lo’: The Council Fire’s Advocacy of Native American Civil Rights, 1878–1889” (master’s thesis, University of New Mexico, 1992).

(16.) “The National Indian Defense Association,” Council Fire 8 (December, 1885): 175.

(17.) For a fuller discussion of the NIDA agenda, see Genetin-Pilawa, Crooked Paths, 118–133.

(18.) See Synopsis of Three Bills Advocated (1886), Indian Rights Association Papers, Series 2, Subseries A, Reel 102.

(19.) For more on Lake Mohonk, see Prucha, American Indian Policy, 143–144. See also Francis Prucha, Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indians,” 1880–1900 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978); Larry Burgess, “We’ll Discuss in at Mohonk,” Quaker History: The Bulletin of Friends Historical Association 40 (Spring 1971): 14–28; Hoxie, A Final Promise, 12; and Francis Prucha, “The New Christian Reformers,” in The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986).

(20.) These organizations often held joint conferences in addition to the Lake Mohonk affairs. See Circular, Resolutions passed at a joint Conference of the Board of Indian Commissioners, Indian Rights Association, Woman’s National Indian Association … (1885), IRAP, Series II. Organizational Records, 1882–1968, Reel 102—IRA Pamphlets, 1883–1892—Subseries A. Founded by Amelia Stone Quinton and Mary Bonney, the WNIA played a significant role in the intensification of Indian policy reform efforts in the 1870s and 1880s. For more see Valerie S. Mathes and Richard Lowitt, The Standing Bear Controversy: Prelude to Indian Reform (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003). For a brief history of the organization see Victoria Mathes, “Nineteenth Century Women and Reform: The Women’s National Indian Assocation,” American Indian Quarterly 14.1 (1990): 1–18; and Helen Wanken, “Woman’s Sphere and Indian Reform: The Women’s National Indian Association, 1879–1901” (PhD Diss., Marquette University, 1981).

(21.) For more see Hagan, The Indian Rights Association, 36–37. The IRA often republished newspaper articles Elaine Goodale Eastman wrote and distributed them among other reformers and legislators. See for example Elaine Goodale Eastman, The Senator and the School-House, (1886), IRAP, Series II. Organizational Records, 1882–1968, Reel 102—IRA Pamphlets, 1883–1892—Subseries A [originally published in the New York Independent, March 4, 1886]. Pratt did not appreciate the IRA’s support reservation schools, thus accounting for the occasionally strained relations.

(22.) In his article “The End of the Savage,” historian Frederick Hoxie wrote that between “1880 and 1900 the Senate was probably the most influential branch of American government, and its members among the most accomplished politicians of their day.” See Frederick Hoxie, “The End of the Savage: Indian Policy in the United States Senate, 1880–1900,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma 55.2 (1977): 157–179, 158.

(23.) “The Bill to Allot Lands,” The Council Fire 9 (March 1886): 48.

(24.) “Senator Dawes’ Bill,” The Council Fire 9 (March 1886): 49.

(25.) “The General Severalty Bill,” The Council Fire 9 (May 1886): 74; and “The Mohonk Platform for 1886,” The Council Fire 9 (November–December 1886): 158.

(26.) “Agent McGillycuddy Removed from Office,” Council Fire 9 (June 1886): 86.

(27.) Behrens, “In Defense,” 189. See also “Opposing the Dawes Bill,” Council Fire 9 (April 1886): 55–60; and “There is at this date …” Council Fire 9 (July 1886): 110.

(28.) “Miss Bonwill’s Talk with the President,” Council Fire 9 (December 1886): 160.

(29.) “The Indian Severalty Bill,” The Council Fire 10 (January 1887): 6.

(30.) For a very clear and concise account of these events, see Jo Lea Wetherilt Behrens, “Forgotten Challengers to Severalty: The National Indian Defense Association and Council Fire,” Chronicles of Oklahoma 75.2 (1997): 142–146.

(31.) For more see Tsianina Lomawaima, They Called it Prairie Light: The Story of Chilocco Indian School (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995); and Brenda Child, Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Familes, 1900–1940. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000).

(32.) The most exciting new work on the Society of American Indians can be found in “The Society of American Indians and Its Legacies: A Special Combined Issue of SAIL and AIQ,” eds. Chadwick Allen and Beth Piatote, Studies in American Indian Literatures, 25.2, and American Indian Quarterly 37.3 (Summer 2013).

(33.) For more, see The Brookings Institution, Institute for Government Research, The Problem of Indian Administration (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1928).

(34.) For more, see Kenneth R. Philp, John Collier’s Crusade for Indian Reform, 1920–1954 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1977), 90–91; Hoxie, A Final Promise, 242; and Emily Greenwald, Reconfiguring the Reservation: The Nez Perces, Jicarilla Apaches, and the Dawes Act (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002), 146. The Dawes Act itself was only one of the methods by which Indians were dispossessed in this period, but the land cessions that also occurred were part of the general framework of dispossession and coercive assimilation in this period.

(35.) Kenneth R. Philip, John Collier’s Crusade for Indian Reform, 1920–1954 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1977), 186.

(36.) Philip, John Collier’s Crusade, 133. For more on Collier, his background, and his reform agenda, see Lawrence Kelly, The Assault on Assimilation: John Collier and the Origins of Indian Reform (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983); and E. A. Swartz, “Red Atlantis Revisited: Community and Culture in the Writings of John Collier,” American Indian Quarterly 18 (1994): 507–531.

(37.) D. S. Otis, The Dawes Act and the Allotment of Indian Lands, ed. Francis Prucha (1934; reprint, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973), 80.

(38.) J. P. Kinney, A Continent Lost, A Civilization Won: Indian Land Tenure in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1975 [1937]), 242, 338–339.

(39.) In this, Kinney failed to acknowledge sources like the 1928 Meriam report that concluded the Dawes Act actually disrupted Indian life and failed to correct their economic woes.

(40.) Loring Priest, Uncle Sam’s Stepchildren: The Reformation of the United States Indian Policy, 1865–1887 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univerrsity Press, 1942), 250–252.

(41.) Francis Prucha, American Indian Policy in Crisis: Christian Reformers and the Indian, 1865–1900 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976), 402–404.

(42.) Frederick Hoxie, A Final Promise, xviii. It is important to note that this book has been reprinted (2001) by Bison Books, which possibly denotes a renewed scholarly interest in the allotment era.

(43.) Ibid., 243.