Board of Indian Commissioners

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BOARD OF INDIAN COMMISSIONERS, established by Congress on 10 April 1869, was authorized to give advice on the conduct of federal policy regarding Native Americans and to inspect supplies delivered to Indian agencies in fulfillment of treaty obligations. Originally consisting of ten Protestant, male members, it was the kind of group that had been recommended by humanitarian reformers for years.

The immediate result of the board's efforts was Ulysses S. Grant's "peace policy," which, among other things, involved the nomination of agents by Protestant and Catholic churches. The strategy was to force peaceable Indians onto reservations, where Christian agents and missionaries would prepare them for assimilation into the mainstream of society. Indians who refused to move to reservations would be treated as hostile and would be pursued by the army until they acquiesced or were killed. During the late nineteenth century the board was a powerful force in determining federal policy, advocating citizenship for Indians and their assimilation into the mainstream of American life through education, enactment of laws, and the allotment of reservation land in severalty.

By 1900 the board had declined, but it soon revived as old members died and new ones were appointed. Two Catholics were members in the twentieth century, and two women were appointed in the 1920s. In 1909 Warren K. Moorehead discovered fraud in the sale of white pine timber at White Earth in Minnesota, and he made other members of the board aware of serious health problems among reservation residents. With the board's encouragement, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Charles Burke began a health drive in 1923, and the board was instrumental in initiating the Meriam survey of conditions on Indian reservations in 1926 and 1927.

Many recommendations of the board from the late Progressive Era through the 1920s reached fruition during the Indian New Deal and beyond. Congress authorized a $600,000 revolving fund in 1914, and the Wheeler-Howard Act of 1924 increased the fund to $10 million. Tribal ownership of cattle herds and the timber industry began in 1916. In the 1920s the board recommended the assignment of doctors from the U.S. Public Health Service to the Indian Health Service, the decentralization of the Indian service, and the Court of Indian Claims. These reforms were accomplished by 1954. Despite these areas of agreement, however, New Deal reformers believed the Board of Indian Commissioners had outlived its usefulness. When John Collier became commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1933, he immediately terminated the board by executive order.


Fritz, Henry E. The Movement for Indian Assimilation, 1860–1890. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963.

———. "The Board of Indian Commissioners and Ethnocentric Reform, 1878–1893." In Indian White Relations: A Persistent Paradox. Edited by Jane F. Smith and Robert M. Kvasnicka. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1976.

———. "The Last Hurrah of Christian Humanitarian Indian Reform: The Board of Indian Commissioners, 1909–1918." Western Historical Quarterly 16, no. 4 (1985): 147–162.

Fritz, Henry E., ed. "The Board of Indian Commissioners and the Reform of Indian Affairs from the Late Progressive Era to the New Deal." In Making United States Indian Policy, 1829–1933. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, forthcoming.

McDonnell, Janet A. The Dispossession of the American Indian, 1887–1934. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

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

Henry E.Fritz

See alsoIndian Policy, U.S. ; Meriam Report .

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Board of Indian Commissioners

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