Indian Agents

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INDIAN AGENTS. The term "Indian agents" was not used officially until 1796, but the idea of assigning government "peace missionaries" to the Indian tribes began with Secretary of War Henry Knox in 1789. Knox hoped that agents would reduce friction between the tribes and the government by promoting "civilization" among the tribes and facilitating peaceful relations between the groups. U.S. treaties often stipulated that an agent would reside with a tribe. In 1793 the president gained the legal power to appoint agents, although initially Congress felt such positions would be temporary and did not renew the provision in the Trade and Inter-course Act of 1802 that authorized them. For the next thirty years there was no legal basis, except in treaties, for appointing Indian agents.

In the early nineteenth century, agents (who were legally forbidden from trading themselves) bore primary responsibility for supervising the government's Indian trading houses. During Thomas Jefferson's administration (1801–1809), trading houses worked to push Indians into dependence on manufactured goods. Trading houses, therefore, were forbidden from accepting any factory produced items from Indians, who were restricted to trading hides and other raw materials. An agent would watch for violations in the trade and intercourse laws and report them to their superintendents (usually the governor of the territory), local military commanders, or the War Department. Finally, agents were charged with distributing annual payments, or annuities, to the chiefs, who would then redistribute them to their peoples. This system placed enormous reliance on the character of the individual agent.

While some agents were honest and efficient, mismanagement and corruption were frequent. Poor record keeping became standard, as agents often had little formal education, and government allocations lacked fine divisions between funds for private use and those for official business. Honesty and efficiency in the Indian agencies faced the dual challenges of a general public not especially concerned with Indians' welfare and an Indian Office preoccupied with keeping the peace.

In the years after the Civil War, periodic outbursts of public concern encouraged more efficient and humane administration of Indian policy at the agencies. Beginning in 1869, during President Ulysses S. Grant's administration, philanthropic Christian denominations gained control of many Indian agencies. These groups intended to improve the agencies, but overall they failed miserably. There were surprisingly few candidates for Indian agent who were both devout Christians and competent administrators. Even the most well-intentioned appointees proved largely inadequate to the task. By 1882 all the churches had withdrawn from the program.

Beginning in 1880, agents' duties included teaching Indians English as well as industrial and agricultural arts. Liquor was to be strictly prohibited. Setting Indians to "civilized" work became the priority, as idleness was seen as the worst enemy of Indian "progress." Despite these expectations, agents were often appointed for political reasons rather than for their qualifications.

In the interest of efficiency and fairness, reformers gradually managed to include agency personnel in the professional civil service. In 1896 President Grover Cleveland decreed that those seeking positions as agents, teachers, matrons, school superintendents, nurses, and physicians in the Indian Service would be required to pass competitive examinations before being appointed. While the new policy improved the quality of Indian agents, Indians themselves continued to hold only the most menial positions at the agencies. This pattern changed during the New Deal because a provision of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act permitted Indians to gain appointment without taking the Civil Service exams. As a consequence of this shift, Indians began to be appointed agency superintendents (the title changed gradually after 1893). Among the first Native Americans to be named superintendents were Robert Yellowtail on the Crow reservation and Wade Crawford at the Klamath agency. By 1972 Native Americans held the majority of top-level executive positions in the Washington, D.C., office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as seven of the twelve area superintendent positions.


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

Jackson, Curtis E., and Marcia J. Galli. A History of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Its Activities among Indians. San Francisco: R&E Research Associates, 1977.

Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Schmeckebier, Laurence F. The Office of Indian Affairs: Its History, Activities, and Organization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1927.

Robert M.Owens

See alsoBureau of Indian Affairs .