Indian Land Cessions

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INDIAN LAND CESSIONS. In colonial America, France, with relatively few settlers, showed little interest in land acquisition and generally utilized Native negotiating forms—belts of wampum, Native-style councils, and formal alliances—to accomplish their diplomatic goals. Spain and England were more formally legalistic, and more interested in acquiring land. They preferred written agreements and adopted Native forms to "seal" their bargains. The great example of this practice was the Covenant Chain between Great Britain and the Iroquois. The European-style treaties negotiated by Spain and England proved advantageous in producing documents that could be enforced against European rivals and competing Indian tribes. During the eighteenth century, rapid European settlement and the improvement in European bargaining positions at treaty councils advanced the non-Indians' cause. Yet Indians still had the important option of playing one European nation against another in treaty negotiations, thereby avoiding trade or alliance monopolies. With the rise of the United States after 1800, this key Indian negotiating tactic became more difficult to adopt.

Early Treaties

During the American Revolution, the United States negotiated a number of treaties with Indian nations, usually involving either alliance or armistice. Many of these early treaties reflected Native negotiating styles. But the treaty with the Delawares, 17 September 1778, proved a watershed. Utilizing legal language and enumerated articles, it set the pattern for most future treaties between the United States and Indians. It specified cession boundaries, annuity payments, and the roles of Indian agents and chiefs, and it was negotiated with an eye to European legal forms. This and subsequent U.S. treaties with Indians would be recognizable and enforceable.

In the years immediately after the Revolution, the rather weak United States had trouble controlling its western territory. Particularly troublesome to Indians was the assertion of settlers and government officials that the lands of the trans-Appalachian west, especially the Ohio Valley, belonged to the new nation by right of conquest from Britain. Britain had not consulted its unconquered Indian allies there before negotiating with the Americans, and these Native nations resisted American claims of hegemony. Indian military victories at Kekionga (modern Fort Wayne, Indiana) in 1790 and the upper Wabash (near modern Edgerton, Ohio) in 1791 forced American leaders to abandon the claim of conquest and instead to seek peaceful land purchases through treaties. Indian reluctance made it essential that the United States win a military victory to get the proud nations of the Old Northwest to negotiate. In 1794, the United States won the tactically small but strategically crucial victory at Fallen Timbers (near modern Toledo, Ohio). The victory, coupled with Britain's agreement (Jay's Treaty, finalized the following year) to evacuate its forts in the Great Lakes region, finally allowed the Americans to act. The result was the American triumph with the Greenville Treaty in 1795.

Negotiated in the summer of 1795 by General Anthony Wayne, the victor of Fallen Timbers, and hundreds of representatives from the Great LakesOhio Valley tribes who had opposed him, Greenville set the precedent for subsequent U.S.-Indian treaties in the Old Northwest. The treaty required the cession of most of modern-day Ohio to the United States, in return for annual payments (or annuities) to the Indians. The treaty successfully inaugurated a general peace in the Old Northwest for the next fifteen years. It demonstrated that Indian lands would have to be purchased by the United States. Bribes and veiled threats of force, however, were prominent in Wayne's negotiations. The treaty also gave the United States a permanent method to use in later negotiations with these Indians, as annuities promised could always be withheld to obtain further concessions. Wayne's use of tough negotiating tactics and the ability to play one tribe's

jealousies against another's did not go unnoticed. They became trademarks of his aide-de-camp at Greenville, William Henry Harrison, when Harrison became governor of Indiana Territory in 1800.

As governor of Indiana (which initially held jurisdiction over present-day Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin) and commissioner plenipotentiary for Indian affairs north of the Ohio River between the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains, Harrison had a significant impact on Indian relations. Patriotic, ruthless, and enthusiastic about land acquisition, Harrison proved willing and eager to carryout the policies of the new president, Thomas Jefferson. In general, Jefferson urged Harrison to buy Indian lands and to use treaty payments to give the Indians the necessary funds to become yeomen farmers. While benevolent in intent, the philosophy was also self-serving. Jefferson foresaw that Indians would become indebted to American traders, and that debt would make the chiefs more likely to sell lands to the United States. Over the next seven years, Harrison carried out this program with both zeal and skill.

In a flurry of treaty councils from 1803 to 1805, Harrison purchased millions of acres in what would become Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Invariably, the Indians involved received pennies per acre. By law, the government sold public lands in the Old Northwest at auction for at least a dollar per acre. Harrison utilized many tough negotiating techniques. He repeatedly threatened to withhold the Greenville annuities until chiefs agreed to meet with him to discuss land sales. He became a master of dividing and conquering his opponents—often inviting only some of the tribes who occupied a tract of land and securing an agreement with them. When these Indians, often desperate for additional annuities, agreed to a sale (often for lands they did not even occupy), Harrison could use them to put pressure on other tribes or chiefs who resisted. Whereas Indians formerly used the rivalries of European nations to their own advantage in treaty negotiations, by the nineteenth century the Americans could exploit the rivalries between different tribes. Harrison's councils and tactics established patterns for future U.S.-Indian treaties.


While confirming the boundary between Britain and the United States, the War of 1812 also did much to redefine and clarify U.S.-Indian relations east of the Mississippi. The Shawnee chief Tecumseh died facing Harrison's army during the invasion of Canada. General Andrew Jackson crushed the Red Stick Creeks, Tecumseh's numerous allies in the Southeast. With these twin blows, Indians in the eastern half of the United States ceased to be military threats and became obstacles to be removed. As commercial agriculture came to dominate the economies of the midwestern and southern states in the postwar era, Indians came to be defined as marginal figures in American life. President Jefferson's old dream of integrating Indians into American society vanished, and the racialized ideal of separating Indians and Americans took hold.

The removal period of the 1830s, most commonly associated with Andrew Jackson's presidency, offers the clearest example of the newly racialized concept of Indian relations and produced a new generation of land cessions. Most of the Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeast, the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles, had not opposed the United States during the War of 1812, and some had actively aided the United States against the Red Stick Creek faction. By the 1820s, the majority of them lived on small farms not unlike those of their white neighbors, and some had even adapted to plantation agriculture and owned slaves. The Cherokees, in particular, seemed "civilized," having drafted their own constitution and developed their own alphabet. The citizens of Georgia, however, remained determined to acquire Cherokee lands, and Jackson (president from 1829 to 1837) sympathized with Georgia. Further, he feared antagonizing other southern states in the midst of the budding nullification crisis with South Carolina, and supported the state's claims against the Cherokees. President Jackson approved the Removal Act of 1830, which authorized the chief executive to negotiate with all eastern tribes to secure their removal to lands west of the Mississippi. The Cherokees fought this act in court but they were unsuccessful.

By 1840, removal treaties (and subsequent forced relocations) had affected the Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles in the Southeast, and the Miamis, Potawatomis, Kickapoos, and others in the Midwest. After the Cherokees' attempts at legal redress had failed, the other Civilized Tribes had little hope of resisting the pressure to cede their lands. The poorly organized, inadequately provisioned marches west, on which many Indians died of hunger, disease, and exposure, became known as the Trail of Tears. A faction of the Seminoles in Florida, under Chief Osceola, resisted removal by waging a guerrilla campaign and were never completely evicted from their lands.


The removal era created the official view that Indians were backward peoples who could not coexist with whites. The government created the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in 1834 to deal with such people. Indians needed to be separated from the American population and con-fined to "colonies" where they could learn the arts of "civilization." Soon, colonies came to mean reservations. A further shift took place in 1849, when Indian affairs were transferred from the War Department to the Department of the Interior and inaugurated a new cycle of land cessions.

In the 1850s, the BIA held a firm commitment to the reservation policy. George Manypenny, who became the BIA's commissioner in 1853, argued that only by establishing permanent, fixed homes for Indians could they hope to adjust to American-style agriculture and the American doctrine of private property. Many penny proposed a policy of allotment in severalty, in which reservations would be divided into individual plots of land that would be assigned to individual tribal members. Many penny also sought to end the permanent cash annuity system, arguing that it was counter to the civilizing process. Instead, he proposed paying in animal stock, goods, or agricultural implements. These payments would diminish over time, forcing Indians to become self-sufficient. Manypenny personally negotiated nine treaties as commissioner; each implemented his plan with a different group and produced yet another round of land cessions, lending further weight to his influence on Indian policy.

The post–Civil War years saw a continuation of the policy of forcing tribes to cede large tracts of land in exchange for a clear title to a "reservation." In 1867, Congress authorized creation of the Indian Peace Commission, which attempted to implement this policy over a vast area of the West. Government officials hoped their efforts would secure a safe route for the new transcontinental railway as well as provide support for Indians as they adapted to new conditions. However, if Indians refused these measures, the commission would recommend force to suppress any resistance.

Initially, the Peace Commission gained some success through treaties at Medicine Lodge Creek, Kansas, and Fort Laramie, Wyoming, in 1867 and 1868. These treaties assigned reservations to several tribes and, in an admission of Indian military prowess, dismantled some American forts along the Bozeman Trail in Wyoming and Montana. The success of these treaties was matched by the 1868 treaty with the Navajos. Although the latter was

negotiated by the army, rather than the Peace Commission, it reflected the civilizing goals of peace, the creation of an Indian reservation, and annuity payments in goods and livestock rather than in cash.

By the 1870s, many reformers sought to do away with the treaty system, arguing that the balance of power between the United States and Indian tribes was now too skewed to allow for fair negotiations. In a rider to the Indian Appropriations Bill of 1871, the House of Representatives officially abandoned the practice of treating with Indian nations. Existing treaties, however, remained in effect. While 1871 marked the end of official "treaties," these were simply replaced by "agreements," or treaties by another name. The last major such document, the Great Sioux Agreement of 1889, split and reduced the Sioux reservations in North and South Dakota.


In 1887, the Dawes General Allotment Act became law. Named for Senator Henry L. Dawes, chair of the Senate's Committee on Indian Affairs, the act authorized the president to allot each Indian head of household a section of land, usually 160 acres, and the new landholder would become a U.S. citizen. Once all Indian households were allotted their lands, the government could sell the surplus land to the public. Initially hailed by well-meaning reformers, the Dawes Act proved a disaster for Indians. Tribes were unable to slow the pace of allotment, and they had little influence on the price they were paid for their "surplus" lands. Following the Supreme Court's Lone Wolf decision in 1903, Congress could act unilaterally to seize these lands without compensation. In the allotment era, those who could not or would not become independent farmers suffered miserably. Revisions in the law allowing Indians to lease their lands helped briefly, but did nothing to encourage economic development among them. While Indians had held 155,632,312 acres of land in 1881, by 1900 they held just 77,865,373. Designed to make Indians independent, the Dawes Act instead cut them off from many traditional, communal means of support. The allotment system was largely dismantled in the 1930s under the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's commissioner of Indian affairs, John Collier.

Indian Land Claims

Since World War II, Indian tribes have successfully asserted their claims to land in several parts of the country. Many have been successful in reclaiming their collective rights, including those to land and the natural resources contained therein. The Indian Claims Commission Act of 1946 provided for a special tribunal to whom Indians might (within a five-year window) bring legal grievances against the U.S. government. The commission was not authorized to return lands to Indians, but $818 million was awarded to the tribes in compensation for past misdealing before the tribunal was dissolved in 1978.

Other tribes filed suits in U.S. courts. The Sioux tribe pursued claims to the Black Hills through the U.S. Court of Claims for decades. In 1980, the Supreme Court in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians (1980) awarded them $100 million for these lands, but the Sioux rejected this offer. Other tribes pursued a congressional solution to their grievances. The Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes of Maine succeeded in winning $27 million (held in trust by the secretary of the Interior) following their legal challenge to an early nineteenth-century treaty. Alaskan Natives (supported by energy companies eager to gain access to oil) won nearly $1 billion and 45 million acres in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (1971). Other cases remain unresolved. In County of Oneida v. Oneida Indian Nation (1985), the Supreme Court ruled 5–4 that Indians' right of occupancy to their lands was equal to whites' ownership in fee simple. Further, the Oneidas' sale of the land in question to the state of New York in 1795 was invalid because Indian land cessions were a question of federal jurisdiction. Subsequent negotiations with the state of New York over compensation for this illegal seizure remain unresolved.


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Esarey, Logan, ed. The Messages and Letters of William Henry Harrison, 1800–1811. Vol. 1. New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Goebel, Dorothy Burne. William Henry Harrison: A Political Biography. Indianapolis: Historical Bureau of the Indiana Library and Historical Department, 1926.

Horsman, Reginald. Expansion and American Indian Policy, 1783–1812. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1967.

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

Kappler, Charles J., ed. Indian Treaties 1778–1883. New York: Interland, 1972.

Philp, Kenneth R. John Collier's Crusade for Indian Reform, 1920–1954. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1977.

Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. 2 vols. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Sugden, John. Tecumseh: A Life. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

Sutton, Imre, ed. Irredeemable America: The Indians' Estate and Land Claims. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985.

Sword, Wiley. President Washington's Indian War: The Struggle for the Old Northwest, 1790–1795. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

Wilkinson, Charles F. American Indians, Time, and the Law: Native Societies in a Modern Constitutional Democracy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987.

Robert M.Owens

See alsoAlaska Native Claims Settlement Act ; Cherokee Nation Cases ; Dawes General Allotment Act ; Greenville Treaty ; Indian Claims Commission ; Indian Policy, U.S.: 1775–1830, 1830–1900, 1900–2000 ; Indian Removal ; Indian Reservations ; Indian Treaties ; Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock ; Removal Act of 1830 ; Trail of Tears ; andvol. 9:Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 ; Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kaikiak, or Black Hawk .

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Indian Land Cessions

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