Indian Treaties

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INDIAN TREATIES were the means that Europeans and Americans used to secure alliances with, and most often acquire land from, Native Americans. Historians disagree about the number of treaties negotiated between European powers and the United States between 1492 and the end of the formal treaty-making period in 1871. Because municipalities, companies, and state and national governments all made treaties, the number may well be in the thousands.


After Christopher Columbus discovered the New World for Spain in 1492, Spanish explorers and conquistadors used the Caribbean as a base from which to explore North and South America. At first, conquistadors ruthlessly took land from Native Americans, whom they considered heathen or subhuman. By the 1540s, however, Spanish cleric Francisco de Vitoria was already trying to convince the Spanish Crown and its explorers that Indians were indeed human, and thus Spain should treat them with respect rather than take land by conquest. Vitoria succeeded. As friars began to supersede conquistadors on the frontier of New Spain in an attempt to Christianize Native Americans, they introduced a treaty system.

Other nations followed suit. France, less interested in planting permanent colonies but eager to establish a footing in North America, negotiated agreements with native groups that enabled them to fish and trade in peace. Over time, French colonial officials and priests used treaties to secure an extensive web of relationships that guarded the western borders of their North American domain and ensured access to the rich fur trade of the Great Lakes region.

The Dutch used treaties. Like the French, Dutch traders forged agreements with local tribes to gain access to the western fur trade. Settlers in the lower Hudson valley also purchased land and the rights to certain hunting areas with trade goods.

English settlers tried warfare and brutality to cow Native Americans. The English at Jamestown, Virginia, tried to negotiate treaties with local tribes, even attempting at one point to "crown" Powhatan, the leader of a Chesapeake Confederacy, "king" of the Indians (see Powhatan Confederacy). Powhatan's own ambitions and the Englishmen's ongoing desire for new farmlands under-mined these efforts, however. The parties maintained a fragile peace during Powhatan's lifetime (a peace sealed with the marriage of his daughter Pocahontas to an English planter), but after his death the chief's brother, Opechancanugh, reignited warfare with the English.

In New England, Pilgrim settlers on Cape Cod negotiated informal agreements with local Wampanoags that allowed them to settle at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Their Puritan brethren followed a similar path when they settled in Boston in 1630. Eventually, however, the English crowded members of the Nipmuck, Narragansett, and Wampanoag tribes onto reservations in Massachusetts. In 1675 the Wampanoag leader Metacomet, known to the English as King Philip, launched a war against the Puritans. Metacomet led warriors from all three groups against the English in the two-year struggle. Puritans won, but only after losing one-sixth of their male population. Ironically, while the English victory meant the end of an era of peaceful treaty making, it was made possible by the assistance of Hudson valley groups who refused to come to Philip's assistance because of their treaty commitments to the British.

Historical Development

During the eighteenth century, the strength of Indian confederacies, imperial threats from other nations, and a renewed interest in empire and mercantilism by the Crown (joint-stock companies had arranged early English settlements with little or no interest from the Crown) convinced England to rely more on diplomacy and treaties in relations with Indians. King George's War (1744–1748), which saw England and France vying for control of the Ohio River valley (and subsequently North America), was an example.

The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ended King George's War, but in truth it decided nothing. Both France and England jockeyed for position in preparation for renewed warfare. Native Americans, however, did not understand military truces, for once they proclaimed themselves enemies of another they intended to stay that way. French colonists capitalized on that confusion in an attempt to draw some of the Iroquois Confederacy (the Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Oneidas, and Mohawks who had earlier laid claim to the Ohio valley) away from their ally, England. To the south, at the mouth of the Mississippi River in New Orleans, French agents scored treaties with Creeks, Chickasaws, and some Cherokees.

Pennsylvania traders, led by George Croghan, realized that the British Navy had so devastated French trade routes that French Indian allies could not get the trade goods they wanted. In August 1748, Croghan and fellow traders signed the Treaty of Logstown with leaders of the Delawares, Shawnees, Iroquois, and Wyandotte Indians. It established a perpetual trade and defensive alliance between England and the Indians.

In the French and Indian War (1754–1763), the last of the great wars for the British Empire, the Iroquois Confederacy remained allied with England but did little in the way of fighting against France. The confederacy did not want to be enemies with France if France won the war. British victory in 1763 saw a deterioration in relations with the confederacy, which itself became plagued with infighting.

Upon taking control of all of North America to the Mississippi River, England encountered more trouble with former French-allied Indians. In 1763 on the upper Ohio, an Ottawa chief named Pontiac and an alliance of Indians attacked Americans (still British subjects) headed west. British soldiers put down Pontiac's rebellion, but England realized it had to conduct aggressive diplomacy with western Indians to make the region safe for settlement.

Parliament passed the Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited Americans from settling west of the Appalachian Mountains. The proclamation would enable Parliament to both control land dispersal and establish treaties with Indians before Americans took the land.

The spread of Americans to the West scared Indians. In an attempt to create a permanent boundary between whites and Indians, William Johnson, the English Indian commissioner for the North, and John Stuart, an agent in the South, treated with the Iroquois Nations in 1768. The Treaty of Fort Stanwix negotiated such a line, but failed to halt the westward white movement.

After American victory in the Revolutionary War, the United States inherited diplomatic trouble with Indians on the frontier. Indians formed new confederacies to oppose American expansion. One of them, including Miami, Shawnee, and Delaware Indians, tried to prevent white expansion north of the Ohio River. President George Washington chose force to move the Indians off the land. In 1790 he sent a small army under General Arthur St. Clair, but Miamis under Little Turtle defeated him. They did likewise to General Josiah Harmer the next year, killing 630 American troops and scoring the biggest victory over whites that Native Americans would ever win.

In 1794, with 4,000 troops, General "Mad" Anthony Wayne marched into the Miamis' region, and defeated them at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. In the subsequent Treaty of Greenville (1795), Miamis ceded to the United States most of Ohio, part of Indiana, and areas for trading posts along strategic waterways.

Indian Displacement and Nineteenth-Century Treaties

The presidency of Thomas Jefferson saw many Indian tribes east of the Mississippi River cede territory to the United States. In 1804 Sauk and Fox (see Mesquakie) Indians ceded much of what would become northwestern Illinois. In 1805 Cherokees gave up land in Georgia, Mississippi Territory, and Tennessee. That same year, Choctaws, who had ceded land in southwest Mississippi Territory in 1801, gave up more nearby. Chickasaws gave up land in middle Tennessee in 1805, and in 1806 Cherokees gave up more in southern Tennessee.

When Jefferson made the windfall purchase of Louisiana from France in 1803, he had in mind using part of it for the removal of eastern Indians. Jefferson could rightly see that white expansion would not cease, and the United States would have to deal with uprooted Indians. He suggested a large "Indian Territory," sections of which the government could reserve for Indians. Jefferson was also interested in Indians of the West, dispatching Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their journey of exploration across the northern Louisiana Purchase (1804–1806), in part to open friendly relations with Indians. By the end of their journey, the Lewis and Clark expedition had executed no treaties, but had established friendly relations with such groups as the Shoshones, Mandans, Flatheads, and Clatsops.

The white land grab continued east of the Mississippi. In Indiana, the territorial governor and military commander William Henry Harrison wanted to pad Indiana's boundaries. In September 1809 Harrison called a conference of local Indians, including Delawares, Potawatomies, and Shawnees, at Fort Wayne, Indiana. So concerned were the Native Americans about the future of their remaining lands that more than 1,100 of them attended. Harrison, no lover of Indians, dictated terms and greased the slide with money and trade baubles. With the signing of the Treaty of Fort Wayne, Native Americans ceded to the United States another 3 million acres of land in return for $7,000 up front and $1,750 yearly.

The Shawnee warrior chieftain Tecumseh protested the treaty on the grounds that the land belonged to no one tribe; hence, no one tribe or representative could sign it away. But Harrison defended its legality. Tecumseh and his half-brother, the tribal prophet named Tenskwatawa, would soon found a confederacy of Indians with the intent of stopping further white incursions.

While previous Indian treaties had moved tribes to reservation land near their traditional homes, Native Americans in the Lake Plains regions south of the Great Lakes (in an area Americans then called the Northwest—Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio) would be some of the first subjected to removal west of the Mississippi River. At the behest of military and political authorities, 1,000 representatives of northwestern tribes gathered at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in 1825, and began signing the Treaties of Prairie du Chien in which they sold millions of acres of land in return for reservations in the West. Small groups of northwestern Indians signed treaties with Indian agents for the next four years.

In the Southeast, Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles (the so-called "Five Civilized Tribes" because whites thought they had somewhat assimilated into white culture) faced continuing pressure to get off their traditional lands. In the presidential election of 1828, the Tennessee politician and general Andrew Jackson had promised southerners he would oust Indians from their land to clear the way for American agriculture. At Jackson's urging, Congress passed the Indian Removal Bill of 1830, which gave the federal government authority to negotiate with tribes for their removal to the West. Cherokees tried to fight the bill in court with two landmark cases, The Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832) (see Cherokee Nation Cases).

While ultimately unsuccessful, these U.S. Supreme Court decisions established two principles that would guide treaty making in the future. First, the Court noted that the sovereignty of the United States could not be compromised. The justices declared that treaties with tribes were not the same as treaties with foreign governments. Second, Justice John Marshall insisted that treaties were instruments of federal power and that the states could not interfere with their implementation. Federal bullying and local hostility finally persuaded a small minority of the Cherokees to sign an agreement, the Treaty of New Echota, that provided for their removal to the West, but most tribesmen refused to leave Georgia until they were forced out by the U.S. Army.

Other southeastern tribes signed similar treaties. The rapid expansion of the United States to the Pacific in the 1840s—the result of annexing Texas, settling the Oregon boundary dispute with Great Britain, and acquiring the Southwest from Mexico after the Mexican-American War—inevitably brought Americans into more conflict with Indians. U.S. officials negotiated treaties with tribes in the Northwest that exchanged land for small reservations and guaranteed access to fish and other subsistence foods, while at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, in 1851 they signed an agreement that tried to define tribal hunting grounds on the Plains and to ensure safe passage of American settlers to the West (see Laramie, Fort, Treaty of [1851]). Government negotiators also agreed to treaties that established tribal reservations in California, but the chaos of the gold rush and the virulent anti-Indian racism of the day blocked the ratification of those agreements in Congress. The result was further bloodshed and the establishment of far smaller refuges. In the Southwest and along the "middle border" of Kansas and Nebraska, similar agreements attempted to define tribal reservations and set Indian communities apart from white settlers. Unfortunately, the sanctity of these areas "reserved" for tribal use and occupancy was frequently short-lived.

The discovery of gold in Colorado in 1859 drew more than 100,000 whites across the Plains and into the Rocky Mountain region. Those miners simply took Indian lands as they went. The U.S. government attempted to alleviate the situation in 1861 by calling leaders of the primarily affected tribes—the Cheyennes and Arapahos—to Fort Lyon, in Colorado Territory. Officials abandoned the Fort Laramie Treaty, instead giving the tribes smaller parcels of land in southeastern Colorado. Angered, many tribal warriors launched a war against eastern Coloradoans. In 1864 the Colorado militia under Colonel John Chivington attacked and killed most of a band of Cheyennes under Chief Black Kettle at Sand Creek, Colorado, site of one of the 1861 reservations.

The Civil War diverted Americans' attention from westward expansion and Indian troubles for four years. But in 1866 Red Cloud's War between Sioux warriors and U.S. soldiers in Wyoming Territory spawned a new search for answers. Convinced that peace on white terms was possible, the U.S. government created a Peace Commission to handle Native American location problems. The commission decided to establish two reservations—one in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the other in western Indian Territory—to handle the estimated 140,000 Plains Indians.

Peace commissioners brought representatives of the Kiowas, Comanches, southern Cheyennes, and Arapahos to Medicine Lodge Creek, Kansas, for treaty talks in October 1867. After bribery and some coercion, the tribal leaders at the Medicine Lodge Treaty talks accepted some 3 million acres in western Indian Territory. American negotiators again failed to realize that tribal leaders did not speak for all members of their tribes. Thus when warriors of different tribes refused the treaty, warfare was again imminent. In November 1868 Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer's Seventh Cavalry attacked Black Kettle's Cheyennes on the Washita River in retaliation for depredations that another band of warriors had committed. Black Kettle died in that attack.

In 1868 peace commissioners met with Sioux leaders at Fort Laramie. In a new Fort Laramie Treaty (see Laramie, Fort, Treaty of [1868]), they promised the United States would stop protecting the Powder River Road, which threatened Sioux hunting lands, if the Sioux would accept permanent reservation land in the Black Hills. The Sioux agreed, but in vain. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874 lured more whites to the area, who shoved the Sioux out of the way.

The U.S. government abandoned treaty making with Indians in 1871. In 1870 the Supreme Court had ruled in the Cherokee Tobacco case that all Indian treaties were subject to unilateral congressional action. The next year, angered that the executive branch and the Senate had never placed many Indian cessions into the public domain, but rather shunted them directly to land-grant railroads, the House of Representative attached a rider to an Indian Office appropriations bill abolishing treaties. The bill became law. It did not nullify existing treaties, however, and it did not end the practice of negotiating agreements with tribes. In fact several such agreements were negotiated in the late nineteenth century (most prominently with the Blackfeet, Gros Ventres, and Assiniboines in Montana in 1884 and with the Sioux in Dakota Territory in 1889).

The Twentieth Century and Future Developments

In the twentieth century treaties had a complicated history. In 1903 the Supreme Court in Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock seemed to seal its fate. In a case involving the dissolution of the Kiowa reservation in Oklahoma, the Court declared that Congress had the power to abrogate treaties, even ones that promised that its terms could not be altered without the consent of the tribe. But at century's end, the courts upheld the sovereign power of treaty-guaranteed tribal courts and councils and struck down state attempts to regulate hunting and fishing rights established in treaties. The existence of treaties has also been an important argument in favor of modern tribal "sovereignty" within the context of the United States. The exact fate of treaty guarantees in the twenty-first century remains to be determined.


Billington, Ray Allen, and Martin Ridge, eds. Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier. 5th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1982.

Brinkley, Alan, Richard N. Current, Frank Freidel, and T. Harry Williams, eds. American History: A Survey. 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991.

Bonds, Ray, ed. The Illustrated Directory of Native Americans: Their History, Dress, and Lifestyles. London: Salamander, 2001.

Holm, Tom. "Indian Treaties and Congresses" and "Native Americans, U.S. Military Relations With." in The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Edited by John Whiteclay Chambers, II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

R. StevenJones

See alsoIndian Policy ; Indian Reservations ; Indian Removal ; Wars with Indian Nations ; andvol. 9:Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 ; Treaty with the Six Nations, 1784 .

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Indian Treaties