American Indian Policy, 1787–1830

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American Indian Policy, 1787–1830

The new American nation developed an Indian policy based on the premise that peace must be maintained. National leaders considered war too expensive, and they feared that harsh treatment of the Indians would blacken the nation's honor and reputation. By conciliation of the Indians through negotiation, liberal gifts and presents to the chiefs, guarantees of protection against white encroachment, and well-developed trade to provide for Indian wants, federal officials envisioned peace and prosperity for both the new Republic and the Indian tribes on the frontiers.

Peace, however, was an elusive goal, for white citizens on the frontier were avaricious for land; they had little respect for Indians and their culture, and it was difficult for the government to restrain them. Time and again, serious wars interrupted the peace, which nevertheless remained a constant goal. To meet the challenge of preserving peace while at the same time satisfying the demands of white citizens, the government, in the ethnocentric climate of the times, hoped that the Indians would ultimately accept the cultural patterns of the whites and thus be assimilated into mainstream American society. The Indian problem would disappear if the Indians disappeared, not by extermination but by amalgamation.

the plan of civilization

The theoretical basis for this hope for assimilation was supplied by George Washington, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Thomas Jefferson. These officials were men of the Enlightenment, and their views were widely shared. They saw the Indians as brothers moving inexorably from barbarism to civilization, and they were determined to encourage and support the journey. The main embodiment of the principle was a plan of civilization, begun in Washington's administration and carried on by Jefferson and his successors. Its outline was simple: give the Indians cattle and sheep as private property; supply plows and other agricultural tools (with blacksmiths to keep them in shape); and provide cards, spinning wheels, and looms. Thus would the men be able to support their families by agriculture while the women practiced the arts of domestic manufacture. Once the Indians had adopted these methods of sustenance, they would make their hunting grounds available for white settlers because extensive territories would no longer be necessary for food and clothing. The government sent agents to work among the tribes with instructions to carry out this plan as their primary duty.

Indian policy, of course, did not develop in a vacuum, but was influenced by the circumstances of the day. The federal policy grew little by little to meet the exigencies of the times. One problem was land. The United States acknowledged the Indians' ownership of their lands, but it limited that right to occupation and use, without admitting a fee simple title, which would have allowed the Indians to dispose of their land at will. The federal government paid for lands that the Indians ceded rather than claiming them by right of conquest. And it insisted that the Indians could cede or sell land only to the government, which carefully guarded this right of preemption.

Another problem was trade, a primary contact point of the two races in much of the early national period. Goods had long been exchanged between the Indians and the whites, the former supplying furs and peltries, the latter supplying knives, kettles, guns, and other manufactured goods that had become necessities in Indian lives. Unless fraud and corruption could be eliminated from the trade, peace with the tribes was unlikely, and the plan of civilization could not be carried out.


An important element in federal Indian policy was the distribution of silver medals to Indian chiefs and warriors as a sign of friendship and allegiance. The United States inherited the practice from the British, French, and Spanish; and Indian chiefs expected to get such medals from their new Great Father.

During Washington's administration, officials presented large oval medals, individually engraved. Some small medals with scenes of civilized life were struck in England at Washington's direction to reward Indians for their acceptance of white ways. Then the government settled on a new form for the medals. Beginning with the Jefferson presidency, the U.S. Mint struck large round medals bearing on the obverse the bust of the president and on the reverse, amid clasped hands and crossed peacepipe and hatchet, a message proclaiming peace and friendship.

Lewis and Clark presented such medals to Indian chiefs, and the medals were used widely by Indian agents and other American officials. They came at first in three sizes, in order to differentiate chiefs of varying importance. The medals were produced for succeeding administrations (except that of William Henry Harrison) until 1890. All those before 1850 used the peace and friendship reverse; later medals had reverses designed to promote culture change among the Indians.

As Thomas L. McKenney, head of the Indian Office, wrote to Secretary of War John H. Eaton on 21 December 1829: "Without medals, any plan of operations among the Indians, be it what it may, is essentially enfeebled. This comes of the high value which the Indians set upon these tokens of Friendship. They are, besides this indication of the Government Friendship, badges of power to them, and trophies of renown. They will not consent to part from this ancient right, as they esteem it; and according to the value they set upon medals is the importance to the Government in having them to bestow."

The medals are now of interest chiefly to museums and private collectors, who pay high prices for them. In the early Republic they were essential for successful dealings with the Indians.

Francis Paul Prucha

bibliography: Prucha, Francis Paul. Indian Peace Medals in American History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.


The concerns that developed over the decades were met in the first instance by formal treaties between the federal government and the Indian nations. By 1789, when the new government under the Constitution began, nine treaties had already been signed

with the New York Indians and the southern nations. The Constitution authorized the federal government to regulate commerce with Indian tribes as well as among states and with foreign nations, but it did not specifically mention treaties with Indians. President Washington, however, decided that the forms used in treating with Indians be the same as those used with foreign nations. The use of treaties persisted, despite a somewhat shaky constitutional base. Commissioners were appointed to deal with the tribes; Congress appropriated money for gifts and annuities given in exchange for lands; and the signed treaties were sent to the president to be forwarded to the Senate for its approval or ratification, as the Constitution directed. Between 1787 and 1830, 142 treaties of peace and land cession were ratified. By 1830, except for the still-reserved lands of the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole) and some lands in Michigan and Wisconsin, nearly all the territory east of the Mississippi had been freed of Indian title.

The treaties, of course, provided much more than peace and land cessions. They regulated trade, promoted civilization, made rules for the detention of hostages and for exchange of prisoners, established procedures for dealing with crimes in the Indian country so that Indians could be deterred from private retaliation, specified the boundaries between white settlements and the Indians, provided annuities and other payment for ceded lands, required passports for entering the Indian country, promised protection by the United States (which the Indians agreed to accept), obtained rights of way for passage through the Indian country, supported education among the tribes, and limited state jurisdiction over Indians. All this supported peace, defined political relations between the United States and the tribes, and promoted the plan of civilization.

trade and intercourse acts

The treaties alone did not maintain the peace between the Indians and the white settlers, who invaded the Indian country and boldly squatted on lands that were protected by treaties. So, beginning on 22 July 1790, Congress, at Washington's bidding, passed a series of laws "to regulate trade and intercourse with the Indian tribes, and to preserve peace on the frontiers." These Trade and Intercourse Acts were the key legislation for governing the relations between the whites and the Indians—mainly by establishing norms and sanctions to control the white citizens.

The first law was simple: it regulated traders by means of a licensing system, prohibited the purchase of Indian lands by any means other than federal treaties, and provided punishment for crimes against the Indians. Then, as conditions got worse, the legislation was expanded in 1793, 1796, and 1799, and a more comprehensive and permanent law was enacted on 30 March 1802. That law renewed trade regulations, described the boundary line marking the Indian country, specifically forbade invasion of the Indian lands by whites to settle or drive cattle, required passports for entry into the Indian country, prescribed punishment for crimes, attempted to eliminate horse stealing, authorized action "to promote civilization among the friendly Indian tribes," and appointed agents for that purpose.

Because failures of enforcement continued, the laws authorized the use of military force to restrain the white violators, and they strengthened the sanctions against the introduction of whiskey into the Indian country. An amendment of 29 April 1816, aimed at British traders from Canada, prohibited foreigners from engaging in the Indian trade, and a law of 25 May 1824 required private traders to carry on trade with the Indians only at specified sites. Congress finally collected this piecemeal legislation and codified it in the Trade and Intercourse Act of 10 June 1834, which endured for the rest of the century.

the factory system

To ease if not eliminate problems in the Indian trade caused by profit-seeking white traders, many of whom were persons of low character, Congress, pushed by Washington, passed a second series of laws. This legislation, beginning on 18 April 1796, established government trading houses (called factories), which sought to eliminate unscrupulous traders by setting up trading posts owned and operated by the federal government. The intention was to treat the Indians fairly, restrain the use of liquor in the trade, and drive private traders out of the business by underselling them.

On 21 April 1806 Congress established an Office of Indian Trade with a superintendent of Indian trade to run the business. It was a noble experiment; the system grew from two factories among the Creeks and the Cherokees at the end of the eighteenth century to a nationwide system that eventually numbered twenty-two houses.

The factories were also a civilizing force. Thomas L. McKenney, superintendent of Indian trade from 1816 to 1822, was especially eager to encourage the Indians to accept white ways, and he turned his office into a center for promoting schools and missions among the tribes. Largely at his urging, Congress on 3 March 1819 established an Indian Civilization Fund by appropriating $10,000 annually to "instruct [the Indians] in the mode of agriculture suited to their situation; and for teaching their children in reading, writing, and arithmetic." McKenney distributed the money to missionary societies, who added their own funds for Indian education.

Although the War of 1812 interrupted the work of the factories, the system survived and expanded. Then it was crushed by powerful private fur-trading interests, led by John Jacob Astor of the American Fur Company. Influenced by these men, Congress on 6 May 1822 closed all the factories and turned the trade back to the private traders, although new legislation of the same date tightened the regulations. The government trading houses had fallen victim to the spirit of free enterprise.

the indian department

The complexity of Indian policy after 1800 necessitated a growing bureaucracy to implement it, a corps of men collectively known as the Indian Department. At the top was the secretary of war, whose office was charged with the management of Indian affairs. To assist him in the field were superintendents of Indian affairs monitoring large areas in the West, whose office was often joined to that of territorial governor. Reporting to the superintendents were Indian agents and subagents, who were assigned to specific tribes or groups of tribes and who lived with the Indians. These men enforced the intercourse laws, negotiated treaties, and were ambassadors of the federal government to the Indians. They protected peaceful Indians as well as identified hostile ones. They knew the Indians, understood their needs, and were in general respected by the tribesmen.

The system of agents in the early years, however, was haphazard. Not until 1818 did Congress provide funds specifically for agents, and only on 30 June 1834 did a new law finally establish a wellorganized Indian department.

Some semblance of an Indian office within the War Department was provided by McKenney while he was superintendent of Indian affairs. Then, on 11 March 1824, soon after the factory system collapsed, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, without specific congressional authorization, established in his department a Bureau of Indian Affairs. McKenney headed the bureau from 1824 to 1830. Correspondence with superintendents and agents passed through his office. He handled the payment of annuities and the distribution of the civilization fund, examined claims arising under the trade and intercourse acts, and took care of financial matters pertaining to Indian affairs. Not until 9 July 1832 did Congress create a commissioner of Indian affairs.

The agents in the field cooperated with the trading houses, which were often located near the agencies. They were in close contact also with the commanders of the army troops stationed at crucial spots along the frontiers. Although the military men were directed not to interfere with Indian policy decisions of the agents, and the agents did not command the troops, in many cases the lines of responsibility were not clearly drawn. Frequent controversies arose between the two sets of officers, even though both reported to the secretary of war.

indian removal

The plan of civilization did not work as rapidly as its promoters had envisioned—and certainly not as quickly as the expanding white population demanded. Even those Indians who had accepted white ways were not likely to be accepted enthusiastically in white society. Many observers feared that Indians along the southern, northern, and western borders of the new nation might aid foreign nations in schemes against the United States.

A new and radically different policy for preserving and civilizing the Indians gained acceptance little by little. It called for the exchange of lands in the East for lands in the West and the removal of eastern tribes to areas west of the Mississippi, a policy made feasible by the Louisiana Purchase of 30 April 1803. A small exchange of lands was accomplished with the Cherokees in 1817. Then President James Monroe took up the idea aggressively. In a special message to Congress on 27 January 1825, he advanced his arguments in favor of removal, including the establishment of a government in the West for the Indians.

Meanwhile Georgia continued to pursue its intention to free the state completely of Indians. It did not acknowledge the Cherokees' claims to sovereignty and began to extend state authority over the Indian lands within its boundaries.

The issue of the removal of the Cherokees (and of other tribes as well) took on new force when Andrew Jackson became president in 1829. He denied that the Indians were sovereign and independent nations and that they could claim "tracts of country on which they have neither dwelt nor made improvements, merely because they have seen them from the mountain or passed them in the chase." Either they must become subject to the state or move to the West, where no state or territorial claims existed. There, under the guidance and protection of the federal government and freed from contact with the worst sort of frontiersmen, the Indians could continue their advance toward civilization.

Following Jackson's first message to Congress (8 December 1829), in which he outlined his policy, removal bills were introduced. Bitter debate occurred in Congress and in the public press between those who accepted Jackson's proposal and religious-minded persons who feared that God would punish the nation if it did not live up to its treaty obligations. The Jackson party won when Congress enacted a Removal Act on 28 May 1830, which authorized the president to exchange lands west of the Mississippi for Indian lands east of the river and provided funds for the removal. Under that stimulus, despite Supreme Court decisions (Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, [1831] and Worcester v. Georgia [1832]) that supported the Indians' claims, the Cherokees and other southern tribes were forced to sign removal treaties. In the North removal continued piece by piece in numerous treaties that did not furnish the high drama of southern removal.

Federal officials in these early years had mixed motives. They heard the cries of the whites for Indian lands and acquired those lands through treaty after treaty. But at the same time they wanted to act humanely toward the Indians and to ease as much as possible the trauma of displacement. How well they succeeded has been a contested question among historians. Some see the government responding honestly to nearly insoluble problems; others charge Jefferson and similar leaders with hypocrisy and deceit in offering help to the Indians in their public pronouncements but robbing them of their lands and culture by their actual deeds.

See alsoLand Policies .


Horsman, Reginald. Expansion and American Indian Policy, 1782–1812. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Prucha, Francis Paul. American Indian Policy in the Formative Years: The Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts, 1790–1834. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962.

——. American Indian Treaties: The History of a Political Anomaly. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Prucha, Francis Paul, ed. Documents of United States Indian Policy. 3rd ed., documents 1–50. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

Viola, Herman J. Thomas L. McKenney: Architect of America's Early Indian Policy, 1816–1830. Chicago: Sage Books, 1974.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Francis Paul Prucha

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American Indian Policy, 1787–1830

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American Indian Policy, 1787–1830