Ohio History Journal

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10




President Hayes and the Reform of

American Indian Policy





The closing of the frontier by the white man's unbridled expansion into the trans-

Mississippi West during the post-Civil War years created the most critical period of

Indian-white relations in American history. No longer could the Indians simply re-

treat or be removed to lands farther west beyond the pale of white culture. A ma-

jority of "Uncle Sam's 300,000 stepchildren" lived directly in the path of two ad-

vancing white settler lines from East and West which steadily compressed the

Indian tribes into ever smaller corridors of freedom. Alarmed and menaced by the

constant diminishing of their lands and buffalo, the red men gamely resisted white

penetration of their reservations and hunting grounds. Meanwhile the government

in Washington found itself compelled to resolve two urgent questions: what to do

about the Indian, and what agency should handle the coming crisis-the Depart-

ment of the Interior or the War Department?'

For sixty years prior to the creation of the Interior Department in 1849, Indian af-

fairs had been under the complete jurisdiction of the War Department. Thereafter,

a confusing system of divided responsibility evolved, caused by the transfer of the

Indian Bureau, along with various other burdensome agencies from the Treasury,

War, and Navy departments, to the newly created Department of the Interior. Un-

der the system of dual control, a skeleton frontier Army shared authority over In-

dian affairs with a host of civilian agents. In general, the Army sought to protect

frontier settlements and overland routes, suppress warlike tribes, discipline reserva-

tion Indians, and safeguard the Indians from the white men. The Interior Depart-

ment's Indian service, meanwhile, attempted to fulfill treaty commitments, to pro-

vide for the Indians' welfare, and to educate and Christianize the tribes. Although

the policy of neither department operated by unanimous consent, the Army tended

to favor pacification by force, while the Interior program promoted conciliation of

the tribes.

Mixed with government inertia, inefficiency, and indifference, this system had


1. Important studies of the Indian question that have helped in the preparation of this paper include

Loring B. Priest, Uncle Sam's Step-Children: The Reformation of United States Indian Policy, 1865-1887

(New Brunswick, 1942); Henry E. Fritz, The Movement for Indian Assimilation, 1860-1890 (Philadelphia,

1963); Henry G. Waltmann, "The Interior Department, War Department and Indian Policy, 1865-1887"

(unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Nebraska, 1962). See also Donald J. D'Elia, "The Argu-

ment Over Civilian or Military Indian Control, 1865-1880," The Historian, XXIV (February 1962),



Mr. Davison is chairman American Studies Department, Heidelberg College.