Ohio History Journal

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William Medill's War with the Indian

Traders, 1847





William Medill's tenure as Commissioner of Indian Affairs in the Polk administra-

tion came at the critical time of continental expansion which resulted in forceful

removal of the Indian from lands desired by white settlers. Soon after he took

office Medill attempted to make some basic reforms in policy governing relations

with the Indians. One of the most controversial aspects of his reforming activities

as commissioner revolved around his determination to crack down on the rampant

abuses in the Indian trade. The difficulties he encountered demonstrate the grip

private trading firms held on governmental policy relative to Indian affairs.

Medill's background was typical for a politician of his day. Born in New Castle

County, Delaware, in 1802, he studied law at Newark Academy (Delaware Col-

lege) in 1825 before leaving for Lancaster, Ohio, where he was admitted to the

bar in 1830. From here the handsome, full-bearded, ambitious young man entered

Ohio Democratic politics. Serving first as a state representative between 1835 and

1838, he then won election to two terms in the United States House of Representa-

tives (1839-1843).1 Because of his radical attitudes on money and the bank issue,

Medill became known in the state as a follower of the Van Buren wing of the

Democratic party.2

After James K. Polk's victory in the presidential campaign of 1844, Ohio

political bosses managed to have Medill appointed second assistant postmaster

general, a job that would allow him to funnel a large amount of patronage toward

Ohio. Nevertheless, the Ohio Van Buren faction, like all of Van Buren's followers,

remained perturbed over Polk's inclination to support the conservative, pro-bank,



1. Medill also gained some note for presiding over the Ohio Constitutional Convention in

1850, as governor 1853-1856, and serving as the first comptroller of the federal treasury in

Buchanan's administration, 1857-1861. There is some controversy over the exact date of Medill's

birth. Several dates, ranging from 1801 to 1805, have been used, and it is probable that the exact

date is lost to history. The most commonly used date, however, appears to be 1802. Biographical

Directory of the American Congress, 1774-1971 (Washington, 1971), 1397; Charles B. Gal-

breath, History of Ohio (Chicago, 1925), II, 59; Dwight L. Smith, "William Medill, 1853-1856,

in Governors of Ohio (Columbus, 1954), 68-71.

2. Edgar Allen Holt, Party Politics in Ohio, 1840-1850 (Ohio Historical Collections, I, Colum-

bus, 1930), 173.


Mr. Trennert is Assistant Professor of History, Temple University. Part of the research for

this article was made possible through a summer research grant from Temple University.