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Indians at a Great Disadvantage in Making Treaties

 Native American Nations | A Century of Dishonor                    


That the Indians were at a great disadvantage in the making of these new treaties it is unnecessary to state. The peculiarity of the Government's view of their situation and rights is most naively stated in one of the reports for 1862. Alluding to the necessity of making at no very distant time new treaties with all these Southern tribes, one of the Indian superintendents says: "While the rebelling of a large portion of most of these tribes abrogates treaty obligations, and places them at our mercy, the very important fact should not be forgotten that the Government first wholly failed to keep its treaty stipulations with those people, and in protecting them, by withdrawing all the troops from the forts in Indian Territory, and leaving them at the mercy of the rebels. It is a well-known fact that self-preservation in many instances compelled them to make the best terms they could with the rebels."

Nevertheless they are "at our mercy," because their making the "best terms they could with the rebels abrogates treaty obligations." The trite old proverb about the poorness of rules that do not work both ways seems to be applicable here.

With a recuperative power far in advance of that shown by any of the small white communities at the South, the Cherokees at once addressed themselves to rebuilding their homes and reconstructing their national life. In one year they established fifteen new schools, set all their old industries going, and in 1869 held a large agricultural fair, which gave a creditable exhibition of stock and farm produce. Thus a second time they recovered themselves, after what would seem to be well nigh their destruction as a people. But the Indian's fate of perpetual insecurity, alarm, and unrest does not abandon them. In 1870 they are said to be "extremely uneasy about the security of their possession of the lands they occupy." When asked why their high-schools are not re-established, reforms introduced into the administration of justice, desirable improvements undertaken, the reply inevitably comes, "We expect to have our lands taken away: what is the use of all that when our doom as a nation is sealed."

"Distrust is firmly seated in their minds. National apathy depresses them, and until they realize a "feeling of assurance that their title to their lands will be respected, and that treaties are an inviolable law for all parties, the Cherokees will not make the efforts for national progress of which they are capable."

When their delegates went to Washington, in 1866, to make the new treaty, they were alarmed by the position taken by the Government that the nation, as a nation, had forfeited its rights. They were given to understand that "public opinion held them responsible for complicity in the Rebellion; and, although they could point to the fact that the only countenance the rebels received came from less than one-third of the population, and cite the services of two Cherokee regiments in the Union cause, it was urged home to them that, before being rehabilitated in their former rights by a new treaty, they were not in a position to refuse any conditions imposed. Such language from persons they believed to possess the power of injuring their people intimidated the Cherokee delegates. They sold a large tract in Southeastern Kansas at a dollar an acre to an association of speculators, and it went into the possession of a railroad company. They also acceded, against the wishes of the Cherokee people, to a provision in the treaty-granting right of way through the country for two railroads. This excited great uneasiness among the Indians."

And well it might. The events of the next few years amply justified this uneasiness. The rapacity of railroad corporations is as insatiable as their methods are unscrupulous. The phrase "extinguishing Indian titles" has become, as it were, a mere technical term in the transfer of lands. The expression is so common that it has probably been one of the agencies in fixing in the minds of the people the prevalent impression that extinction is the ultimate and inevitable fate of the Indian; and this being the case, methods and times are not, after all, of so much consequence; they are merely foreordained conditions of the great foreordained progression of events. This is the only explanation of the unconscious inhumanity of many good men's modes of thinking and speaking in regard to the Indians being driven from home after home, and robbed of tract after tract of their lands.

In the Report of the Indian Bureau for 1875 is an account of a remnant of the Cherokee tribe in North Carolina: "They number not far from seventeen hundred, and there are probably in other parts of North Carolina, and scattered through Georgia and Tennessee, between three and four hundred more. These Cherokees have had an eventful history. When the main portion of the tribe was compelled to remove west of the Mississippi they fled to the mountains, and have steadily refused to leave their homes. The proceeds of their lands, which were sold in accordance with a treaty with the main body of the Cherokees, have been mainly expended in the purchase of lands, and providing funds for the Western Cherokees. At various times previous to the year 1861 the agent for the Eastern Cherokees, at their request, purchased lands with their funds, upon which they might make their homes. These purchases, though probably made with good intent, carelessly left the title in their agent personally, and not in trust. By this neglect, when subsequently the agent became insolvent, all their lands were seized and sold for his debts. By special legislation of Congress their case has been brought before the courts of North Carolina, and their rights to a certain extent asserted, and they are enabled to maintain possession of their lands; and, by the use of their own funds in extinguishing liens, are now in possession of above seventy thousand acres of fair arable, timber, and grazing lands. They have shown themselves capable of self-support, and, I believe, have demonstrated the un-wisdom of removing Indians from a country, which offers to them a home, and where a white man could make a living. This is shown by the fact that they are now, though receiving scarcely any Government aid, in a more hopeful condition, both as to morals, and industry, and personal property, than the Cherokees who removed West."

The Report of the Indian Bureau for 1870 fully bears out this statement. The North Carolina Cherokees have, indeed, reason to be in a more hopeful condition, for they have their lands secured to them by patent, confirmed by a decision of State courts; but this is what the Department of the Interior has brought itself to say as to the Western Cherokee' lands, and those of all other civilized tribes in the Indian Territory: "By treaty the Government has ceded to the so-called civilized tribes, the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole a section of country altogether disproportionate in amount to their needs. The amount susceptible of cultivation must be many fold greater than can ever be cultivated by the labor of the Indians. But the Indians claim, it is understood, that they hold their lands by sanctions so solemn that it would be a gross breach of faith on the part of the Government to take away any portion thereof without their consent; and that consent they apparently propose to withhold."

Let us set side by side with this last paragraph a quotation from the treaty by virtue of which "the Indians claim, it is understood, that they hold" these lands, which they now "apparently propose to withhold." We will not copy it from the original treaty; we will copy it, and a few other sentences with it, from an earlier report of this same Department of the Interior. Only so far back as 1870 we find the Department in a juster frame of mind toward the Cherokees. "A large part of the Indian tribes hold lands to which they are only fixed by laws that define the reservations to which they shall be confined: It cannot be denied that these are in a great measure dependent on the humanity of the American people. But the Cherokees, and the other civilized Indian nations no less, hold lands in perpetuity by titles defined by the supreme law of the land. The United States agreed `to possess the Cherokees, and to guarantee it to them forever,' and that guarantee was solemnly pledged of seven million acres of land.' The consideration for this territory was the same number of acres elsewhere located. The inducement to the bargain set forth in the treaty was `the anxious desire of the Government of the United States to secure to the Cherokee nation of Indians a permanent home, and which shall, under the most solemn guarantee of the United States, be and remain theirs forever, a home that shall never in all future time be embarrassed by having extended around it the lines or placed over it the jurisdiction of a Territory or State, or be pressed upon by the extension in any way of the limits of any existing State.' To assure them of their title, a patent for the Territory was issued."

This was the view of the Department of the Interior in 1870. In 1876 the Department says that affairs in the Indian Territory are "complicated and embarrassing, and the question is directly raised whether an extensive section of country is to be allowed to remain for an indefinite period practically an uncultivated waste, or whether the Government shall determine to reduce the size of the reservation."

The phrase "whether the Government shall determine to reduce the size of the reservation" sounds much better than "whether the Government shall rob the Indians of a few millions of acres of land;" but the latter phrase is truth, and the other is the spirit of lying.

The commissioner says that the question is a difficult one, and should be "considered with calmness, and a full purpose to do no injustice to the Indians." He gives his own personal opinion on it "with hesitancy," but gives it nevertheless, that "public policy will soon require the disposal of a large portion of these lands to the Government for the occupancy either of other tribes of Indians or of white people. There is a very general and growing opinion that observance of the strict letter of treaties with Indians is in many cases at variance with their own best interests and with sound public policy." He adds, however, that it must not be understood from this recommendation that it is "the policy or purpose of this office to in any way encourage the spirit of rapacity which demands the throwing open of the Indian Territory to white settlement." He says, "the true way to secure its perpetual occupancy by Indians is to fill it up with other Indians, to give them lands in severalty, and to provide a government strong and intelligent enough to protect them effectually from any and all encroachments on the part of the whites."

Comment on these preposterously contradictory sentences would be idle. The best comment on them, and the most fitting close to this sketch of the Cherokee nation, is in a few more quotations from the official reports of the Indian Bureau.

Of this people, from whom the Department of the Interior proposes, for "public policy," to take away "a large portion" of their country, it has published within the last three years these records:

"It has been but a few years since the Cherokees assembled in council under trees or in a rude log-house, with hewed logs for seats. Now the legislature assembles in a spacious brick council-house, provided with suitable committee rooms, senate chamber, representative hall, library, and executive offices, which cost $22,000.

"Their citizens occupy neat hewed double log-cabins, frame, brick, or stone houses, according to the means or taste of the individual, with ground adorned by ornamental trees, shrubbery, flowers, and nearly every improvement, including orchards of the choicest fruits. Some of these orchards have existed for nearly twenty years, and are now in a good, fruitful condition. Their women are usually good house-keepers, and give great attention to spinning and weaving yarns, jeans, and linsey, and make most of the pants and hunter-jackets of the men and boys. The farmers raise most of their own wool and cotton, and it is not an uncommon sight, in a well-to-do Cherokee farmer's house, to see a sewing machine and a piano.

"They have ample provision for the education of all their children to a degree of advancement equal to that furnished by an ordinary college in the States. They have seventy-five common day schools, kept open ten months in the year, in the different settlements. For the higher education of their young men and women they have two commodious and well-furnished seminaries, one for each sex; and, in addition to those already mentioned, they have a manual labor school and an orphan asylum. The cost of maintaining these schools the past year (1877) was, as reported by the superintendent of public instruction, $73,441.65, of which $41,475 was paid as salary to teachers.

"They have twenty-four stores, twenty-two mills, and sixty-five smith-shops, owned and conducted by their own citizens.

"Their constitution and laws are published in book form; and from their printing-house goes forth among the people in their own language, and also in English, the Cherokee Advocate, a weekly paper, which is edited with taste and ability.

"They have (and this is true also of the Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole) a constitutional government, with legislative, judicial, and executive departments, and conducted upon the same plan as our State governments, the entire expenses of which are paid out of their own funds, which are derived from interest on various stocks and bonds the invested proceeds of the sale of their lands, and held in trust by the Government of the United States which interest is paid the treasurers of the different nations semi-annually, and by them disbursed on national warrants issued by the principal chief and secretary, and registered by the auditors.

"They are an intelligent, temperate, and industrious people, who live by the honest fruits of their labor, and seem ambitious to advance both as to the development of their lands and the conveniences of their homes. In their council may be found men of learning and ability; and it is doubtful if their rapid progress from a state of wild barbarism to that of civilization and enlightenment has any parallel in the history of the world. What required five hundred years for the Britons to accomplish in this direction they have accomplished in one "Hundred years."

Will the United States Government determine to "reduce the size of the reservation?"

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

A Century of Dishonor, By Helen Hunt Jackson, New York, Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, 1885

A Century of Dishonor


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