American Indian Policies

Author: Tim Crumrin, Conner Prairie Historian
(This article originally served as the preliminary research report used as the basis for the indian agent character at Conner Prairie.)


Dealing with the aboriginal population of North America was a problem addressed to varying degrees by those who came to acquire hegemony over the "new" continent. The methods and manners adopted were influenced by predominant racial and societal views, governmental structure and practices, and the needs of a fast growing white population. Without donning the dark cloak of Marxist historiography, it must be said there were elements of constant struggle and conflict in the relationship between the two very different worlds from the beginning-- something that was apparent to both sides almost immediately. As will be seen, the struggle was fought on unequal terms.

One of the Anglo-Europeans' first--and most successful-- weapons was among the tiniest in their arsenal. Diseases introduced by the new settlers and explorers decimated native populations, reducing both their numbers and ability to resist. The drawing of Native Americans into a complex economic/trading system allowed the growing assertion of white control. Initially, the two groups were dependent upon one another, but over time it became very clear which one maintained the upper hand.

Soon, with the depletion of fur-bearing animals and the westward push of an ever-increasing white population, eyes turned to the most coveted Native American possessions: their lands. The desire to control the land sparked the little wars that flared on the frontier. This conflict, which some historians have called the first American civil war, was to color much of American indian policy.


American policy was formulated during the initial decades of the country's existence. It was early realized that Native Americans were a potential check to westward expansion. The first problem staring the new American government squarely in the face was the need to establish peace with the various tribes. Many groups had sided with the British and they had to be brought into the American fold.<1>

Who was to have ultimate control, the states or the federal government, was also an issue. As were the orderly extinguishing of indian land titles, regulating tarde and intercourse, and the "civilization" of Native Americans. Ultimately, policy during the early 19th century was based upon the following principles:

  1. Protecting of indian rights to land, setting boundaries, controlling settlers access and encroachment.
  2. Control disposition of indian lands by denying individuals or local government from acquiring lands.
  3. Regulation of indian trade.
  4. Control traffic in liquor.
  5. Provide structure for dealing with crimes committed by white/indians against each other to forestall private justice.
  6. Civilize and educate Native Americans.<2>

Indian Department/Bureau of Indian Affairs

The military and indian affairs were closely linked during the first few decades after America's birth. The military was often used to control indians; forts and posts were often the sites from which policies were implemented. From the beginning in 1789, indian affairs were the responsibility of the Secretary of War and the agency charged with implementing policy, the Indian Department, was within the War department.<3>

Gradually, the importance of the military lessened. With the elimination of the indian threat after the War of 1812 many of the responsibilities formerly delegated to the department and the frontier armies were being usurped by territorial governors. The governors served as de facto superintendents of indian affairs and appointed their own agents. Despite this, official control continued in the hands of the Secretary of War. After years of unsuccessfully prodding Congress to establish a separate indian bureau, Secretary John C. Calhoun took it upon himself to reorganize the agency in 1824. <4>

The department was officially called the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but generally became known as the Office of Indian Affairs. <5> Its first superintendent was Thomas L. McKenney, a far-thinking man who operated out of genuine concern for his charges. McKenney's staff at the Washington headquarters was small, only a few clerks, but the field service numbered nearly 100 in the 1820s. These included the four superintendents, 18 agents, 22 sub-agent, 34 interpreters, and 21 assorted clerks, blacksmiths, farmers and gunsmiths. <6>

The four superintendents held general responsibility for the indian affairs of a large area. The superintendent was usually the territorial governor. When the territory achieved statehood responsibility for agents was normally passed to the War Department or a neighboring governor. The Ft. Wayne and Piqua (OH) agencies reported to Gov. William Cass of Michigan. The exception to this was the St. Louis Agency which remained a distinct entity under William Clark even after Missouri statehood.<7>

Clark and Cass headed the largest and most important agencies. Cass, from his headquarters in Detroit, oversaw operations at agencies in Chicago, Ft. Wayne, Green Bay, Piqua, Mackinac, and Sault Ste. Marie. 25,000 indians were under his agency. Clark was charged with looking after 35 tribes from St. Louis. The other superintendents were William Duvall in Florida (only the Seminoles remained) and James Miller in Arkansas (Cherokee, Choctaw, Quapaws). <8>

The Factory System

Factories, or government-owned, trading houses were established during the Washington administration. As an experiment two factories were established in 1795 with the purported vision of "creating harmony with the indian nations," controlling tribes, spurring the fur trade, and acting as a counterbalance against foreign influences. <9> Trading houses were to store and supply fine quality merchandise at a fair price (slightly over cost) in exchange for furs. Factors were to be honest, literate men with an eye toward the welfare of the indians. It was thought a network of factories (which was eventually to include Ft. Wayne) would make the indians dependent upon, and thus more pliable, the U.S government.<10>

The system was run by the Purveyor of Public Supplies and "others" until 1806. In that year Congress established the office of the Superintendent of Indian Trade answerable to several departments within the government. The department functioned, but did not flourish as it received only lukewarm support.

Already under attack by those within and without the government, the factory system was dealt a mortal blow by the War of 1812. The war "crippled the factories financially" and opened the vast fur trade to independent traders and fur companies like Astors' American Fur Company. The private companies were critical of the competition from the government and worked against the system which was often a home to corruption. The Panic of 1819 led to a cut in spending and the factory system was abolished by Congress in 1822. <11>

Indian Agents

The 19th-century indian agent was based upon a British model. In the mid-18th century "Superintendents of Indian Affairs" were functionaries within the colonial administration. One each was appointed for the Northern (Sir William Johnson) and Southern (Edmund Atkin) Departments of North America. They carried on negotiations with the tribes in their area and acted as liaison and suppliers. Johnson set an important precedent by living among the indians. <12>

Following the Revolutionary War the new U.S. government realized the value of a resident agent in cementing relationships and controlling the tribes. Agents became the eyes and ears of the government. If the factor was the economic and commercial representative of the government, the agent was the political and welfare officer. Agents were regular employees of the government with specified duties. However, some special representatives were still appointed for specific negotiations.<13>

In the early years agents and factors were often one and the same as their roles blurred. The noted and highly-regarded John Johnston began as a factor and later assumed the role of agent. Agents were joined by sub-agents and various other functionaries in dealing with the Native Americans.

Agents and sub-agents often received what was in effect on-the-job training. Their salaries ranged from $1,200 to 1,800 a year with a housing and food allowance. Their agencies were usually located on a square mile of land donated by the tribes or near military fortifications. Initially, since they were normally on tribal lands, agencies were located away from white population centers. But as settlement increased and trade was an important feature at the agencies, white population grew. Ft. Wayne had one of the larger white populations (300) and that was one of the reasons (combining with land speculation by some of the principals involved) the agency was relocated to Logansport in 1828. <14>

An agent's duties were varied and certain skills were required. He had to be literate to handle the reports and correspondence which took up much of his time. A knowledge of basic accounting procedures was helpful in maintaining the records of payments and disbursements. He had to be part diplomat/part social worker.

The graft and corruption which later characterized the BIA (Like the notorious Indian Ring) was evident during the 1820s. However, many agents were genuinely concerned about Native Americans. Many viewed the removals as inevitable and wished to make things as easy as possible. Some truly admired the lifeways and weltanschauung of indians, but supported education and assimilation efforts because they saw them as the only way for Native Americans to escape complete subjugation.


  1. Francis Paul Prucha, American Indian Policy in the Formative Years (Lincoln, 1962)
  2. Prucha, 2-4.
  3. Herman J. Viola, Thomas L. McKenney, Architect of America's Early Indian Policy: 1816-1830. (Chicago, 1974) 92.
  4. Viola, 93-95.
  5. Prucha, 58.
  6. Viola, 98.
  7. Viola, 98-99.
  8. Viola, 98-99.
  9. Viola, 6.
  10. Viola, 7.
  11. Viola, 9, 47-52.
  12. Wilcomb E. Washburn, The Indian in America. (New York, 1975) 95.
  13. Washburn, 95-96.
  14. Viola, 99-101.