Native Americans in Indiana

Author: David G. Vanderstel, Phd.
From the Conner Prairie Interpreter Resource Manual. Copyright 1985, Conner Prairie

"The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians, their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent, and in their property, rights and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress."


Northwest Ordinance, 13 July 1787

From the period of French trading in the 17th century to the removals of the early 19th century, the life of the Native Americans was dominated by one central theme - the growing conflict of cultures. As nomads of the woodlands, prairies, and plains, they occupied wide expanses of land where they hunted, fished, and preserved their cultural heritage. With the coming of the Europeans, however, Indian society and culture were threatened. Foreign ways and customs, different values and beliefs, an increasing white population in the Trans-Appalachian region, and the settler's desire for more land were some of the problems which menaced the Indians' previously unchallenged position in the wilderness.

The earliest accounts of Indians in the Great Lakes region came in the 1630s from the French Jesuit missionaries who were seeking to form a civilized Christian Indian nation. These holy men envisioned Indian tribes thoroughly imbued with French culture and patriotism and serving as an extension of the French Empire in the New World. In subsequent years, French missionaries and fur traders continued to mingle with the different tribes.

By the mid-1700s, France and Great Britain were at war, vying for control of the Ohio Valley. Because of the earlier cooperation between the French and Indians, British relations with the Indians suffered until the expulsion of the French in 1763. Only through their victory in the French and Indian War did the British succeed in extending their territorial holdings into the northwest and bringing the Indian population under their authority. After the Peace of Paris of September 1763, the British issued a proclamation officially delineating the "Indian Country" and setting paternalistic policies regarding trade and relations with the tribes.

The treaty of peace ending the American Revolution, signed by Britain and America on September 3, 1783, ceded all previously held British territories to the new American government, except existing British forts throughout the northwestern territories.

By this agreement, the United States acquired the entire Indian population as wards of the federal government, which necessitated the adoption of specific policies to deal with the Indians by establishing a governmental department to oversee Indian policy. Tribal governments were recognized as legitimate representative bodies of the Indian nations. Indian land ownership was acknowledged throughout the Northwest Territory. All white settlers, except those with diplomatic credentials or official business with the tribes, were banned from entering the Indian country.

The Indian Affairs Ordinance of August 7, 1786 placed the whole matter under the direction of the Secretary of War. By this regulation, the Indian territory was separated into two sections, north and south, with the Ohio River as the dividing line. The president appointed superintendents to supervise all tribal business, to license traders, and to regulate all white travel within the borders of their respective regions. However, problems remained in defining the extent of the Indian domain: How much land did the Indians actually claim?; how would the government extinguish a claim held by an Indian nation? These issues established the context in which future Indian-White relations were pursued, and set the two races on a course of continuous confrontation.

As a result of the destruction of Indian confederacies during the Indian Wars and the growing westward expansionist desires of the American people, the Indians were gradually and systematically driven from the eastern seaboard further west.

By the 1780s, several tribes had been relocated to the Northwest Territory and had established themselves along the major rivers and tributaries, forming significant centers of population which confronted the westward migrating people during the years of settling the Indiana Territory.

Major Tribes of the Indiana Territory

The Miami

The Miami constituted one of the largest groups, encompassing Wea and Piankeshaw tribes as well. In the early 1700s, the Miami were centered in the St. Joseph River region of the northwest part of Indiana extending down the Wabash River to the vicinity of Ouiatenon, (Lafayette). From this area, the Miami gradually moved east, settling in the principal town of Kekionga (now Fort Wayne) at the junction of the Maumee and St. Joseph Rivers. In later years, the tribe established villages at locations along the Mississinewa and Maumee rivers and in the Logansport area. An official estimate placed 1,400 Miami in the Indian country during the year 1825.

The Miami played a prominent role in the numerous wars against the expanding white civilization, but as a result of the War of 1812, they began to dispose of their lands through negotiated treaties with the United States. By 1838, most of the Miami had left their Indiana lands and had begun their trek to their new land west of the Mississippi River. Only a few reservations remained in the hands of tribe, but these were eventually ceded to the government by late 1840.

Speckled Loon Miami Indian Image from the Conner Prairie permanent collection
Speckled Loon Miami Indian Image from the Conner Prairie permanent collection
Chief La-Pa-Win-Soe
Chief La-Pa-Win-Soe

The Delaware

The Delaware, fugitives from the Chesapeake Bay area, settled in Ohio and Pennsylvania during the early eighteenth century. However, by the 1770s, after receiving permission from the Miami and Piankeshaw, the Delaware established villages in the Indiana Territory between the Ohio and White Rivers.

The highest concentration of Delaware could be found on the upper west fork of the White River in present day Hamilton, Madison, and Delaware Counties. The principal Delaware settlements were Anderson's Town, Buckstown, Kiktheswemud, Little Munsee Town, and Woapikamikunk.

Because of their friendly disposition and their proximity to William Conner's prairie, the Delaware met the first white settlers who brought their civilization to central Indiana and participated in the early Indian-white exchanges within the territory. Most of the Delaware left Indiana between 1818 and 1821 after ceding their lands in the Treaty of St. Mary's (Ohio). It was estimated that the White River Delaware numbered 800 people at the time of their removal to present-day Kansas and Oklahoma.

The Shawnee

By the late 1780s, Shawnee tribes lived in northeastern Indiana. Having resided earlier in central Ohio, the Shawnee migrated into the prime hunting grounds of southern Indiana. From the Vincennes area, they followed the Wabash River to the north and established several villages in the vicinity of Fort Wayne. Some Shawnee moved to east-central Indiana in 1798 at the invitation of the resident Delaware, locating themselves in the regions of the White and Mississinewa rivers.

From the time of the Treaty of Greenville (1795), by which the Indians began the first of numerous land cessions, the Shawnee led the fighting against the British and the Americans. At the White River settlement, a Shawnee medicine man, Tenskwatawa, or known to the whites as the "Shawnee Prophet," emerged as a powerful influence among the tribes. He exhorted his people to return to the ways of their ancestors and to shed the white ways, which led to increased racial tensions and raised suspicions on the part of the United States government.

Around 1808, the Prophet and his brother Tecumseh founded a village at Tippecanoe which became the site of their defeat at the hands of General William Henry Harrison. In later years, the Shawnee at Fort Wayne, the White and Mississinewa rivers moved west, journeying to the new reserves of land in present-day Kansas and Oklahoma.


Tecumseh (date unknown)
Image from Toronto Public Library

The Potawatomi

The Potawatomi originated in the Michigan Territory to the north. Against the protests of the Miami, the Potawatomi moved down the Wabash River in 1795 to the area of Pine Creek. Here they sided actively with the French against the British and later with the British against the Americans, until peace was attained in 1815. Their settlements included Chechawkose's Village, Mesquawbuck's Village, Aubbeenaubbee's Village, and other towns scattered throughout present-day Kosciusko, Pulaski, and Fulton counties. With the appearance of more white settlers in the early 1800s, the Potawatomi gradually ceded their lands, the most of which occurred between 1836 and 1841, and moved west of the Mississippi to join the other migrating tribes.

Nevertheless, as a result of increased American and European incursion most Native Americans had been forcibly removed west to reservations in what would become The Oklahoma Territory.

Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art

Indian Trade

The fur trade was the source of earliest contact between indigenous people and European settlers and became the focus of federal regulatory policies by the 1790s. The Intercourse Act of July 23, 1790 mandated the licensing of anyone wishing to trade with the Indians. Despite these laws, there were numerous instances of violations. Debauching and defrauding the tribes threatened the peace of the frontier and the security of the white settlers as Indians retaliated against these unjust trading practices and the continued expansion of the white settlement into their lands.

To counter the violations, the United States government created a system of trading houses or "factories," first advocated by George Washington as a means of supplying Indians with white men's goods. The hope was to gain the Indian's friendship and to force out illegitimate traders, thereby winning the allegiance of the Indians away from other foreign powers. These trading posts combined diplomatic, economic, military, and humanitarian motives for improving relations between Indian and white. Later, Thomas Jefferson saw this system as a means of civilizing the tribes, of convincing them that the domestic comforts and lifestyles of the white "yeoman farmer" were far superior to native life. Early reports on the factory system were positive.

However, after the removal of the British following the War of 1812, there was a growing challenge to the government-operated trading program by private traders, including John Jacob Astor and his American Fur Company. In mid-1822, Congress disbanded the factory system, returning the domain to the private traders. Even then, government efforts continued to ameliorate poor conditions and trading practices with the Indians. A new law implemented in 1834 forbade trade in Indian Country "except at certain suitable and convenient places, to be designated from time to time by the superintendents, agents, and subagents." (Prucha, American Indian Policy, 1011).

Friendly Trade

Despite these attempts of trade limitation, violations persisted.

Indian Treaties and Removal — 1780-1840

Trade was not the only issue bringing Indians and whites into conflict.

For two generations, United States policy struggled with the status and rights of the Native Americans in the frontier regions.

The initial purpose and intention of negotiations between the United States and the Indian nations supposedly was to protect the tribes in the northwest territories from the incursions of rapidly expanding white settlement. It was for that reason the government imposed boundaries and placed restrictions on travel and commercial intercourse with indigenous people. To ensure proper implementation and enforcement, local Indian agencies were established in Indian Country. Indiana's office was opened in 1802 at Fort Wayne with William Wells and John Johnston as agents. In 1825, John Tipton secured the removal of the office to Logansport where it was closer to the concentration of Indians.

The fundamental principles pursued by the federal program and the local agencies were: protecting Indian rights to their lands; controlling the liquor traffic; providing for punishment for crimes against the Indians; and promoting education and civilization among the Indians in hope of eventual assimilation into American society. These concepts appeared as federal laws (the Trade and Intercourse Acts) between 1790 and 1834.

There were numerous treaties which directly affected the formation of the Indiana Territory and eventually the state itself.

In each case, the negotiated settlement resulted in a major cession of Indian land, which slowly carved away the landed possessions of the long-time inhabitants of the region in return for guaranteed land to the west, perpetual annuity payments, supplies, and other sundry items.

Clarks Grant of 1783 was the first incursion into the Indiana region.

This land, totaling some 150,000 acres, was awarded to George Rogers Clark and his soldiers who served against the British in the Revolutionary War.

The Treaty of Greenville, signed August 3, 1795, essentially established a boundary between the Indian and white civilizations, thereby protecting Indian Country against incursions by white settlers. The line opened nearly two-thirds of the Ohio region and a sliver of southeastern Indiana to white settlement and confined the Indians to the north and west. The tribes received approximately $20,000 in goods, with annual payments valued at $9,500.

The Treaty of Fort Wayne (1803) was arranged by Gov. William Henry Harrison to resolve Indian complaints, to establish guidelines for the region, and to prepare for the eventual cession of Indian lands. By this agreement, the Potawatomi and other tribes transferred the lands in question to the federal government. This was done at the direction of President Thomas Jefferson who had asked Harrison to obtain title to as much land as possible, even if it meant placing the Indians in financial debt to the government through the "factory system." (Esarey, Messages of Harrison, 1:76-84)

General William Henry Harrison Smithsonian

William Henry Harrison, 1813
(National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

The Treaty of Vincennes (1804) with the Delaware and Piankeshaw ceded Indian lands in the extreme southern portion of the Indiana region along the Ohio River.

The Treaty of Grouseland (1805) granted the entire southeastern section of Indiana to the United States in return for complete assurances for Indian sovereignty in the northwestern territories.

The Treaty of Fort Wayne (1809), also known as "Harrison's Purchase," concluded with the Delaware, Potawatomi, and Miami, ceded a large segment of land above the earlier Fort Wayne cession of 1803, and a narrow strip of land along the eastern border adjacent to the Greenville cession.

The treaty process in Indiana was dormant for eight years, but resumed with the Treaty of Wyandots in 1817. This covered a large portion of the State of Ohio and also affected northeastern Indiana with cession of land between the St. Mary's and St Joseph's rivers as far north as Fort Wayne.

The most significant and far-reaching treaties were those negotiated in September and October of 1818 at St. Mary's, Ohio. Commissioners signed these pacts with the Potawatomi, Wea, Delaware, and Miami. In essence, the agreements provided for the complete cession of the middle third of Indiana in return for compensations, annuities, and some individual land grants. Only in the cases of the Miami and the Wea did the treaties specify land grants to the tribes; in the case of the Delaware, the government promised specific western territories and allowed the Indians to remain on their present lands until 1821. Why the treaties forced the consolidation of some tribes onto reservations and required others to leave is not known.

The treaties concluded between 1821 and 1832 at Chicago, Mississinewa, Carey Mission, and Tippecanoe focused on the lands in northern Indiana. In the 1826 negotiations of the Mississinewa agreements, the Miami and Potawatomi were further isolated on reservations in the north-central part of the state and provided with hunting rights on their ceded lands.

The treaties of 1834, 1838, and 1840 completed the efforts of the United States government to remove the Indian population from the state of Indiana. In the 1834 parleys, the Indians ceded portions of the reserved land given to them in earlier treaties and were allowed to remain for a period of three years; they were then relocated across the Mississippi to present-day Iowa and Missouri. According to the Miami treaties of November 6, 1838 and November 28, 1840, the tribe ceded all lands south of the Wabash River called the "residue of the Big Reserve," which essentially constituted all the remaining Indian lands in Indiana.

While the process of negotiating treaties continued throughout the early decades of the 19th century, it did not reflect a formally established governmental policy. Only by way of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 was the president officially allowed to extinguish "as he may judge necessary" title to any lands occupied by the Indians in exchange for lands to the west. Andrew Jackson implemented this policy because he believed that Indians could not exist as independent enclaves within the states. Rather than leaving the Indians to the mercies of the separate states, Jackson opted for an accelerated treaty process which cleared the western territories of the slowly vanishing Native American.

The attitude governing the entire Indian removal was one of expressing the common belief that this land was inherently reserved for white civilization. As Noble said, "it is universally admitted that the earth was designed for improvement and tillage, and the right of civilized communities to enter upon and appropriate to such purposes, any lands that may be occasionally occupied or claimed as hunting grounds by uncultivated savages, is sanctioned by the laws of nature and of nations" (Noble Messages, December 4, 1832, p. 139-140).

Within eight years, Noble and other advocates of Indian removal succeeded in clearing the "white man's rightful lands."

Indian Treaties Map
Andrew Jackson US President

Andrew Jackson, 1824 (United States Senate)


At issue in the relations between the Indians and the white population was a continuous conflict of cultures. Throughout the processes of negotiating treaties and formulating Indian policies, the United States government espoused certain assumptions about the character of the Indians which affected the nature of the proceedings.

Americans generally believed that the Indians were racially inferior, even while they whole-heartedly urged the Indians to become civilized and to adopt the ways of the settlers. President Jefferson criticized the Indians' use of land as being unproductive, and he implored them to become "yeoman farmers." Few Americans understood that Indians had no concept of private land ownership, though the Indians did recognize territorial claims for settlement and hunting. The federal government assumed a benevolent-paternalistic role in seeking to raise the Indians from a position of inferiority to some semblance of civility. Ironically, the Indians' brief encounter with civilization brought disaster upon them – drunkenness, disease, and intertribal warfare.

Seeing the futility of trying to civilize the Native Americans, the government adopted new Indian policies – removal and confinement. In the meantime, the westward-moving settlers, following their expansionist desires, continued to look over the next hill and across the prairies stretching before them in hopes of ridding the land of hindrances to further development of their civilization.

Consequently, the government implemented policies to alleviate the existing problems. As the white settlers gazed over those lands before them, they could probably see the remnants of the Indian nations vacating their lands and moving further west. Speckled Snake, a Creek chief, expressed the sentiments of many Indians when he said, "I have listened to great many talks from our great father (President). But they always began and ended in this - `Get a little further; you are too close to me.'"

Delaware Tribe woman

Additional Readings:

I. Tribes

Anson, Bert, The Miami Indians, University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.
Edmunds, R. David, The Potawatomies: Keepers of the Fire, University of Oklahoma Press, 1978.
Rafert, Stewart, The Miami Indians of Indiana, Indianan University Press, 1996.
Swanton, John R., The Indian Tribes of North America, Washington D.C., 1953.
Weslager, C.A.,The Delaware Indians: A History, Rutgers University Press, 1972.
Weslager, C.A., The Delaware Indian Westward Migration, Middle Atlantic Press, 1978.

II. Policies and Treaties

Kappler, Charles J., ed.,Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties, Washington D.C., 1904.
Prucha, Francis P., American Indian Policy in the Formative Years, University of Nebraska Press.
Prucha, Francis P., Documents of United States Indian Policy, University of Nebraska Press, 1975.
Satz, Ronald, American Indian Policy in the Jacksonian Era; University of Nebraska Press, 1975.
White, Richard, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 164-1815, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1991.

III. Indiana

Esarey, Logan, History of Indiana, Hoosier Heritage Press, 1970.
Gipson, Lawrence H., Moravian Indian Mission on the White River, Indiana Historical Bureau.
Hicks, Ronald, Native American Cultures in Indiana, Minnetrista Cultural Center, Muncie, 1992.
Messages and Papers of the Governors of Indiana, Indiana Historical Bureau.
John Tipton Papers, Indiana Historical Bureau, 1942; Gayle Thornbrough, ed.
Letter Book of the Indian Agency at Fort Wayne, 1809-1815, Indiana Historical Bureau, 1961.
Rafert, Stewart, The Miami Indians of Indiana, Indianan University Press, 1996.