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Historical Context

Historical Context and American Policy

  •  Reservations

By 1848, the United States had become a transcontinental nation. In 1846 it had resolved a long-standing dispute with Great Britain and established its ownership of the Oregon Territory (which then encompassed all land west of the Rocky Mountains and north of the Columbia River to the 49th parallel) and, two years later, the nation's victory in the Mexican-American War (1846-48) consolidated the acquisition of Texas and incorporated nearly half of Mexico-including the present-day states of California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico-into its territory. Addressing Congress in 1848, President James K. Polk noted that the United States had doubled its size in three years of aggressive expansion and was now a transcontinental nation. Although it may not have been apparent to most, the nation's expansion meant that it would become increasingly difficult to remove Indians beyond reach of white settlers. As historian Robert A. Trennert, Jr., has observed, this change persuaded government officials "that a policy of reservations would be the only practical solution, from the white man's viewpoint, to deal with a drastically altered Indian frontier."

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America's push toward the Pacific had begun half a century earlier as Yankee traders sought to exploit the sea otter fur trade in the Pacific Northwest and, a little later, the hide and tallow trade in California. In 1788, Captain Robert Gray, a Boston trader, embarked on the first circumnavigation of the globe by an American, stopping to purchase furs from Natives at Nootka Sound before heading across the Pacific to sell them in China and returning to Boston in 1790. His return in 1791-92, along with the surveys and observations from the British Navy's Captain George Vancouver's visit to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound in 1792-93, generated a great deal of interest among British and Americans seeking to exploit the resources of the Pacific Northwest-primarily in the fur trade and whaling-and by 1791 there were at least six American ships plying the waters of the Northern Pacific. (For a more detailed account of Euroamerican and Indian relations in the region during this period, see the CSPN online curriculum packet "Indians and Europeans on the Northwest Coast, 1774-1812: Historical Context.")

The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the subsequent transcontinental Lewis and Clark expedition captured the imagination of the nation and, according to historians Robert V. Hine and John Mack Faragher, brought Oregon to the attention of the nation-so much so "that Americans thereafter assumed it was their own preserve." The expedition also spurred an international competition to exploit the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest, pitting the British North West Company against John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company. The North West Company triumphed when the British captured Astor's outpost-Astoria-at the mouth of the Columbia River during the War of 1812. The trading post was soon moved to Fort Vancouver and, in 1821, the North West Company was absorbed by the Hudson Bay Company. The Hudson Bay Company remained the dominant European presence throughout the region for most of the next three decades.

American settlement of the Oregon Country-a loosely defined area that stretched from California north into what is now British Columbia and east into Montana-began in the 1830s with the arrival of Protestant missionaries and their families who came to Christianize the "heathen" Indians. Driven in part by a slumping economy in the United States, hundreds of settlers headed to the Oregon country in the early 1840s. From Missouri to Oregon, the settlers' trail bisected Indians lands, destroyed rangelands, depleted Indian hunting grounds, and created tense encounters. By 1845 there were about 5,000 Americans living in Oregon country. In 1846, the United States and Great Britain signed a treaty that divided the Oregon country along the 49th parallel and established the lands south of the border as American territory. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 and the subsequent rush to the goldfields sent thousands more overland, crisscrossing Indian lands and prompting the United States to build forts to protect the immigrants. The Gold Rush also accelerated economic development in Oregon and Washington by creating a demand for foodstuffs and lumber; by 1869 there were about 100,000 Americans in the region.

As early as 1841 the commissioner of Indian Affairs, T. Hartley Crawford, was suggesting that the Indian Territory west of Missouri be divided into two Indian "colonies"-one north and one south of the immigrant trail, creating a broad path of land for white travelers and settlers. In 1848 Hartley's successor, William Medill, put the suggestion into his annual report and made it policy, officially shifting the government approach to the "Indian problem" from removal to reservation. Medill intended to confine the Native Americans to these colonies and lead them toward "civilized" behavior and assimilation into American society by forcing them to take up Euroamerican agriculture practices. If the policy proved successful in the Great Plains, Medill expected it could be used elsewhere as needed-places like California, New Mexico, and the Oregon Territory. Although Medill touted the benefits the policy would have for the Indians, he and others may have found it particularly appealing because it was perceived as a way to reduce costs. In 1850 a new commissioner, Luke Lea, bluntly spelled out the new policy-and his ethnocentric views-in his annual report:

In the application of this policy to our wilder tribes, it is indispensably necessary that they be placed in positions where they can be controlled, and finally compelled by stern necessity to resort to agricultural labor or starve. Considering, as the untutored Indian does, that labor is a degradation, and that there is nothing worthy of his ambition but prowess in war, success in the chase, and eloquence in council it is only under such circumstance that his haughty pride can be subdued, and his wild energies trained to the more ennobling pursuits of civilized life. There should be assigned to each tribe, for a permanent home, a country adapted to agriculture, of limited extent and well-defined boundaries; within which all, with occasional exceptions, should be compelled constantly to remain until such time as their general improvement and good conduct may supersede the necessity of such restrictions. In the mean time [sic], the government should cause them to be supplied with stock, agricultural implements, and useful materials for clothing, encourage and assist them in the erection of comfortable dwellings, and secure to them the means and facilities of education, intellectual, moral, and religious. (See CIA Annual Report, 1850.)

Historians like Francis Paul Prucha and Robert A. Trennert, Jr., point out that Indian officials like Medill and Lea-as well as a host of other, self-styled Friends of the Indian-viewed the shift to a reservation system as in Indians' best interest. They believed that the Indian way of life was intrinsically inferior to theirs and that, if Indians were left in their "savage" state, they would fall prey to white vices (primarily drunkenness, prostitution, and gambling) and depredations. In their minds, Indians had two choices: extermination or civilization. Hoping to avoid extermination, these Friends of the Indian also believed that Native Americans needed to be protected until they could acquire the skills and knowledge needed to survive in the white man's world. They believed the best way to do that was by confining Indians to reservations. As Trennert notes, "The sincerity of this humanitarian concept must be recognized in any discussion of the foundations of the reservation system. It was not solely an attempt to locate the American native on the most undesirable lands and leave him there to rot." Yet, as numerous examples in U.S.-Indian relations attest, the gap between intentions and performance was often huge.

Less than three years after Lea made his remarks the official Indian policy of the United States was one that still recognized Indians' property rights-and the need to extinguish those rights before allowing whites to settle on Indian lands. In addition, it now sought to move Indians onto reservations where they could be supervised by government agents who would teach them how to farm and educate them in the skills and knowledge needed to become American citizens. The government, acting as the paternal guardian of its Indian wards, also took on the responsibility of clothing, housing, and feeding its charges until they became self-sufficient enough to fend for themselves in American society.

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