How do you regard the frontier government’s policy on Indians?

How do you regard the frontier government’s policy on Indians?

Paul Hughes
Vacaville, California

A lot of mistakes were made regarding the Indians. The whites wanted to turn the red man into a white man, while the War Department and the Department of Interior fought over who should dictate policy to the Indians. Plus, everybody wanted the land the Indians lived on. Even Gen. U.S. Grant wrote in 1865: “It may be the Indians require as much protection from the whites as the whites do from the Indians.”

During and after the Civil War, outlaws, bootleggers, gold miners, draft dodgers and settlers paid no heed to the solemn agreements between the government and Indians. Corrupt federal agents cheated the Indians out of goods promised by the government.

Indian leaders faced the same problems as the whites; neither could control the lawless ones in their respective groups. Treaties were agreed upon, but sometimes signatories didn’t have the authority to speak for an entire tribe. Even when they did, some hotheads often broke the truces.

To be fair, the Army was vastly outnumbered and ill-trained. In 1868, only 2,600 troopers served the entire Far West, while the Plains Indians alone numbered some 200,000. The Army could not control the settlers who took advantage of the Indians, and its men could do little to keep the tribes in check.

Over time the military became veteran, reliable and even efficient while serving a government that was more concerned with costs. But increasingly, desperate Indians resorted to fighting to keep what they had. With settlers hardened against them, the remaining Indians were ultimately forced to live on reservations and at the mercy of the government.

The policy of the Indian Bureau was frequently paternalistic, sometimes evil, oftentimes stupid; and like it or not, the Army had to carry it out. Contrary to what is portrayed in some Westerns, it was not the most glorious period in our country’s history.



 


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