Ratified Indian Treaties, 1722-1869
Native Americans often gave up land for money and services.
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by Paula Stuart-Warren
This series of records reproduces ratified treaties that occurred between the United States government and American Indian tribes. Also included are related correspondence, a chronological list of the treaties, and indexes by both place and tribe. A few earlier treaties and agreements between the colonial governments and the Continental Congress, and the Congress of the Confederation are included as these were later adopted under the U.S. Government.
The treaties were basically a means by which the British Government, and subsequently the United States government, acquired land from those already settled on it – the Indian tribes. Treaties with Indians in the United States have the same importance as treaties with foreign nations. The treaties with the Indians meant the recognition of the tribes as sovereign nations, and treaties were ratified by Congress. However, an Act of Congress, March 3, 1871 (16 Stat. 566) stated that the treaty era was to end. Treaties already ratified and in effect, however, were not revoked.
The treaties detailed the agreements and the commitments made by each side. A combination of factors was behind the impetus of treaties between the United States government and Indian tribes. Settlers moving westward wanted the land; fur traders, general store owners, and others had extended credit to Indians and wanted to be paid; and the government itself wanted land it could sell or grant. Out of this was born the treaty system.
Note: NARA's descriptive pamphlet for this title can be viewed or downloaded here.
The discussion, bargaining, and arguing about the points of the treaty were not always positive, calm discussions; nor were they accomplished quickly. Treaties were often works in progress for many months or years. Bargaining toward an end result added more stress and sometimes it only led back to the drawing board. Before any Congressional approval, the government and the Indians under consideration had to agree. However, it was not so simple. Many outside influences contributed to the length of the discussions. If a fur trader or general store owner thought it would not be beneficial to them, they would urge against it. If it included a way for them to receive monies, of course, they worked both sides to get an agreement.
Washington, DC delegations
Representatives of a tribe, business owners, Indian agents, and state officials often traveled to Washington, DC, by choice to meet with senators about treaty negotiations. Newspapers in the home state and in the nation’s capital often mentioned such delegations; occasionally pictures accompanied the story. Other tribal officials were enticed to Washington and kept there until they agreed to the offer made by the government.
Payment of debts
Traders and store owners often extended credit to the Indians who needed seeds, cloth, weapons, blankets, food, and other provisions. Interest was usually added to that debt amount, and much of the time, the interest was at an exorbitant rate. As discussions regarding a treaty began, the debt holders often exaggerated the amounts they were owed or flat-out invented debts. Treaties in the Western Frontier were not always pushed by the settlers or the government, rather the area fur traders and other businesses may have done the pushing, hoping that the treaty would provide payment for the growing credit balances extended to the Indians. Of course, if the payback for Indian debts was in the treaty, the traders and store owners would help promote the treaty to the area Indians. Thus, treaties were not always about opening land for the new wave of settlers.
The yield for the tribes
Even today tribes are trying to enforce the terms of their treaties. The federal government has not always paid the monies or supplies due. If alternate land was provided by the government, it may have been far from usable water, very rocky, not good for farming, already stripped of trees, or without good fishing or hunting. Some commitments the government encouraged the Indians to agree to were not realistic.
Congress was generally not in favor of the debt repayment part of treaties. On the other hand, Congress made concessions when the local tradespeople helped by encouraging the tribal representatives to sign the treaty that gave their land to the government.
As with Congressional decisions today, the treaties included a signed proclamation by the President that affirmed the action of Congress. This is an example from a printed 1827 treaty with the Potawatomie Tribe of Indiana at St. Joseph, Territory of Michigan.
Before there was a U.S. federal government, treaties were arranged between the British Crown, a colony, or a state government. An example is the Treaty Between the Governors of New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania and the Five Nations, August 14, 1772.
As negotiations evolved toward the final treaty, letters to and from tribes, senators, local tradesmen, other local residents, missionaries and military officials grew. Much of this correspondence is included in this series. Researchers may find material that includes a non-Indian ancestor.
Treaty negotiation expenses
The non-Indians involved in the treaty negotiations were often paid well for their work. An example of a well paid group in 1784-1785 is here.
American Indian Treaties: The History of a Political Anomaly by Francis Paul Prucha (University of California Press, 1997)
Bernholz, Charles D., "The 'Other' Treaties: Comments on Deloria and DeMallie's documents of American Indian Diplomacy," University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Early Recognized Treaties with American Indian Nations, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Center for Digital Research in the Humanities.
Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties, by Charles J. Kappler is online courtesy of Oklahoma State University Library.
Miscellaneous Papers of the Continental Congress, also at Fold3.
Papers of the Continental Congress, also at Fold3.
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Selected related records from the Guide to Federal Records:
Record Group 48, Records of the Office of the Secretary of Interior
Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs
Record Group 109, War Department Collection of Confederate Records
Record Group 123, Records of the United States Court of Claims
Record Group 360, Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention
Using the collection
Using the treaty records for genealogy
The treaties and related correspondence add to community, city, county, state, and regional history. Land ownership post-treaty can sometimes be discerned. The treaty signers and those involved in correspondence can be placed in a specific place at a specific time. Non-Indians often clearly state their prejudices against the Indians.
The signers of a treaty may be divided by clan or band within the larger tribe. Usually the signers were the leaders, chiefs, or headmen. The majority of Indians signed with a mark and their names were written by a witness to the signing. By studying the treaties and related correspondence, it is possible to find various names used by an Indian ancestor. However, the person inscribing the names may have made errors due to the intricacies of the Indian names. Some treaties identified an Indian by both Indian and English names.
A listing of debts or other funds to be paid out of the treaty agreement may help narrow the date of death of a family member as in an 1833 Treaty between the United States and the United Nations of Clippewas Ottawah and Pottawatomic [sic].
Additional copies, many that appear to be originals, may be found in other Record Groups at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) facilities in Washington, DC, and in the regional NARA locations around the country within NARA’s Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and War Department records. Duplicate copies may be handwritten or professionally printed. The treaties were compiled before general use of carbon paper in the U.S. in the 1870s. Official business, court cases, requests by others for copies (even decades later) may have been the impetus for making a "copy." Additional copies made at the time of the treaty or later may have additional notations.
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About the contributor
Since 1997, Paula has been a Course Coordinator for the annual Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy; her course includes classroom instruction and one-on-one assistance in the Family History Library. She has lectured at both NGS and FGS national level conferences since the early 1990s.
She served as an officer of the Association of Professional Genealogists, a board member of the Minnesota Genealogical Society, and is an active member and volunteer in many historical and genealogical organizations. She is a columnist for Ancestry.com and has written articles for many genealogical and historical publications.