The Navajo Treaty of 1868: A Personal Story

Today’s post comes from C.P. Weaver, a descendant of Indian Peace Commissioner Samuel F. Tappan. She found an original copy of the 1868 Navajo Treaty in her family home. 

On June 1, 1868, Indian Peace Commissioners Gen. William T. Sherman and Samuel F. Tappan signed a treaty with the Navajo Nation at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Up to 10,000 Diné, as they call themselves, had been rounded up beginning in 1864 and driven from their homeland by the military in what became known as their “Long Walk.” The 350–400-mile trek was the darkest era of their history, followed by Hweeldi, their suffering during imprisonment at Bosque Redondo, a 40-mile-square region adjacent to Fort Sumner. The 1868 treaty freed them and sent them back to their historic lands.

The 150th anniversary has brought attention to the original treaty. At the time of its signing, three copies were made: one for the Navajo Nation, one for the U.S. Government, and one for the Indian Peace Commission, represented by Sherman and Tappan.

The government’s copy has been held in Washington, DC, first at the State Department and then at the National Archives. The last time the entire document was displayed was during its 130th anniversary in 1998 at Northern Arizona University.

For this 150th observance, the full treaty was featured in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian’s “Nation to Nation” exhibit. It then went to the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona, for the significant June 1 date and remained there all month for viewing by descendants of those who experienced the prolonged suffering.

As interest built for the 150th anniversary, those involved in exhibiting the government treaty wondered about the other two copies. For years it was assumed that the Navajos’ copy was lost, having disappeared over time, or that it was buried with spokesman and headman for the tribe, Barboncito. In either case, the Navajos did not have it.

Where was copy number three—the commissioners’ copy? It was not among the 16 boxes of Indian Peace Commission materials at the National Archives. Neither was it in General Sherman’s extensive collection at the Library of Congress.

The library, however, had been in touch with me earlier, as I am working on a biography of Samuel F. Tappan. Knowing him to be the second signer of the treaty with Sherman, the contact asked me, by the way, did I have any idea of the whereabouts of the third copy?

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Tappan’s copy of the Navajo Treaty, 1868. (Courtesy of C.P. Weaver)

Yes! It was sitting in my Tappan collection in Massachusetts, in the house where Tappan grew up. As a descendant of one of Tappan’s sisters, the family house had come down to me through the generations. My husband and I retired there in 2002.

Tappan, who married briefly and had no children, lived a vagabond, roaming life. He housed his few belongings, important papers, diaries, letters, and books with his unmarried sister in a corner of the uninsulated attic of their childhood home.

After his death in 1913, and his sister’s death in 1925, the house remained in the family, coming down to Tappan’s nephew (through another sister), who was my grandfather.

Growing up, I listened to family talk of “Uncle Sam.” At a very young age, I thought they were talking about the old man in the World War II poster dressed in red, white, and blue with a top hat and pointing a finger at me—“Uncle Sam Wants YOU.”

I do not remember my grandfather talking about a Navajo treaty, but he may have known of it. At his death, my mother picked up the Tappan interest and discovered additional paperwork from the three days of meetings preceding the signing. Each group of papers was tied in a faded red ribbon, today’s symbolic “red tape.” The collection eventually came down to me.

Who was this Samuel Forster Tappan (1831–1913)? An abolitionist from the prominent Tappan family, he left Massachusetts in 1854 to settle Lawrence, Kansas, for the antislavery north. He played an active role in the territory’s “bloody” years before moving on to Colorado and the Civil War in the West.

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Lt. Col. Samuel S.F. Tappan, 1st Colorado Regiment of Volunteers, ca. 1860. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

While in the military, he observed disastrous Indian-white conflicts, the result of the government’s inadequate policies, and he vowed a radical reform. A well-read literary man, he was an articulate journalist, and keen observer, who participated in crucial events and could relate them to multiple newspapers and influential men of the times.

Referred to as “one of the most polished members “of the Indian Peace Commission, he was labeled a “friend of the Indian.” As such, he was hailed in the East but reviled in the West. His most important quest was calling for the rule of law over the indigenous peoples and for their tribal self-determination. He declared:

There . . . cannot be a law for the colored race and a law for the Indian. We are all   men and the same eternal conditions govern us and the same political law should  uphold us.

Married briefly to a well-known spiritualist, Cora L.V. Hatch Daniels, he also adopted a young Cheyenne girl, a survivor of the Sand Creek massacre led by his nemesis, Col. John M. Chivington. Following his appointment as the first superintendent of the Indian Industrial School at Genoa, Nebraska, he lived in Washington, DC, and was involved in Indian concerns until his death. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

His photograph in his military uniform hangs by my desk. I filed the Navajo Treaty in my new office in the renovated, now-insulated attic space in Tappan’s home.

With the 150th anniversary bringing new focus on the treaty, suddenly the missing copy has become a center of attention. It had a story. Why was it in Tappan’s papers?

Tappan’s commissioner duties at the treaty signing were more involved than at other council meetings he attended. It is thought that the secretary of the Indian Peace Commission, Ashton S. H. White, was not at Fort Sumner. (My first hint was noticing that the words “Indian Peace Commissioner” under Tappan’s and Sherman’s signatures was in Tappan’s handwriting when it normally would have been the secretary’s script. Probably no one but I would recognize Tappan’s handwriting.)

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Indian Peace Commissioners in council with the Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho Caption: Left to right: Col. Samuel F. Tappan, Gen. William S. Harney, Gen. W.T. Sherman, John B. Sanborn, Gen. Christopher C. Augur, Gen. Alfred H. Terry, and Ashton S. H. White, ca. 1868. (National Archives Identifier 531079)

One treaty remained with the Navajos. The copy for the President arrived safely in the capital, most likely transported by courier across the plains. The Senate gave its advice and consent on July 25, and Andrew Johnson approved it on August 12. It seems that Tappan, given his secretarial duties, must have held on to the commissioners’ copy and the proceedings of the three-day meeting. By early August, he was back home in Massachusetts for a visit with his mother and sister. He may have brought the treaty and related papers with him at that time, storing them in the attic with his other belongings.

This missing “mystery treaty” is a survivor, much like the Diné themselves. In its New England attic it endured many icy winters and humid summers. What may have preserved it was its limited exposure to light. It lay in a box or a chest for the first 135 years or so; for the last almost 15 years it was stored in a file folder in a darkened drawer.

After stabilization and attention from a historic document preservation organization, portions of it went on display for a few months at New Mexico’s Fort Sumner Historic Site at the Bosque Redondo Memorial, the place of the Diné’s suffering.

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Bosque Redondo Memorial, Fort Sumner, New Mexico. (Photo Courtesy of the Bosque Redondo Memorial)

There was excitement and reverence when the treaty arrived at Fort Sumner/Bosque Redondo Memorial, as nervous, white-gloved hands unwrapped the package while onlookers watched. I understood the document’s historical importance but had not processed the impassioned attachment of the Diné.

An older Navajo woman’s halting, silent approach to the treaty moved my heart. Several of us watched in reverence while she stood before the displayed single page. She remained a few minutes, head bowed in spiritual prayer. She left a token at the base of the treaty before turning slowly, walking back to the group. She stood between my husband and me.

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David Weaver, C.P. (Kitty Weaver), and Susan Hudson at the Navajo Treaty exhibit at Fort Sumner, 2018. (Photo Courtesy of C.P. Weaver)

After a few minutes of silence for all in the room, she quietly began talking, wondering about the woman who brought the treaty. I tapped her lightly on her shoulder and said, “that would be . . . me.” We held each other’s eyes for a moment, clasped hands, and broke into a long hug, the tears flowing. My husband wiped his eyes—others in the room were similarly moved.

A descendant of two survivors of the Long Walk and the land of suffering (Hweeldi), she was overcome with the treaty’s significance for her today. At that moment, the “missing treaty” became a “living being” for me, not just an historical document housed for 150 years in Samuel F. Tappan’s collection.

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