The Last Attempt: The Indian Peace Commission of 1867-1868

November is Native American Heritage Month. Visit National Archives News for more information on related events and resources. Today’s post comes from Callie Belback from the National Archives History Office.

In 1867, after the Civil War and amid a surge in western expansion, railroad development and White western settlement became a top government priority. Native Americans were seen as obstacles to this expansion, however, and Congress considered the question of whether they should attempt to assimilate, concentrate, or exterminate the remaining Native American peoples. They reached the conclusion that attempting peace was better than continuing war. 

On July 20, 1867, Congress passed legislation calling for a seven-man commission to attempt to establish peace with the Great Plains Native Americans. The commission was to consist of four civilians and three military generals. The legislation endowed the group with the power to call together the chiefs of Native American tribes and negotiate on behalf of the United States Government. Congress instructed the commission to make treaty stipulations that would secure railroad routes and designate open land for future Native American reservations. 

The first civilian named to the commission was Nathaniel G. Taylor, the acting Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The second civilian was Senator John B. Henderson of Missouri, who was the chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. The third and fourth civilians were Samuel F. Tappan, an activist for Native American rights, and John B. Sanborn, a former major general but serving in a nonmilitary capacity. The military positions were granted to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, famous for his Civil War March to the Sea campaign; Maj. Gen. Alfred H. Terry; and Gen. William S. Harney. Later, President Andrew Johnson appointed Gen. Christopher C. Augur to the commission as well.

By early October of 1868, the commission had concluded treaties with most of the Native American tribes east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Mississippi River. These tribes consisted of the Kiowa, Comanche, Kiowa-Apache, Northern and Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho, Crow, Navajo, Eastern Shoshone and Bannock, Brulé, Oglala, Miniconjou, Yanktonia, Hunkpapa, Blackfeet, Cuthead, Two Kettle, Sans Arc, and Santee bands of the Lakota Sioux. Other bands of the Lakota Sioux refused to sign, led by a Red Cloud, the leader of the Oglala Lakota band.

On October 9, 1868, the commission gathered in Chicago, Illinois, and sent their last report to the President of the United States. Already, the peace agreements made in the past year had broken down, and violence pervaded the Southern Plains. Written by Nathan G. Taylor, the report consisted of only two and a half pages. However, it stated that “the time has come when the Government should cease to recognize the Indian tribes as ‘domestic dependent nations’” (except when it came to the peace treaties) and that “hereafter all Indians should be considered and held to the be individually subject to the laws of the United States.” 

The report also used the violence on the Southern Plains to justify a swift removal of all tribes to reservations, cutting off their nomadic lifestyle. And finally, the report recommended that “the Bureau of Indian Affairs should be transferred from the Department of the Interior to the Department of War.” This was a telling remark, foreshadowing the coming years of extreme violence, forcible removal, and war mentality of the United States Government against the Native American people. 

The following day, on October 10, the commission disbanded. Though many Native American tribe leaders had signed the treaties put forth by the commission, Congress still needed to ratify them. The men of the Indian Peace Commission continued to demand that Congress act swiftly and approve the treaties. However, Congress engaged in a series of extended debates that stalled the appropriation of the funds necessary for fulfilling treaty stipulations. This reluctance only served to harden the Native American peoples’ distrust of the U.S. Government. 

The Indian Peace Commission of 1867–68 was the U.S. Government’s last major attempt at a peaceful settlement with the various Native American tribes. Through their reports and recommendations, the commission greatly influenced federal Native American policy. Although the objective was to initiate peace, the commission’s impact on Native American federal policy ushered in more violence and lasting conflict. 

For more information on the Indian Peace Commission, read this post 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. 

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