Indian Agency System

Indian affairs are conducted under the administrative bureau in Washington by local Indian agents. This agency system was gradually developed to meet the various exigencies arising from the rapid displacement of Indian tribes by white settlers.

History of the Indian Agency System

During the colonial period the spread of trade brought a large number of tribes in contact with the French and the English, and each nation strove to make allies among the natives. Their rivalry led to the French and Indian war, and its effects were felt as late as the first half of the 19th century. When the Revolution began the attitude of the Indians became a matter of importance, and plans were speedily devised to secure their friendship for the colonists and to thwart English influence. One of the means employed was the appointment of agents to reside among the tribes living near the settlements. These men were charged to watch the movements of the Indians and through the maintenance of trade to secure their good will toward the colonists. As the war went on the western trading posts of the British became military camps, which drew the colonial troops into a hitherto unknown country. Conditions arose which necessitated new methods for the control of Indians, and in 1786, Congress, to which the Articles of Confederation gave exclusive right and power to manage Indian affairs, established two districts: a northern district, to include all tribes north of Ohio river and west of Hudson river, and a southern district, to include all tribes south of Ohio river. A bonded superintendent was placed over each, and power was given to him to appoint two bonded deputies. Every tribe within these districts laid claim to a definite tract as its own territory, and these tribal districts came to be recognized as tribal lands. The old trading posts became in time industrial centers, and the Indians were called on to cede the adjoining lands. The right of way from one post to another was next acquired. As settlers advanced more land was secured, and so rapidly were the tribes constrained to move westward that it became necessary to recast the districts established in 1786. The plan of redistricting the country under bonded officers was continued, but on a new basis, that of tribal holdings, or, as they came to be called, reservations, which were grouped geographically into superintendencies, each presided over by a lauded superintendent, who was directly responsible to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs at Washington. The reservations were in charge of bonded agents, who reported to the district superintendents. This plan continued in force until about the middle of the 19th century, when the office of superintendent was abolished and agents became directly responsible to the Commissioner. For more than 80 years the office of agent had been almost exclusively filled by civilians. The powers of the agents had expanded until both life and property were subject to their dictum. While many men filled the difficult position with honor and labored unselfishly for the welfare of the Indians, others abused their trust and brought discredit upon the service. President Grant, in 1868-69, sought to remedy this evil by the appointment of army officers as Indian agents, but Congress, in 1870, prohibited “the employment of army officers in any civil capacity. “The President then appealed to the religious denominations to suggest candidates for Indian agencies, and to facilitate this arrangement the reservations were apportioned among the various denominations. The plan led to the amelioration of the service through the concentration of the attention of religious bodies upon particular tribes, thus awakening an intelligent interest in their welfare. About this time commissioners were appointed to visit and report on the various tribes, and in this way many facts and conditions hitherto unknown were brought to the knowledge of the Government authorities and the public. As a result new forces were evoked in behalf of the natives. Industrial schools were multiplied both on and off the reservations; Indians became agency employees; lands were allotted in severalty; and through citizenship legal rights were secured. These radical changes, brought about within the two decades following 1873, led up to the act of Mar. 3, 1893, which permits the abolishment of agencies, where conditions are suitable, giving to the bonded superintendent of the reservation school the power to act as agent in the transaction of business between the United States Government and the tribe.

Administrative Department

The adoption of the Constitution in 1789 brought about changes in the administration of Indian affairs at Washington. On the organization of the War Department the management of the Indians passed front a standing committee of Congress to the Secretary of War. By the act of Mar. 1, 1818, the president was authorized to appoint “temporary agents to reside among the Indians.” The act of Apr. 16, 1818, inaugurated the present policy: the President nominates and the Senate approves the appointment of all Indian agents. The office of Indian Commissioner was created by the act of Congress of July 9, 1832, and by an act of June 30, 1834, the office of Indian Affairs was created. On the institution of the Department of the Interior, in accordance with the act of Mar. 3, 1849, the office of Indian Affairs was transferred from the War Department to the Interior Department, where it still remains.

Congress established the office of inspector by the act of Feb. 14, 1873. There are 5 inspectors, nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. They hold their office for 4 years and report directly to the Secretary of the interior, They are charged with the duty of visiting and reporting on agencies, and have power to suspend an agent or employee and to enforce laws with the aid of the United States; district attorney. The salary is $2,500, with necessary traveling expenses. In 1879 Congress provided for special agents. These are appointed by the Secretary of the Interior. Their duties are similar to those of the inspectors, but they may be required to take charge of agencies, and are bonded sufficiently for that purpose. They report direct to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. The salary is $2,000. Special agents are also detailed by the Indian Bureau to investigate special matters or to transact special business. Special allotting agents, whose duties are to allot, on specified reservations, the land in severalty to the Indians, are appointed by the President. The inspectors and special agents are the in intermediaries between the Indian Bureau at Washington and its field organization.

Field Organization

The Indian agent holds his office for 4 years or until his successor is appointed and qualified. He must give a bond with not fewer than two sureties, and the several sums in which the sureties justify must aggregate at least double the penalty of the bond. If required, an agent shall perform the duties of two agencies for one salary, and he shall not depart from the limits of his agency without permission (see U. S. Stat. xxii, 87; xviii, 147; iv, 736). Cessions of lands by the tribes to the United States were always made for a consideration, to be paid to the Indians in money or merchandise. Most oft these payments extended over a series of years, and the disbursing of them devolved on the agent. He was also charged with the preservation of order on the reservation, the removal from the Indian country of all persons found therein contrary to law, the over-sight of employees, the protection of the rights of the Indians in the matter of trade, the suppression of the traffic in intoxicating liquors, the investigation of depredation claims, the protection of the Indians on their land held in severalty, the care of all Government property, the care of agency stock, the proper receipt and distribution of all supplies received, the disbursement of money received, and the supervision of schools (see U. S. Stat. L., iv, 564, 732, 736, 738; x, 701; xi, 80, 169; xii, 427; xii, 29; xviii, 449; xix, 244, 293; xxiii, 94). In addition to the correspondence and other clerical work incident to the current business of his office, each agent is required to keep a book of itemized expenditures of every kind, with a record of all contracts, together with receipts of money from all sources, of which a true transcript is to be forwarded quarterly to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (see U. S. Stat. L., xviii, 451). The salaries of Indian agents range from $1,000 to $3,000 per annum. The employees under the agent are clerks, interpreters, police, farmers, carpenters, blacksmiths, millers, butchers, teamsters, herders, laborers, watchmen, engineers, and physicians, besides the school employees. A large proportion of these employees are provided in accordance with treaty stipulations. The salaries range from $200 to $1,200 per annum.


This class of employees stood between the Indian and the white race, between the tribe and the Government, and have exercised a far-reaching influence on Indian affairs. The translations of these men were the sole means by which the two races understood or misunderstood each other. Until recently most interpreters picked up colloquial English from trappers, traders, and other adventurers in the Indian country. They were generally mixed-bloods whose knowledge of the language and the culture of both the white and the Indian races was necessarily limited. It was impossible for them, with the best intentions, to render the dignified and thoughtful speech of the Indian into adequate English, and thus they gravely prejudiced the reputation of the native’s mental capacity. The agency interpreter received his salary from the Government through the agent, and, as was natural, he generally strove to make himself acceptable to that officer. His position was a responsible and trying one, since questions frequently arose between the Indians and the agent which demanded courage, prudence, and unswerving honesty on the part of the interpreter, who was the mouthpiece of both parties. Of late years the spread of English among the younger people through the medium of the schools, while it has not done away with the official interpreter, has lessened his difficulties and, at the same time, diminished the power he once held.

Indian Police

This force was authorized by act of Congress of May 27, 1878. Its duties are to preserve order on the reservation, to prevent illegal liquor traffic and arrest offenders in this matter, to act as guards when rations are issued and annuities paid, to take charge of and protect at all times Government property, to restore lost or stolen property to its rightful owners, to drive out timber thieves and other trespassers, to return truant pupils to school, and to make arrests for disorderly conduct and other offenses. Such a force is organized at all the agencies, and the faithfulness of the Indian police in the discharge of their duties is well attested. The pay is from $10 to $15 a month, usually also with a small house and extra rations.


Although the right of eminent domain over all territories of the United States is vested in the Government, still the Indians’ “right of occupancy” has always been recognized. The indemnity paid by the United States to the Indians when these made cessions of land was intended to extinguish this right. These payments were made in money or merchandise, or both. The entire amount to be paid to a tribe was placed to its credit in the United States Treasury. In some instances only the interest on this sum was paid annually to the tribe; in other cases the principal was extinguished by a stated annual payment. These annuities (annual payments under treaty obligations) had to be voted each year by Congress and were distinct from the sums appropriated as special gratuities to be used for cases of peculiar need. During the early part of the 19th century cash annuities were handed over by the agents to the chief, who receipted for the money and distributed it among the tribe, but for the last fifty years or more an enrolment of the tribe has been made by the agent prior to each payment, and the money has been divided pro rata and receipted for individually.

A large proportion of the payments made to Indians was originally in merchandise. This mode of payment was abused, and inured to the advantage of white manufacturers and traders, but was injurious to the tribe, as it tended to kill all native industries and helped toward the general demoralization of the Indian. Payments in goods are now made only in cases where an isolated situation or other conditions make this method suited to the interests of the Indians.


These were a part of the merchandise payments. They were at first urged upon the tribes in order to keep them confined within the reservations instead of wandering in the pursuit of game. After the destruction of the buffalo herds the beef ration became a necessity to the Plains Indians until they were able to raise their own stock. Except in a few instances, where treaties still require this method of payment, rations are not now issued unless great poverty or some disaster makes it necessary.

A movement is now on foot for the division of all tribal money held in the United States Treasury, an arrangement that would do away with many disadvantages that are connected with payments in annuities and rations.

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Access Genealogy

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading

Scroll to Top