United States Government Trade with the Indians

The plan of a United States government trade with the Indians began in 1786, under authority of Congress. It embraced the supplying of the physical wants of the Indians, without profit. Factories or trade stations were established at points on the frontier, where factors, clerks, and interpreters were stationed: The factors furnished goods of all kinds to the Indians and received from them in exchange furs and peltries. There was an officer in charge of all these stations called the “Superintendent of Indian trade”, created by the act or April 21, 1806, appointed by the President.

The following list of trade houses, which had been established under the act of 1796, is taken from a letter addressed to Hon. Joseph Anderson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, by John Mason, superintendent of Indian trade, dated from “Indian trade Office” at Georgetown, District of Columbia, April 12, 1810:

  1. At Colerain, on the river St. Marys, Georgia, established in 1705. Removed to Fort Wilkinson, on the Oconee, in 1797, and to Fort Hawkins, on the Oakmulgee, in 1806.
  2. At Tellico, block house, southwestern territory, established in 1795. Removed to the Hiawasee of the Tennessee in 1807.
  3. At Port St. Stephens, on the Mobile, Mississippi Territory, established in 1802.
  4. At Chickasaw Bluffs, on the Mississippi, Mississippi Territory, established in 1802.
  5. At Fort Wayne, on the Miami of the Lakes, Indiana territory, established in 1802.
  6. At Detroit, Michigan territory, established 1802 (discontinued in 1805).
  7. At Arkansas, on the river Arkansas, Louisiana Territory, established in 1800.
  8. At Natchitoches, on the Red River, Orleans territory, established in 1800.
  9. At Bellefontaine, mouth of the Missouri, Louisiana Territory, established in 1800 (discontinued in 1808).
  10. At Chicago, on Lake Michigan, Indiana Territory, established in the year 1805.
  11. At Sandusky, Lake Erie, Ohio, established in 1800.
  12. At the island of Michilimackinac, Lake Huron, Michigan Territory, established in 1808.
  13. At Port Osage, on the Missouri, Louisiana, territory, established in 1808.
  14. At Port Madison, on the upper Mississippi, Louisiana territory, established in 1808.

The agents, or factors, and assistants were appointed by the superintendent of Indian trade, and established at the several trading posts on the western frontier, goods and wares were purchased in open market in the several cities and shipped to the factories. The government furnished the capital, which was about $300,000. The furs and peltries were sold by the superintendent and the proceeds deposited in the treasury. In December 1821, there were factories at Prairie du Chien, Fort Edwards, and Port Osage, and branches at Green Bay, Chicago, Arkansas, Choctaw, and at Red River, and the merchandise in them was valued at about $200,000. These stations were movable and were changed front time to time to suit the convenience or the Indians. The system was an attempt to control or prevent unlawful and unjust traffic with the Indians. It was wise in its day and served a useful purpose.

This factor system was abolished by an act of Congress of May 6, 1822.

The American Fur Company, the Missouri Fur Company, and other trading organizations under private auspices had become powerful and useful and supplanted the government establishment.

The Indian administration has been an object of attack for persons with hobbies, for honest men who despised real or imaginary robbery, for theorists, and for reformers. The agents or superintendents have been denounced as thieves, and corruption has been charged on every hand. It took years of earnest work to correct the system. In 1890 the reports show that the officers and agents were honest and faithful.

Changes In Indian Policy, 1800-1870

President Grant, during his first term, inaugurated several changes in our Indian policy, which were of benefit to the Indian and the country. At the time of his inauguration, March 4, 1869, the superintendency system (agents of the various tribes reporting to superintendents of a number of agencies, who reported to the commissioner at Washington) was the rule; There were some of these superintendents with two agents and some with ten or more under them. Generally the Indian agencies in each state or territory formed a separate superintendency.

This was changed. A board of Indian commissioners was organized under the fourth sections of the act of Congress approved April 10, 1860, entitled “An act making appropriations for the current and contingent expenses of the Indian Department”. This act ignored the Indians as tribes and nations and enacted that no more treaties should be made with them as such. It authorized the President to organize a board of commissioners, to consist of not more than ten persons, to be selected by him from men eminent for their intelligence and philanthropy, to serve without pecuniary compensation, who may, under his direction, exercise joint control with the Secretary of the Interior over the disbursement; of the, appropriations made by this act or any part thereof that the President may designate”.

Upon the appointment of the commission, June 7, 1869, in accordance with this act of Congress, the President issued the following regulations to control the action of said commission and of the bureau of Indian affairs in matters coming under their joint supervision”:

  1. The commission will make its own organization and employ its own clerical assistants, keeping its “necessary expenses of transportation, subsistence, and clerk hire, when actually engaged in said service”, within the amount appropriated therefor by Congress.
  2. The commission shall be furnished with full opportunity to inspect the records of the Indian office and to obtain full information as to the conduct of all parts of the affairs thereof.
  3. They shall have full power to inspect in person or by subcommittee the various Indian superintendencies and agencies in the Indian country, to be present at payment of annuities, at consultations or councils with the Indians, and, when on the ground, to advise superintendents and agents in the performance of their duties.
  4. They are authorized to be present, in person or by subcommittee, at purchase of goods for Indian purposes and inspect said purchases, advising with the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in regard thereto.
  5. Whenever they shall find it necessary or advisable that instructions of superintendents or agents be changed or modified, they will communicate such advice, through the office of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, to the Secretary of the Interior, and in like manner their advice as to changes in modes of purchasing goods or conducting the affairs of the Indian bureau proper.
  6. The commission will at their board meetings determine upon their recommendations to be made as to the plans of civilizing dealing with the Indians, and submit the same for action in the manner above indicated.
  7. The usual modes of accounting with the treasury can not be changed, and all the expenditures, therefore, must be subject to the approvals now required by law.
  8. All the officers of the government connected with the Indian service are enjoined to afford every facility and opportunity to said commission and their subcommittees in the performance of their duties, and to give the most respectful heed to their advice within the limits of such officers positive instructions from their superiors; to allow such commissioners full access to their records and accounts; and to co-operate with them in the most earnest manner, to the extent of their proper powers, in the general work of civilizing the Indians, protecting them in their legal rights, and stimulating them to become industrious citizens in .permanent homes instead of following a roving and savage life.
  9. The commission will keep such records and minutes of their proceedings as may be necessary to afford evidence of their action.

Tito commissioners appointed adopted the following minutes as expressing their views of their prerogatives and duties:

The commission, under the authority of the President, considers itself clothed with full power to examine all matters appertaining to the conduct of Indian affairs, and, in the language of its original letter of appointment, to act both as a consulting board of advisers and through their subcommittees as inspectors of the agencies, etc., in the Indian country.

The commissioners, in their first report, said:

The board have entire confidence in the design of the administration to carry out the system ardent in the management of Indian affairs upon which it has entered. Nor do we deem it expedient that the commission should be charged with the expenditure of any portion of the Indian appropriations or any responsibility connected therewith, further than is involved in their general advising powers.

Thus, the board of Indian commissioners, though at first appointed for a specified purpose “to enable the President to execute the powers conferred” by a single act, has been continued from year to year by subsequent acts of Congress “with the powers and duties heretofore provided by law”; and in 1871 Congress enacted that all accounts and vouchers for goods or supplies of any sort furnished to the Indians and for transportation, buildings, and machinery should be submitted to the executive committee of the board for examination and approval. This duty of revising accounts was taken from the board by the act of Congress of May 17, 1882.

The policy of President Grant became known as the peace policy. He was aided in this by various religious bodies, who first met the board, of Indian commissioners at Washington January 13, 1870. After this Indian reservations were portioned out and the several religions denominations asked to name certain agents; who were appointed by the President.

After a few years this was abandoned. Indian agents, who are bonded officers, are now appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate without regard to the recommendation of the several denominations.

History, Trade,

Department of the Interior. Report on Indians Taxed and Indians not Taxed in the United States, Except Alaska at the Eleventh Census: 1890. Washington DC: Government Printing Office. 1894.

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