Image above: President James Monroe. Image right: Triumph, depicting eventual victory of Union, with reference to the Missouri Compromise. Created by Morris H. Traubel, 1861. Images courtesy Library of Congress.
U.S. Timeline - The 1820s
A Decade of Compromise and Doctrine
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March 11, 1824 - The Bureau of Indian Affairs is established by the United States War Department. This department is meant to regulate trade with Indian tribes.
It had been a long time coming, but would not, in many ways, solve the basic problem or problems between Indian affairs and the way the government of the United States, or the states themselves, treated the Indian tribe populations through agreed treaties or harsh settlements. There had been agencies to deal with Indian issues since the Second Continental Congress in 1775, however, these, too, had proved ineffective. The Office of Indian Trade was established in 1806, inside the War Department, to control and regulate the fur trade through the factory system and licensing. It lasted until 1822.
But now, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun thought there needed to be a comprehensive agency to deal with all topics, so he established it as a division of his department, without Congressional approval, naming Thomas L. McKenney, former head of the Office of Indian Trade, as its first director. He would remain in this new post for six years.
The decades upcoming would be disruptive to the rights of Native Americans, leading to the removal of native tribes from the southeast of the United States to lands in the midwest. This policy, through the Indian Removal Act of 1830, under the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, allowed for treaties to be negotiated that would agree to white settlement on native territory in the states of the south in exchange for territory west of the Mississippi River. This policy, leading to the Trail of Tears of sixty thousand Native Americans, including the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee nation, the last forced removal in 1838, was assuaged in political terms by the thought that because the removal was paid for, and in many ways approved by treaty, and in other ways their life paid for years upon their arrival in new western lands, that it was just. It was not.
It would take until 1869 before the first Native American, Ely Samuel Parker, a Seneca tribe member, would be appointed its commissioner.
Eli Samuel Parker was a Civil War veteran, born in 1828 to the Seneca tribe in Indian Falls, New York, then part of the part of the Tonawanda Reservation. Tonawanda had been set aside in the Big Tree Treaty of 1797, covering seventy-one square miles. He was well educated in a missionary school and college and became an attorney in name. Parker was not allowed to take the bar examination because American Indians were not considered citizens of the United States until 1924. After studying law, he studied engineering and became a civil engineer.
Once the Civil War began, Parker wanted to join the service, at first in the ranks with a regiment of Iroquois volunteers. He was turned down. Then he wished to join in the Union engineering service. Turned down again. However, he had earlier befriended Ulysses S. Grant while living in Illinois, and called in a favor. Grant needed engineers as he attempted to take Vicksburg. He appointed Ely Parker chief engineer of his 7th Division. He rose to the rank of adjutant to Grant during the Chattanooga campaign, then military secretary to General Grant with the rank of lieutenant colonel after Petersburg. Parker wrote much of Grant's correspondence, and even penned the Confederate surrender terms at Appomattox Court House that were complied with by General Robert E. Lee after the signing of the surrender terms at the McLean House. He would eventually become a brigadier general.
After the Civil War, Parker continued to serve Ulysses S. Grant, then became part of the renegotiation of treaties with Southern tribes. He resigned from the Army on April 26, 1869, and was appointed the first Native American to be Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
What was Parker's impact on that agency? His policy contained two principle ideas. One, that the Indian became a productive member of society, financially independent, and a contributor to the total of human welfare. Second, Parker wanted to convince all agencies of the United States government to treat the Indian population fairly, cleanly, and assist in raising the tribes, rescuing them from the current unhappy state of affairs and lifting them up into civilization and Christianity.
He created a Board of Indian Commissioners that would halt the government excess and sometimes theft of Indian property and supplies, and he also instituted the "Peace Policy." All Indian Wars ceased under his three year administration. Parker resigned his commission in August 1871.
Image above: Mural of Indian and Teacher, Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1939, Maynard Dixon. Courtesy Library of Congress, Carol M. Highsmith Collection 2011. Image below: Ely S. Parker, Matthew Brady. Courtesy National Archives via Wikipedia Commons. Source Info: The Life and Times of Eli S. Parker, 1919, Arthur C. Parker, Buffalo Historical Society; Wikipedia Commons.