Andrew Johnson and the Indians

Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 his Vice-President, Andrew Johnson, assumed the Presidency and completed Lincoln’s term. Johnson, who is best known as the first American president to survive impeachment, is generally ranked by historians with James Buchanan and George W. Bush as among the country’s worst presidents.

Andrew Johnson photo President_Andrew_Johnson_zpsecf47851.jpg

With regard to American Indians, the Johnson administration faced massive problems with corruption in the Indian Service (today known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs), what to do with the “southern” Indians, concerns over the pacification of the western Indians, and the acquisition of Alaska.  

Indian Administration:

In the United States, the person most directly in charge of Indian Affairs was the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, a political appointment within the Department of the Interior. While the Johnson administration lasted slightly less than a full four-year term, during this time three different men held the position of Commissioner of Indian Affairs.  

The first Commissioner of Indian Affairs appointed by Johnson was Dennis Nelson Cooley, a man who had no experience in Indian affairs but who was a close friend of the Secretary of the Interior. Since the Secretary of the Interior had vowed to clean out the “pack of thieves” in the Indian Office, he planned to set policy from above and simply needed a Commissioner of Indian Affairs who could be controlled and trusted. Like the Secretary, the new Commissioner of Indian Affairs was a devout Christian who saw no value in Indian cultures.

The Secretary of the Interior, in an 1865 letter to the Indian Peace Commission:

“No attempted coercion of the religious faith of the latter will be tolerated, nor should any denomination of Christians be suffered to have the exclusive control of their educational interests.”

He went on to write:

“It is the purpose of the government to encourage the Indians to gain a livelihood, advance in the pursuits and arts of civilized life, and improve their moral, intellectual, and physical condition. The nation cannot adopt the policy of exterminating them.”

General Alexander McCook announced in 1865 that there were only three basic alternatives for federal Indian policy: (1) preserve the area west of the Kansas settlements and east of California for Indians alone; (2) place Indians on reservations and use the military to keep them there; or (3) exterminate them.

In 1866, Secretary of the Interior James Harlan resigned and was replaced by Orville H. Browning. As a result, Cooley resigned as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Lewis Vital Bogy was then appointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs. His appointment to the position, however, met with political opposition and the Senate refused to confirm the appointment. Bogy’s demand for military action against landholding Indians and the fact that he had cancelled three large bids awarded by Cooley and awarded them to firms with  higher bids (firms to which he personal ties) generated antagonism against him in Congress.

In 1867, Nathaniel Green Taylor, a minister in the Method Episcopal Church, was appointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Like most of the people appointed to this post, he had no real qualifications for the position. With regard to the western Indians, he recommended that three large reservations be created: one north of Nebraska, another one south of Kansas, and a third in an undesignated area in the southwest. Taylor wrote:

“In my judgment, the Indians can only be saved from extinction by consolidating them as rapidly as it can be peacefully done on larger reservations, from which all whites except Government employees shall be excluded, and educating them intellectually and morally, and training them in the arts of civilization, so as to render them at the earliest practicable moment self-supporting, and at proper time clothe them with the rights and immunities of citizenship.”

The Secretary of the Interior, in his 1868 annual report to Congress, wrote:

“It is believed that peaceful relations would have been maintained to this hour had Congress, in accordance with the estimates submitted, made the necessary appropriations to enable this department to perform engagements for which the public was pledged.”

Southern Indians:

Much of the Johnson presidency was focused on southern reconstruction. While not directly a part of the reconstruction efforts, one of the concerns of the Indian Office was what to do with those Indian nations in Indian Territory (now primarily Oklahoma) who had signed treaties with the confederacy.

A commission was formed in 1865 to negotiate with the Indian nations that had joined the Confederacy during the Civil War. The commission is chaired by the Commissioner of Indians Affairs, Dennis Cooley. At the treaty council at Fort Smith, Arkansas, Cooley had his very first encounter with Indians. He was completely ignorant of Indian cultures and protocols. The Indians viewed him as highhanded and arrogant, making demands on them which were totally unrealistic.  

Among the members of the commission was the Seneca Ely Parker, who had been a Union general during the war. Parker’s inclusion on the commission was particularly significant as it demonstrated that the U.S. was willing to include Native voices. The Choctaw and Chickasaw delegations stated that

“the fact that the United States government have seen fit to include a member of an Indian tribe with its commissioners, has inspired us with confidence … we are anxious to have the benefit of his presence and counsel in any deliberations or interviews.”

In 1866, there were two Cherokee delegations negotiating with the federal government in Washington: one was loyal to John Ross (who had supported the North)  and the other to Stand Watie (who had supported the South). The Watie delegation was headed by Elias C. Boudinot. John Rollin Ridge, who was living in California, suddenly appeared and attached himself to the Boudinot delegation. The United States government recognized him as the head of the Southern Cherokee group. Ridge had previously played no leadership role among the Cherokee and his sudden, unanticipated emergence as a leader during the negotiations has baffled a number of historians. Under Ridge’s leadership, the southern delegation won a favorable treaty which was sent to the Senate and to President Johnson for ratification.

President Johnson decides that it didn’t look good to be dealing with former rebels and ordered a new treaty to be drawn up with John Ross.

Western Indians:

In 1864, during the administration of Abraham Lincoln, an American militia group in Colorado has attacked a peaceful Cheyenne camp at Sand Creek. In spite of the fact that the Cheyenne were flying both an American flag and a white flag, the militia brutally massacred women, children, and elders. In 1865, congressional hearings on the Sand Creek massacre in Colorado were held by the Committee on the Conduct of War. Over three days witnesses described the killing and mutilating of the Cheyenne and noted that the Cheyenne had been given assurances of safety by the army. The Committee’s report states:

“It is difficult to believe that beings in the form of men, and disgracing the uniform of United States soldiers and officers, could commit or countenance the commission of such acts of cruelty and barbarity.”

In 1865, Congress authorized a joint special committee of the House and Senate to conduct a field study of the western Indian tribes. The study was to focus on the way in which Indian tribes are treated by both the military and civil authorities. Two years later, the special committee chaired by Wisconsin’s Senator James Doolittle reported that Indians outside of Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) were decreasing. With regard to Indian wars with non-Indians, the committee felt that most

“are to be traced to the aggressions of lawless white men.”

The committee report noted the loss of Indian hunting grounds and that driving the last vestige of the buffalo from the plains will “put an end to the wild man’s means of life”. While commenting on the pros and cons of placing the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the War Department or leaving it in the Department of the Interior, the committee recommends that it stay in the Department of Interior.

Congress debated whether Indian nations should be approached through negotiations and through the use of military force. In general, the view of using negotiations rather than force prevailed with proponents citing the huge cost of warfare with the Plains Indians. One Senator estimated the cost of killing an Indian at $1 million, while others felt that it would take 10,000 soldiers at least three years to “pacify” the Plains. The alternative to exterminating the Indians seemed to be to consolidate them on large reservations, out of the way of “progress” (and railroad lines), and then to “civilize” them.

President Andrew Johnson told Congress:

“If the savage resists, civilization, with the Ten Commandments in one hand and the sword in the other, demands his immediate extermination.”

In 1867, Congress authorized the creation of a Peace Commission of three generals and four civilians to negotiate settlements with the hostile Indians. The Peace Commission was to try to bring together the warring tribal leaders, to determine the causes of their unrest, and to negotiate treaties with them.

Congress appointed the four civilian members of the commission and the President appointed the three army officers. All of the Congressional appointees were well-known opponents to the use of force against Indians. The army officers, on the other hand, were vociferous advocates of military force, stating that peace without punishment is impossible.

The purpose of the commission was rather ambitious: they were to establish a permanent peace with the tribes and to remove them to reservations which would be far away from roads and railroads. Initially, these reservations were to be large enough to allow the Indians to continue to support themselves with hunting, but as they become more proficient as farmers, the size of the reservations was to be reduced. The government was also to provide the Indians with missionary instruction in Christianity. Non-Indians were to be excluded from the reservations, except for those employed by the government.

The initial 1868 report of the Peace Commission on the reasons for Indian hostilities noted that the primary cause for war was injustice. In looking at the almost constant wars with Indians, the Commission then asked:

“Have we been uniformly unjust? We answer, unhesitatingly, yes!”

The report also condemned the cor¬ruption of the Indian Department and noted abundant cases in which

“agents have pocketed the funds appropriated by the govern¬ment and driven the Indians to starvation.”

The Commission reported that while the United States had pledged to protect Indian nations against American depredations, it had failed to do so.


The United States bought Alaska from the Russians in 1867. The Russians had never attempted to force the Alaska natives to recognize Russian ownership, nor had they made any treaties with the natives, nor had they purchased any land from the natives. The Russians had never had any effective control over the natives and the total Russian population in Alaska was less than 800 living in four very heavily fortified towns. Thus the Russians really sold only their tenuous title to Alaska. In the transaction, the natives were barely mentioned and there was more concern for the protection of those Russians who might want to remain.

The Tlingit watched the ceremonial transfer from Russia to the United States at New Archangel (Sitka) with great interest. German geographer Aurel Krause, writing in 1885, reported:

“Since they were not allowed in town, they embarked in their canoes and took positions in the harbor from which, in spite of the distance, they had a good view of the proceedings.”

While the Russians had lived among the Indians and intermarried with them, the Americans were very different. The Americans were not concerned about Indian cultures and pursued their development of Alaska with little regard for Indian heritage.

1 Comment

  1. Rez Indians in the West should reflect on this as indicative of what Indians in the East faced in small villages down the road from these same White folks. Some of us managed to eke out an existence by acting as guides for hunting, fishing in the marshes and wastes that the White folks didn’t fancy to use. Others had to work menial labor, agricultural workers (how grandma met grandfather, working on his farm), and such. Indianness was horrifying to neighbors. One could be Indian at home, but French Canadian at work.

    That anything survived testifies to the tenacity of cultural truth.

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