Ulysses S. Grant’s “Indian Peace Policy”: Good Intentions Gone Awry

 “The riches we have in this world… we cannot take with us to the next world. Then I wish to know why agents are sent out to us who do nothing but rob us and get the riches of this world away from us.” - Red Cloud
“The riches we have in this world… we cannot take with us to the next world. Then I wish to know why agents are sent out to us who do nothing but rob us and get the riches of this world away from us.” – Red Cloud

The news website Indian Country Today is in the process of analyzing every U.S. President’s “attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.” This series of essays, written by journalist and English professor Alysa Landry, provides readers with thoughtful overviews of the evolution of Indian policy in the United States and offers a light into the thinking of the country as a whole towards its indigenous population. The series as of this blog post has gone up through James Garfield’s short presidency. Needless to say, nobody comes out looking very good, including 18th President Ulysses S. Grant.

I enjoyed reading Landry’s analysis of Grant and other presidents. There are a few minor quibbles to be had with the essay on Grant. It mentions the oft-repeated but never verified claim that Grant left the army in 1854 because of his alleged alcoholism, and a briefly expanded context for explaining the perspectives of those around him would have shown the fierce opposition Grant faced from numerous quarters to his Indian Peace Policy, particularly western settlers and leaders of the U.S. Army (“A good Indian is a dead Indian,” according to General Phil Sheridan; “Treachery is inherent in the Indian character,” according to General William T. Sherman”). While I don’t agree with Jean Edward Smith’s assessment that Grant’s Indian Peace Policy was “remarkably progressive and humanitarian,” (541) it’s also a stretch to conclude that Grant’s policies were intended and destined to perpetuate a “mass genocide” of the Indian population, as Landry seems to suggest.

President Grant sincerely believed that past Indian policy was flawed and that western settlers were at fault for continued violent conflict with the native population. Grant’s appointed Board of Indian Commissioners reported in 1869, for example, that “paradoxical as it may seem, the white man has been the chief obstacle in the way of Indian civilization.” And yet the proposed solutions from the Grant administration to address the problems were inadequate and shrouded in assumptions that many today would acknowledge as flawed and paternalistic. Grant believed that white and Indian cultures were incompatible with each other (“the fact is they do not harmonize well”) and that Indian tribes in the path of western settlement faced extinction if they did not give up their ways, become assimilated into white culture, and be put on a path towards American citizenship. Grant and many Americans at the time believed that U.S. citizenship was the greatest gift one could receive, and that with regards to the Indian tribes it was foolish for them to privilege their current lifestyles when given such a golden opportunity to become a part of American culture and politics.

Grant disregarded the advice of Sheridan and Sherman to exterminate the Indians and believed that establishing reservations and teaching Indian tribes the ways of white civilization (farming and Christianity in particular) would be the only way to preserve their lives in the face of rapid western settlement by white settlers. The reservation system would be a temporary stopgap until the Indians assimilated into American society. These policies were flawed in that the solutions to continued violence between white settlers and Indians were directed towards placating, isolating, and changing the behaviors of the Indians instead of the settlers who encroached upon native lands. Grant and several presidents before and after him claimed they could do little to stop further white settlement in the west, but conversely these same presidents did little to question or overturn past legislation like the 1862 Homestead Act, the Timber Culture Act, and the General Mining Act that encouraged further settlement by offering public land on the cheap for white settlers – land that historically and through agreements such as the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty had been rightfully entitled to Indian tribes before white settlers came. The development of railroads in the west–many through federal aid of some sort–also played a major role in encouraging further western settlement. So for all of the talk about preserving and protecting Native American culture, such intentions would not be privileged over the goals of further western settlement and the creation of new states in a larger political union and empire that encompassed lands from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.



2 thoughts on “Ulysses S. Grant’s “Indian Peace Policy”: Good Intentions Gone Awry

  1. General Grant had a good plan on paper and intent , while he was far away in the White House. One problem in implementation was that in the civil war he trained and promoted fighting generals. From the White House his instructions to be kind to the Indians ran counter to the spirit of the tough fighting generals he had trained. Another failure was the Indian agents skimmed and sold lots of supplies provided to keep Indians near their reservation. Then when hunger arrived the Indians would get food, or raid for food, which then got the fighting generals on the war path.
    I think Grant attempted to establish an Indian policy that respected Indians , but being in Washington he could not supervise the frontier. Stan Cleveland TN

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Stan. Part of Grant’s peace policy included finding ways to get rid of the corrupt Indian agents and placing reform-minded ones in their stead, which led to him appoint Christian religious leaders across denominations–most notably the Quakers–to step in and ensure better treatment of Indians on the reservations. One of the consequences of this approach is that these religiously-informed practices accelerate the push to eliminate the Indians’ cultural practices and ways of life towards assimilation into white American society through Christianization, agricultural training, and eventually citizenship. So while Grant’s acknowledgement of the white settler violence and aggression towards Indians was laudable, it is still hard to get around the fact that both governmental policy and Grant’s own thinking assumed that white westward expansion was inevitable and that the existence of all Indian tribes was in danger unless they changed. In this way Grant believed his path was an alternate to continued violence, and unfortunately the complete opposite was often the result.

      Regarding your point about Grant’s “fighting generals,” I think Generals like Sherman and Sheridan that disagreed with Grant had previously held their views about Indians long before the Civil War, especially since both grew up in the frontiers of Ohio. Different generals would have certainly maintained a spectrum of beliefs about Indian policy, but unfortunately some of the top brass were firmly in the “exterminate them all” camp.

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