How Many American Indian Treaties Were Broken?

How Many American Indian Treaties Were Broken?

Concluded during the nearly 100-year period from the Revolutionary War to the aftermath of the Civil War, some 368 treaties would define the relationship between the United States and Native Americans for centuries to come.

The treaties were based on the fundamental idea that each tribe was an independent nation, with their own right to self-determination and self-rule. But as white settlers began moving onto Native American lands, this idea came into conflict with the relentless pace of westward expansion—resulting in many broken promises on the part of the U.S. government.

Treaty With the Delawares/Treaty of Fort Pitt - 1778

In September 1778, representatives of the newly formed Continental Congress signed a treaty with the Lenape (Delaware) at Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania. In the first official peace treaty between the new United States and a Native American nation, both sides agreed to maintain friendship and support each other against the British.

But mutual suspicion continued, especially after Pennsylvania militiamen killed nearly 100 Lenape (most of them women and children) at the village of Gnadenhutten in March 1782, mistakenly believing they were responsible for attacks against white settlers. After the American victory, more and more white settlers moved onto Lenape territory, until the Treaty of Greeneville in 1795 forced them and other Ohio Country Native Americans to surrender most of their lands.

WATCH: Native American History Series on HISTORY Vault

Treaty of Hopewell - 1785-86

In the years following the Revolutionary War, Andrew Pickens and other commissioners of the new U.S. government concluded three highly similar treaties with the Cherokee, Choctaw and Cherokee Nations at Hopewell, Pickens’ plantation home in northwestern South Carolina.

Collectively known as the Treaty of Hopewell, these agreements extended the friendship and “protection” of the United States to the southern Native American tribes; all three ended with the same sentence: “The hatchet shall be forever buried, and peace given by the United States of America.”

Despite this sentiment, white settlers were already moving onto the lands designated for the Cherokee, leading to more conflict and the Treaty of Holston (1791), in which the Cherokee forfeited still more land.

READ MORE: Native American History: Timeline

Treaty of Canandaigua/Pickering Treaty/Calico Treaty - 1794

Seeking to improve relations between his government and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, a powerful group of six Iroquois-speaking tribes (the Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca and Tuscarora Nations), President George Washington sent his postmaster general, Timothy Pickering, to negotiate a treaty at Canandaigua, New York.

The treaty restored more than 1 million acres of land to the Seneca that had been ceded by treaty 10 years earlier and recognized the sovereignty of the Six Nations to govern themselves and set laws. It also promised an annual payment by the United States to the Haudenosaunee of $4,500 in goods, including calico cloth.

Over the years, as the Six Nations’ territory was further reduced, the Onondaga, Seneca, Tuscarora and some Oneida remained in New York on reservations, while the Mohawk and Cayuga left for Canada and the Oneida settled in Wisconsin and Ontario.

Treaty of Greeneville - 1795

As more white settlers moved west into the Great Lake region, a Native American confederacy including the Shawnee and Delaware, who had already been driven westward by U.S. expansion, as well as the Miami, Ottawa, Ojibwa and Potawatomi, mounted an armed resistance beginning in the late 1780s.

After U.S. troops under General “Mad” Anthony Wayne defeated them in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, Miami chief Little Turtle and other Native leaders ceded large parts of what would become Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin in the Greeneville Treaty.

But the treaty provided only short term resolution, as continued U.S. expansion quickly nullified its effect. By 1808, Shawnee war chief Tecumseh had organized a Native confederacy to mount armed resistance to continued U.S. seizure of Native American lands.

Treaty of Fort Wayne - 1809

In this treaty, negotiated by William Henry Harrison, then governor of Indiana Territory, with Native tribes including the Delaware, Potawatomi, Miami and Eel River tribes, the United States acquired 2.5 million acres of land in what is now Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio, for the equivalent of about two cents per acre. Tecumseh and others argued that the treaty’s signers had no authority to sell the land and warned Americans not to settle there.

In 1811, Harrison led an attack on a Native American camp on the Tippecanoe River, beginning a new U.S.-Native conflict that would last through the War of 1812. After Tecumseh’s death in battle in 1813, his confederacy dissolved, along with his dream of Native American independence.

READ MORE: How the Battle of Tippecanoe Helped Win the White House

Andrew Jackson & Indian Removal Act - 1830

Over the decade (1814-24) that Andrew Jackson served as a federal commissioner, he negotiated nine out of 11 treaties signed with Native American tribes in the Southeast, including the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, Seminoles and Cherokees, in which the tribes gave up a total of some 50 million acres of land in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky and North Carolina.

Elected president in 1828, Jackson spearheaded the Indian Removal Act (1830) through Congress, by which the U.S. government granted land west of the Mississippi River to Native tribes who agreed to give up their homelands.

Though removal was supposed to be voluntary, in practice Jackson used threats of withheld payments and legal and military action to conclude nearly 70 removal treaties over the course of his presidency, opening up some 25 million acres of land in the South to white settlement, and slavery.

READ MORE: Why Andrew Jackson's Legacy Is So Controversial

Treaty of New Echota - 1835

Many Cherokee resisted removal from their ancestral lands in the Southeast, bringing their struggle all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But despite the Court’s ruling in Worcester v. Georgia (1832) that the Cherokee and other tribes were “sovereign nations,” the removal continued. In 1835, U.S. government met with a group of Cherokee representatives at New Echota, Georgia, to sign a treaty that traded all 7 million acres of Cherokee land for $5 million and land in Indian Territory.

The majority of Cherokee opposed the treaty, but Congress ratified it anyway, and in 1838 the federal government sent 7,000 U.S. soldiers to enforce the removal of the Cherokees. An estimated 10 to 25 percent of Cherokee would die during the 1,200-mile trek to Oklahoma, later known as the “Trail of Tears.”

READ MORE: How Native Americans Struggled to Survive on the Trail of Tears

Fort Laramie Treaty - 1868

In this treaty, signed at Fort Laramie and other military posts in what is now Wyoming, the U.S. government recognized the Black Hills of Dakota as the Great Sioux Reservation, the exclusive territory of the Sioux (Dakota, Lakota and Nakota) and Arapaho people. But after gold was discovered in the Black Hills, miners and settlers began moving onto the land en masse.

Native resistance to the treaty’s violation culminated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, after which government troops flooded the region. By that time, Congress had ended the nearly 100-year-old practice of making treaties with individual Native American tribes, declaring in 1871 that “henceforth, no Indian nation or tribe...shall be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation, tribe or power with whom the United States may contract by treaty.”

In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that the Black Hills were illegally confiscated, and awarded the Sioux more than $100 million in reparations. Sioux leaders rejected the payment, saying the land had never been for sale. Controversy continues over the sacred land—as well as other broken treaties.

A Long List of Broken Treaties, Lies, Coersion

A contract, or in this case a treaty, is only as good as the honor of the persons signing it. Go back through both sides of this history and you will see that at the onset the Indian "treaties" were doomed from the start since they were signed by Europeans who did not believe "your word is your bond", who rather would lie, steal, cheat or kill to get what they wanted. It all comes down to greed and riches. Everything that has happened to the native population of the American continents happened because of selfish greed. With a "Christian" religion backing them up and telling them that the only "good" people were Christian people, that apparently equated to it is fine to kill anyone who isn't Christian, forgetting altogether the teachings of Jesus Christ. There was a way to attain some of this land without doing what we did to the native population. There is no excuse, no possible defense for the crimes committed against the original inhabitants of this American Continent.

Apparently, even today, we are still willing to "break our word" by continuing to break promises and treaties made long ago IN EXCHANGE for land we wanted. Now we have the land, we want to renege on the promises and treaties. All in the name of hard times, of economic problems. What about the problems these broken promises cause the American Indian? I suppose politicians today are no different that the greedy Europeans of yesteryear. As long as it keeps them flush, as long as it doesn't ruffle their pocketbooks, as long as THEY GET WHAT THEY WANT, they really don't give a rat's ass what a broken treaty means for the American Indians. Nor do they care that it demonstrates that the word of the white man STILL CANNOT BE TRUSTED. Who cares? It won't get much public attention, it won't hurt our re-election, and like everything else we've demonstrated in the past, we will get what we want. AGAIN, just take it from the lowest, weakest group of people in the country! Why, because we have no damn integrity! Suggestion: If this makes you as mad as it does me, pick up the phone, pick up a pen and write to your congressmen and senators and the president of the United States for that matter. This dishonor MUST STOP.


The long series of land usurpation's that would gradually erode Native American territory began with the slash of a quill pen upon parchment a seemingly innocuous sound, but one masking a hidden motive. Though the United States would employ the resources of its vast military in an effort to enforce its policy of containing the numerous tribes, each land cession was made "legal" by a simple piece of paper--a treaty. This was the weapon employed by a growing nation as it sought the most expedient means of securing its swelling boarders. The American government offered recompense, resettlement, and even trade to the states with which it was dealing in exchange for the lands it intended to occupy. To many Native Americans, however, selling the land was an alien concept. The land was elemental it was as essential to life as air and could not be owned by anyone. To agree to "give up" all or even a percentage of the land seemed as absurd as selling the air. It was, however, through the treaty that the plight of the Native American began.

In theory, a treaty is a mutual compact between two nations. In practice, there was nothing mutual about the treaties authorizing land cessions--and all too often the re-compensatory provisions of such treaties were mitigated before the ink could dry. The treaty system dates to the colonial period. Native American nations signed compacts with the English, French, and Dutch settlers and eventually with the permanent colonies in the years before the American Revolution. After the French and Indian War, the English government sought to control colonial expansion into territories west of the Appalachian watershed. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 was meant to define the boarders of colonial America, but it only alienated the colonists. When the colonies declared independence, they adopted a departmental system to deal with their Indian neighbors--three superintendents that answered to Congress.

To the United States, Native American nations were only de facto states. In the implementation of its diplomatic policy toward the Native American population, the United States assumed the role of an empire over a protectorate. This opened the door for segregation and near decimation of the Native American population. With its first treaty with an Indian state in 1778 (with the Lenni Lenape, or Delaware Indians) through the Treaty of Echota of 1835 (with the Cherokee in Georgia) the only policy has been removal. This is not to say that the treaties were one sided. In fact, the American government did provide re-compensatory provisions in exchange for title to Indian lands. Often a relocation allowance and future payments were given, as in the case of the controversial Treaty of Echota. However, subsequent acts of Congress and shifting political winds demuted many such provisions. Why then were these treaties signed?

Examining the major land cessions from 1784 to 1894, it is clear that nearly all of these treaties were forced on Native American nations. Most were negotiated after wars as in the case of the Treaty of Greenville (1795), the Treaty of Fort Jackson (1814), and the Treaty of Fort Armstrong (1832). These wars were started by white settlers encroaching on Indian lands. Other treaties were brought about by the demands of the individual states, as with the Treaty of Echota. This treaty removed the Cherokee from their territory and resettled them in a designated Indian Territory in Oklahoma. They were forced out in a march that killed over 4000 Cherokee. Following the Civil War, those nations that had allied with the Confederacy (such as the Cherokee and Creek) were forced to give up more territory.

The 5 Worst Treaties the United States Ever Signed

The agreement between Iran and the P5+1 is now in its final phase before it must pass legislative muster and enter into force. As the U.S. Congress debates whether or not to offer its approval, the rhetoric surrounding the deal has reached new heights of vitriol, and conservative commentators are reaching for their history books — or at least historical metaphors.

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer called the deal “the worst agreement in U.S. diplomatic history.” On Twitter, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol said, “It really is the worst deal in American history…” Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, wrote last month in the National Review that “the United States seems at this moment about to break the record for the worst political blunder of all time.” In the same publication, Middle East Forum President Daniel Pipes wrote that the nuclear agreement was “arguably the worst international accord not just in American history or modern history, but ever.” Really?

The agreement between Iran and the P5+1 is now in its final phase before it must pass legislative muster and enter into force. As the U.S. Congress debates whether or not to offer its approval, the rhetoric surrounding the deal has reached new heights of vitriol, and conservative commentators are reaching for their history books — or at least historical metaphors.

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer called the deal “the worst agreement in U.S. diplomatic history.” On Twitter, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol said, “It really is the worst deal in American history…” Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, wrote last month in the National Review that “the United States seems at this moment about to break the record for the worst political blunder of all time.” In the same publication, Middle East Forum President Daniel Pipes wrote that the nuclear agreement was “arguably the worst international accord not just in American history or modern history, but ever.” Really?

World history has known terrible treaties and agreements. In 1939, the Soviet Union and Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which renounced the possibility of war between those two countries, thus giving Hitler a chance to build up his war machine and expand his hold on Central Europe. Looking back further, Rome ended the First Punic War in the third century B.C.E. with a treaty that imposed a mammoth indemnity on Carthage, thereby building resentments that would blossom 22 years later into the Second Punic War, which saw Hannibal cross the Alps and nearly conquer the Italian peninsula.

In its relatively short history, the United States has done its share of terrible diplomatic deal-making, too. To cut through the hyperbole surrounding the Iran deal, Foreign Policy reached out to eight experts on treaties and international agreements to help us identify some of the worst treaties the United States has ever signed. (Although, please note, that the nuclear deal with Iran is a “political agreement,” not a “legally binding plan” or a treaty, as Orde Kittrie, a professor of law at Arizona State University and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, was quick to point out.) Kristol, Krauthammer, and their colleagues would do well to look at this list next time they prepare to reach for the superlatives. Treaty of Versailles, 1919

The peace treaty at the end of World War I wasn’t all bad news. “It set up the League of Nations, precursor to the U.N., along with early human rights provisions,” Duncan Hollis, associate dean of Temple University’s Beasley School of Law and former attorney-advisor for treaty affairs at the U.S. State Department, told Foreign Policy . But historians have long criticized the excessively punitive reparations the treaty levied on Germany, destroying the country’s economy and helping to create fertile ground for the rise of Nazism.

Versailles was unsuccessful “not because the [United States] failed to get what it needed, but because [the signatories] tried to divide up too much of Europe, were excessively punitive to Germany, and what looked like a victory at first blush ended up hurting everyone,” said Edward Swaine, a professor and treaty expert at George Washington University Law School. President Woodrow Wilson added his name to the document, “acting in his own name and by his own proper authority,” but the U.S. Senate ultimately failed to ratify the treaty — not for its punitive clauses, but over isolationist fears that the League of Nations would jeopardize U.S. sovereignty. Kellogg-Briand Pact, 1928

“Kellogg-Briand is everyone’s favorite whipping boy when it comes to failed treaties,” said David Sloss, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, who helped draft and negotiate three major arms control treaties in late 1980s and early 1990s. Sponsored by France and the United States and touted as an agreement that would “outlaw war” after World War I (also known as the War to End All Wars), Kellogg-Briand renounced “war as an instrument of national policy.” Not only did the treaty fail profoundly in its stated purpose — Japan went to war in Manchuria just a few years after signing, and the accord did not prevent Word War II or any of the wars that followed — but it ushered in a century of “armed conflicts” as governments strove to misrepresent war as something else, because war had been made illegal. “The treaty still serves as a warning about the dangers that lurk in the gap between what international legal instruments say and what governments actually do,” said David Fidler, a professor of international law at Indiana University Maurer School of Law.

But the treaty had some positive impact. “It set up the potential for post-World War II things like Nuremburg trials — accountability for war crime and crimes against humanity,” Hollis said. “It set up the idea that aggression should be punished.”Treaty of New Echota, 1835

Even among the hundreds of grossly unequal treaties between the United States government and American Indian nations, New Echota stands out. The treaty established a legal understanding that the Cherokee nation would leave the American Southeast for new holdings in the West, a forced displacement known as the Trail of Tears and which some people call the “American Genocide.”

The Cherokee who signed were members of a minority faction that wasn’t authorized to speak for the tribe, Hollis said. “The U.S. government basically found someone who would say what they wanted, then used that treaty as the explanation for forcibly relocating [the Cherokee]” under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which required a treaty to be in place before the government could act. Estimates place the number of Cherokee who died of hunger, exposure, and disease during the forced relocation from across the American South to present-day Oklahoma at around 4,000. And the New Echota treaty wasn’t an anomaly. Many American Indian treaties were “terrible in their terms and in compliance, and were part of a grander ambition that we can say was completely unacceptable,” Swaine said. Cuban-American Treaty, 1903

After Cuba gained independence from Spain (with the support of U.S. troops) in 1898, Washington moved to establish formal relations with its island neighbor. The countries finalized a treaty shortly thereafter that included an indefinite lease for a U.S. naval base on the island — an opportunity to solidify naval dominance in the region. Gitmo was born and, with it, a constant headache for both Washington and Havana.

“The leasing agreement for Guantánamo Bay arguably backfired on both parties.… It can be cited as an example of an agreement with unexpected and unintended consequences,” said Swaine. The Cuban government has opposed the naval base for over 50 years as an outpost of imperialism and a slight against its sovereignty, and for over a decade, it’s been the site of the U.S. military’s infamous detention camp. The government has used the unusual legal standing of the base to hold prisoners indefinitely as enemy combatants, not subject to rules that apply to other prisoners. (A former chief prosecutor for the U.S. government at Guantánamo called it a “law-free zone.”) Guantanamo “ended up being useful for us,” Hollis said, but it “gave us the room to bow to our worst fears, which otherwise would have been restricted.” All the unpredictable aftermath of a 1903 treaty. General Act of the Conference of Berlin, 1885

European powers were scrambling to divide continents into colonies long before the 1885 Conference of Berlin. But the interior of Africa remained mostly un-colonized until the 19th century. The General Act, signed during a three-month conference of mostly European diplomats, codified a system for colonial rule throughout the continent, with vast swathes of land doled out along arbitrary lines. The United States was one of the 14 signatories.

“This treaty facilitated the European powers’ ‘Scramble for Africa,’ the further carving of the continent into European imperial possessions, and the subjugation of ‘uncivilized’ peoples to European suzerainty,” said Fidler. It also reified King Leopold II of Belgium’s claim to the Congo, where he wrought one of the great horrors of the modern age, employing a private army to murder Congolese at will or work them to death for his own enrichment. As many as 10 million people died.

The treaty also set the continent on a course of instability that lasts until today. In recent decades, up to 6 million have died in fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo. By signing this treaty, the United States recognized the legality of European colonial projects that doomed parts of the continent to exploitation, instability, and violence for the better part of a century.

Pundits with short memories, prone to hyperbole, are nothing new in American political discourse. The deal between the P5+1 and Iran has brought out some of the big guns of rhetorical overstatement. But next time it occurs to a columnist to take to the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal or the National Review to write off the Iran deal as the worst diplomatic blunder in U.S. history, she or he should ask: Does it condemn the world to the bloodiest war in history? Is it a flimsy front for genocide? Does it divide up an entire continent along poorly drawn lines? The experts FP talked to urge us to remember: Some U.S. diplomatic agreements were truly terrible, and millions paid the price.

Did we leave out any of your favorite disastrous treaties or accords? Maybe you remember a 19th-century agreement with Canada that we forgot? Leave a comment below or tweet @foreignpolicy. Many thanks to our FP colleague Tom Ricks, editor of Best Defense, for suggesting this undertaking.

Indian Treaties and Congresses

Indian Treaties and Congresses. Treaties, although often broken and usually seen as expeditious and economical methods of relieving Native Americans of their lands, nevertheless have historically served as the foundations of tribal relations with the federal government. Hundreds of treaties were signed, but scholars disagree on the exact number and, significantly, on what an Indian treaty really means. There were probably more than 200 treaties concluded during the colonial period alone. The U.S. Senate ratified at least 367 treaties and perhaps, according to some scholars, as many as 5 to 8 more. Treaties negotiated but never ratified numbered over 150. States and citizens worked out treatylike agreements with several tribes, and individual communities also reached contractual agreements with Native American groups. The Confederate government made twelve treaties with Indian nations during the Civil War, and by the early 1870s federally appointed intermediaries negotiated well over 100 intertribal treaties. U.S. Army officers serving in the field may have worked out as many as 50 unratified agreements with tribal leaders in the years between 1790 and 1890. Even after Congress officially ended the policy of making treaties with Indian tribes, the federal government negotiated close to 75 additional 𠇊greements,” the last in 1911 or 1914, depending on the authority.

To the Western Europeans who came to the New World, treaties were documents that essentially codified agreements made between two or more sovereignties. They could be made to end wars and reestablish peaceful relationships, define commercial interactions, create political and military alliances, or transfer territory from one nation to another.

The European discovery of the Americas created serious moral, legal, and cultural doubts about how to deal with Native Americans. Advocates of out𠄊nd‐out conquest argued that Indians were either subhumans or heathens and were therefore incapable of having dominion over themselves or over property. In the 1530s, Francisco de Vitoria, who held the prima chair of theology at Salamanca University, wrote a series of discourses known as the Relectios in answer to the Spanish emperor's inquiries regarding the status of Native Americans under human, church, and natural laws. Victoria argued effectively that Indians were indeed human, had a religion, were politically organized, and held rights to property. He concluded that Indian land could not be taken by right of discovery, or by right of conquest in the absence of a just war. It had to be secured by purchase from the legitimate rulers of the tribes. The Spanish were thus legally obliged to treat with indigenous tribes as sovereign nations.

Every other European empire in the Americas more or less followed suit. In several cases, Indian groups were more powerful than the colonists militarily and the whites were forced to deal with them as equal, sovereign polities. Treaty negotiations with Native American nations became customary to establish boundaries, obtain land cessions, end wars, and gain trade concessions. Native Americans too had a long history of extratribal relations and numerous customs that helped manage affairs between nations.

By the time the American colonies gained independence, the treaty‐making process was well established and had become a ritual of no small consequence. Of course the Americans, who emphasized due process and documentation, always focused on the final wording of the treaties themselves. Tribal leaders, coming from societies that relied on the power of ceremony and the spoken word, probably paid more attention to the rituals of, and the speeches made during, the formal negotiations. Whatever the case, the councils and congresses called for the purposes of making treaties were often many‐sided exhibitions of generosity, oratory, and military might. Following tribal customs, gifts were always exchanged. The federal government had special silver peace medals struck for presentation to tribal leaders. Federal negotiators, in turn, received wampum, pipes, and sometimes weapons. Few councils occurred without a military presence, the officers and troops always at their parade‐ready best. The tribes, too, put on military displays of no mean quality. Witnesses have described hundreds of tribal horsemen appearing at treaty councils heavily armed and dressed in their finest apparel.

Since 1776, more than 1,000 treaty councils or meetings have been conducted to reach formal agreements between various tribes and the federal government. Many occurred at frontier fortifications numerous others took place on tribal grounds. In the obvious attempt to impress upon the tribes the power of the federal government and the size of the white population, Indian leaders were invited to attend treaty councils in major cities. No fewer than twenty𠄏our ratified treaties were signed in St. Louis and at least sixty‐nine were negotiated in Washington, D.C. On hundreds of occasions tribes were asked to send delegations to tribal congresses at the Capitol to discuss problems and to reaffirm the relationship between the tribes and the federal government. President Bill Clinton called one such congress in 1994. The ceremonial side of treaty making—the desire to influence and awe the tribes𠅊ttested to the apparent seriousness the federal government attached to dealing with Native Americans. The tribes, in turn, placed equal and, as the United States became more powerful, even more weight on the process of treaty making to secure their sovereign rights. Native Americans in general felt betrayed when the federal government decided that it could not only end the process entirely but unilaterally abrogate specific provisions of Indian treaties.

The flaw in American Indian treaties that led to the betrayal of the tribes was built into the U.S. Constitution itself. Article VI clearly states that treaties, along with the Constitution itself and the laws of the United States, “shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” This stipulation followed customary practices in international relations, which construed treaties as commitments between two or more sovereigns that could not be abrogated without grave consequences. Once signed and ratified by the Senate, treaties were to carry the full weight of the Constitution and should not be violated even by federal statute. All lower levels of government and individual citizens were of course legally obligated to obey treaty provisions.

On the other hand, Article I, section 8, gave Congress the power “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes.” The word Commerce when used in regard to Indians was quickly assumed to have the same connotation as the term affairs. This clause also set Indian tribes apart from states and foreign nations, a distinction the Supreme Court would later use to decide that Indian treaties could be judged according to a very different set of rules.

In the Supreme Court cases Marbury v. Madison (1803) and McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), Chief Justice John Marshall established the precedent of judicial review, which empowered the federal judiciary to decide whether or not a statute was unconstitutional and thus null and void. Judicial review allowed the federal court system to decide which article of the Constitution, III or VI, actually governed Indian relations. The first inkling that the Supreme Court was leaning toward the commerce clause interpretation of Indian affairs came in a 1831 case, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. Chief Justice Marshall, still on the bench after thirty years, ruled that the tribes acknowledged in treaties that they were under the protection of the United States and that “The Indian territory is admitted to compose a part of the United States.” Therefore, Marshall held, Indian tribes were not foreign but 𠇍omestic dependent” nations, and Article I, section 8, of the Constitution refers to Indian tribes by a 𠇍istinct appellation.” Although he used this argument to throw the Cherokee case out of court, Marshall nevertheless set the precedent of utilizing the commerce clause to define Indians and interpret the status of Indian tribes and treaties, under constitutional law.

In December 1870, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase delivered one of the more perplexing rulings yet made in regard to Indian treaties. Two years before, Congress had imposed a tax on tobacco products and two Cherokee tobacco manufacturers, Elias C. Boudinot and Stand Watie, had refused to pay it, maintaining that the Cherokee treaty of 1866 exempted the Cherokees from any such levy. Quoting the supremacy clause of the Constitution, the Court reasoned in the Cherokee Tobacco Case that the Constitution really did not settle the problems that might arise when treaties conflicted with acts of Congress. The Court ruled that a “treaty may supersede a prior act of Congress, and an act of Congress may supersede a prior treaty,” placing treaties on an equal basis with ordinary legislation and weakening the supremacy clause considerably. This subjected the Cherokee treaty, and by extension all other Indian treaties, to unilateral congressional action.

Within three months, on 3 March 1871, Congress abolished treaty making with the tribes altogether. The act was as much the result of murky congressional politics as of the widespread belief that Indian tribes were really not worthy of being treated as sovereign states. For several years, the federal government had been subsidizing the railroad industry with land grants taken from the territorial concessions made in Indian treaties. The executive branch negotiated the treaties and the Senate ratified them. The lands obtained from the tribes were never really placed in the public domain. Members of the House of Representatives felt that their collective authority, as protectors of the electorate's interest in the public domain, had been usurped. The House used the power of the purse to halt allocations to the Indian Office and finally attached the rider abolishing treaty making to the Indian Appropriations Act. A major policy decision had thus been made within the framework of a relatively minor piece of legislation.

The act did not abrogate prior treaties, nor did it end the process of treaty making entirely. Because the treaties were still in effect, the only way to change or alter them was to make another treaty. Since Congress had abolished treaty making, however, the federal government instituted negotiating 𠇊greements” with the tribes in 1872.

The most severe judicial blow made against Indian treaties came in the 1903 case, Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock. In 1867, the Kiowas and Comanches signed the Treaty of Medicine Lodge. Among other things, the treaty stipulated that no part of the Kiowa𠄌omanche reservation in the Indian Territory could be ceded without the consent of a three𠄏ourths majority of the tribes' adult males. In the 1890s, Congress began the process of surveying and allotting tribal lands to individual Kiowas and Comanches in an effort to force them to become farmers and ranchers and enter mainstream American society. Surplus lands were to be sold to non‐Indians. Arguing that the sale violated the three𠄏ourths majority stipulation in the Medicine Lodge treaty, the lawyers for the Kiowa leader Lone Wolf took the case to the Supreme Court. The Court, however, found that Congress had the power to abrogate Indian treaties 𠇏rom the beginning,” and thus had plenary authority over the tribes. In effect, Indian treaties were relegated to a lower level of law.

Since 1903, Indian treaties have been viewed in a somewhat different light. Treaties serve as the basis for the trust and the direct “government‐to‐government” relationships between the United States and the tribes. As a result of a number of legal precedents, Indian tribes now enjoy certain reserved rights that have not been specifically stripped away by congressional action. In short, a number of tribes have retained at least some sovereign rights recognized by treaty.
[See also Native Americans, U.S. Military Relations with.]

Felix S. Cohen , Handbook of Federal Indian Law , 1942.
Douglas C. Jones , The Treaty of Medicine Lodge , 1966.
Wilcolm E. Washburn , Red Man's Land, White Man's Law , 1971.
Vine Deloria, Jr. , comp., A Chronological List of Treaties and Agreements Made by Indian Tribes with the United States , 1973.
Francis Paul Prucha, ed., Documents of Federal Indian Policy , 1975.
Vine Deloria, Jr. and and Clifford M. Lytle , American Indians, American Justice , 1983.
Monroe E. Price and and Robert N. Clinton , Law and the American Indian , 1983.
David H. Getches,, Charles F. Wilkinson,, and and Robert A. Williams, Jr. , Federal Indian Law , 1993.
Francis Paul Prucha , American Indian Treaties , 1994.

Broken Promises On Display At Native American Treaties Exhibit 03:41

For centuries, treaties have defined the relationship between many Native American nations and the U.S. More than 370 ratified treaties have helped the U.S. expand its territory and led to many broken promises made to American Indians.

A rare exhibit of such treaties at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., looks back at this history. It currently features one of the first compacts between the U.S. and Native American nations – the Treaty of Canandaigua.

The Treaty of Canandaigua is one of the first treaties signed between Native American nations and the U.S. (Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Also known as the Pickering Treaty, the agreement was signed in 1794 between the federal government and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, or the Six Nations, based in New York. The deal secured an ally for the young U.S. government after the Revolutionary War and returned more than a million acres to the Haudenosaunee. But their territory has been cut down over the years. More than two centuries later, the U.S. has kept one promise.

"Article 6 says that they will provide goods in the amount of $4,500, 'which shall be expended yearly forever,' " explains museum director Kevin Gover, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma.

Every year, those goods from the U.S. government include bolts of cloth to distribute to tribal citizens. Haudenosaunee leaders have said that cloth is more important than money, because it's a way to remind the U.S. of the treaty terms, large and small.

Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian, stands inside the "Nation to Nation" exhibit. (Paul Morigi/AP)

"The physical treaty, like all things, will eventually fade," Gover says. "But that doesn't mean the commitments that were entered into are completed or are undone."

At least seven other original paper treaties will be featured in rotation at the museum before the exhibit "Nation to Nation" ends in the fall of 2018. For now, the documents not on display are kept at the National Archives, where one almost-forgotten treaty is stored underground.

The light-blue pages of Treaty K are signed without ratifying seals or ribbons — like 17 other unratified treaties signed by representatives of the U.S. government and Native American nations in California during the Gold Rush.

California lawmakers pressured the U.S. Senate not to ratify the treaties, which promised reservation land to the Native American nations. There was one reason the lawmakers didn't want the treaties, according to the exhibit's curator Suzan Shown Harjo of the Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee Indian nations.

"The answer is always gold," she says. "And if it's not gold, it's silver. And if it's not silver, it's copper. And if it's not, go right through the metal chart."

A museum visitor views wampum belts, fans and other diplomatic tools used during the treaty-making process. (Paul Morigi/AP)

Harjo says many American Indians in California suffered without treaty protection.

"They were not only scattered from their lands, and lots of people murdered during the Gold Rush, but they were erased from history," she explains.

While many treaties resulted in tragedies, Harjo says she hopes museum visitors will take away the full span of this diplomatic history.

"People always think of broken treaties and the bad paper and the bad acts, and that is our reality. But it didn't begin there. It began on an honorable footing," she says.

Anyone who wants a strong grounding in American history, Harjo adds, needs to understand the history of these treaties.

Viewing American Indian Treaties

The original treaties between the United States and American Indian tribal nations are housed at the National Archives in Washington, DC, as the series, "Indian Treaties, 1722–1869" (National Archives Identifier 299798). The National Archives Catalog includes digitized images of selected American Indian treaties. See American Indian Treaties: Catalog Links.

"Ratified Indian Treaties, 1722–1869" is available as NARA microfilm publication M668 (Record Group 11). offers digital images of this publication.

Online Exhibits Including Treaties:

Education Resources:

    provides digitized images of selected treaties, with associated student activities.
  • Education Updates Blog includes "The Importance of Treaties for Teaching American Indian History."

Other Resources:

  • "Documents Relating to the Negotiation of Ratified and Unratified Treaties with Various Indian Tribes, 1801–1869," are available on NARA microfilm publication T494. The documents include journals of treaty commissioners, proceedings of councils, reports, and other records relating to the negotiation of both ratified and unratified Indian treaties. For more information, please see American Indian Treaties: Supporting Documentation.
  • "Indian Treaties at the Museum of the American Indian" provides information on original treaties on display in Washington, DC, and includes digital images.

Treaty between the United States Government and the Sauk and Fox Indians signed at Saint Louis in the District of Louisiana on November 11, 1804 (Ratified Indian Treaty #43, 7 STAT 84) National Archives Identifier 7891103

Photograph of Spotted Tail National Archives Identifier 285689

This page was last reviewed on March 8, 2021.
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The American Indian Movement and the Trail of Broken Treaties

Key ideas and Details:
1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

Craft and Structure:
5. Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:
9. Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

Range of Reading and Level of Complexity:
10. By the end of grade 12, read and comprehend history/social studies texts in the grades 11–12 text complexity band independently and proficiently.

This project is designed to teach 11 th or 12 th grade students about the significance of the Trail of Broken Treaties event. More specifically, it focuses on the demands enumerated in the Twenty-point proposition the Caravan intended to deliver to the federal government.

Students should first gain a basic understanding of the history of AIM and its goals and ideals. They should also learn about how AIM fits in with the broader Red Power movement. The activities are designed to teach students specifically about the significance of the Trail of Broken Treaties, and the Twenty-point proposition. Students will be asked to read the Twenty-point proposition first as a class then in small groups to understand and analyze the document. After learning about the basic history and context of the movement from a short lecture by the teacher, students will choose specific points from the document to study more carefully in small groups. This part of the project will emphasize research and collaborative work with peers to gain greater understanding of the subject. The students will present their findings in a brief PowerPoint presentation. This engages an interpersonal style of learning. Groups will then be mixed up so that students can compare notes about the details, history and intent of the different points. This will give them a more complete and critical view of the content of the Twenty-point proposition. They should focus on the specific ways that the movement sought to regain sovereignty for Native American nations.

The Trail of Broken Treaties Twenty-point proposition document highlights the greatest struggles that Native American groups faced and sought to change in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and demonstrates how they approached the Federal Government to regain sovereignty and self-determination.

1. How does the American Indian Movement approach the United States Government

2. What is their specific purpose, and what strategies do they use to achieve that purpose?

3. What were the primary concerns of AIM and the other groups?

4. What historical offenses are identified in the Twenty-point propositions? How have these shaped the groups’ requests?

5. What connections existed between the American Indian Movement and other Civil Rights movements of the time?

6. What is the response by the United States government? What does this reveal about the relationship between the American Indian Movement and the Federal Government?

7. What commonalities are visible between different points in the document?

Sovereignty: The authority of a group or nation to govern itself or another state. Native American Nations sought to regain sovereignty from the United States government.

Assimilation: The process by which a person or persons acquire the social and psychological characteristics of a group. The US government sought to assimilate Native Americans.

Termination and Relocation: The Termination and Relocation policy of the United States government intended to complete the assimilation process for tribes that were deemed capable of supporting themselves. The policy dissolved tribal recognition and proved to be very damaging.

BIA: The Bureau of Indian Affairs was established in 1824 to govern relations between the Federal government and Indian nations. The BIA has frequently been perceived to be corrupt, and has often supported the interests of non-native groups in exploiting Native American property and resources.

Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, many marginalized groups in the United States (U.S.) began to advocate and fight for their civil and human rights. The Black Liberation movement is perhaps the most widely recognized, and its fight against the racist systems in America served to inspire other groups. The Red Power movement, the Native American movement, is relatively less well known. It did not have any figureheads that served to gain attention and fame, such as Martin Luther King Jr. for the Black Civil Rights movement. There were several separate groups within the Red Power movement, which used different tactics in fighting against the discrimination they faced. One of the most prominent groups was called the American Indian Movement, or AIM. AIM was founded in Minneapolis Minnesota in 1968, with the primary intention of promoting economic independence among native people. AIM deliberately avoided having any specific leaders, and emphasized their identity as a movement, rather than an organization.

The Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan was one of the more widely known events of the Red Power movement. The Caravan started in three urban cities on the West Coast of the US and traveled to Washington DC, stopping through numerous reservations on the way. The march was supposed to culminate in a meeting with the federal government during which the participants would present a Twenty-point proposition outlining changes to be made in Federal Government’s policy in relation to the rights of Native American Nations. However, the government refused to meet with the marchers, and the caravan culminated in a spontaneous occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters. This occupation was perceived as a demonstration of the militancy of the movement, an image that parts of the movement had sought to cultivate and others had sought to minimize. After much negotiation, the occupation finally ended with a promise that a representative of the government would review the carefully written Twenty-points proposition. There is little evidence that the document was every seriously reviewed or considered.

Thought perhaps initially inspired by the mainstream civil rights movement, the Red Power movement had somewhat different goals because of the unique history of Native Americans in the US. Native Americans had always been painted as a group in opposition to the government of the United States. Nations tended to be governed based on much more collective ideals, which made the American capitalist system foreign and unjust in their eyes. The government promoted a pervasive narrative of the American Indian Nations as dying cultures that could not survive in a modern world. They worked to assimilate the Native Americans into mainstream white society. This form of oppression was different from the oppression faced by other racial minority groups. Thus, the demands made by the Indian American movement differed some from many other demands made by other social movements. Their demands centered on regaining their sovereignty, which had been outlined in the Constitution. They sought to regain sovereignty to free themselves from the persistent exploitation by the US government, which had consistently broken treaties and agreements, and rewritten laws to take control of Native American land and resources. These violations increasingly worsened living conditions on reservations. The government had also created a termination policy, which was intended to quicken assimilation and was one of the prominent pieces of legislation that removed the sovereignty of the tribes. The termination and relocation policy moved many young Native American into crowded urban environments. Living conditions were very poor, which served to foster the outrage that many felt at their treatment by the government.

These events motivated many of the specific demands in the Twenty-point proposition. For example, the proposition includes demands such as the “Establishment of a Treaty Commission”, and the creation of a separate commission to review past treaties and identify those that the US government had violated. Both of these groups must include Native American representatives, chosen by Native Americans of all nations. Other demands center on the protection of Indian Land, and the control over court cases involving Indians.

This document provides a window into the most significant concerns of the Red Power movement. Though the Trail of Broken Treaties campaign did not go as planned, the document created attests to the ideals and goals of the movement.

This lesson will allow students to learn from both a lecture style presentation, and through their own explorations of a topic and their presentation to their peers. It can be completed in three approximately 50- minute class periods. Ideally, students would have access to computers to complete some research on each of the group presentations in class. If computers are not available in class, research can be completed and compiled outside of class.

Day 1: Introduction and Background
The first day should begin with a brief (approximately 20-30 minute) lecture on the Red Power movement. This lecture should include an introduction of the Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan.. The class will briefly go over the Twenty-point proposition as a whole, during which time students are encouraged to ask questions. Following this introduction to the topic, the class should be split into groups of 3-4 students Each group will pick one of the Twenty-Points to explore further.

Students should use the remaining part of the class period to read their chosen point carefully and collectively analyze its intent. If they have access to computers, they may begin online research to explore the events related to the demand (for example, the 1871 Indian Appropriations Act, or the Termination and Relocation policy).

Day 2: Student Research and Collaboration
Students should continue to work together to analyze their selected part of the Twenty-point proposition document, and conduct further research on the topic.

They will create a 5-7 minute PowerPoint presentation that includes the following information:

  1. What is the point demanding?
  2. Identify the primary historical occurrences that motivate this demand
  3. Summarize why it is important to AIM and the broader Red Power Movement

After making the PowerPoint, the group should use any remaining time to practice presenting it, to be prepared to do so the following class period.

Day 3: Student Presentations and Conclusion
Each group will present their PowerPoint. While each group presents, the rest of the students should listen and be encouraged to note down important details. After the presentations, the groups will be mixed up, and then the class re-divided into small groups that will discuss the connections between each of the points. After about 10 minutes, the class should reconvene and discuss as a whole the significance of the Twenty-point proposition in relation to the Red Power Movement, and what it reveals about the conditions that motivated that movement. The class period should end with a short presentation from the teacher summarizing what did come out of the Trail of Broken Treaties campaign and the Twenty-point proposition.

Kannan, Phillip M. “Reinstating Treaty-Making with Native American Tribes.” William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal 5th ser. 16.3 (2008): 809-37. Law Scholarship. William and Mary Law School Scholarship Repository. Web. 1 May 2015. <

Kelly, Casey Ryan (09/01/2014). ““We Are Not Free”: The Meaning of <Freedom> in American Indian Resistance to President Johnson’s War on Poverty.”. Communication quarterly (0146-3373), 62 (4), p. 455.

McKenzie-Jones, Paul. 2014. “Evolving Voices of Dissent: The Workshops on American Indian Affairs, 1956-1972.” American Indian Quarterly 38, no. 2: 207-236. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed March 12, 2015)

Steinman, Erich. “Settler Colonial Power and the American Indian Sovereignty Movement: Forms of Domination, Strategies of Transformation.” American Journal of Sociology 117, No. 4 (2012): 1073-1130

Sanchez, John, and Mary E. Stuckey. 1999. “Rhetorical Exclusion: The Government’s Case Against American Indian Activists, AIM, and Leonard..” American Indian Culture & Research Journal 23, no. 2: 27. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed March 12, 2015).

Indian removal continued, but so did new treaties

Removals continued throughout the 1800s, but so did new treaties and agreements among sovereigns, illustrating that history is rife with contradictions and inconsistencies. In 1850-1851, U.S. and Native Nations made new treaties for passage through and limited outposts in the Great Plains and for land and fishing, gathering and hunting rights in the Pacific Northwest and Columbia River Basin. At the same time, California’s state leadership vehemently opposed treaties already concluded and sent to the Senate by the U.S. treaty commissioners. The Senate approved the other treaties but voted not to ratify those made with Native Peoples in California, leaving them without the promised security and protection of the U.S. and making them victims of bloodbaths by miners and gold rushers.

Removals and gold fever in Colorado, Oregon, South Dakota and elsewhere led directly to further attempted undermining of sovereignty and breaking of new and old treaties and to the dehumanizing, destabilizing land-grabs, under the guise of fulfilling the treaty term, “arts of civilization.” Through congressional Civilization Funds, executive franchises were granted to Christian churches to proselytize to specific Indian Tribes for the entire century that started in 1800. The Civilization Regulations (1880s-1930s) criminalized all Native traditions, ceremonies, roaming away from the reservations and interfering with “progressive education” of the children, meaning: isolating them from their families, detribalizing and deculturalizing them, cutting their hair and washing their mouths and eyes with lye soap or beating them with boards and whips for not speaking English or failing to pray in a Christian way.

In the midst of all this civilization, the 1887 General Allotment Actand similar laws tried to “civilize” and “assimilate” Native Peoples and to abolish Native national ownership of land parcels were allotted to individual Native persons and the “excess” lands were opened to land-rushing white settlers. In the nearly 50 years of Allotmentuntil its end in 1934 by the Franklin Roosevelt Administration, two-thirds of Native Peoples’ lands were lost to taxes and banks, and from thefts and shady deals by railroad and utility owners and speculators in land, water, oil, timber, mining, stocks and crops.

Throughout the half-century of the rule of Civilization, federal bureaucrats issued directives to agents and soldiers in the field to “undertake a careful propaganda” against religious ceremonies and dances, which they did with great vigor. Ancestors and graves were robbed sacred places were desecrated and many holy mountains, waterfalls, shorelines, forests, deserts and canyons were renamed racial slurs and demonic references. People who participated in ceremonies – even those for mourning and burials — at those places or on reservations were demonized, arrested, starved, imprisoned or killed.

The Indian Trail of Broken Treaties

Conflicts between the Plains Indians and Euro-American settlers and soldiers have often been blamed on broken treaties, but who actually did the ‘breaking’ has been confused by historical myths and modern interpretations.

Anyone with an interest in Western history as it has been interpreted during the past half-century has no doubt seen, heard and read countless litanies about how white men continually broke treaties with the American Indians. White soldiers and settlers are nearly always depicted as being the first to violate agreements that the Indians, if left in peace, would surely have kept. The tale is often repeated, but like so many historical myths, it dissolves upon closer examination.

The idea to treat with the Indians was an old one, going back to the time of the first white settlers in the New World. When the Colonies finally became the United States, that approach had not changed. George Washington, in 1783, wrote that his government’s policy must be to keep on good terms with the Indians, and to purchase their lands in preference to driving them off by force of arms. That strategy remained in effect for another century. The first Congress created the War Department in 1789, and Indian affairs remained under its jurisdiction until transferred to the Interior Department in 1849. The Bureau of Indian Affairs was created in 1824, and a commissioner of Indian Affairs established in 1832. Regardless of the jurisdiction, the underlying idea was to pay for Indian lands, draw a boundary line and hope that the land-hungry Americans would stay on their own side. It generally did not work.

In what has been called the most important Indian treaty in the nation’s history, the 1795 Treaty of Greenville opened up the Ohio country, and brought forth thousands of settlers, speculators and surveyors, marking out thousands of square miles of townships and sections that would carry the pattern of land ownership across the breadth of the land. The Americans could hardly be held back at an imaginary wilderness line, however, and the Indians were continually moved farther west with new treaties and new deals.

The idea of buying the Indians’ land and constantly moving them west began to change in the late 1840s. Most of the Indians had been removed west of the Mississippi, where it was thought there would be little further intercourse between the tribes and the white Americans. A mighty river, however, was no deterrent, and the word of fertile lands and gold discoveries soon drew tens of thousands of Americans into Indian lands once again. Realizing that the old system would no longer work, the commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1848 reported that it would be judicious “to colonize our Indian tribes beyond the reach, for some years, of our white population.” Thus, the idea of the reservation system evolved. The federal government would try to concentrate the tribes into restricted areas, where it was believed depredations from both sides could be better controlled, and where the Indians could more easily be induced to accept an agricultural economy.

The first major attempt to apply this policy to the Western tribes occurred near Fort Laramie (in what would become Wyoming) on September 17, 1851. Superintendent of Indian Affairs David D. Mitchell, agent Thomas Fitzpatrick and several other officers and officials met with the Lakota (Sioux), Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, Mandan and Arikara tribes to make “an effective and lasting peace.” The agreement has become known as both the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1851 and the Treaty of Horse Creek, since negotiations were actually held some 35 miles from the fort at Horse Creek (in present-day Nebraska). In the first article, all tribes agreed to “abstain in future from all hostilities whatever against each other.” In the second article, all agreed that the United States could build roads and forts through their territories, and in article four, the tribes agreed to make restitution for any wrongs committed against U.S. citizens. Article five designated tribal boundaries, and the various bands agreed to acknowledge each other’s territories. In article eight, it was agreed that any violation of the provisions would allow the United States to withhold annuities.

With the treaty duly agreed to and signed, the Lakotas promptly went north, and over the next two years, attacked the Crows, invaded their lands in what would become Wyoming and Montana, moved in and drove them out. The Cheyennes joined in the attacks in 1853. In 1854 they raided into Mexico and New Mexico Territory, stole stock and killed or captured Anglos and Mexicans. Even so, the United States never ceased paying annuities. Although Lieutenant John Grattan fired into a Lakota village on the North Platte River in August 1854 over a dispute about a Mormon cow (leading to the death of his command, the so-called Grattan Massacre), Indian signatories of the Treaty of Fort Laramie had been violating their agreements for three years.

Thus began a string of treaties with the more hostile Western tribes, who were facing the possibility of reservation life for the first time. Was there a difference in character between the Eastern and Western tribes that tended to make the latter more readily disregard their oaths? Was the reservation system too restrictive? Did the chiefs always understand the treaty provisions? Was it ever really possible for the signatory leaders to impose their will on other members of their tribe? Were the less hospitable lands the Plains Indians occupied simply not as desirable, making the whites less inclined to encroach upon them? For whatever reasons, a survey of some of the more important treaties made during the latter half of the 19th century with the most warlike of the tribes in the Great Plains and Southwest shows that it was the Indians who most often were the first to break their promises. The fact will not be popular with many of our politically correct generation, but facts should not be based on popularity.

On July 1, 1852, U.S. authorities made a treaty with the Mescalero Apaches in Santa Fe, and on July 11 Indian agent John Greiner went to Acoma, New Mexico Territory, to sign essentially the same agreement with Chiricahua Apaches under Mangas Coloradas. The Indians agreed to abide by U.S. laws, said they would not fight with U.S. citizens, would allow forts to be built on their lands, would allow free, safe passage through their lands, and would refrain from making any predatory incursions into Mexico. Mangas accepted the treaty. He didn’t like the article that said he would not be allowed to raid below the border, however, so he simply ignored that part. Later in the same month he signed the treaty, Mangas led his warriors on a raid into Mexico. In September 1852, other Apaches didn’t even bother going to Mexico, but began raiding around Fort Webster in New Mexico Territory. The Indian promises were again short-lived.

On July 7, 1853, at Fort Atkinson, Kansas Territory, an agreement was reached between the United States and the Kiowa, Comanche and Apache tribes. The articles provided that there would be peace between the Indians and the United States, that the government could build roads and forts in Indian lands, and that the Indians would make restitution for injuries done to U.S. citizens and would cease molesting them. There were to be no raids in Mexico, and the Indians agreed to restore all captives. Article eight stated that if the Indians violated the treaty, annuities could be withheld. The Senate made amendments to the treaty, which the Indians agreed to, and signed, on July 21, 1854.

The same month the amendments were signed, Comanches went to Texas and fought with soldiers of the Regiment of Mounted Rifles, wounding two enlisted men and fatally wounding Captain Michael E. Van Buren. In August they raided into south Texas near Cotulla, and fought and wounded several Rangers. Also in August, Comanches attacked but failed to capture a stage carrying $300,000 in specie on the Lower Military Road near Howard’s Well, Texas. There were numerous raids during the next few years the three tribes completely ignored the agreement they had made.

On June 19, 1858, in Washington, D.C., the United States signed a treaty with the Wahpeton, Sisseton, Wahpakute and Mdewakanton Dakotas. The treaty contained many of the usual provisions, including one that stated the Indians would commit no depredations on U.S. citizens, nor would they fight with other tribes. If they did so, annuities would be withheld. Unfortunately, some annuities were already being withheld for depredations by some of these bands after they perpetrated the Spirit Lake Massacre in Iowa in 1857, breaking a treaty they had signed in 1851. The lesson did not seem to register. After signing the new treaty in 1858, the Dakotas went right back to attacking the Chippewas in 1859, plus depredating and killing the stock of white settlers adjacent to their reservation. They had repeatedly violated the treaty agreements long before the deadly Minnesota (Great Sioux) Uprising in August 1862.

Portions of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes signed the Treaty of Fort Wise, Colorado Territory, on February 18, 1861. As part of the stipulations, the tribes agreed to cede all lands previously claimed by them and to allow roads through their new lands. The reservation land was to be assigned in severalty to individual Indians. They were to be protected if they behaved, settled down and resided on the reservation, and induced all the other bands to join them. Those bands that did not settle on the reservation within one year were not entitled to any benefits. All annuities could be discontinued entirely if the Indians did not make a reasonable effort to comply with the provisions.

The signatory bands of Cheyenne and Arapaho never complied with one provision of the treaty. They did not settle, nor could they convince any nonsignatory bands to settle. In fact, because the Cheyenne Black Kettle sold out his people without their consent, the other bands were so angry that he lost much of his prior influence and favor with them (see “Warriors and Chiefs” in the December 2005 Wild West). The episode illustrates one major problem in treaty making: Indians who did not sign did not believe the provisions bound them. And, even among the bands of leaders who did sign, there was always the excuse that they could not hold in their young men. If that argument had any validity, so too did the point made by General William T. Sherman. His men too were sometimes uncontrollable. “Tell the rascals so are mine,” Sherman said, “and if another white man is scalped in all this region, it will be impossible to hold mine in.” The Cheyennes, totally ignoring the Fort Wise Treaty, were already at war with the United States in 1864 when Colorado Territory soldiers attacked them at Sand Creek.

In October 1865, U.S. commissioners made a series of treaties with various Sioux bands at Fort Sully in Dakota Territory. In the agreements, the Indians promised to cease hostilities with the United States, to end attacks on other tribes and to withdraw from existing roads or any others later established. The problem was that all the signatories were from generally friendly bands, and those still roaming Nebraska’s Sand Hills, the Black Hills and Powder River Country did not consider themselves bound by the treaty. If that was the case, then they were still operating under the Treaty of 1851, which they did sign.

As mentioned earlier, these Lakotas had repeatedly broken that treaty’s stipulations. They probably had no second thoughts about breaking them again when they refused to allow roads and forts in their territory as promised. As soldiers built Forts Reno, Phil Kearny and C.F. Smith along the Bozeman Trail, the Lakotas furiously attacked and killed soldiers and emigrants alike. Wagon train ambushes and fights along Crazy Woman Creek, Clear Creek, the North Platte and Peno Creek, along with a major raid on the Pawnee Agency in Nebraska, all occurred in 1866. Plains Indians wiped out the command of Captain William Fetterman in December 1866, and they attacked soldiers at Fort Phil Kearny and Fort C.F. Smith in August 1867.

While the “friendly” Sioux were making new treaties in Dakota Territory, the Cheyennes and Arapahos signed the Treaty of Little Arkansas in Kansas on October 14, 1865. The treaty proclaimed perpetual peace between the Indians and the United States and among the other tribes. A reservation encompassing lands on both sides of Kansas’ southern border was set up the Indians agreed to live on it, and agreed not to leave it without U.S. consent. If they got approval to leave the reservation, they agreed not to depredate and not to camp within 10 miles of a road. They agreed to relinquish all claims to lands north of the Arkansas River, but they could still hunt there. The United States was allowed to build roads and posts on Indian land. All former treaties were abrogated.

The agreement lasted until May 1866, when Cheyennes ignored their promise of perpetual peace by killing, scalping and mutilating Lew Cassil and his party of five hunters near Jamestown, Kan. The warriors had broken the Treaty of Little Arkansas nearly a full year before the arrival in western Kansas of Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, the man who the Cheyennes later blamed as the one to first break the peace.

Four days after the Cheyennes and Arapahos signed the Treaty of Little Arkansas, the Kiowas and Comanches signed a similar document. They promised the same perpetual peace with the United States, agreed to live on their reservation set up for them within the confines of present-day Oklahoma, agreed not to leave the reservation without consent and promised to refrain from depredations while off the reservation. The Kiowas and Comanches lost even less time in breaking their promises than did the Cheyennes.

The month before the treaty, the Comanche Eagle Drinking and the Kiowa Little Mountain, signatories of the treaty, had captured several children in Wise County, Texas. The Americans refused to give out treaty presents while the captives were being held. The Indians simply turned them in and collected the gifts.

The ink, as they say, was hardly dry on the treaty, when the signatory Indians rode off to Texas to take more captives. In January 1866, they killed a number of settlers and captured 13-year-old Hubert Weinand. In March they were in Texas again, killing, stealing stock and capturing James, Samuel and Jennie Savage in Parker County. Later in the year, they captured Eliza and Isaac Brisco, Theodore and Bianca Babb, Fremont Blackwell and Thomas Sullivan. But the attack that brought the most anger was led by Satanta, another signer of the Treaty of Little Arkansas, on the Box family in Montague County, Texas. After killing the father, the Kiowas raped the mother and oldest daughter, and carried away Mary, Margaret, Josephine, Ida and Laura Box. They killed infant Laura on the road back to Kansas, where they sold the other captives to authorities at Fort Dodge. The settlers and soldiers were outraged when they heard the details of the torture of women and children. The attack was a major incident that brought General Hancock to the Kansas plains. The Indians’ continual disregard of the treaties only made it worse for them.

The wars that developed because of Indian indiscretions needed to be “ended” by additional treaties. Two Octobers after the Little Arkansas agreements, the same tribes were back in Kansas, this time at Medicine Lodge Creek, about 70 miles south of Fort Larned. Once again, many of the same stipulations were put down on paper. All war between the Indians— Cheyennes, Arapahos, Kiowas and Comanches—and the United States and its citizens was to cease. The Indians agreed to stay on their reservations, but they could hunt south of the Arkansas River with U.S. consent. They would not oppose any railroads and would not attack any persons at their homes or while traveling. They would not kill or capture whites, nor oppose any military posts. They would not attack any other tribes friendly to the United States. Once more, the treaty was not worth the cost of the paper.

The Kiowas and Comanches signed the Treaty of Medicine Lodge on October 21, 1867. The next month they were ready to go raiding in Texas. By early January 1868, Big Tree led about 300 Kiowas and Comanches across Red River and, within two days, killed seven whites and took 10 captives, six of whom were soon killed. In early February, Comanches raided farther south into Llano County, Texas, attacking women and children in the Friend and Johnson cabins. In June and August 1868, similar attacks, murders and captures were made on the McElroy and Russell homes in north Texas.

The Cheyennes and Arapahos also signed the Treaty of Medicine Lodge in October 1867. It was very similar to the one signed by the Kiowas and Comanches, except it outlined a different reservation, this one wholly within Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Treaty stipulations also included giving the Indians the right to hunt south of the Arkansas River. They promised not to attack white settlers or travelers and not to attack any tribes friendly with the United States. It is important to note that there was never any provision in the treaty that said the Indians were to be given weapons or ammunition, and, if the Indians held up their end of the bargain, they would receive annuities at the agency every October 15.

As was the usual case, only one month later, a war party of Cheyennes and Arapahos broke the promises. This time the warriors rode to east-central Kansas to attack the Kaws but were handily beaten. The defeat meant that a revenge raid would be needed. In the spring of 1868, the Cheyennes again attacked the Kaws, plus some white families, thus breaking three promises: attacking friendly Indians, riding north of the Arkansas and attacking settlers. Also, in May of that year, other Cheyennes went beyond the Arkansas, camping near Fort Wallace and attacking wagon trains on the Smoky Hill River. The Indians arrived at Fort Larned in June, four months before the agreed-upon October issue date, demanding arms and ammunition that were never promised to them in the treaty. Under pressure, agent Edward Wynkoop acquiesced and gave them guns and ammunition on July 29. With that, about 200 Cheyennes, Arapahos and Lakotas headed for north-central Kansas, ostensibly to fight the Pawnees, which they were not allowed to do either. Instead, they attacked white settlers. When the initial raids were over by late August, about 40 Kansas settlers had been killed, several women raped and several women and children captured. The U.S. authorities apparently never learned.

Some of the last major treaties to be made with the tribes that had been driving the peace commissioners to distraction for the past 20 years were signed at Fort Laramie between April 29 and May 10, 1868. In them, the various bands of Lakotas, Cheyennes, Arapahos and Crows agreed to the usual stipulations that they had already agreed to repeatedly. All war between the tribes and the U.S. government and its citizens would cease. Any “bad men” among all parties would be arrested and punished. The Lakotas were assigned a reservation that fell in the bounds of present-day South Dakota west of the Missouri River, but the right was given to all government officers, agents or employees to enter the lands. Survey rights were also granted. The Indians promised to send their children to school. They relinquished the right to occupy any other land. They pledged to withdraw all opposition to any current or future military posts, and not to oppose railroads in existence or later to be constructed. They promised to not attack, kill, scalp or capture any whites, nor attack anyone else friendly to the whites. The United States in turn agreed to abandon its posts along the Bozeman Trail and close the road within 90 days. It should be noted, however, that not until November 1868 would Lakota leader Red Cloud make his mark on the treaty that many other of his tribesman had signed in May.

Before the soldiers could pull out of the forts, the Lakotas attacked them at Fort Reno on July 19, 1868, breaking the treaty before the time frame stipulation had even run its course. Still, as promised, the U.S. Army abandoned the posts and closed the road within the time limit. And, not as promised, but as should have been expected, the Lakotas were back in Kansas in August 1868, far south of their reservation, raiding and killing along with the Cheyennes. Also in August, they were far north of their reservation at Fort Buford on the Missouri River, stealing stock and killing and wounding seven soldiers. In August 1869, Lakotas were in south-central Nebraska, wiping out a party of 10 surveyors under Nelson Buck. In September 1869, they killed civilians and soldiers near present-day Lander, Wyo. In December 1869, Lakotas attacked mail stages in Wyoming Territory between Fort Laramie and Fort Fetterman. In April 1872, they attacked railroad property near Fort McPherson in Nebraska, and in August they attacked soldiers at Fort McKean (in present-day North Dakota), as well as a surveying and railroad party traveling through the area. The surveyors were far away from the Indian reservation, and the Indians had expressly pledged to not harass any such expeditions.

In 1873 it was more of the same, as Lakotas repeatedly attacked another railroad expedition and fought with its 7th Cavalry escort under Lt. Col. George A. Custer. Even Custer’s government expedition into the Black Hills in 1874, so loudly condemned by Indians and many modernday white historians alike, was allowed under the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. In 1876, when the Lakotas were far from their reservation and occupying Crow lands, the U.S. military had the proper authority to attempt to make them comply with the treaty by trying to force them back onto the reservation. It is painfully obvious, however, that the Lakotas and Cheyennes had broken the treaty many times before the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876.

By 1871 Congress seemingly had finally realized that attempting to make lasting treaties with the American Indians was like trying to store water in a sieve. It outlawed further treaty making and stated that henceforth no Indian tribe would be considered an independent nation. In 1887 the Dawes Act attempted to address the Indian “problem” differently, by parceling out tribal lands to individual Indians in severalty, with rights and responsibilities not unlike every other U.S. landowner, and declaring that those who received allotted lands would be citizens of the United States. The act was not very successful either, and was overturned in the Wheeler-Howard (Indian Reorganization) Act of 1934, which restored the lands to tribal ownership.

Some American citizens were never very successful in honoring their government’s treaties. In that respect, Indian tribes experienced the same problem. With the above list of broken treaties on the record, it is incredible that historians can suggest that every time the Indians went to war, it was the white man’s fault. It is an invalid generalization. Propagating such nonhistorical discourse, simply because it appears to be the “right” thing to do, is not right. Injustices against Indians in the Wild West are also on the record and should not be taken lightly. But the U.S. government, military and civilians were not always to blame for failed treaties. The Indians had their fair share of culpability.

Frequent Wild West contributor Gregory Michno is the author of Lakota Noon: The Indian Narrative of Custer’s Defeat Battle at Sand Creek: The Military Perspective and Encyclopedia of Indian Wars: Western Battles and Skirmishes 1850-1890. They are recommended for further reading, along with Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties, edited by Charles J. Kappler and Documents of United States Indian Policy, edited by Francis Paul Prucha.

Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.

Treaty Timeline

The Dakota and Ojibwe relinquished millions of acres through treaties with the United States. This map shows the dates of the principal land cession treaties, the extent of the land loss, and the location of present-day Ojibwe and Dakota communities.


Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

How Treaties Changed Lands and Lifeways

Tribal territories ceded through treaties were quickly put up for sale, fueling a huge influx of non-Natives to Minnesota. Speculators and surveyors measured and redistributed land for sale. Farmers, many of them poor European immigrants, built homes and planted crops. Lumbermen clearcut timber, which drove away game and eroded Native supplies of seasonal foods. This lack of reverence for the earth destroyed traditional Dakota and Ojibwe livelihoods and created widespread hardship.

“The greatest object of their lives seems to be to acquire possessions—to be rich. They desire to possess the whole world.“

— Dakota doctor and writer Ohiyesa (Charles Alexander Eastman), recalling his uncle’s description of American values in the 1860s

Julius R. Sloan, St. Anthony Falls, 1852. | Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Transition to Reservation Life

Government officials are pictured distributing treaty payments at the Fond du Lac Reservation around 1865. Relegated to reservations through treaties with the United States, Native people faced diminished homelands and food resources, and became increasingly dependent on government payments and provisions.

Reservation life also undermined traditional Indian culture and sovereignty. Accustomed to governing their own people, tribal chiefs were brushed aside by the U.S. government officials, or “Indian agents,” who were sent to manage reservations. Corruption ran deep among Indian agents, who often lined their pockets with treaty payments and provisions.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

A Clash of Cultures

American notions of property confounded Ojibwe and Dakota peoples. Land was a gift from the Creator. How could something sacred—something that was meant to be shared in common—be traded for money?

“To Promote Their Improvement and Civilization”

Treaties of the 1850s and ’60s sought to eliminate tribal cultures by encouraging Indian men to spurn hunting and adopt farming. Schools were established to instruct Native children in the knowledge and values of American society, and Christian missionaries extolled the virtues of conversion. To cultivate individualism, some treaties divided collectively owned tribal lands into parcels for distribution to individuals, foreshadowing U.S. allotment policy of the 1880s.

Ojibwe girls in a classroom at the St. Benedict’s mission school, White Earth Reservation, ca. 1900. |

Ojibwe Rights Retained

Ojibwe bands continue to hunt, fish, and gather wild rice as they have for centuries. These rights are recognized in the land cession treaties of 1837 and 1854. By signing these treaties, tribal leaders ensured that future generations would be able to access natural resources on former tribal lands.

“The privilege of hunting, fishing, and gathering the wild rice, upon the lands, the rivers and the lakes included in the territory ceded, is guarantied [sic] to the Indians, during the pleasure of the President of the United States. “

— Article 5, Treaty with the Chippewa, 1837

Two men holding rifles near Mille Lacs, 1899. | Photo by David Bushnell, courtesy of the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution


Known as manoomin in the Ojibwe language, wild rice has been a valuable Native American food source for centuries. From before the treaty-making era to today, Ojibwe families have harvested wild rice each fall on their ancestral lands.


Ojibwe woman with container of wild rice, 1940. | Photo by Gordon R. Sommers, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society


In the spring, people set out from their villages to collect maple sap, which women boil down into sugar.

Two Ojibwe women cooking maple sap at a sugar camp, possibly at the Mille Lacs Reservation, 1915. | Photo by Frances Densmore, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society


Treaties guaranteed Ojibwe rights to gather food and medicinal plants on former tribal lands. In the summer, families set up camps to gather blueberries, which grow in abundance.

Ojibwe woman gathering blueberries near Little Fork, Minnesota, 1937.| Photo by Russell Lee, courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division


Even after they accepted reservations, Ojibwe people exercised their right to hunt game on lands relinquished to the United States.

Anton Treuer of Bemidji State University discusses the Ojibwes’ retained right to hunt and fish on ceded lands.


As retained by treaties, Ojibwe continue to harvest fish both on and off reservations. More than 150 fish species are found in Minnesota’s inland lakes and streams as well as in Lake Superior, including bullhead, perch, pickerel, walleye, and whitefish.

Mary Razer (Mille Lacs Ojibwe) draws her gill nets from a lake at the White Earth Reservation around 1915. | Photo by Frances Densmore, courtesy of the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

Watch the video: Overview to US Native American Treaties (November 2021).