The Reservation System: Overview

As European settlers pushed into Indian lands, in 1763 the British parliament proclaimed the Appalachian Mountains as the western boundary for white settlement. Land to the west of the mountains was designated as “Indian Country.” After the American Revolution, the United States government tried to maintain this same policy.

Pressure for land, however, made that impossible. During the 1830s and 1840s many Indian tribes, including the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole) were forced to move from their homelands to new lands west of the Mississippi River. Territory west of the river became the new “Indian Country.”
As non-Indians continued to move west in increasing numbers, the Mississippi River no longer could serve as the boundary of the new “Indian Country.” By the middle of the nineteenth century the concept of the reservation emerged. The government would move each tribe onto land specifically reserved for the tribe—a reservation. This became U.S. federal Indian policy.
The reservation system, administered by white officials, evolved as the most effective way of “civilizing” and assimilating the Indian people. Very few whites recognized the different values and ways of the various Indian cultures. To them, all Indians were alike—pagan and backward. William Medill, Indian Commissioner, expressed the view of most whites in 1848:  “The policy already begun is, as rapidly as it can safely and judiciously be done, to colonize our Indian tribes beyond the reach, for some years, or our white population, confining each within a small district of country so that, as the game decreases and becomes scarce, the adults will gradually be compelled to resort to agriculture and other kinds of labor.”
In 1858 Commissioner of Indian Affairs Charles Mix held that Indians should be confined to lands just large enough for actual occupancy and provided with tools and implements to become farmers. The goal:  turn Indians into whites as soon as possible—“Christianize and civilize.”
Up until 1871 when Congress terminated treaty making, 370 treaties brought Indian tribes under the guardianship of the federal government. The tribes ceded millions of acres of land for white settlement. The reservation system increased Indian dependency and crushed traditional Indian ways.
The 1862 uprising of the Dakota against the federal government and the killings of hundreds of white settlers illustrates an early failure of the reservation system. The government had made promises to the Dakota and did not keep those promises. The result was bloodshed.

The Cherokee people have finally given in to the federal government.  They will follow the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creeks, and most of the Seminoles from the lush hill country of the Southeast (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida) to their new home, the “Indian Lands” to the west of Arkansas.  This new “Indian Land” is identified on maps as part of the Great American Desert.

The forcing of these people into the west is President Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policy.  President Jackson believes that the resettlement of Indians is a “just, humane, liberal policy.”  Upon his request, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830.  The federal government negotiated ninety-four removal treaties.  Most of the tribes, weakened in numbers, signed treaties without a fuss.

The Sauk and Fox under Chief Black Hawk, however, rebelled against their treaty and returned home to Illinois.  They could grow no corn on the Great American Desert and were facing starvation.  In 1832 the Illinois militia and the U.S. Army drove them back across the Mississippi, killing many women and children.

Some Seminoles continue a guerrilla war in Florida, refusing to leave their homeland.

The Cherokee, relying on their treaty rights, had adopted a constitution in 1827 and proclaimed that they were not subject to state or federal laws.  Georgia, however, extended its laws to the Cherokee people.  The Cherokee Nation took the State of Georgia to court.  The Supreme Court in 1832 ruled that the Cherokee Nation was “a distinct political community” and that Georgia law could not be extended to the Cherokee peoples.
President Jackson, however, has refused to enforce the decision.  The Cherokee people reluctantly have signed a removal treaty.  They have given up their home in exchange for land in Indian Territory (west of Arkansas), $5,000,000, and expenses for transportation.
President Jackson and Congressional leaders believe that the removal policy will solve what they call “the Indian problem.”  They are certain that no white would ever want land west of the Mississippi—“a land of horned toads and rattlesnakes.”
When asked to comment on the new Indian lands, Major Stephen Long, who has explored much of the region, told The North Star Dakotan, “We do not hesitate in giving the opinion that it is almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence.”  Such is the condition of the new Indian Territory.

By order of President Abraham Lincoln, thirty-eight Dakota have been executed by hanging today. The government determined that they had participated in the Dakota uprising of this past summer.

Suffering from lack of food and facing another winter, the Dakota asked that the government provide treaty-guaranteed provisions and money. In July about 4,000 Dakota moved on the agency not far from Fort Ridgely and demanded what was due to them.

Although the goods were there, the agent, afraid of showing weakness, refused to distribute them because the money had not yet arrived. Angry, Dakota warriors began to attack farms and towns, killing 757 white settlers and townspeople. Thousands of whites have fled Minnesota, many to Iowa.
Enduring continued raids, Minnesotans demanded government protection and action. But, with the Civil War raging in the East, the army encouraged the state to raise a militia to be commanded by generals Alfred Sully and Henry Sibley.

Because so many Dakota have fled to Canada and Dakota Territory, the military will wait until next spring to round up the Dakota who were responsible for the Minnesota uprising.

Alfred Sully’s superior, General John Pope, has commended the soldier sent to punish the Dakota for his victory at Whitestone Hill. “I bear willing testimony to the distinguished conduct of yourself and your command and to the important service you have rendered to yourself and to the Government,” General Pope states. “I tender my thanks and congratulations.”

As part of a campaign to capture and punish the Dakota who took part in last year’s Minnesota Revolt, General Sully had been ordered, along with General Sibley, to Dakota Territory. In early September, Sully found a large hunting encampment at Whitestone Hill. Without determining whether these were Dakota, on September 3, Sully and his force of between 600 and 700 men attacked the encampment of 1,500 (his estimate). 

When the smoke had cleared, Sully had lost twenty men; over 300 (men, women, and children) Indian people, Yanktonai not Dakota, were dead. Most of the survivors fled, but the army took about 200 as prisoners.  Sully claims that some of the Indian people were Dakota. When asked to comment on the battle, the General states, “I believe I can safely say I gave them one of the most severe punishments that the Indians have ever received.”
Sam Brown, a young interpreter, does not believe that Sully should “brag” about his victory. According to Brown, Sully did “what no decent man would have done, he pitched into their camp and just slaughtered them.” Brown states that the Indian people had no “hostile intention” and that Sully’s force killed mostly women and children.

The army has spent the two days since the “battle” destroying the encampment’s provisions and supplies. His troops plan to winter at newly constructed Fort Rice near the Missouri River. The army will continue its pursuit of the Dakota rebels next summer.

General Alfred Sully and his troops have just arrived here and are preparing to depart for home. They have spent the last two months in a campaign against what Sully calls “hostiles.” He originally came to Dakota to capture Dakota who had instigated the uprising in Minnesota two years ago, but he has seemed content to punish most any Indian people.

On July 23 Sully’s force of 2,000 men encountered a large encampment in the Killdeer Mountains. According to the army, the camp held between 5,000 and 6,000 warriors of the Dakota; Hunkpapa and Sihasapa Lakota; and Yanktonai. Indian sources place the number at much less.
After a brief but furious encounter, both sides fell back. At this time the army’s eight canons blasted into the Indian ranks, killing 150 men and breaking off the battle. The encampment fled into the Badlands and the soldiers burned the camp and its provisions.

Sully pursued the Indians to the eastern rim of the Badlands where on August 7 the warriors mounted an attack. A fierce, although brief, battle ensued. In the rugged terrain much of the fighting was hand-to-hand. Almost before it started, the Battle of the Badlands was over: U.S. Army, 9 dead, 100 wounded; native warriors, 311 dead, several hundred wounded.

Sully believes that with these battles “all necessity for future large expeditions cease. The Indians, broken up, scattered in all directions.” Government officials believe that the Sully campaign will provide an excellent groundwork for peace.

By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change