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Indian agent

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Indian agent

In United States history, an Indian agent was an individual authorized to interact with Native American tribes on behalf of the U.S. government.

Indian Agents

The federal regulation of Indian affairs in the United States first included development of the position of Indian agent in 1793 under the Second Trade and Intercourse Act (or The Nonintercourse Act) This required land sales by/from Native Americans to be federally licensed and permitted. The legislation also authorized the President of the United States to “appoint such persons, from time to time, as temporary agents to reside among the Indians,” and guide them into forced acculturation of white American society by changing their agricultural practices and domestic activities.[1] Eventually, the government ceased using the term temporary from the Indian agent’s job title.

Indian Agents in the U.S.: 1800 - 1840s

From the close of the 18th century to nearly 1828, Congress maintained the position that it was legally responsible for the protection of Indians from non-Indians, and in establishing this responsibility it “continue[d] to deal with Indian tribes by utilizing agents to negotiate treaties under the jurisdiction of the Department of War.”[2]

  • Initially, and before the reforms of the late 19th century, an Indian agent’s average duties were as follows:
    • Work toward keeping white settlers and Native Americans from conflict
    • “He was to keep an eye out for violations of intercourse laws and to report them [violations] to superintendents”[3]
    • Maintain flexible cooperation with U.S. Army military personnel
    • See to the proper distribution of annuities granted by the state or federal government to various Native American tribes; and this usually occurred through a transfer of money or goods from the Indian agent to the respective chief which would then be distributed to the tribe, although this practice went into decline by the mid-1800s
    • See to the successful removal of tribes from areas procured for settlement to reservations

In the 1830s, the primary role of Indian agents was to assist in commercial trading supervision between white traders and Native Americans, while agents possessed the authority to both issue and revoke commercial trading licenses.

In 1849, the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided to place the position of Indian agent under civilian jurisdiction. This came at a time when many white Americans saw the role of Indian agent as largely inefficient and dishonest in monetary and severalty dealings with various Native American tribes.[4]

Indian Agents: mid-late 19th century

By 1850, many citizens had been calling for reform of the agents in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Their wish had been granted when in 1869 the bureau created the civilian-controlled Board of Indian Commissioners. The board “never more deeply felt, that Indian agents should be appointed solely for merit and fitness for their work….and should be retained in the service when they prove themselves to be efficient and helpful by their character and moral influence.”[5] This civilian run board was charged “with responsibility for supervising the disbursement of Indian appropriations” from state and federal government.[6] However, the United States Army command was extremely dissatisfied of the transfer of the Bureau of Indian Affairs from the Department of War to the Department of the Interior by 1849, so they began to make public complaints about the corruptive nature of the civilian presence in the job of Indian agent.[7] Despite its deeply felt convictions that its Indian agents were appointed and removed on merit, the civilian Board of Commissioners was frequently deemed corrupt, portrayed derogatorily in print and propaganda, and inadvertently assumed the scapegoat for the perceived inefficiency of Indian-White affairs: the Indian agent.

By the late 19th century, the job title of Indian agent began to change slightly in the wake of the recent attempts to “civilize” (forcibly assimilate) Native Americans into mainstream, white, American culture. Despite the public scorn for the agents, the Indian Office stated that the “chief duty of an agent is to induce his Indian to labor in civilized pursuits. To attain this end every possible influence should be brought to bear, and in proportion as it is attained…an agent is successful or unsuccessful.”[8]

By the 1870s, the average Indian agent was primarily nominated by various Christian denominations due to the increase in civilization reforms to Indian-white affairs, especially over land.[9] Part of the Christian message of reform, carried out by the Indian agents, demonstrated the pervasive thought of Native American land ownership of the late 19th century: civilization can only be possible when Indians cease communal living in favor for private ownership. Many citizens still held the activities of Indian agents in poor esteem, calling the agents themselves “unprincipled opportunists” and people of low quality.[10]

  • In the 1880 Instruction to Indian Agents, it states the job duties of the Indian agent is as follows:
    • See that Indian in one’s designated locality are not “idle for want of an opportunity to labor or of instructions as to how to go to work,” and
    • absolutely “no work must be given to white men which can be done by Indians”[11]
    • See to it that the Native Americans under one’s jurisdiction can farm successfully and solely for the subsistence of their respective family
    • Enforce prohibition of liquor
    • Both provide and supervise the instruction of English education and industrial training for Native American children
    • Allow only Native Americans that have acquired a permit for leaving the reservation to do so (as permits were only irregularly granted)

And as of July 1884, Indian agents were to compile an annual report of his reservation for submission aimed at collecting the following information from Native American inhabitants: Indian name, English name, Relationship, Sex, and Name among other statistical information.[12]

Indian Agents: 20th century

When Theodore Roosevelt reached the presidency at the turn of the 20th century, (1901 -1909) the Indian agents that remained on the government payroll were all replaced by school superintendents.[13]

Notable Indian agents

Distinguished individuals who have served as Indian agents include the following:

See also


  1. ^ 1Prucha, Francis Paul (1984). The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 58. 
  2. ^ 2Brown, Shana. "Outline of Indian Affairs" (PDF). p. 1. Retrieved 12/11/2012. 
  3. ^ 3Prucha, Francis Paul (Ibid). p. 61. 
  4. ^ 4Unrau, William E. (October 1972). "The Civillian as Indian Agent: Villain or Victim?". The Western History Association 3 (4): 405. Retrieved 12-11-12. 
  5. ^ 5Prucha, Francis Paul (Ibid). 251. 
  6. ^ 6Unrau, William E.; Ibid. p. 406. 
  7. ^ 7Chaput, Donald (July 1972). "Generals, Indian Agents, Politicians: The Doolittle Survey of 1865" (PDF). The Western History Association 3 (3): 269. 
  8. ^ 8Prucha, Francis Paul (Ibid). p. 218. 
  9. ^ 9Castile, George P. (April 1981). "Edwin Eells, U.S. Indian Agent, 1871-1895" (PDF). The Pacific Northwest Quarterly 72 (2): 62. 
  10. ^ 10Unrau, William (Ibid). p. 409. 
  11. ^ 11Prucha, Francis Paul (Ibid). p. 293. 
  12. ^ 12National Archives. "Indian Census Roles, 1885-1940". Legal and Administrative Background: The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. 
  13. ^ 13Prucha, Francis Paul (Ibid). p. 257. 
  14. ^ 14Hutton, Paul A. (September 1978). "William Wells: Frontier Scout and Indian Agent" (PDF). Indiana Magazine of History 74 (3): 189. 

External links

  • Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture – Indian Agencies


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