Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 20th in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.
Thirteen years before he took office as president of the United States, James Abram Garfield predicted the extinction of the American Indian.
“The race of the red men will… before many generations be remembered only as a strange, weird, dreamlike specter, which once passed before the eyes of men, but had departed forever,” he said in 1868 when, as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, he proposed a bill that would transfer Indian Affairs from the Interior Department to the War Department.
The Indians had unpronounceable names, crude clothing and habits of “roaming,” Garfield said. He called it a “mockery… for the representatives of the great Government of the United States to sit down in a wigwam and make treaties with a lot of painted and half naked savages.”
Garfield’s bill, designed to purge Indian Affairs of widespread corruption, failed despite his promises to “vote in the negative” on every appropriation for funding until the whole service was purified. He reintroduced the bill several times, sometimes trying to sneak it by the House as a rider on other bills.
When it continued to fail, Garfield spoke despairingly about the future of the Indians, believing nothing could be done to stop “the passage of that sad race down to the oblivion to which a larger part of them seem to be so certainly tending.” Perhaps, he concluded, it was best to let the Indians slip into extinction “as quietly and humanely as possible.”
Born in a log cabin in Ohio in 1831, Garfield was 2 when his father died. He grew up in poverty, working on canal boats to put himself through school. Garfield served as a major general in the Civil War, then worked as a professor and college president before serving nine terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In 1871, Garfield served as special commissioner to carry out President Ulysses S. Grant’s executive order to remove the Flathead Indians from Montana’s Bitter Root Valley. Grant negotiated a contract with the Flathead, promising to pay for their land. By December 1873, the Bitter Root Valley was opened to white settlers.
A member of the Republican Party, Garfield was elected by a narrow margin as the 20th president of the United States in 1880, but he served only 200 days in office. His term ended abruptly when he was assassinated in September 1881.
Garfield took office on the heels of some of the century’s most controversial battles over Indian land, including the forcible removal of the Ponca from Nebraska in 1877. A peaceful tribe, the Ponca lost about one-quarter of its population during the march to Oklahoma, an incident that sparked public outrage and the 1881 publication of Helen Hunt Jackson’s book about white betrayal, A Century of Dishonor. In March 1881, the same month Garfield took office, Congress voted to compensate the Ponca for their land.
Helen Hunt Jackson's "A Century of Dishonor."
Garfield also inherited an American population that was growing sympathetic to Indians. In the late 1870s and early 1880s, several reform movements were established to lobby for Indian education and citizenship.
Yet benevolence was more abundant in the east, Justus Doenecke wrote in his 1981 book, The Presidencies of James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur. “Humanitarianism, of course, grew increasingly more pronounced the farther one got from the frontier,” he wrote. “It was at its fullest strength in New England (and) Westerners were still inclined to condemn Indians.”
In early 1881, for example, the Colorado Legislature introduced a bill calling for the “destruction of Indians and skunks” and offering a bounty of $25 for every “scalp or scalps, with ears entire.” The bill illustrated the divide between eastern sentimentalism and western prejudice, states a New York Times editorial published in February 1881—one month before Garfield took office.
“A policy which presupposes that the Indian is a human being is stigmatized as ‘Boston philanthropy,’” the editorial states. “The sentimentalists of the East, we apprehend, will regard this bill as cowardly and inhuman. … (Yet) in the free and boundless West where the people are not fettered by traditions, nor swayed by considerations of sickly sentimentality, it is the custom of the country to class Indians with vermin, both of which are to be exterminated.”
During his partial term, Garfield contended with several groups of unpopular minorities, including the Chinese, the Mormons and the Native Americans. Although he was a vocal supporter of civil rights for African Americans, Garfield did little to improve life for other marginalized populations, said Richard Aynes, emeritus dean and professor at the University of Akron School of Law.
“Garfield in a lot of ways fits the 19th century stereotype, but he also had an independent streak,” Aynes said. “You could imagine that those people who were very much opposed to slavery could have sympathy and understanding for other issues like American Indians or women’s rights, but there’s not a lot of evidence about Garfield’s views on Native Americans.”
In his inaugural address, Garfield spoke of “both races”—the master and the slave—that benefited from the liberation of 5 million people following the Emancipation Proclamation. “The elevation of the Negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution of 1787,” he said.
The speech proved to be the only public address Garfield gave as president. He ignored other disenfranchised populations, but called for honest local governments and equal suffrage in communities where African Americans were denied the vote.
“There can be no permanent disfranchised peasantry in the United States,” he said. “Freedom can never yield its fullness of blessings so long as the law or its administration places the smallest obstacle in the pathway of any virtuous citizen.”
Garfield was shot by an assassin on July 2, 1881, and died two months later, at age 49. His vice president, Chester Arthur completed his term.