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Native History: Army Generals Call on Congress to Honor Treaties

On January 19, 1891, reports from United States Army generals advised Congress that the only way to assure peace was to honor the treaties.

This Date in Native History: On January 19, 1891, reports from United States Army generals advised Congress that the only way to assure peace was to honor the treaties.

Just a month after the death of Sitting Bull and the Ghost Dance uprising in the Plains, and two weeks after the massacre at Wounded Knee, the Plains Wars were coming to a close. Three generals assessed the situation on the Plains and wrote up their recommendations to establish a lasting peace throughout the reservations of Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River, Standing Rock, and Rosebud.

The most extensive report came from General Nelson A. Miles, who condemned much of the government, Department of the Interior, and Army’s behavior at Wounded Knee and throughout their dealings with the tribes. In virtually all of his writings, Miles projected a sympathy and respect for the Indian’s situations and ways of life. Yet those feelings were always tempered with his hardened belief that joining American civilization would be in their best interest.

Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum, Historical Photographs and Special Visual Collections Department, Fine Arts Library

Nelson Miles Appleton 1839-1925), Collodion print on card

“When we think of these field commanders, we tend to lean towards the Custer image, who acted, at least in part, due to a true hatred, but we don’t find that with Miles,” explained Haskell Indian Nations University American Indian history instructor Eric Anderson. “He is a reflection of the time yet advanced in his thinking. He is a nuanced character.”

Miles wrote hundreds of pages of personal recollections about the honesty and integrity of tribal life, the poetic oratory skills of tribal spokesmen, the accuracy of the oral traditions as matched against the written pages of whites. And yet, “He was always on the ground for the American Army,” Anderson said.

In Miles’ report, he called for the development of trades and economy on the reservations rather than leaving the people idle. He blamed the “Indian Depredations” on the fact that promised food had often not been delivered. Miles was against the use of civilians as agents and condemned the constant corruption. In his report, he wrote, “after they (the tribes) were turned over to civil agents and the large game and buffalo had been destroyed, their supplies were insufficient, and they were forced to kill cattle belonging to white people to sustain life.” He also wrote the government was fully aware the Indians were starving when annuities and food sources did not arrive, and they were aware of how the loss of the buffalo affected the Indians.

Between 1872 and 1874, a total of 4,373,730 buffalo were killed and their hides shipped east for use in manufacturing, Miles wrote in his memoirs. “But in this estimate, enormous as it is, no account was taken of the immense numbers of buffaloes killed by hunters who came into the range from the white frontier and took their hides out by wagons; of the immense numbers killed each year by hunters from New Mexico, Idaho, Texas and Indian Territory,” as well as by the tribes themselves. The estimate he offered was of another million buffalo in those years.

His memoirs are filled with poetic and romanticized writings of the honor, kindness, generosity and honesty of Indians and begin with Christopher Columbus and the continued treachery of whites ever after. Yet, despite his sympathies, his memoirs are also filled with the cold details of war.

“He built his career on the back of military campaigns,” Anderson said. “He may be a great example of how conflicted non-Indians were then, and even today to some extent; going from military force and subjugation almost immediately to peace policies, and then to assimilation.”

In January of 1891, other generals also wrote of the dishonesty of the government’s treatment towards the Indians. In a report by Brigadier-General Thomas H. Ruger, the government was said to have received in 1881, $13,911 for the railroad’s right of way privileges to be paid to the Sioux. However, by 1891, none of that money had reached them.

Library of Congress

Thomas H. Ruger

Ruger also wrote that the Laramie Treaty of 1868 called for the government to issue certificates of land allotments, which by December 1890 had not happened. The government had also promised farm equipment and seeds, cows and oxen, annuity supplies, which by 1890 had not been delivered.

Ruger’s report commented on the failure of the government to issue to the Indians their full ration from an 1876 treaty: “For the fiscal year beginning July 1, 1890, the following shortages in the rations were found to exist: 485,275 pounds of beef [gross], 761,212 pounds of corn, 11,937 pounds of coffee, 281,712 pounds of flour, 26,234 pounds of sugar, and 39,852 pounds of beans.”

“It, however, appears from the foregoing, that the government has failed to fulfill its obligations, and in order to render the Indians law-abiding, peaceful, contented, and prosperous it is strongly recommended that the treaties be promptly and fully carried out, and that the promises made by the commission in 1889 be faithfully kept,” Ruger wrote.

His sentiments were echoed yet again by General John M. Schofield, writing to Washington from Rapid City, South Dakota, Schofield also wrote that the problems would not be solved until Congress fulfilled the treaty obligations. “They (tribes) signed away a valuable portion of their reservation, and it is now occupied by white people, for which they have received nothing.”

Wikimedia Commons

Cabinet card of John McAllister Schofield

Further, Schofield wrote that supplies had actually been reduced and most people on the reservation were now living with half to two-thirds rations; that crops in the west had failed for whites as well as Natives due to drought. “The disaffection is widespread, especially among the Sioux, while the Cheyennes have been on the verge of starvation and were forced to commit depredations to sustain life,” he added in his report.

“These facts are beyond question, and the evidence is positive and sustained by thousands of witnesses. Serious difficulty has been gathering for years. Congress has been in session several weeks and could in a single hour confirm the treaties and appropriate the necessary funds for their fulfillment,” Ruger wrote.

To this day, the treaties affecting the Plains tribes have not been honored.