Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 18th 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.
American Indians experienced some of the worst massacres and grossest injustices in history while Ulysses S. Grant was in office.
A celebrated Civil War hero whose campaign slogan was “Let us have peace,” Grant took office in 1869 with plans to drastically reform federal Indian policy. In his inaugural address, the 18th president pledged to rethink the management of Natives and resolve problems in the deeply corrupt Indian Bureau.
“The proper treatment of the original occupants of this land—the Indians—(is) one deserving of careful study,” he said in his inaugural address. “I will favor any course toward them which tends to their civilization and ultimate citizenship.”
Shortly after taking office, Grant appointed Ely S. Parker as commissioner of Indian Affairs. Parker, a Seneca Indian who served as lieutenant colonel under Grant during the Civil War, was the first Native to hold the post. Two months later, in an effort to curb abuses by Indian agents, Grant established regulations for a new Board of Indian Commissioners.
Ely S. Parker, a Seneca attorney, engineer, and tribal diplomat, wrote the final draft of the Confederate surrender terms. He later served as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold the post.
But changes in how the government treated Indians came at a critical juncture in westward expansion. As Grant worked to reform federal agencies, he also supervised the development of millions of acres of federal public lands and presided over the private acquisition of land by pioneers, spectators and railroad and mining companies.
During his eight years in office, Grant approved the Timber Culture Act (granting homesteaders additional acreage if they agreed to plant trees), the General Mining Act (authorizing prospecting and mining for minerals on public lands) and the Desert Lands Act (issuing arid Western lands to individuals who agreed to reclaim and irrigate). He also created the first national park at Yellowstone.
Yet Grant realized that his expansionist goals required the removal of Indians from desirable land. His Indian Peace Policy, designed to reform the Indian Bureau and remove corrupt agents, also called for rigorous agricultural training on reservations and established schools and churches that would transform Indians into Christian citizens.
“From the foundation of the government to the present the management of the original inhabitants of this continent—the Indians—has been a subject of embarrassment and expense,” Grant told Congress in December 1869. Calling the Indians “wards of the nation,” he proposed a new policy to establish “permanent peace” between white settlers and Indian nations.
“No matter what ought to be the relations between such settlements and the aborigines, the fact is they do not harmonize well, and one or the other has to give way in the end,” he said. “A system which looks to the extinction of a race is too horrible for a nation to adopt without entailing upon itself the wrath of all Christendom and engendering in the citizen a disregard for human life and the rights of others, dangerous to society. I see no substitute for such a system, except in placing all the Indians on large reservations, as rapidly as it can be done, and giving them absolute protection there.”
Grant viewed his policy as an alternative to violence, said Brooks Simpson, a history professor at Arizona State University. As Indians and settlers clashed over a decreasing expanse of land, Grant’s plan to assimilate Indians into white culture came as a “moral” solution to a centuries-old problem.
“Some historians see it as generous, humane, thoughtful—and that would be part of the story,” Simpson said. “The other part would be that it called on Natives to assimilate, to retreat to reservations and become more like white Americans. You could argue that he was committing cultural genocide.”
Born in Ohio in 1822, Grant enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point when he was 17. He served in the cavalry during the Mexican-American War but, plagued by alcoholism, was forced to resign in 1854.
Grant re-enlisted when the Civil War broke out, climbing to the rank of commanding general and accepting the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House in 1865. Grant used his military success to launch a political career, winning the presidential election of 1868. He served two terms in office, from 1869 to 1877.
Grant took over a nation still recovering from the Civil War and wrestling with questions about civil rights. In support of freed slaves, Grant signed the 15th Amendment, giving black men the right to vote, and the Ku Klux Klan Act, designed to counter the rise of anti-black terrorism in the South.
Yet Grant’s policies toward Indians fell far short of what he promised. White settlers continued to push Indians off the land, relying on the Army to prevent retaliation. While Indians on reservations experienced poverty and increasing desperation, Grant oversaw the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad and the great slaughter of buffalo on the Plains, which destroyed much of the Indian economy.
The peace policy, ironically, led to some of the worst massacres in history. Grant’s strategy to contain Indians on reservations involved aggressive military pursuits, resulting in the Modoc War in California, the Red River War in Texas, the Nez Perce conflict in Oregon, the Black Hills campaign by Gen. George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Indian chiefs Sitting Bull, Gall, Chief Joseph, Geronimo and Cochise led their people into wars against the United States in efforts to preserve their land and ways of life. In 1870, Oglala Chief Red Cloud visited Grant at the White House, where he condemned Indian policy and described his peoples’ suffering.
“The riches we have in this world… we cannot take with us to the next world,” he said. “Then I wish to know why agents are sent out to us who do nothing but rob us and get the riches of this world away from us.”
Two years into his presidency, Grant signed the Indian Appropriations Act of 1871, which ceased federal recognition of tribes as entities “with whom the United States may contract by treaty.” The act ended the government’s treaty-making process and the practice of acknowledging tribes as sovereign nations. It also signaled the start of official Indian assimilation policies.
In his annual messages to Congress, Grant regularly lauded his Indian policies and their “favorable” results.
“Many tribes of Indians have been induced to settle upon reservations, to cultivate the soil, to perform productive labor of various kinds, and to partially accept civilization,” he said in 1871. “They are being cared for in such a way, it is hoped, as to induce those still pursuing their old habits of life to embrace the only opportunity which is left them to avoid extermination.”
In 1874, Grant predicted that “a few years more will relieve our frontiers from danger of Indian depredations.”
Grant left office in 1877 and was succeeded by Rutherford B. Hayes. He died in 1885 at age 63.