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RG 75

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The Bureau of Indian Affairs was established within the War Department on March 11, 1824, by order of Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. From 1789 until 1824 the administration of Indian affairs, except for the Government-operated factory system of trade with the Indians, was under the direct supervision of the Secretary of War. The factory system -- from 1806 until it was abolished in 1822-- was administered by a Superintendent of Indian Trade responsible to the Secretary of War. The Superindentent's powers and responsibilities had expanded over the years, and the discontinuance of his office confirmed the need for a bureau to administer Indian affairs. Thomas L. McKenney, the last Superintendent of Indian Trade, became the first head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Bureau was operated informally within the War Department from 1824 until 1832, when an act of Congress (4 Stat. 564) authorized the appointment of a Commissioner of Indian Affairs, who, under the direction of the Secretary of War, was to direct and manage all matters arising from relations with the Indians. In 1849, by an act of Congress (9 Stat. 395), the Bureau was transferred from the War Department to the new Department of the Interior, where it has since remained. Although Secretary Calhoun used the term "Bureau" in his order, the name "Office of Indian Affairs" soon came into common usage. The name "Bureau of Indian Affairs" was not formally adopted until 1947.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs conducts the business of the U. S. Government relating to American Indians. The nature and scope of this business have changed with policies and circumstances. In the early years of the Federal Government the Indian tribes were regarded much like foreign powers, and a major goal of Indian Policy was to establish and maintain peace with them.

During most of the 19th century probably the chief goal of Indian policy was to clear the way for expansion on the frontier by extinguishing Indian title to land. Until 1871 the main device used to accomplish this objective was the treaty by which the Indians gave up their claims to certain areas of land in exchange for reserves in those areas not then sought for white settlement and for compensation in money or goods extended over a long period of time (annuity payments).

During President Andrew Jackson's administration it became the policy of the Government to move all Indians living in the East to an Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. For the most part this removal was carried out. As white settlement spread beyond the Mississippi, however, there were renewed efforts to restrict the areas reserved for the Indians. By 1871 the Indians were so confined on reservations that it was no longer necessary to negotiate with the tribes as independent governments.

The next phase in Indian land policy was to divide the tribal lands among the individual Indians. This had been the practice in some cases at a much earlier date, but it did not become a general policy until the passage of the General Allotment Act of 1887 (24 Stat. 388). The purpose of this act was to provide each Indian with his own allotment of land and, this having been done, to dissolve the tribes. Thereafter the Indians, it was presumed, would become citizens and would assimilate with the remainder of the population. At first the allotments were to be held in trust by the United States; but when an Indian was considered to be capable of managing his own affairs he was to assume full control of the land, including the right to sell it. Over a period of time many land allotments were made; some of the tribes were at least legally dissolved; and much of the Indian land was sold to non-Indians. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (48 Stat. 984), which was often referred to as the Wheeler-Howard Act, reversed the policy prescribed in the General Allotment Act. Further land allotments were prohibited and land sales were suspended. Provision was made for the organiation of tribal governments having their own written constitutions.

Other important areas of Indian administration from the earlies years were the regulation of trade with the Indians and the control and eventual prohibition of liquor in Indian country. The system of licensing traders and prescribing conditions for private trade with the Indians was well established before 1800. From 1795 until 1822 the Government operated its own system of trading houses.

From the beginning of the Federal Goverment, some efforts had been made to educate and civilize Indians. A permanent Civilization Fund, established in 1819, was used largely to assist missionary schools. Many of the treaties provided for Government assistance to schools for Indians and for the training of Indians by blacksmiths, farmers, and other skilled workers. When the Indians were confined on reservations and could no longer hunt for their food, the Government made increased efforts to train them in agricultural and mechanical pursuits. The General Allotment Act of 1887 brought a fuller recogniztion of the importance of the training and education of Indians to make them capable of managing their affairs as members of the general population. There was an increasing interest in the education of Indian children in regular public schools rather than in special schools for Indians only. In time, new programs were developed to assist in economic development, among them irrigation, forestry, health, and employment programs. After the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, more emphasis was given to progress designed to make the tribes economically self-sufficient...

During the 19th century there were two principal types of field jurisdictions: superintendencies and agencies.  Superintendents had general responsibility for Indian affairs in a geological area, usually a Territory but sometimes a larger area.  Their duties included the supervision of relations among the various Indian tribes in their jurisdiction and between the tribes and citizens of the United States or other persons and the supervision of the conduct and accounts of agents responsible to them.  Agents were immediately responsible for the affairs of one or more tribes.  Until the 1870's most agents were responsible to a superintendent, but some of them reported directly to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  Agents attempted to preserve or restore peace and often tried to induce Indians to cede their lands and to move to areas less threatened by white encroachment.  They also distributed money and goods as required by treaties and carried out other provisions of treaties with the Indians.  Gradually, as the Indians were confined on reservations, the agents became more concerned with educating and civilizing them.

The superintendency system is usually considered to have started with an "Ordinance for the Regulation of Indian Affairs," enacted the the Continental Congress on August 7, 1786.  This ordinance established a northern Indian department and a southern Indian department, which were divided by the Ohio River.  A Superitendent of Indian Affairs was authorized for each of these departments.  These positions were continued when the new Government was organized under the Constitution.  In 1789 Congress appropriated the necessary funds for the Governor of the Northwest Territory to discharge the duties of superintendent of the northern Indian department.  It soon became a common practice for the Governor of a Territory to serve ex officio as Superintendent of Indian Affairs, particularly in newly organized Territories.  In superintendencies located in unorganized territory or in the States or where the duties of the superintendent were particularly arduous, a full-time superintendent was appointed.

Agencies were established at first in a very casual manner.  In 1792 the president appointed four special agents, who were charged with special diplomatic missions.  In 1793 an act of Congress (1 Stat. 331) authorized the President to appoint temporary agents to reside among the Indians.  Eventually the word "temporary" was dropped from their title, and agents became permanent Indian agents assigned to particular tribes or areas.  By 1818 there were 15 agents and 10 assistants or subagents.  In that year Congress passed a law (3 Stat. 428) providing that all agents be appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.

By the time the Bureau of Indian Affairs was established in 1824 the system of superintendencies and agencies was well organized.  An act of June 30, 1834 (4 Stat. 735), specifically authorized certain superintendencies and agencies.  The President could discontinue or transfer agencies but was given no authority to establish additional ones.  An act of February 27, 1851 (9 Stat. 574), fixed the number of superintendencies and agencies, taking into account the greatly expanded area of the country after the Mexican War and the settlement of the Oregon boundary with Great Britain.

The restrictions on the number of agencies were, in a sense, evaded by the establishment of agencies, which did not require congressional approval.  After 1834 most subagents became in effect regular agents, although they received less salary and were usually assigned to less important agencies.  Additional agencies were also established by creating "special agencies."  A special agent was often appointed to carry out some special assignment, but frequently special agents were simply regular agents appointed in addition to the authorized agents.  Superintendents, particularly those in newly organized areas, often appointed agents and acting agents of various kinds--and sometimes without authority to do so.

The Bureau employed other kinds of agents.  Purchasing and disbursing agents were concerned, respectively, with obtaining goods and with distributing either goods or money.  Emigration agents assisted in the removal of the Indians from one area to another.  Enrolling agents were appointed to prepare rolls for annuity disbursements, land allotments, or other purposes.  There were also treaty commissioners, inspectors (beginning in 1873), and special agents assigned to some specific mission such as the investigation of the conduct of a regular field employee or the settlement of claims.

Superintendents and agents in newly established jurisdictions were allowed wide latitude of action.  The assignment of agents was often left to the deiscretion of the superintendent.  Agents were permitted to select sites for agency headquarters, subject to approval.  Some agents had no permanent headquarters and spent much of their time traveling.  Gradually, as the Indians were settled on reserves, the agencies became more fixed in location; better communications were established; and the superintendents and the agents were allowed less independence of action.  In 1869 most of the civilian agents were replaced by Army officers, but in the following year most of these officers in turn were relieved of their duties and civilians were again appointed.  It was a common practice, however, to detail Army men to duty with the Indian Service in periods of unusual disturbances or when civilian agents were unavailable.  During the 1870's the Bureau allowed various religious denominations to recommend certain persons to be agents.

The system of giving supervision over a number of agencies to a superintendent was discontinued during the 1870's, and by 1878 the last superintendency had been abolished.  Thereafter all agents reported directly to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  Inspectors and special agents, however, were sometimes given some supervisory authority over agents.

In 1893 an act of Congress (27 Stat. 614) authorized the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, with the approval of the Secretary of the Interior, to assign the duties of Indian agent to a school superintendent.  This action was needed to eliminate political patronage (school superintendents were under civil service regulations, but Indian agents were still appointed politically); moreover, the Indians, under the allotment system, were being divided into smaller, more scattered groups. All agents were gradually replaced by superintendents, who were not necessarily in charge of any school.  The Bureau revived the term "agency" for field units, but the officers in charge continued to be called "superintendents."

In Record Group 107 are records concerning military activities throughout the 19th century.  Other War Department records relating to Indian affairs are in Record Group 92, Records of the Quartermaster General; Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General's Office; Record Group 98, Records of United States Army Commands; and Record Group 192, Records of the Office of the Commissary General of Subsistence.

In Record Group 48, Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior, there are records reflecting the Secretary's supervisory role in Indian affairs.  These records are chiefly among those of the Indian Division and the Indian Territory Division of the Secretary's Office.  The records of the Appointments Division are also useful, especially for information on personnel matters.

Of the records of other agencies under the Department of the Interior, those of the General land Office-- now part of Record Group 49, Records of the Bureau of Land Management--are the most important.  They contain much informtion concerning Indian lands and the public domain.  In Record Group 115, Records of the Bureau of Reclamation, there are records concerning reclamation projects on Indian lands.

In Record Group 11, United States Government Documents Having General Legal Effect, are the originals of most ratified Indian treaties.  There are other records concerning treaties in Record Group 46, Records of the United States Senate; and there are records concerning Indian legislation in this same record group and in Record Group 233, Records of the United States House of Representatives.  There are records concerning claims against Indians in Record Group 123, Records of the United States Court of Claims; Record Group 205, Records of the Court of Claims Section(Justice); and Record Group 279, Records of the Indian Claims Commision.  Fiscal records concerning Indian administration are in Record Group 39, Records of the Bureau of Accounts (Treasury), and in Record Group 217,Records of the United States General Accounting Office.

Records relating to programs conducted in cooperation with other agencies are in the following record groups: Record Group 33, Records of the Federal Extension Service; Record Group 35, Records of the Civilian Conservation Corps; Record Group 69, Records of the Works Projects Administration, Record Group 90, Record of the Public Health Service; Record Group 95, Records of the Forest Service; Record Group 96, Records of the Farmers Home Administration; Record Group 114, Records of the Soil Conservation Service; Record Group 135, Records of the Public Works Administration; and Record Group 187, Records of the National Resources Planning Board.

Entries 51-100 | Entries 101-150 | Entries 251-300 | Entries 301-350 | Entries 651-700 | Entries 701-750 | Entries 851-900 | Maps

National Archives | RG 75

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