Address of the Lake Mohonk Conference on Indian Affairs Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Lake Mohonk Conferences of the Friends of the Indian were annual meetings at which government Indian policy was discussed. The meetings were held at the Lake Mohonk resort near New Paltz, New York. Many prominent politicians, government officials, and clergymen interested in Indian affairs attended these meetings. Friends of the Indian was an informal movement rather than an actual organization. Among their goals were education for American Indians, US citizenship for tribal peoples, and the allotment of reservation land in individual homesteads to Indian families. In this report from the 1884 conference, there is strong emphasis on education and the extension of US law over the reservations, including extending citizenship to American Indians. The conference also supported an allotment bill proposed by Senator Richard Coke that was similar to the General Allotment Act eventually passed in 1887.

Summary Overview

The Lake Mohonk Conferences of the Friends of the Indian were annual meetings at which government Indian policy was discussed. The meetings were held at the Lake Mohonk resort near New Paltz, New York. Many prominent politicians, government officials, and clergymen interested in Indian affairs attended these meetings. Friends of the Indian was an informal movement rather than an actual organization. Among their goals were education for American Indians, US citizenship for tribal peoples, and the allotment of reservation land in individual homesteads to Indian families. In this report from the 1884 conference, there is strong emphasis on education and the extension of US law over the reservations, including extending citizenship to American Indians. The conference also supported an allotment bill proposed by Senator Richard Coke that was similar to the General Allotment Act eventually passed in 1887.

Defining Moment

In early American history, the general population’s attitudes toward the American Indians was often one of fear and distrust, sometimes mingled with a paternalistic view of the Indians as a backward people needing to be “civilized.” While this attitude persisted into the late nineteenth century, after the Civil War a more sympathetic view arose–perhaps first manifested in Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1881 book, A Century of Dishonor, which chronicled the US government’s mistreatment of the Indians. This changing sentiment can also be seen in the public backlash against violence toward the Indians involved in the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado in 1864 and in the Washita Massacre in Indian Territory in 1868. By the 1870s, the Friends of the Indian movement had developed, primarily among people in the urban areas of the Northeast. The Friends of the Indian was an amorphous movement made up of white reformers, politicians, government bureaucrats, journalists, and clergymen. There was a strong religious sentiment evidenced in the approach of the Friends, and for the most part they were fervent supporters of Christian missionary work among the Indians.

The Lake Mohonk Conferences, which were held annually from 1883 to 1916, were representative of the attitudes and approaches of the broader Friends of the Indian movement. The Lake Mohonk resort was owned by Quaker philanthropist Albert K. Smiley. In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes had appointed Smiley to the Board of Indian Commissioners, a group of reformers that advised the government on Indian policy. Smiley began the Lake Mohonk Conferences in part because he believed the brief, infrequent meetings of the Board of Indian Commissioners offered little chance to deeply explore the issues that arose. Virtually everyone who was prominent in the movement for the reform of Indian policy was a regular participant at the Lake Mohonk Conferences. At the 1884 conference, retired general Clinton B. Fisk served as chairman of the meeting. He had been an abolitionist before the Civil War and was involved with the Freedmen’s Bureau, working among the freed slaves in the South after the war. The conference’s secretary in 1884 was Herbert Welsh, who was one of the founders of the Indian Rights Association.

While these reformers had a genuine interest in the welfare of the Indians, they held an approach to reform that was ethnocentric and dismissive of Indian culture. In the minds of these reformers, education and civilization should aim at “freeing” the Indian from his tribal background. Citizenship and individual land holding were also seen an important steps that would break down the tribal bonds and fit the Indian for assimilation into the general society.

Author Biography

The collective authors of the address are not named in the document, although it was signed by Fisk and Welsh. The address was a general statement of the interests and concerns of those who were a regular part of the Lake Mohonk Conferences. Those who were considered members of the Conference are listed toward the end of the document (not shown here); the list includes most of the men and women in the nation who were prominently involved in Indian policy reform at that time. These people were part of a broader informal movement known as the Friends of the Indian. The Friends of the Indian was not an organization one could join, although it included people who belonged to organizations, such as the Indian Rights Association. Many of the individuals who were part of the Board of Indian Commissioners, an unofficial advisory body formed by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1869, were also part of the Friends of the Indian movement.

Document Analysis

In these resolutions from the 1884 Lake Mohonk Conference, there is a strong emphasis on education for American Indians. The resolutions especially praise the industrial school model in which students were sent to off-reservation boarding schools where they received a rudimentary academic education and training either in agriculture or in some vocational trade. The Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia, is mentioned specifically, as is the United States Indian Training School (also known as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School) at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The Hampton Institute was originally founded by the American Missionary Association for the education of the freedmen after the Civil War, but beginning in 1878, Indian students were also taught there. The Carlisle School, founded by Captain Richard H. Pratt, was considered the preeminent government Indian school, and Pratt was widely considered the foremost expert on Indian education at that time. Both Pratt and General S. C. Armstrong, the founder of the Hampton Institute, attended the 1884 Lake Mohonk Conference. The address praises the work that had been carried on “within or near the reservations by Christian missionaries for the last fifty years.” The reformers tended to see both missionary work and education as necessary for the civilization of American Indians, and both would contribute to breaking down tribal customs and attachments and, ultimately, to assimilation of Indians into the general society.

The tenth resolution of the 1884 conference urges an end to the relocation of Indians from one reservation to another. As the government confronted the last military resistance by tribes in the American West in the late nineteenth century, these newly pacified tribes were sometimes settled on reservations carved out from existing reservations. Thus, some of the people already living on these reservations would be moved, causing disruption to their attempts to maintain a farm or homestead. In other cases, parts of reservations were being opened to settlement by whites, also disrupting their lives. The resolution notes that such removals were often made “not for wise reasons” and urges ending this practice.

The fourteenth resolution from this conference calls for placing Indians under the jurisdiction of state and territorial laws, and eventually making them US citizens. The reformers recognized that this would be best accomplished gradually, but they do urge that Indians be granted US citizenship as soon as they could be prepared for it. In connection with this, they favorably note a bill recently introduced by Texas senator Coke, which called for giving each Indian individual or family their own homestead, thus breaking up the communal landholding practices of the reservations. This policy became known as allotment in severalty. Coke’s bill provided that when an Indian accepted an allotment, the laws of the state or territory in which he or she lived would apply, rather than federal Indian law or tribal law. Coke’s bill was never passed, but in 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Act, which began allotment and granted US citizenship to those Indians who accepted an allotment. Over time, the three concepts of education, allotment in severalty, and Indian citizenship became hallmarks of the reforms advocated by the Lake Mohonk Conferences.

Essential Themes

The paternalism and ethnocentrism of the reformers are major themes evident in this address. These reformers were genuinely concerned with the needs of American Indians, but because they were convinced of the superiority of white American culture and American social, religious, and political institutions, they never believed it was necessary to ask what the Indian people themselves might want.

In the late nineteenth century, many Indian parents did want education for their children. However, when they came to realize that government schools were intent on destroying tribal cultures, education became a controversial issue. Eventually, beginning with the Indian New Deal in the 1930s, the government began to move away from a policy that virtually forced assimilation, and eventually many Indian students attended public schools or tribally run schools on reservations.

Initially, many American Indian peoples had little interest in U.S. citizenship. American law had originally considered the Indian tribes as sovereign foreign nations, and many Indian people would have preferred to maintain that standing. But federal legislation and court decisions eroded the concept of tribal sovereignty, and Indian people increasingly lived under the jurisdiction of state and federal law. Citizenship, however, gave American Indian peoples constitutionally protected rights and access to federal courts to see that these rights were respected.

Unlike education and citizenship, however, allotment in severalty was a clear example of good intentions gone awry. Many American Indian tribes and individuals opposed allotment, and it was never carried out on some reservations. But in general, where it was applied, it eventually left a large number of Indian people landless. Some reservations disappeared completely because of allotment, and others were “honeycombed” with non-Indian settlement when Indian landowners sold their lands to white settlers.

In general, while the Friends of the Indian and the members of the Lake Mohonk Conferences had good intentions, their reform agenda exhibited the kinds of problems one might expect from externally derived reform, with little consideration for the self-determination of the people involved.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Burgess, Larry E. The Lake Mohonk Conference of the Friends of the Indian: Guide to the Annual Reports. New York: Clearwater, 1975. Print.
  • ________. “‘We’ll Discuss It at Mohonk.’” Quaker History 40 (1971): 14–28. Print.
  • Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indian. 2 vols. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1984.
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