Grant Signs Indian Appropriation Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In one of the most wrenching shifts in federal policy toward Native Americans, the Indian Appropriation Act unilaterally ruled that Native Americans no longer belonged to their own sovereign nations, ending treaty making between U.S. and tribal governments.

Summary of Event

In 1871, the U.S. Congress voted to stop entering into treaties with Native American peoples. Since the origins of the republic, the U.S. government had dealt with tribes by recognizing each one as a sovereign nation living within the United States. Hence, ambassadors were sent out from Washington, D.C., to negotiate treaties, and each agreement had to be ratified by a two-thirds majority of the Senate, as provided in the U.S. Constitution. In Worcester v. Georgia Worcester v. Georgia (1832) (1832), Chief Justice John Marshall Marshall, John [p]Marshall, John;and Native Americans[Native Americans] had determined that this process had to be followed because each tribe was self-governing and sovereign within its own territory. Indian Appropriation Act of 1871 Congress, U.S.;and Native Americans[Native Americans] Native Americans;treaties [kw]Grant Signs Indian Appropriation Act (Mar. 3, 1871) [kw]Signs Indian Appropriation Act, Grant (Mar. 3, 1871) [kw]Indian Appropriation Act, Grant Signs (Mar. 3, 1871) [kw]Appropriation Act, Grant Signs Indian (Mar. 3, 1871) [kw]Act, Grant Signs Indian Appropriation (Mar. 3, 1871) Indian Appropriation Act of 1871 Congress, U.S.;and Native Americans[Native Americans] Native Americans;treaties [g]United States;Mar. 3, 1871: Grant Signs Indian Appropriation Act[4540] [c]Indigenous people’s rights;Mar. 3, 1871: Grant Signs Indian Appropriation Act[4540] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 3, 1871: Grant Signs Indian Appropriation Act[4540] Brunot, Felix R. Dawes, Henry Laurens Grant, Ulysses S. [p]Grant, Ulysses S.;and Native Americans[Native Americans] Parker, Ely Samuel Windom, William Yates, Richard

The change took place because many Americans had come to believe that Native American nations no longer acted like sovereign states. They were too weak to assert their sovereignty, post-Civil War whites believed, and many had become dependent on the federal government for their very survival. Members of Congress expressed that view in a series of debates on Indian policy in 1870-1871. In the House of Representatives, the feeling also grew that the House was being ignored in the development of Indian policy. The only way the House could influence Native American relations would be by renouncing the treaty concept. The attack on treaty making gained strength during the debate over the money to be appropriated for the United States Board of Indian Commissioners, the agency created in 1869 to oversee expenditures on Indian programs.

Seneca leader Samuel Ely Parker.

(Library of Congress)

The commissioners’ first report suggested major changes in Indian policy. It called for ending the treaty system and dealing with the so-called “uncivilized” native peoples as “wards of the government.” Board chairperson Felix R. Brunot Brunot, Felix R. echoed the views of many U.S. citizens when he declared that it was absurd to treat “a few thousand savages” as if they were equal with the people and government of the United States. President Ulysses S. Grant Grant, Ulysses S. [p]Grant, Ulysses S.;and Native Americans[Native Americans] supported that view, as did his commissioner of Indian affairs, Ely Samuel Parker Parker, Ely Samuel , who was himself a member of New York’s Seneca nation. Parker believed that it was a cruel farce to deal with the tribes as equals. In his view, most tribes were “helpless and ignorant wards” of the federal government.

Resentment of members of the House of Representatives at their exclusion from Indian policy making became apparent during debates over new treaties negotiated in 1868 and 1869. For example, a May, 1868, agreement with the Osage Osages Nation in Kansas Kansas;Osages had ceded eight million acres of land to the government. The land then was then to be sold to a railroad company for twenty cents per acre. The House voted unanimously to recommend that the Senate not ratify the treaty because the land transfer had taken place outside the traditional methods of selling public property. The Senate responded to the House plea by rejecting the treaty. Later, however, the land was sold to the railroad company with the approval of the House.

The House again took up the issue of treaty making in 1869 during a violent debate over the Indian appropriation for 1870. The appropriation provided money for food, clothes, and education for tribal members living on reservations. The House refused to accept an increase in funds voted by the Senate. Representatives also began to question whether native peoples were capable of signing official treaties with the United States. Most representatives attacked the traditional system, although three congressmen spoke in favor of the treaty process. Representative William Windom Windom, William of Minnesota argued that changing the process would be a breach of faith with the tribes and that revoking the process would confuse Native Americans and add to their distrust of the U.S. government.

Representative John J. Logan Logan, John J. , Republican of Illinois, responded for the majority, however, by declaring that “the idea of this Government making treaties with bands of wild and roving Indians is simply preposterous and ridiculous.” Amid loud cheers and laughter, Logan attacked the character of native peoples and suggested that they were an inferior race that should not be treated as equal in status to the people of the United States. The House refused to approve the appropriation bill, and the Senate refused to compromise; therefore, no Indian appropriation bill passed Congress in 1869.

In the debate over the 1871 appropriation, both sides raised the same arguments. In the Senate, supporters of the treaty system argued that any change would severely injure any goodwill that native peoples still held toward the U.S. government system. Senator Richard Yates Yates, Richard reiterated the antitreaty sentiment, declaring that the tribes were not civilized and that making treaties with them had been a mistake. The Senate, however, passed an appropriation bill and sent it to the House. While the debate took place, many tribes were waiting for the money due to them under treaties negotiated in 1868 and 1869. However, unless Congress agreed to an appropriation bill, they would receive nothing. Finally, in a compromise arranged between the two legislative branches, a sum of two million dollars was appropriated to pay off prior obligations. However, debate over the appropriation for the next year bogged down in the House.

The Board of Indian Commissioners then helped the House position by calling for an end to treaty making and for abrogating all existing agreements. Only Representative Eugene M. Wilson of Minnesota spoke in favor of continuing the historic policy. If Native Americans were not protected by treaties, he argued, they would be cheated out of their lands by white speculators and end up with nothing. Debate in the Senate and the House seemed far more concerned with constitutional technicalities than with the welfare of native peoples. Once more, no bill seemed possible. On the last day of the session, President Grant Grant, Ulysses S. [p]Grant, Ulysses S.;and Native Americans[Native Americans] urged a compromise, or, he warned, a war with the tribes was sure to break out. Under this threat, Congress agreed to put aside its differences temporarily and passed a bill.

When the new Congress opened on January 4, 1871, Representative Henry Laurens Dawes Dawes, Henry Laurens of Massachusetts led the call for change. Dawes, who in 1887 would author a major bill in the Senate drastically changing policy toward native peoples, called for a quick program of assimilation in this earlier debate. If Native Americans were to become Americanized—a policy that he supported—they should be treated as individuals rather than as members of foreign nations. So far as he was concerned, Native American nations were not and never had been equal to the United States. The House then passed a bill denouncing what were worded as “so-called treaties.”

In the Senate, an amendment to delete the words “so-called” before “treaties” led to a vigorous debate. Senator William Stewart of Nevada objected to the amendment. “The whole Indian policy of feeding drunken, worthless, vagabond Indians, giving them money to squander . . . has been a growing disgrace to our country for years.” Treaties with “irresponsible tribes” were no treaties at all. However, only a few senators agreed with the amendment, and “so-called” was eliminated. This angered the House, which refused to accept the Senate version.

Meanwhile, many congressmen and senators were growing tired of the endless debate and seemed willing to compromise. A conference committee of senators and representatives agreed that past treaties would be accepted or the integrity of the United States would be compromised. The members of the committee agreed that no more treaties should be negotiated with Native Americans, however. Most conferees agreed that the tribes with which treaties had not yet been signed scarcely seemed like legitimate nations, as they were too small, weak, and miserable.

The final compromise asserted the validity of prior agreements but provided that in the future, “no Indian nation or tribe within the territory of the United States shall be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation, tribe, or power with whom the United States may contract by treaty.” Both the Senate and the House accepted the compromise, and President Grant Grant, Ulysses S. [p]Grant, Ulysses S.;and Native Americans[Native Americans] signed it into law on March 3, 1871.


After passage of the Indian Appropriation Act, treaties were no longer to be negotiated with Native American peoples. From that date, Native Americans were instead considered by the federal government to be “wards of the state.” The next major shift in federal policy toward Native Americans would come in 1887, with passage of the General Allotment Act, which allowed, for the first time, the allotting of land to individual members of tribes.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohen, Fay G. Treaties on Trial: The Continuing Controversy Over Northwest Indian Fishing Rights. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1986. Shows the continuing importance of treaties and the bitterness still evoked by pre-1871 agreements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heizer, Robert F. “Treaties.” In California. Vol. 8 in Handbook of North American Indians. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1978. A brief description of treaty making before 1871.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Dorothy V. License for Empire: Colonialism by Treaty in Early America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Discusses abuses of the system and how native peoples failed to understand the process.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kvasnicka, Robert M. “United States Indian Treaties and Agreements.” In History of Indian-White Relations, edited by Wilcomb E. Washburn. Vol. 4 in Handbook of North American Indians. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988. A short discussion of the debate over treaties and how the process was ended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Prucha, Francis Paul. American Indian Treaties: The History of a Political Anomaly. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. The full story of treaty making and how it was ended in 1871. Index and list of treaties.

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