Just a Little History in Indian Agents
As you may know, I have a western historical romance series; The McCades of Cheyenne that I began researching the idea some time in 2012. The first story Sawyer’s Rose was published in March of 2016-Will a sheriff set on revenge fall for a mail-order-bride with secrets of her own. The second story, Wyatt’s Bounty was released in April 2017-Will a bounty hunter risk it all to save the lady doctor who walked away. While these little twists of words make the stories seem interesting, I think there are times I fall short on pleasing those who only want romance while at the same time, western readers think it is too much. I like to say my stories are really family saga with romance and suspense. The third story in this series I am working on now. Dawson’s Haven won’t disappoint, but I had wanted Dawson to be an Indian Agent but as I began the research on the topic, I found that these “Agents” were not always thought too well throughout history. This was a tough one to swallow as we authors want to put our hero in a good light and after doing a good bit of reading on the topic, I decided to change up what capacity that Dawson works in order to assist the Indians. I now have him as hired as an interpreter, but he doesn’t like it when he is referred to as an Indian Agent. Gonna see if that will work for me, but I thought of all the research and planning I had done to no avail so I’ll present that to you here and let you decide.
In 1789, it was Secretary of War, Henry Knox who first delegated the idea to assign peace agents for working with Indian Tribes. These government assigned employees would act as a buffer in acclimating peaceful relationships between the tribes as well as the relationships between the Indians and government. Most often the agents would reside with the various tribes and were assigned the task of teaching the Indians trade and commerce, along with farming and “White man” religions. Tasks varied according to location but most often the “Agent” was responsible for supervising the Indians in commercial opportunities involving the trade of their goods. By the nineteenth century the Indian Agent was a well coined term for the men who worked to push Indians into dependence on manufactured goods which started during the Thomas Jefferson Administration. While the Indians were forced to purchase commercial goods they could only trade the raw materials such as hides and furs for their part of the deal. Agents at the time were responsible for reporting any illegal violations in what was traded and purchased and reports were sent to leaders on high.
One of the first official tasks of the Indian Agent was to disperse government monies to the chiefs of various tribes who would then render the distributions to the tribe as needed. As would be expected this process slowly turned into one that would open the door for corrupt practices where dishonest Agents and Chiefs were concerned. Allocated monies often didn’t make it where intended. Not all Agents were corrupt but as time went by, many still mismanaged the funds in other ways and poor record keeping added to that process. For the most part Indian Agents had little education and no formal training of correct policy and procedure, not that there were defined practices in the earlier years of the job. Over time the credibility of the Indian Agent declined as rumors of dishonest practices surfaced time and again. It was thought that with the failure of the fur trade, some of the traders opted into the service of Indian Agent at an opportune time. At the same time, however there were Indian Agents who did a good job in their duties and were successful in assisting tribes to acclimate into “civilized” peaceful camps.
By the Civil War in the 1860’s periodic outbursts of public concern had pushed for more humane treatment of the Indians. President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration was the first to allow for Christian denominations to take control of various tribes but that lasted only a short time with the religious establishments ultimately pulling out of the practice of “civilizing” the tribes. In the 1880’s, Indian Agents, though no longer thought of in that term, spent time educating the tribes in industry and agriculture, with alcohol use strictly prohibited. Most agents of the time were assigned for political reasons rather than their education and knowledge and this lead to the failure of the system for the most part.
In 1896, President Grover Cleveland decreed that those seeking positions such as Indian Agents, Teachers, Doctors, Nurses, etc with the tribes would be certified in their various fields in order to be assigned. This over time improved the quality of those assisting with the tribes, but it did little for promoting Indians themselves to better lines of work.
Early on, and prior to this last bit of progress Indian Agents were assigned and responsible for the following:Preventing conflict between the Indians and settlers
Watch out for Commerce and Trade Violations
Assist in keeping peaceful negotiations between the tribes and soldiers/military
See that annuities were properly dispersed to the tribes
See successful removal of tribes from lands assigned to settlers
See that Indians weren’t idle and labored accordingly
Teach the Indians to farm and grow crops
Indian Children were to wear “Civilized” Clothing and Learn English in “Indian Schools”
Children were also included in being taught the industrial trainings of the adults
Agents were assigned to keep a Census of the tribe and to give English Names to the Indians
So as you can see, there were some good things that came out of acclimating the Indians to what I will refer to as the “New America”, especially when the agent was a good one but it seems those were few and far between. But as not to bash all the Agents in history, there are a good number of them that I wouldn’t mind reading about some time and I may very well do some for future writes here. I do think we all know that history wasn’t very kind to the Native American tribes. But I am also a fan of not erasing history as it happened, so that we can all learn from it just as the picture below conjures up a bit of truth.