American land policy on the American-Indian Frontier

In this week’s blog update I am going to discuss the policy of the United States towards the Indians of North America in the years around and after the American Revolution or American War of Independence 1775-1783. America by this stage was made up of colonies belonging to various European states such Great Britain, Spain, and France neighboured by numerous Indian Tribes that generally had a good, if at times unstable relationship. As the Anglo-American colonies started to break away and revolt against the British, the Indians were also brought increasingly into conflict with the two sides. Whilst the American’s wanted the tribes to stay neutral, the British were actively encouraging tribes to raid settlements along the American Frontier.  Most tribes joined the British as they saw the Empire as a lesser of two evils, who could hold back the growing tide of settlement advances on Indian land. However the American’s won their independence and as a result the Indians would need to deal with the new American government in the hope of controlling the settlement plan.

The settlement policy for American Indian land had for the previous century been that of purchase by the imperial government for the land from the Indian nation that it belonged to. It was generally agreed that the land in North America was held by the American Indians and only to be acquired if the it was rightfully sold to a buyer. However there were ways around this such as private land buying that went past the government and went directly to the Indian land seller. In 1763 under the British represented government a law had been brought through that banned the purchasing of land by private buyers. This view was held until the ending of the American War of Independence when it became a symbol of British oppression and halted the expansion of settlement into west America. In the eyes of the American colonies the American Indians were defeated alongside the British and their land would be taken as reparations. As the colonists were no longer bound by the 1763 proclamation they could buy land privately, though the ideas concerning the Indian land ownership were being hotly debated. It was stated that if the land became government held then the speculators (private buyers) would have nothing to buy. Whereas if the land could be directly bought from the Indians, it could be bought cheaper and quicker than if the government intervened.

This pattern continued through most of the 1780s due to the political climate and speculators high influence within the various states government. The first few years after the Revolution would proof difficult for the various Indian tribes who saw their land confiscated for their part in a war that they wanted no part of. The land had been confiscated but still needed to be bought to claim ownership. The settlers had to an extent always wanted to take the land from the Indians and the result of the American war could justify the taking of land as compensation. The war against the British had been, if not more so a war against the American Indians and the ‘goal of freedom from British rule could be superseded by the goal of freedom to settle on Indian land.’ [1] The push for more land and expansion in the American west was pressuring many to follow the needs of speculators to buy up land at cheap prices and then resell it to settlers at a profit. The pre-constitution government was too weak to stop any of the private buying from going ahead; ‘The Revolution contributed to the new land policy … by giving birth to new units of American government that were desperately short of cash, by increasing the political power of land speculators and western settlers, and by removing the restraining hand of the imperial government’. [2]

This is not to say that the Indians did not want to sell parts of their land. For many the trade of parts of their land in exchange for supplies and mechanical and agricultural expertise was a fair one. In most exchanges however this was not the case. Indians were often left without their goods or were undervalued hugely for how much the land was actually worth. The aggressive land policy from 1784 to 1786 did not help the relations between the colonists and the American Indians. For example the treaties for the land were often forcibly signed and in many cases the private buyers would seek out any member of the tribe and buy the land, regardless of the position in the American Indian nation’s hierarchy. It was near impossible for the boundaries between the American settlers and the American Indian nations to be kept to as settlers moved in Indian lands without permission and caused further problems.

There was an attempt in 1787 to again remove the private buyers from the equation as the expansion into Indian lands was gaining the attention of the government. As they saw it, it would be both cheaper and safer to buy the lands gradually from the Indians than expand quickly and risk open war. The British were still present in America (mainly in Canada) and should the American Indians head for war, the British would surely join in. The 1787 proclamation therefore made it law that land could only be purchased from the American Indians through the American government. However again the western advancement took priority and the American Indian’s land was slowly but surely bought by the settlers. In the 1790s it would seem that the new American government was doing what the speculators were doing but on a larger scale. Land was being bought up quickly by the American settlers, with the American Indians being forced into tighter spaces with less useable land and less hunting space.

The American land policy towards the American Indian’s can therefore be seen as a continuous westward expansion that took into regard the ownership of land but not its value or worth to the native population. Laws and proclamations were passed with little effect as land was being sold quickly to feed the settlement that moved further west from the eastern states. The land purchases appear to have been successful despite all the damage that they caused. There were just enough land purchases at a time to keep most settlers content whilst not causing war with the American Indians. However, ultimately the American Indians were the groups to lose in the long run, not only did they find themselves being forced out of their lands but there appeared to be no solution to stop the growing tide of American and European settlement.

[1] Stuart Banner How the Indians lost their land (Harvard, 2005) p122

[2] Ibid., 113


Stuart Banner How the Indians lost their land (Harvard, 2005)

Angie Debo A History of the Indians of the United States (Oklahoma Press, 1970)


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