The Indian Department was established in 1755 to oversee relations between the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and those First Nations in British North America. At that time of its establishment it was a wing of the British Military (British Army).
Initially, two departments were created. The superintendent of the northern department, responsible for negotiations with the Indians living north of the Ohio River, was Sir William Johnson who held the position until 1774. For the Southern Department, the superintendent was Edmund Atkins. In 1774, Colonel Guy Johnson succeeded William Johnson and held the position until 1782, at which point he was succeeded by Sir John Johnson, who held the position until 1796.
After 1796, responsibility for Indian affairs in Upper Canada was assigned to the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. In 1800, responsibility for Indian affairs in Lower Canada was assigned to the Governor General of Canada. In 1816, responsibility was transferred to the Commander of the Armed Forces in North America. In practice, Indian affairs were managed and supervised through the offices of the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs and the offices of the of Inspector General of the Department of Indian Affairs. Both these offices were abolished in 1828, and Major-General H.C. Darling took the position of Chief Superintendent of Indian Affairs, supervising the Indian Department.
In 1830, the Indian Department was split into two, with one for Upper Canada and one for Lower Canada. In Upper Canada, the Lieutenant-Governor appointed a Chief Superintendent to oversee the department, in Lower Canada the Military Secretary oversaw the department. That year, Colonel James Givins was appointed in Upper Canada, and Lieutenant-Colonel Duncan C. Napier was appointed in Lower Canada. Samuel Jarvis replaced Givins in 1837.
In 1841, the Canadas were amalgamated into the Province of Canada, and the Governor-General assumed direct oversight of the Indian Department. In practice, his secretary handled most of the day to day operation of the department. This situation continued until 1860, when responsibility for the Indian Department was turned over from the British government to the Government of Canada. Indian Affairs fell under the jurisdiction of the Crown Lands Department, and the commissioner of that department was appointed the Chief Superintendent of Indian Affairs. That role was filled by Philip M.M.S. Vankoughnet from 1860 to 1862, George Sherwood in 1862, William McDougall from 1862 to 1864, and Sir Alexander Campbell from 1864 until 1867. Upon confederation, responsibility for Indian affairs was made the jurisdiction of the Federal government.
Upon confederation, the Federal government took control of Indian affairs in Canada. From 1867 until 1873, the Secretary of State for Canada was also named the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs. In 1873, the role of Superintendent General of Indians Affairs was turned over to the Minister of the Department of the Interior. In 1880, a separate Department of Indian Affairs was created. The Minister of the Department of the Interior was the Minister of the Department of Indian Affairs until 1883, when the Privy Council assumed the role, and the Minister of the Department of the Interior was the Minister of the Department of Indian affairs from 1887 until 1930, when it was briefly turned over to the Minister of the Department of Immigration and Colonization, and then back to the Department of the Interior until 1935.
In 1936, the office of Superintendent General of Indians Affairs was abolished, and Indian affairs were governed through the Minister of the Department of Mines and Resources. In 1950, responsibility for Indian affairs was transferred to the Department of Citizenship and Immigration. It remained there until 1965, when the Department of Northern Affairs was assigned to the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources, which became the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.
- Richard Middleton, Pontiac's War: Its Causes, Course, and Consequences (New York: Routledge, 2007), 19.
- "Individuals Responsible for Indian and Northern Affairs in Canada, 1755 to 2006". Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. February 2006. Retrieved 2009-02-11.