Indian agent

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In United States history, an Indian agent was an individual authorized to interact with American Indian tribes on behalf of the government.

Agents established in Nonintercourse Act of 1793[edit]

The federal regulation of Indian affairs in the United States first included development of the position of Indian agent in the Nonintercourse Act of 1793, a revision of the original 1790 law. This required land sales by or from Indians to be federally licensed and permitted. The legislation also authorized the President to "appoint such persons, from time to time, as temporary agents to reside among the Indians," and guide them into acculturation of American society by changing their agricultural practices and domestic activities.[1]: 58  Eventually, the U.S. government ceased using the word "temporary" in the Indian agent's job title.

Changing role of Indian Agents, 1800–1840s[edit]

From the close of the 18th century to nearly 1869, Congress maintained the position that it was legally responsible for the protection of Indians from non-Indians, and in establishing this responsibility it "continue[d] to deal with Indian tribes by utilizing agents to negotiate treaties under the jurisdiction of the Department of War."[2]

  • Initially, and before the reforms of the late 19th century, an Indian agent's average duties were as follows:
    • Work toward preventing conflicts between settlers and Indians
    • "He was to keep an eye out for violations of intercourse laws[further explanation needed][3] and to report them [violations] to superintendents"[1]: 61 
    • Maintain flexible cooperation with U.S. Army military personnel
    • See to the proper distribution of annuities granted by the state or federal government to various Indian tribes; and this usually occurred through a transfer of money or goods from the Indian agent to the respective chief which would then be distributed to the tribe, although this practice went into decline by the mid-1800s
    • See to the successful removal of tribes from areas procured for settlement to reservations

In the 1830s, the primary role of Indian agents was to assist in commercial trading supervision between traders and Indians, while agents possessed the authority to both issue and revoke commercial trading licenses.

In 1849, the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided to place the position of Indian agent under civilian jurisdiction. This came at a time when many white Americans saw the role of Indian agent as largely inefficient and dishonest in monetary and severalty dealings with various Indian tribes.[4]: 405 

Mid-late 19th century[edit]

By 1850, many citizens had been calling for reform of the agents in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Their wish had been granted when in 1869 the bureau created the civilian-controlled Board of Indian Commissioners. The board "never more deeply felt, that Indian agents should be appointed solely for merit and fitness for their work ... and should be retained in the service when they prove themselves to be efficient and helpful by their character and moral influence."[1]: 251  This civilian run board was charged "with responsibility for supervising the disbursement of Indian appropriations" from state and federal governments.[4]: 406  However, the United States Army command was extremely dissatisfied of the transfer of the Bureau of Indian Affairs from the Department of War to the Department of the Interior by 1849, so they began to make public complaints about the corruptive nature of the civilian presence in the job of Indian agent.[5] Despite its deeply felt convictions that its Indian agents were appointed and removed on merit, the civilian Board of Commissioners was frequently deemed corrupt, portrayed derogatorily in print and propaganda, and inadvertently assumed the scapegoat for the perceived inefficiency of Indian-White affairs: the Indian agent.

By the late 19th century, the job title of Indian agent began to change slightly in the wake of the recent attempts to 'civilize' Indians, assimilating them into American culture. Despite the public scorn for the agents, the Indian Office stated that the "chief duty of an agent is to induce his Indian to labor in civilized pursuits. To attain this end every possible influence should be brought to bear, and in proportion as it is attained ... an agent is successful or unsuccessful."[1]: 218 

By the 1870s, due to president Grant's Peace Policy, the average Indian agent was primarily nominated by various Christian denominations due to the increase in civilization reforms to Indian-white affairs, especially over land.[6] Part of the Christian message of reform, carried out by the Indian agents, demonstrated the pervasive thought of Indian land ownership of the late 19th century: civilization can only be possible when Indians cease communal living in favor of private ownership. Many citizens still held the activities of Indian agents in poor esteem, calling the agents themselves "unprincipled opportunists" and people of low quality.[4]: 409 

  • In the 1880 Instruction to Indian Agents, it states the job duties of the Indian agent as follows:
    • See that Indians in one's designated locality are not "idle for want of an opportunity to labor or of instructions as to how to go to work," and
    • absolutely "no work must be given to white men which can be done by Indians"[1]: 293 
    • See to it that the Indians under one's jurisdiction can farm successfully and solely for the subsistence of their respective family
    • Enforce prohibition of liquor
    • Both provide and supervise the instruction of English education and industrial training for Indian children
    • Allow Indians to leave the reservation only if they have acquired a permit for such (permits were only irregularly granted)
    • As of July 1884, Indian agents were to compile an annual report of their reservations for submission aimed at collecting the following information from Indian respondents: Indian name, English name, Relationship, Sex, and Name among other statistical information.[7]

End of position[edit]

When Theodore Roosevelt reached the presidency at the turn of the 20th century (1901–1909), the Indian agents that remained on the government payroll were all replaced by school superintendents.[1]: 257 

Notable Indian agents[edit]

Bust of Benjamin Hawkins

Individuals who have served as Indian agents include the following:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Prucha, Francis Paul (1984). The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  2. ^ Brown, Shana. "Outline of Indian Affairs" (PDF). p. 1. Retrieved 11 December 2012.[permanent dead link]
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b c Unrau, William E. (October 1972). "The Civilian as Indian Agent: Villain or Victim?". Western Historical Quarterly. 3 (4): 405–420. doi:10.2307/966865. JSTOR 966865.
  5. ^ Chaput, Donald (July 1972). "Generals, Indian Agents, Politicians: The Doolittle Survey of 1865". Western Historical Quarterly. 3 (3): 269–282. doi:10.2307/967424. JSTOR 967424.
  6. ^ Castile, George P. (April 1981). "Edwin Eells, U.S. Indian Agent, 1871-1895". The Pacific Northwest Quarterly. 72 (2): 62. JSTOR 40490672.
  7. ^ National Archives (15 August 2016). "Indian Census Roles, 1885-1940". Legal and Administrative Background: The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
  8. ^ "The Life of Kit Carson, Hunter, Trapper, Guide, Indian Agent, and Colonel U.S.A." By Edward Sylvester Ellis, 1899 G.M. Hill
  9. ^ "Benjamin Hawkins, Indian Agent" By Merritt B. Pound, 2009 University of Georgia Press
  10. ^ "Prairie Man: The Struggle between Sitting Bull and Indian Agent James McLaughlin" By Norman E. Matteoni, 2015 Rowman & Littlefield
  11. ^ "Indian agent and wilderness scholar: the life of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft" by Richard G. Bremer, 1987 Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University
  12. ^ Hutton, Paul A. (September 1978). "William Wells: Frontier Scout and Indian Agent". Indiana Magazine of History. 74 (3): 189. JSTOR 27790311.

Works cited[edit]

  • "Indian Agents: Rulers of the Reserves" By John L. Steckley, 2016 Peter Lang Publishing
  • "Indian Agent: Peter Ellis Bean in Mexican Texas" By Jack Jackson, 2005 Texas A&M University Press
  • "The Silver Man: The Life and Times of Indian Agent John Kinzie" By Peter Shrake, 2016 Wisconsin Historical Society
  • "The Official Correspondence of James S. Calhoun: While Indian Agent at Santa Fé and Superintendent of Indian Affairs in New Mexico" by James S. Calhoun, 1915 U.S. Government Printing Office
  • "Christopher Gist: Colonial Frontiersman, Explorer, and Indian Agent" by Kenneth P. Bailey, 1976 Archon Books

External links[edit]