Who’s Buried in the History Books?
By Sean Wilentz
Grant did not confine his reformism to expanding and protecting the rights of the freed slaves. Disgusted at the inhumanity of the nation’s Indian policies, he called for “the proper treatment of the original occupants of this land,” and directed efforts to provide federal aid for food, clothing and schooling for the Indians as well as protection from violence. He also took strong and principled stands in favor of education reform and the separation of church and state.
In his first inaugural address, Grant pledged to rethink the treatment of Native Americans, referring to them as "the original occupants of this land." He wanted to shift federal Indian policy toward what became known as the Peace Policy. This approach attempted to move Indians closer to white civilization (and ultimately U.S. citizenship) by housing them on reservations and helping them become farmers. To address corruption in federal Indian affairs, Grant created a new Board of Indian Commissioners headed by philanthropic leaders. The board recommended the government stop using political appointees as Indian agents. Grant adopted that recommendation and turned to missionaries--especially Quakers--and Army personnel to serve as agents.
However, these changes fell short of radically altering conditions for Native Americans in the United States. White settlers, with governmental support, continued to push Indians aside to take land, and they relied on the Army to prevent Indian attacks. At the same time, Native Americans on reservations had little chance of creating farms out of desolate pieces of land and were beset by poverty and desperation. While Grant's approach marked an improvement in U.S. Indian policy, it is remembered more for its good intentions than for lasting changes.
And Grant "lobbied" to stop this rude behavior? Whom exactly did he lobby? Was someone else in charge of federal Indian policy? With all his executive powers, he couldn't do anything except lobby? Despite being Commander-in-Chief, he couldn't order the Army to act?
Poor guy! He wanted to help the Indians, but couldn't. Like Bush after receiving the August 2001 memo that Bin Laden was going to strike, he was powerless to do anything.
Assimilation is for Borg
A couple of problems with these claims about Grant. First, moving Indians "closer to white civilization (and ultimately U.S. citizenship) by housing them on reservations and helping them become farmers" was a negative policy, not a positive one. It meant breaking the treaties they signed, destroying their way of life, locking them up on barren land, and compelling them to change their culture and religion. It was part of the genocidal approach aptly characterized as "kill the Indian, save the man."
Second, was anything else happening during Grant's two terms (March 4, 1869–March 4, 1877)? Anything else these postings might've forgotten to mention? Perhaps the following?
Indian Wars Timeline
Oh, yeah...now I remember. Ulysses S. Grant was in charge of the freakin' military during eight bloody years of the Indian Wars. His so-called "Peace Policy" included many deadly attacks on and massacres of Indians.
In one sense, his Peace Policy worked. "We are not going to let a few thieving, ragged Indians stop and check the progress of the railroad," General Sherman wrote to Grant in 1867. After his men killed them, the Indians definitely became more cooperative, as corpses often do.
In other words, Grant's policy amounted to "the only good Indian is a dead Indian." Nice.
"Thanks but no thanks for your so-called peace," I imagine the Indians responded. "Next time you want peace, how about if you actually seek it? How about if you don't launch wars to destroy our cultures, overthrow our governments, and impose your 'democracy' on us?
"How about if you obey the treaties you negotiated and signed instead? You know, like the Treaty of Fort Laramie ratified just one year before you took office? Why haven't you enforced these treaties, you bloated bag of excrement?"
I'm not in favor of replace Grant on the $50 bill with Reagan or anyone else. Several of our so-called "great" presidents earned their reputations via the death or destruction of Indians. But let's not ignore Grant's crimes too much. He was one of several men who waged ruthless war against the Indians. As much as anyone, he responsible for ending their independence.
For more on the subject, see Mythologizing the American West and Fun 4th of July Facts.