Abraham Lincoln’s troubled relationship with Native Americans

Like America 16and President, Abraham Lincoln left an impressive legacy. His deep belief in the founding principles of American democracy – that every human being deserved freedom and the ability to self-determine – compelled him to free enslaved African Americans. But when it came to the nation’s Indigenous peoples, who collectively struggled for their lives, lands and cultural survival, he failed to live up to those cherished American ideals.

Lincoln, whose grandfather was killed by Indian raiders, himself had limited direct contact with Native Americans, despite being raised on the frontier. As a young man, he volunteered to serve in the Black Hawk War, a conflict over tribal lands, but saw no combat.

During Lincoln’s presidency, tribal issues generally took precedence over his all-consuming handling of the Civil War and pushed for an end to slavery. Although humanely well-meaning, Lincoln was largely uninformed and reactionary on Native American issues and failed to live up to the policies established by his predecessors, writes University of Texas historian Thomas Britten. This involved making and breaking treaties, confiscating ancestral lands, forcing displacement, pushing for cultural assimilation and, at times, turning a blind eye to acts of genocide committed by the military on the western frontier. . Among the bitterest pills served to Indigenous peoples during his administration: Lincoln signed laws that gave millions of acres of tribal land to support white westward expansion, and he approved the hanging of 38 warriors Dakota Sioux, the largest mass execution in US history.

“Lincoln’s acceptance of the Indian policy of the United States indicated that he was conforming to the general social attitudes toward Native Americans of his time,” writes historian Christopher Anderson in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. “He continued to regard them as an alien people who would have to be eliminated by purchase or conquest.”

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Lincoln’s family trauma

Lincoln grew up on the Kentucky and Indiana border, where white settlers and Native Americans frequently clashed over land. While historical records reveal no significant contact with Native Americans in his youth, Abe grew up hearing chilling stories from his father Thomas and his uncle Mordecai of how their father, Abraham Sr., was killed by a small Indian war party in Kentucky while planting corn. with his three sons.

In an autobiography Lincoln wrote for his 1860 presidential campaign, he described the murder as a “stealth” attack. He wrote to a relative, Jesse Lincoln, that the story “is the legend more strongly than all others imprinted on my mind and memory”.

Lincoln served in the Black Hawks War

At age 23, Lincoln enlisted as a volunteer in Black Hawk’s War in 1832. Black Hawk, a revered warrior and leader, had long contested the 1804 treaty that ceded vast territories of the Sac and Fox Nation to the U.S. government in exchange for $1,000 in cash. and goods every year. His effort to return to his ancestral home, which the government had sold to settlers, was seen as an “invasion of Illinois”, sparking the conflict.

Although Lincoln saw no combat during his three-month enlistment, he came away with a more mature and nuanced view of Native Americans. For one thing, he witnessed the ferocity of Indian warfare firsthand after helping to bury fallen soldiers of his militia. But historical accounts also reveal that he developed a social rapport with Indian allies in the camp. And one story goes that he intervened forcefully to stop his fellow officers from shooting a former Indian courier, revealing his wider humanitarian impulses.

As part of a policy to encourage volunteers and reward veterans, the government granted Lincoln a bounty land warrant of 40 acres in Iowa and 120 acres in Illinois for his service.

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President Lincoln considered himself the “grandfather”

The Southern Plains delegation, photographed at the White House Conservatory, March 27, 1863. Interpreter John Simpson Smith and agent Samuel G. Colley stand to the left of the group. Native Americans in first place are: War Bonnet, Standing in the Water, Lean Bear of the Cheyennes and Yellow Wolf of the Kiowas. The second row identities are unknown.

While in the White House, Lincoln displayed the common paternalistic attitude that tribal peoples needed the “civilizing” influence of white men. The President, wrote biographer David Herbert Donald, “rather enjoyed playing the role of their Grandfather, [sometimes] addressing them in pidgin English,” such as during a meeting with Potawatomi Indians in which he asked them, “Where do you live now? When will you return to Iowa?”, even though they were fluent in English. In March 1863, while receiving Plains Indian dignitaries at the White House, Lincoln said to them, “I see no way so that your race may become as numerous and prosperous as the white race, except by living like them, by cultivating the land. He also argued, without the slightest irony, that despite being embroiled in a bloody civil war, white men were “not as a race so willing to fight and kill each other than our red brothers”.

Presiding at a time when many white settlers were pushing west in search of arable land and mineral wealth, Lincoln shared the U.S. government’s dominant position that tribal peoples were obstacles to that expansion. In 1862 alone, he enacted the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railroad Act, which transferred millions of acres of tribal land to settlers and railroad companies, respectively.

Distracted by the war, Lincoln left the management of Indian affairs largely to corrupt local government officials and the military. And as border clashes escalated, atrocities occurred. In 1864, the US military forced an estimated 10,000 Navajos to march from their home country to a desolate internment camp more than 300 miles away. That same year, a regiment of Colorado Volunteers brutally massacred over 200 mostly unarmed Arapaho and Cheyenne men, women, and children in Sand Creek, Colorado. And a week before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, Lincoln authorized the hanging of 38 Dakota Sioux men in the largest public execution in US history.

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The Dakota Uprising

The Dakota uprising that prompted the executions was born out of hunger and desperation. Ten years before the Civil War, the Dakota Sioux people had abandoned large portions of Minnesota territory and were forced to set aside reservations in exchange for annual compensation in the form of gold and goods. But these promised government rents often never arrived, as Indian agents intercepted payments to cover so-called “debts” and the Dakotas starved to death. In 1858, the year Minnesota became a state, Sioux Chief Little Crow led a delegation to Washington to seek justice, but the United States instead cut the reservation in half and opened it to white settlers.

In 1861, Dakota farmers experienced poor harvests, exacerbating their hunger. Anti-Indian sentiments at the time were exemplified by local shopkeeper Andrew Jackson Myrick, who refused Dakota credit, allegedly responding to their starvation by saying, “As far as I’m concerned, if they’re hungry, let -eat them grass.”

In August 1862, four young Dakota men stealing eggs impulsively killed five white settlers near Acton Township. After the skirmish escalated into the murder of several hundred settlers, a volunteer militia led by Henry H. Sibley responded to the conflict, and a Dakota peace group made up of native noncombatants initiated a peace process. But six weeks later, when the war ended, between 300 and 600 white settlers had been killed, along with more than 70 soldiers, along with about 75 to 100 Dakota soldiers. A trader named Myrick was found dead with his mouth full of weed.

Lincoln upheld 39 death sentences, pardoned 264

Execution of Sioux Indians at Mankato, Minnesota, 1862

Execution of Sioux Indians at Mankato, Minnesota, 1862

As the Dakota War raged and settlers called for help, Lincoln was engulfed in Union losses from the Civil War and mourned the loss of his 11-year-old son, Willie, who died earlier this year. -the. The discouraged and embattled president took more than a month to send military reinforcements to end the conflict.

A military commission tried 392 Dakotas in six weeks for murder and other crimes. They sentenced 303 to hang for having “fired in battles, or brought ammunition, or acted as a commissar in furnishing the combatants with provisions, or had committed separate murder”.

Overall, say historians, the way the trials were conducted was far from fair. “Evidence was sparse, the court was biased, defendants were unrepresented in unknown proceedings conducted in a foreign language, and authority to summon the court was lacking,” said Carol Chomsky, associate professor at the law school. from the University of Minnesota and author of “The United States-Dakota War Trials: A Study in Military Injustice”.

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By law, Lincoln was responsible for approving sentences. He faced a population of Minnesota who bawled for blood vengeance: On November 26, 1862, the Goodhue Volunteer The Red Wing, Minnesota newspaper wrote, “Ten thousand men can be found who will devote their hopes, their fortunes, and, if need be, their lives, to the extermination of the race.

At first, Lincoln decided to sentence only those guilty of rape to death and devoted himself to examining each case individually. He eventually decided to also maintain sentences for those guilty of “massacre” rather than battlefield murder. Lincoln described his intentions in the Senate, saying he was “anxious not to act so leniently to encourage another outbreak on the one hand, or so harshly to be outright cruelty on the other.”

Granting reprieves to more than 260 of the convicted men, Lincoln approved the executions of 39, one of whom received a last-minute reprieve. Known to this day as the “Dakota 38”, the convicts sang their death songs as they marched to the gallows on December 26, held hands on the platform and were executed in front of thousands of spectators.

They are remembered by their descendants among the Dakota, 3,000 of whom were expelled after the war from Minnesota under threat of death.

Nohemi M. Moore