Legislative Branch

Guide to House Records: Chapter 13: Indian Affairs

Chapter 13. Records of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs and Its Predecessors

Table of Contents

Records of the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee and Its Predecessors, 1805-1988 from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States, 1789-1988

Committees discussed in this chapter:
Records of the Committee on Indian Affairs (1821-1946)

History and Jurisdiction

13.24 The Committee on Indian Affairs was established on December 17, 1821, with jurisdiction over subjects pertaining to the Indians. Select committees to consider Indian matters had existed for several years prior to the creation of the standing committee.

13.25 Among the matters referred to the committee were subjects relating to the care, education, and management of Indians and of their lands; the adjudication and payment of Indian depredation claims; bonds and stocks that had been part of Indian trust funds; adjudication of claims of Indians against the United States; the use and management of Indian funds; and the business and government of the Indian tribes. From 1885 until 1920, the committee exercised jurisdiction over appropriations relating to Indians.

13.26 The Committee on Indian Affairs was abolished under the provisions of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946. Its jurisdiction and responsibilities were transferred to the Committee on Public Lands.

Records of the Committee on Indian Affairs, and Predecessor Select Committees, 17th-79th Congresses (1821-1946)


Record TypeVolumeCongresses (Dates)
Minute Books24 volumes44th (1875-77), 49th-65th (1885-1919), 74th-79th (1935-46)
Docket Books24 volumes28th (1843-45), 42nd (1871-73), 44th-65th (1885-1919)
Petitions and Memorials8 feet14th-41st (1815-71), 44th (1875-77), 46th (1879-81), 48th (1883-85), 50th-69th (1887-1927), 76th-79th (1939-46)
Committee Papers25 feet14th-72d (1815-1933), 76th-79th (1939-46)
Bill Files37 feet58th-79th (1903-46)
TOTAL:70 feet and 48 volumes 
Records Summary Table

13.27 Minute books document attendance at meetings, appointment of subcommittees, referral of legislation, committee discussions, and other activities. The docket books include alphabetical indexes to the bills, showing the entry numbers assigned to each bill. Each docket book is organized by entry number, and each entry includes the bill number and the subject matter of the bill, frequently with remarks by the chairman indicating the committee's action on the measure.

13.28 Although petitions and memorials are available for the early years of the committee, their number increases significantly after the Government became involved with the removal of the Indians to areas west of the Mississippi River. Petitions, primarily from the Northeastern section of the United States, strongly opposed any removal of the Indians from their lands. Typical is an 1831 document from citizens from Pennsylvania who claimed that it was "with pain that your Memorialists have observed the introduction of propositions before Congress, contemplating the removal of these Indians contrary to their consent . . . from the lands which they have received as an inheritance from their ancestors" (21A-G8.2). During the same period, Indian tribes petitioned Congress for protection (22A- G8.2).

13.29 Supporters of Indian removal also submitted petitions, but these petitions are not nearly as numerous as those opposed to removal. Such petitions were received repeatedly, as the various Indian tribes faced removal beyond the Mississippi River. About 60 years later, another petition campaign was waged concerning the removal of the Southern Utes from Colorado (50A-H11.2, 51A-H9.4, 53A-H13.4).

13.30 During the mid-19th century, the Federal Government was primarily concerned with pacifying the Indian tribes and establishing the reservation system. After the Indians were subdued and settled on reservations, agricultural education efforts were initiated, though largely without success. Many tribes became totally dependent upon the Federal Government for support, prompting friends of the Indians to contact the Government on their behalf. In 1861, for example, J. B. Chapman sent a petition to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, William P. Dole, and wrote that "I now See those Tribes in Kansas that I have known for forty years & more,- they appear to have depreciated in their mental energy and physical capacity" (37A-G5.1). The Indian agent for the Delaware Indians claimed that the "Delaware are now in greater need of mony than at any time heretofore in Consequence of the total failure of their crops" (37A-G5.2).

13.31 Various Indian rights groups, primarily from the Northeastern States, wished to see the Indians assimilated into the mainstream of American society. In December 1883, for example, the Women's Auxiliary Indian Association of Montgomery County, PA, presented a petition with 873 names "praying for, the abolition of the reservation system, of citizenship, and equal rights for all Indians" (48A-H10.2). Many reformers believed their goal of citizenship for the Indian could be achieved by passage of the Dawes Act, which provided for allotments of land to heads of households, unmarried adults, and orphans, and granted citizenship to each Indian whose allotment was approved and patented. Many petitions received during the 1880's supported the Dawes Act. Among the petitioners were Westerners, who envisioned tracts of surplus reservation land being freed for white settlement.

13.32 Petitions from the 1890's and into the 20th century primarily concern the education of young Indians and call for the reorganization of the Government's less-than- successful efforts to provide services to the Indian tribes. In 1927, the chief of the Miami Indians petitioned for immediate relief stating that "We were once a rich and proud Nation. . . . Now we are destitute and have become paupers among you and are left to starve, by those we trusted in solemn conclave" (69A-H4.1). The number of petitions among the records of the committee diminishes dramatically after the late 1920's, and, for some Congresses, no petitions are present.

13.33 Committee papers primarily consist of original copies of committee reports and various supporting documents concerning proposed legislation. From 1795 until 1822, the Federal Government operated a system of trading "factories," or posts, that was designed to foster and strengthen trade alliances with the United States Government. The committee, which drafted bills regulating this trade, often received correspondence from agents. In the early 1820's, the factory agent at Green Bay wrote that "the Indians here are excellent judges of goods; and have been accustomed to receive those of the best quality, and generally refuse those that are not of the first quality" (17A-C12.1). Also, letters from missionaries attempting to "Christianize and civilize" the Indians are among early committee papers. John Gambold, a Moravian missionary working among the Cherokee Indians, asserted that the Indians are "endowed with the same mental Capacities, which we possess" (14A-C5.1).

13.34 Conflicts between the Indians and whites were inevitable as white settlers moved onto Indian lands. From the late 1820's until the early 1840's, there was a significant increase in the number of claims filed by white settlers against the Federal Government for loss of property at the hands of Indians and, at the same time, Eastern Indian tribes claimed losses from encroachment upon their lands (20A-D10.l, 21A-D11.l, 22A-D11.l, 23A-D8.l, 24A-D9.2, 25A-D11.l, and 27A-D9.2). Files of claims-related materials are found among the committee papers for many of the Congresses prior to 1900.

13.35 In the 1830's, the committee was actively involved in the removal of the Cherokee Indians to the west of the Mississippi River, and there is a significant amount of correspondence concerning the logistics of providing food and shelter, as well as protection for the Indians being transported. The Government spent "sixteen cents a day for the subsistence of each person, and forty cents a day for the subsistence of each horse" (27A-D9.3). Problems and claims connected with the removal of the various Indian tribes were a concern of the committee for a number of years thereafter. Much of the material connected with the Indian removals was published in the Congressional Serial Set.

13.36 As the Federal Government's dealings with the Indians became increasingly complex, licensed traders, interpreters, Indian agents, educators, and others were required to minister to the needs of Indians placed on "reserved" lands. Despite the increased Federal bureaucracy, attempts to transform Indian warriors into independent farmers often failed, leaving the Government responsible for providing the Indians with food and clothing rations needed for survival. For example, in the early 1870's, the Red Cloud Agency received 1,109,500 pounds of beef cattle, 336,000 pounds of bacon, 1,916,250 pounds of flour, and 102,200 pounds of coffee from the Federal Government because the Sioux Indians were unable to provide food for themselves (42A-F12.5). During the 1870's and 1880's the papers include a considerable number of letters from agents regarding the condition of the Indian tribes located on their reservations, as well as financial statements for some agencies.

13.37 Shortly after the passage of the Dawes Severalty Act in 1887, one writer proudly proclaimed, "Over 16,000 Indians have now become citizens of the United States; and more than 4,000 others, through application for land in severalty, have declared their intentions to become citizens" (51A-F16.2). As individual Indians applied for their allotments, the tribes were to be financially compensated by the Government for the loss of "surplus" reservation land that could then be opened to white settlement. There is a large amount of material dealing with the allotment system. For example, in the early 1890's, an agreement was signed with the Yuma Indians "for the cession of their surplus lands" and during the same time, compensation was given to the Wichita Indians after they lost a significant amount of reservation land (53A-F18.4). By the turn of the 20th century, many persons in the white community thought it was "of the highest importance that the allotment of lands be completed at the earliest possible moment" (57A-F14.2) so land could be available for white settlement as quickly as possible.

13.38 Various committee records also document the Government's changing role in Indian education from the 1820's, when the United States only allowed certain private individuals or groups to educate Indians, until the 1880's when the Federal Government established an educational system of off-reservation boarding schools, as well as day schools located on the reservations. During the 1820's, missionary societies often requested permission to instruct the Indians "in science, morals, husbandry and the mechanic arts" (20A-G8.1). But, the committee received complaints, like one received in the early 1850's, which stated that religious societies were spending Government money for "teaching and preaching," rather than "school knowing" (33A-G8.3). The passage of the Dawes Act made educating young Indians a top priority, but Indian schools experienced many problems. Complaints reached the committee that Indian children spent more time laboring in the schools' fields and kitchens than they did in the classroom. On the other hand, school administrators complained they did not receive adequate funding to administer their schools. Records include narratives on the conditions of various Indian schools and financial statements (70A-F15.2).

13.39 Beginning in the latter part of the 19th century and continuing until the committee ceased to exist, the Committee on Indian Affairs was concerned with problems associated with reservation land. For example, fishery rights were negotiated with the Yakima Indians (53A-F18.4); white settlement on land reserved for the Indians was permitted (55A- F15.5); rights-of-way for railroads on reservation land were granted (50A-F16.3, 51A-F16.2, 53A-F18.3, 55A-F15.3); and rights-of-way for irrigation ditches, canals, and dams across Indian Territory also were granted (53A-F18.2, 58A-F14.4).

13.40 For a number of years, the committee received many complaints about the Government's role in managing Indian affairs. There were charges that Federal mismanagement, fraud, and cheating, left the Indians completely destitute. Hearings were held during the 68th Congress (1923-25) and a considerable amount of testimony was gathered regarding the condition of the Indians (68A-F19.2). This resulted in approximately 2 feet of material, much of it published, on Government mismanagement and the plight of the Indian.

13.41 The committee papers include files on numerous other subjects. Among these are relief for destitute Choctaw and Seminole Indians who were driven from Indian Territory during the Civil War because they were loyal to the Union (37A-E7.5); an inquiry concerning the plates used to publish Henry R. Schoolcraft's Indian history (35A-D8.7) and an estimate of the cost of completing the publication (38A-E8.1); a survey of the Navajo Indian reservation in New Mexico (41A-F11.3); and a proposed transfer of the Office of Indian Affairs from the Interior Department to the War Department (45A-F16.5). The records of the 38th and 39th Congresses (1863-67) include files relating to the concerns of certain tribes such as the Apache (38A-E8.6); Cherokee (38A-E8.7); Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi (38A-D8.8); and Shawnee (38A-E8.10); and files relating to tribal matters in the Territories of Montana (38A- E8.3, 39A-F11.10); New Mexico and Utah (38A-E8.4, 38A-E8.5, 39A-F11.11); as well as California (39A-F11.7), and the Upper Missouri River Country (39A-F11.3).

13.42 Bill files, which are arranged by Congress and bill number, begin in the records of the 58th Congress in 1903 and continue throughout the remainder of the committee's existence. They usually contain copies of published bills, resolutions, committee reports, and hearings. In addition, some files include transcripts of unpublished hearings and correspondence offering opinions on proposed legislation. Subjects covered in the bill files include irrigation projects, various rights-of-way proposals, social legislation, and some private bills.

Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States House of Representatives at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-245). By Charles E. Schamel, Mary Rephlo, Rodney Ross, David Kepley, Robert W. Coren, and James Gregory Bradsher. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.