Legislative Branch

Guide to Senate Records: Chapter 12 Indian Affairs 1820-1946


Table of Contents

Chapter 12. Records of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs and Predecessor Committees, 1816-1968


Records of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs and Predecessor Committees, 1816-1988 from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States

Committe records discussed in this chapter:

Records of the Committee on Indian Affairs, 1820-1946

12.23 The Committee on Indian Affairs was established by a Senate resolution introduced by Walter Leake of Mississippi on January 3, 1820. Prior to the creation of the standing committee, matters relating to Indian affairs were considered by various select committees, such as the Select Committee on the Extinguishment of Indian Title to Certain Lands, which existed for approximately two weeks in 1818 (15th Cong.). Once established, the standing Committee on Indian Affairs met during each Congress until it was eliminated by the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946. Between 1820 and 1946, numerous select committees on specific Indian-related issues were established, but of these, only the Select Committee on Indian Depredations, 1889-1893, left unprinted records. This select committee became the Committee on Indian Depredations in 1893.

12.24 The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 terminated the Committee on Indian Affairs and assigned legislative responsibility for Indian-related matters to the Committee on Public Lands (in 1948, the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs), which maintained a subcommittee on Indian affairs. When the Senate committee system was reorganized once again in 1977, the Senate established the Select Committee on Indian Affairs, which still exists.

12.25 Records of the Committee on Indian Affairs (96 ft.) include committee reports and papers, 1820-47 (2 ft.); committee papers, 1847-1946 (80 ft.); petitions, memorials, and resolutions of State legislatures referred to the committee, 1820-1946 (13 ft.); legislative dockets, 1848-65, 1881-85 (4 vols., 4 in.); minutes, 1873-1918 with gaps (10 vols., 10 in.); executive dockets, 1889-1911 with gaps (3 vols., 3 in.); and indexes to petitions and memorials, 1903-13 (2 vols., 2 in.). Two-thirds of the records date from the 1928-46 period when the committee, pursuant to S. Res. 79, 70th Cong., conducted a broad investigation of Federal policy toward Indians. The investigation continued under various other resolutions until 1952. In addition to these records, legislative case files on bills and resolutions referred to the committee, 1901-46, are found in the series of papers supporting specific bills and resolutions ("accompanying papers"). Several other committees, including Appropriations, Claims, Finance, Military Affairs, and Public Lands, also received and reported on bills affecting Indians.


Treaty Files, 1789-1871 (1st-41st Congresses)

12.26 From 1789 until 1849 when the Department of the Interior was established, the War Department supervised the negotiation of treaties by special commissioners acting for the President. Responsibility for the management of Indian affairs, including the negotiation of treaties, was transferred to the new Department of the Interior in 1849. The last Indian treaty that the Senate ratified was concluded with the Nez Perce tribe and signed on April 13, 1868. The Indian Appropriation Act approved on January 3, 1871, eliminated the practice of dealing with the tribes as independent nations. As a result, the Federal Government made no new treaties with the Indians, but kept existing treaties intact.

12.27 The original ratified treaties are in Record Group 11, General Records of the United States Government, as part of the series Treaties with Indian Tribes and Related Papers. These records have been microfilmed as National Archives Microfilm Publication M668, Ratified Indian Treaties, 1722-1869, 16 rolls. Most unratified treaties are among the executive proceedings of the Senate that include Presidential messages and accompanying documents pertaining to Indian treaties.

Other Records, 1820-71 (16th-41st Congresses)

12.28 The early records of the committee relate to a variety of subjects, including the negotiation and implementation of treaties; the conditions of various tribes; claims of individuals for funds and supplies advanced to the Indians; claims of Indians against whites; the role of Indians in the fur trade; the acquisition and sale of Indian lands; the removal of Indians from lands east of the Mississippi River; and the administration of the Office of Indian Affairs, the agency directly responsible for most of the Federal Government's relations with the Indians. The committee reports and papers (2 ft.) for each Congress from the 16th through the 29th are arranged chronologically by date of receipt. From the 30th through the 41st Congresses (1847-71), most committee papers (3 ft.) are arranged numerically by bill number for each Congress; records not associated with a particular bill or resolution are arranged chronologically by date of referral. Correspondence with various Departments of the executive branch is dispersed throughout the files.

12.29 Typical of some of the documents among the committee papers are a lengthy 1829 report on the status of the fur trade that includes an "Extract from Sir Alexander McKenzie's History of the Fur Trade 1793" (20A-D6); a transcript of Thomas L. McKenney's talk in 1831 with the Creek Indians about a tract of land claimed by Georgia that illustrates the general tone and language adopted by Federal officials when negotiating with the Indians (21A-D7); and a 14-page report prepared by the committee in 1836 in connection with a proposed supplement to the act of May 28, 1830, that had provided "for an exchange of lands with the Indians residing in any of the states or territories, and for their removal west of the river Mississippi," thereby formalizing the policy of Indian removal (24A-D7).

Petition regarding American Indians
Petition regarding American Indians
Petition from Universal Peace Union regarding American Indians, December 16, 1868 (SEN40A-H9) from NARA's National Archives Catalog.  

12.30 The petitions and memorials received by the committee (5 ft.) reflect the controversial nature of the removal proposal. The concept of Indian removal and an exchange of lands on a more or less voluntary basis was first stated in the act of March 26, 1804, but the 1830 act provoked strong public reaction. Numerous petitions came from whites who advocated removal, from whites who protested the removal on moral grounds (mostly religious societies who petitioned on behalf of the Indians), and from Indians who unsuccessfully opposed implementation of the policy. In 1846, the committee received a memorial from John Ross and other Cherokee leaders concerning the tribe's relationship with the United States and the problems the tribe had encountered after their forced removal to the west (29A-G7.2). In 1870, leaders of the Cherokees and several other tribes protested a bill, S. 679, 41st Cong., which called for the establishment of the Territory of Oklahoma and the consolidation of the Indian tribes under a Territorial government (41A-H9).

12.31 Many of the early petitions and memorials received from whites and Indians alike concern Indian treaties and the appropriation of lands from and for the Indians. Numerous white groups submitted petitions protesting the abrogation of treaties. One such 1846 petition on behalf of the Seneca Indians in New York contains the signature of Noah Webster (29A-G7). Petitions concerning disputes over boundaries of Indian reservations are useful in interpreting the relationships between Indians and their white neighbors.

12.32 By the 1840's the records begin to reflect the dissatisfaction on the part of some employees of the Office of Indian Affairs who, for one reason or another, were having trouble collecting funds due them for their services. Many of these petitioners wrote letters to the committee and the War and Interior Departments requesting payment, supporting their claims with affidavits, copies of letters, lists of expenses, and vouchers. In some instances, petitions were submitted on behalf of deceased employees, such as John B. Hogan, a Commissioner to investigate frauds on the Creek Indians, and William Armstrong, Indian agent for the Choctaws (30A-H7). Occasionally, agents submitted claims for damages caused by the Indians they served. An interesting variation is a petition from Thomas Galbraith, the agent for the Sioux in Minnesota, who asked that he not be held responsible for Government property lost when the Indians sacked agency buildings in August, 1862 (38A-H7). Many of the Indians who participated in the Sioux uprising were tried by a military commission; the transcript of the hearings is among the Presidential messages for the 37th Congress (37A-F2).

12.33 The records of the committee contain three legislative dockets for 1848-55, 1856-63, and 1863-65. Entries in the dockets are arranged chronologically, showing who presented a bill to the Senate, the subject referred, and the date of referral, and providing subcommittee information and additional remarks.

Other Records, 1871-1901 (42d-57th Congresses)

12.34 The committee papers of the late 19th century (17 ft.) contain documents that illustrate the administrative control the Federal Government exercised in dealing with the Indians. Most of the records consist of printed bills, but there is a substantial amount of correspondence as well. Included in the correspondence are letters of reference and recommendations for several individuals seeking employment as Indian agents and a letter from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to the Secretary of the Interior regarding the appointment of a superintendent of education for the Indians (43A-E7).

12.35 Most of the records are arranged numerically by bill number, but there are small quantities of records that have no discernible arrangement. Throughout the records for this period are hand-drawn maps of sections of the States and Territories showing the location of Indian reservations (45A-E8, 47A-E10, 48A-E11, 50A-F11, 51A-F14, 52A-F13). The committee used the maps to review boundary disputes, homestead rights, Indian claims, and public surveys for railroads and waterways. The committee also had at its disposal statistical reports showing for each tribe the amount of agricultural produce raised, timber cut, livestock owned, acres cultivated, and acres occupied by whites (43A-E7, 45A-E8).

12.36 Much of the correspondence in these files addresses the problems that resulted from the Federal Government's sale of Indian land to whites for settlement and development. The correspondence is between executive Departments, the committee, and independent groups acting on the Indians' behalf, for example, the Indian Citizenship Association (52A-F13). Several messages signed by President Chester A. Arthur accompany letters between the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and the Secretary of the Interior regarding Indian land sales (47A-E10).

12.37 Increasingly, the types of records referred to the committee provide information about the duties of the Indian agents and the many activities involved in their administration of Federal Indian policy. Periodic inspections and investigations of conditions on the various reservations often afforded the Indians an opportunity to express their views, and they produced case files that may include reports, transcripts of interviews, affidavits, and similar records testifying to the success or failure of the Government officials and the policies they attempted to implement (48A-E11, 55A-F12). A typical document is a 29-page report entitled "Agents and Agencies" that begins with a general discussion of the attributes of a successful agent and continues with sections on the following subjects: Indian police, Indian soldiers, surveys, irrigation, agriculture and implements, stock, game, rations, annuity goods, clothing, blankets, schools and education, hospitals, the field matron system, dances, and treaties (52A-F13). This particular report was prepared by commissioners appointed in 1891 to adjust the differences between the Sioux Indians on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations.

12.38 Collectively, the petitions and memorials for the late 19th century amount to approximately 5 feet of documents, but for most Congresses the files are relatively sparse. An exception is the 53d Congress (1893-95), when the committee received numerous petitions and memorials (1 ft.) protesting Government support of Indian sectarian schools as a violation of the principle of separation of church and state. For the most part, however, the majority of records in this period concern efforts to open for public entry lands in Indian territory and on Indian reservations. Individuals and groups of whites sometimes submitted petitions urging the Federal Government to permit Indians to own their reservations and to establish schools for Indian children (46A-H10, 48A-H12). One unusual petition was received in 1880 from a group of Coloradoans requesting that a section of land on the Ute reservation in Colorado be given to Susan, wife of Chief Johnson, for her "kindness to the whites" who had been taken captive during the Meeker massacre at White River in 1879 (46A-H10).

Senator Henry L. Dawes, Indian Affairs Committee chairman 1881-93.
Senator Henry L. Dawes, Indian Affairs Committee chairman 1881-93 , Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer (U.S. Army) from NARA's National Archives Catalog.  

12.39 The minutes, 1873-1901 (5 vols.), are inconsistent in their coverage. The most thorough accounts are in the books covering 1873-75, 1891-93, and 1899-1901. There is also a volume containing the minutes for Henry Dawes' 1885 subcommittee to determine the condition of the tribes in the Indian territory and their policies for leasing lands, but it contains very little substantive information. A legislative docket for 1881-85 also contains few notations.

12.40 An executive docket from the 1889-97 period contains a register of nominations and appointments to positions such as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Superintendent of Indian Schools, inspector, and agent. The entries are arranged chronologically and give the date of nomination and sometimes date of confirmation, but little, if any, background information on the nominees is provided. The docket includes an index.

Other Records, 1901-46 (57th-79th Congresses)

12.41 The records of the committee for this period total approximately 65 feet, but the bulk of the records (58 ft.) relate to the committee's investigative subcommittee which conducted a long-term study of the operations of the Office of Indian Affairs. The subcommittee's records are described below (see paras. 12.45-12.47).

12.42 Those committee papers for 1901-46 (5 ft.) that are not filed with the records of the subcommittee do not include the extensive case files prevalent at the end of the 19th century, chiefly because bills and resolutions beginning with the 57th Congress (1901-03) are in a separate series of papers supporting specific bills and resolutions. Accordingly, the papers for each Congress tend to be arranged chronologically by date of referral rather than numerically by bill number. The correspondence in this period comes from a great variety of sources, among them Indians, Government employees who worked with Indians, and officials of various executive Departments. Fewer documents than previously relate to claims. There are records concerning irrigation projects on reservations (66A-F9), expenditures at Indian schools and agencies (70A-F10), and Indian protests against Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier (77A-F13). The papers even include some minutes of meetings held by Indians on the reservations (66A-F9).

12.43 The petitions and memorials (2 ft.) deal with social issues such as education, allotments in severalty, temperance instruction, and voting rights. A 1906 memorial of the Indian Industries League describes various groups that helped the Indians in assimilation efforts (59A-J50). A 1908 petition from the president of the Chicago Historical Society urges that the Bureau of American Ethnology collect and publish information relating to extinct and endangered languages (60A-J45). Protests against an address presented by Commissioner John Collier at the National Conference of Social Work in 1933 are also included (73A-J26) There are two volumes of indexes to petitions and memorials for 1903-13.

12.44 Five volumes of minutes covering 1902-11 and 1914-19 usually provide detailed discussion of bills and hearings. Other bound records include two executive dockets, 1901-11, containing information relating to personnel actions in the Office of Indian Affairs.

Indian Affairs Investigating Subcommittee

12.45 On February 1, 1928, the Senate passed S.Res.79, 70th Cong., which authorized the Committee on Indian Affairs to survey conditions of the Indians and laws affecting them. The committee also was authorized to evaluate the operations of the Office of Indian Affairs and report on abuses that needed correction and laws that needed change to "promote the security, economic competence, and progress of the Indians." To carry out this mandate, the Committee on Indian Affairs established an investigative subcommittee. This subcommittee survived its parent committee, operating under the jurisdiction of the Committee on Public Lands, 1947-48, and the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, 1948-52. The records of the subcommittee cover the period 1928-53 and form a separate collection among the committee papers of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs for the 83d Congress.

12.46 The committee papers are arranged in three segments: A general subject file (12 ft.), arranged alphabetically by subject, including substantial files on Indian appropriations, 1931-1953, investigators' notes and data, 1930-50, and files on the Indian Reorganization Act (Wheeler-Howard) Act of 1934; a geographic file (45 ft.), arranged by State or Territory, thereunder by tribe or other subject; and records relating to a "Silver Investigation" (1 ft.). A folder title list is available for these records on NARA's National Archives Catalog.

12.47 In large measure these records owe their existence to Alfred A. Grorud, a longtime committee staff member through three decades, from the 1930's through the 1950's. His correspondence reveals much of the history of the relationship between Indians and the Federal Government. One folder, "Report of Past Work and Statement of Unfinished Work," is helpful in understanding the history of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and in analyzing Federal policy toward Indians. The records also contain a 1948 analysis by Senator Hugh Butler of Nebraska entitled "Fractionated Indian Heirship Lands," which is critical of the Bureau (formerly Office) of Indian Affairs, and several memos and letters that cite poor living conditions on Indian reservations and inadequate administrative procedures in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. These records reflect the attempts to restructure Federal policy toward the Indians.

Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States Senate at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-42). By Robert W. Coren, Mary Rephlo, David Kepley, and Charles South. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.