Long History of Treaties

From 1778 to 1871, the U.S. federal government tried to determine its relationship with the various Native tribes by creating treaties. There were hundreds of these treaties, which were formal agreements between two independent nations. So Native American people were citizens of their tribe, living within the boundaries of the U.S. The Native tribes would give up their rights to hunt and live on huge pieces of land in exchange for trade goods, yearly cash payments, and promises that no further demands would be made on them. Most often, part of the land would be "reserved" only for the tribe’s use. The obvious effect of the treaties was to speed the transfer of Indian land to white settlers.

Select a tribe and year to read the text of each treaty or law summary that ceded land to the U.S.

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Based on an original Map of Native American land cessions via treaties in what became Nebraska
Courtesy Bureau of American Ethnologies, Smithsonian Libraries, 1899

The obvious effect of the treaty process was to speed the transfer of Indian land to white settlers. As early as 1803, Thomas Jefferson recognized that the American people wanted land and that it might be difficult to get the land needed as long as Native people continued their current lifestyles. In Jefferson’s confidential letter to Congress asking for funds to explore the new territory, he wrote:

"The Indian tribes residing within the limits of the U.S. have for a considerable time been growing more & more uneasy at the constant diminution of the territory they occupy, altho’ effected by their own voluntary sales... In order peaceably to counteract this policy of theirs, and to provide an extension of territory which the rapid increase of our numbers will call for, two measures are deemed expedient. First, to encourage them to abandon hunting, to apply to the raising stock, to agriculture and domestic manufacture, and thereby prove to themselves that less land & labor will maintain them in this, better than in their former mode of living. The extensive forests necessary in the hunting life will then become useless, & they will see advantage in exchanging them for the means of improving their farms, & of increasing their domestic comforts. Secondly to multiply trading houses among them & place within their reach those things which will contribute more to their domestic comfort then the profession of extensive, but uncultivated wilds, experience & reflection will develop to them the wisdom of exchanging what they can spare & we want, for what we can spare and they want."

Thomas Jefferson’s Confidential Letter to Congress Jan. 18, 1803

The treaties led to a policy of Indian removal. Indians who resisted attempts by the whites to get Indian land by using treaties were often "removed" and sent further westward. The white settlers created Indian territories in Oklahoma and the western half of present-day South Dakota where the Indians would be out of the way of westward expansion. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson convinced the U.S. Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act. It provided money to relocate Native Americans by force if necessary.

However, the Cherokees in the state of Georgia, fought their removal in the federal Supreme Court. They thought they had won when Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Cherokees were a "domestic dependent nation" that could not be forced by the state of Georgia to give up its land against its will. Unfortunately, President Jackson and the state of Georgia ignored the decision and moved the Native Americans to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. The Cherokees refer to their trip as "The Trail of Tears."