In accordance with the Constitution, the United States recognized Indian nations as sovereign entities and thus negotiated treaties with them. A treaty is simply an agreement between two or more sovereign nations. From the viewpoint of American law, there are three basic steps involved in the treaty process: (1) the treaty is negotiated, (2) it is then ratified by the Senate, and (3) it is proclaimed (signed) by the President. When the process is completed, the treaty is considered to be in force and is a law which is superior to that of local or state laws.
In negotiating Indian treaties, the Americans often used bullying, threats, forgery, and bribes. Sometimes they would appoint the chiefs with whom they would negotiate. Even though Indian women often held leadership positions, the Americans refused to sit in council with or to listen to Indian women.
There were times when both sides agreed to a treaty and then it somehow was “lost” before being submitted to the Senate for ratification.
In Mississippi, the Choctaw met with an American treaty delegation led by Andrew Jackson. The council was held at Doak Stand and the Americans provided each Indian with a daily ration of 1.5 pounds of beef, a pint of corn, and free access to alcohol. While most of the Choctaw drew the rations, the followers of Puckshunubbee refused as they did not want to accept American hospitality under false pretenses. In his book The Removal of the Choctaw Indians, Arthur DeRosier reports:
“The Choctaws made no effort, however, to disguise their lack of interest in any proposition the United States government might offer.”
Jackson was angered by this attitude. The Choctaw were told if they did not cede their land to the United States, that the government would stop protecting the Choctaw from non-Indian settlers and from the territorial designs of the states and that the state government would simply assume control over Choctaw affairs and take the land anyway. According to DeRosier:
“[Jackson] warned the Choctaws that they would destroy their nation if they refused to listen to reason, and he made it plain that he intended to save them from themselves whether they liked it or not.”
Pushmataha accused Jackson of trying to deceive the Choctaw and pointed out that the lands in Arkansas were inferior to those in Mississippi. He told the Americans:
“The bottoms of the rivers are generally good soil, but liable to inundation during the spring season, and in summers the rivers and the creeks dry up and become so salty that the water is awful to use.”
In spite of the Choctaw objections, the Choctaw leaders signed the Treaty of Doak’s Stand giving six million acres of land in Mississippi to the United States. In exchange, the United States was to give the Choctaw a similar piece of land west of the Mississippi River and to support all Choctaw migrants to this land for one year. Each man who migrated to the west was to be given a blanket, kettle, rifle, bullet molds, powder, and enough corn to last his family for a year.
In what was left of the Choctaw territory east of the Mississippi River, the Choctaw were to be allowed to live undisturbed and to eventually become American citizens. However, the racist attitudes of the southern states made assimilation impossible.
In an article in the Chronicles of Oklahoma, H. Glenn Jordan reports:
“Whites viewed this first removal treaty involving land in Indian Territory as fair and advantageous to all, while the Choctaws regarded it with deep suspicion.”
While they had received more land in the west than they had surrendered, the rich black delta land that had been their home was now gone. The Choctaws felt betrayed.
The land given to the Choctaw in what is now Arkansas and Oklahoma included Caddo hunting grounds and old village sites. For the 5,000 non-Indians living in the area, the government created Miller County. These non-Indians were indignant that “their” land was to be “given” to the Choctaw.
People in Mississippi told the non-Indians in Arkansas that they should accept the “burden” of the Indians until they obtained statehood and then they could force the Indians to move farther west. The editor of the Mississippi Gazette writes:
“In the course of time, the territory of Arkansas, will also claim a state of independence, the Indians must be removed from her soil—and she will set but little importance upon the arguments now volunteered for her, against the treaty which may effect it.”
In Michigan, American officials under the leadership of General Lewis Cass held a conference with the Ojibwa Crane clan to negotiate the surrender of acreage for the military post of Fort Brady. While the Americans insisted that they already owned the land, they needed to secure the site as a means of resisting the growth of British influence along the border. The Americans reminded the Ojibwa that their ancestors had previously given occupancy of the area to the French, and that since the Americans had purchased the area from the French, the Americans were therefore entitled to occupancy of the area.
Ojibwa chief Sassaba refused to smoke the tobacco offered by the Americans and tried to persuade others to do the same. In the Ojibwa camp, Sassaba raised the British colors. General Cass, unarmed and in the company of a single interpreter, walked into the camp, hauled down the British flag, and told the people that there was going to be an American garrison at this place whether or not they renewed the grant.
Fearing that Sassaba’s actions were going to lead to an active conflict with the Americans, members of the band turned to Susan Johnston for help. Susan Johnston was the Ojibwa wife of the local British trader. Through her influence, a council of the chiefs was held and Shingwaukonse was selected to lead a delegation to prevent Sassaba from inflicting injury on the American camp. Shingwaukonse was considered an outsider and was thus divorced from the social and emotional bonds of kin ties to the Crane clan.
Peace was restored and the Ojibwa leaders surrendered an area 16 miles square to the Americans. The Ojibwa retained for themselves the perpetual rights to fish at the rapids. Only Sassaba refused to sign the treaty.
A Cherokee delegation travelled to Washington, D.C. and inquired about their 1804 treaty, but the War Department could find no record of it. The Cherokee then produced their copy of the treaty which was then sent to the Senate for ratification.
In Nebraska, the Omaha signed a treaty which ceded to the United States fifteen square miles of land for a new fort. In exchange, the Omaha were to receive supplies, weapons, and ammunition. The Omaha retained the right to hunt on any part of the ceded land not needed by the army. The Senate, however, did not ratify the treaty, but both the Omaha and the army continued as though the treaty was ratified.
Historian Judith Boughter, in her book Betraying the Omaha Nation, 1790-1916, writes:
“The government, to its credit, kept its promise to deliver goods to the Indians, and content with the trade, the Omaha never questioned the legality of their land cession.”
Twice each week Indians 101 explores different American Indian topics. More American Indian history from this series:
Indians 101: American Indians 200 Years Ago, 1819
Indians 101: The Cherokee 200 Years Ago, 1819
Indians 101: American Indian Treaties in 1816
Indians 101: Religion and Indians in 1816
Indians 101: Indian Removal 200 Years Ago (1818)
Indians 101: Federal Indian Policy in 1818
Indians 101: Some 1818 Treaties
Indians 101: The Fur Trade in 1816