Illinois During the Civil War

Illinois, Native Americans and the Civil War

by Drew E. VandeCreek

The Black Hawk War of 1832 removed the last remaining group of Native Americans from Illinois. These members of the Sac and Fox tribes moved west to reservation land in Iowa. By the middle of the nineteenth century many had moved again, southward into Kansas and Oklahoma. Thus Illinois played a role in Native Americans' Civil War largely through its representatives in Washington, D.C., including the President of the United States.

Black Hawk, War Chief of the Sac and Fox tribes, circa 1832.

President Abraham Lincoln exercised an Indian policy fairly representative of his Whig-Republican political heritage. He appears never to have questioned the proposition that Native Americans should give way to white settlement. Yet he proved merciful to individual Native Americans who had run afoul of the federal government.

Upon his inauguration Lincoln joined a federal government that had long provided Native Americans with shoddy, and often malicious, care. One Senator argued "If there is any one department of our Government worse managed than another it is that which relates to our Indian affairs. Mismanagement, bad faith, fraud, speculation and downright robbery have been its great distinguishing features."1

Lincoln appointed an Illinoisian, William P. Dole, as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Dole and the president proved unable to undo the Bureau's system of what one observer called "institutionalized corruption." Commissioner Dole directed thirteen regional superintendents who in turn supervised Indian agents working at the various tribal reservations, ostensibly responding to Native Americans' concerns. These agents also disbursed funds from annuities as specified in the federal government's treaties with Indian nations. These funds became an irresistible magnet for corrupt officials and entrepreneurs intent upon separating Native Americans from their treaty monies.

A prominent eastern reformer blasted the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a bureaucracy based on a "falsehood," the idea of dealing with Indians as independent nations with whom treaties could be made. It undermined tribal government, leaving chiefs as "the pliant tools of traders and agents powerful for mischief, but powerless for good." Reservations became dangerous places devoid of law and order. Whites' fraudulent claims drained tribal annuities. This system threw "the weight of official influence on the side of savage life."2

Some white men filed claims with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, asking for reimbursement for Indians' destruction of their property or other losses. Many Congressmen representing states in which Indians resided customarily intervened in the process to expedite payments to their constituents and friends. While some claims were undoubtedly legitimate, pervasive fraud documented the system. White men's claims against Indians were usually assumed to be valid. But in spite of the fact that the Bureau had been set up to serve them, Native Americans had no machinery for processing their claims against whites.3

White contractors also supplied now-dependent reservation dwellers with foodstuffs, clothing and other necessary goods. Here fraud came out in the open, as politically protected contractors submitted outlandish bids for the supply of provisions and construction of facilities. In this process Congressmen and other government officials became aware of upcoming construction and encouraged their political friends to submit bids for the available funds.

In one well known incident the contractor R.S. Stevens built structures for two Indian agencies in Kansas at a price of $179,000. An observer told Lincoln "The contract as originally made is a gross fraud. The buildings themselves are a fraud. Stevens is a fraud."4

Indian traders, licensed by the government, sold food and other goods to Indians on the reservation. Government licensing, originally intended to put down unscrupulous business practices, in fact provided some traders with monopolies on their reservations. These traders charged Indians unreasonable prices for basic goods and practiced dishonest bookkeeping, seeming to keep tribesmen in perpetual debt. Thus corrupt traders claimed all of the monies due to the tribes for food and supplies. Contractors also stole goods in transit. When Sioux Indians were removed from Minnesota in 1862, one missionary reported that only fifty out a promised one hundred tons of freight had ever arrived at their new homes.5

Traders usually worked with Indian agents, who approved their contracts. Agents' salaries were relatively meager, but their positions afforded an opportunity to collect large sums of illicit money. Many agents demanded kickbacks and bribes from the traders they supervised. In 1863 one agent told Lincoln that so many people wanted these jobs became shrewd agents could "in four years lay up a fortune more than your Excellency's salary." Another observer told Lincoln how these positions were used "to plunder both the Indians and the government."6

Commissioner Dole knew that his agents and their traders and contractors were corrupt. In vain he sought "honest and capable superintendents and agents who will be satisfied with their salaries for their services instead of wishing to double them by speculations off the Indians they are employed to protect."7 But the Lincoln administration failed to right the mess in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The troubled system rewarded corruption with wealth and attacked whistle-blowers.

In 1862 William Rector, an Oregon superintendent, charged agents under his supervision with kickbacks, false reports, speculation with government funds, and "gross carelessness and wilful neglect of duty." By the next year Oregon's Congressional delegation pressured the Secretary of the Interior, who supervised the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to fire him. Advised by the Secretary of the situation, Lincoln refused to give in to the demands. But the Oregonians threatened the president with electoral ruin: "You will have cause to remember with regret your official action toward the actual and hard working Republicans of this state." Apparently Republican party regulars and appointees regarded Indian annuity funds as their rightful reward for faithful political service.8

Eventually individuals came forward to charge Commissioner Dole himself of fraud and other improprieties. Cole appointed a cousin and brother to choice positions in the Bureau, and reportedly speculated in Indian lands. One investigator testified that he had uncovered a scheme in which a corrupt Indian agent kicked ten thousand dollars back to the Commissioner himself.

Eventually President Lincoln's lone experience with Native Americans came full circle to symbolize the corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1832 Lincoln had enlisted in the Illinois militia in order to remove the Sac and Fox Indians from their ancestral lands in northern Illinois and Wisconsin. At the end of the one-sided conflict, the Indians had removed to Iowa, only to be pushed southward into Kansas. In 1864 Sac and Fox tribesmen were forced off their lands in order to make way for further white settlement. These Kansas lands were purchased by Commissioner Dole, Secretary of the Interior John Usher , Comptroller of the Currency Hugh McCullough, and Lincoln's personal secretary John Nicolay.

In 1863 leaders from several major Indian tribes visited President Lincoln at the White House. The men discussed the differences between Indian and American cosmologies, or views of the universe. Lincoln explained that most white Americans believed that "this world is a great, round ball." An invited professor lectured the assembled leaders further on the subject.

Lincoln then continued with a discussion of the relations between Indians and white Americans. Americans, he suggested, were prosperous because they relied upon farming rather than the hunting of wild game, as the tribes did. He also suggested that whites, despite the Civil War then raging, were a less violent people than Native Americans, and thus less likely to destroy themselves and their society. Ultimately, Lincoln informed the Indian leaders that they would never attain the prosperity of the white race unless they turned to farming as a way of life.

Lincoln's vision of America informed the process of Indian removal that had begun with the first white settlement of America. The early Puritans had defined Native Americans as savages, somehow inhuman and undeserving of the rights accorded white men. Nineteenth century whites often observed that maltreatment at the hands of whites only made the Indians' condition worse. One argued that "It is apparent to all acquainted with Indians that they are incompetent to manage their own business or to protect their rights in their intercourse with the white race."9 Many whites thus clothed their baser instincts in reform garb by arguing that Indians should be removed from their lands in order to get them away from the harmful effects of white society.

Lincoln's belief that Indians should forsake their familiar ways of life and take up farming proved problematic however. When he signed the Homestead Bill into law in 1862, the president effectively opened the entire West, which housed numerous Indian Reservations, to white settlements. Wherever Native Americans inhabited fertile farmland, white settlers demanded it for themselves.

Farmer plowing the prarie.

In 1862 thousands of white settlers descended upon the Nez Perce reservation in the Oregon territory. Worried Senators suggested removing the Native Americans for their own protection. William Pitt Fessenden, Senator from Maine, wondered why. He asked why law-breaking whites were not restrained by law enforcement officials. The Senators were dumbfounded at the prospect of using force against whites on behalf of Native Americans. Fessenden concluded that typically the law and public opinion supported a property holder against marauders, "But when the possessor happens to be an Indian, the question is changed altogether; the law of God, the higher law… requires that the white man should steal from the Indian; and if he cannot do it in any other way, he is to cut his throat; and if he is not strong enough to do this, the Government of the United States is to help him!" Fessenden questioned the philosophy behind Indian removal, that the new lands would belong to the tribes forever. "Forever," he replied, in fact meant "until the white people want it."10

For many other Native Americans, the Civil War presented an opportunity to go back on the offensive and seize lands taken by white settlers or secure lands under threat. With the majority of the United States Army's attention focused upon the conflict in the East, western Indians especially became more active.

U.S. troops in the fought over eighty engagements with Native Americans in the West during the war years. In August 1862, hostilities broke out between the Sioux nation in Minnesota and white settlers, claiming the lives of over 400 white settlers. The United States Army captured over 1,500 Indian prisoners, including 1,000 women and children. Federal authorities convened a military commission to try Indians accused of atrocities, and sentenced 303 Indians to hang.

President Abraham Lincoln objected to what he viewed as wholesale slaughter. He wired the commanding officer to stay the executions and forward the "full and complete record of each conviction." He also ordered that any material that would discriminate the most guilty from the least be included with the trial transcripts.

Lincoln and Justice Department officials reviewed every case. Military leaders and the Minnesota politicians warned Lincoln that anything less than large-scale hangings would result in widespread white outrage and more violence against the Indians. After review, the president pardoned 265 of the 303 condemned Indians, approving a total of 38 executions.

Western conflicts with Indians brought out the worst in white Americans. On November 29, 1864, Col. John M. Chivington led Colorado troops on a dawn attack against an encampment of Arapaho and Cheyenne led by Black Kettle. Black Kettle and his followers were the remnants of a Cheyenne nation largely defeated by white forces. Black Kettle, a self-described friend to the whites, was a moderate among Indians who advocated conciliation of white Americans. He had visited Lincoln in the White House, and the President had presented him with a large flag.

In late 1864 Black Kettle and other chiefs met with Colorado officials in Denver for peace talks. Governor Evans had recently gone to great lengths to persuade the War Department to send valuable troops to the state to address the deadly attacks of persistent Cheyenne "Dog Warriors," but by the time the troops arrived, the depredations had largely ceased. Evans now faced the prospect of not sending the valuable troops to fight Indians, which invited discredit in Washington. It would appear that the Governor had over-reacted to a minor problem and wasted federal troops in wartime. Thus the regiment set out in search of Indians.11

On the day that Black Kettle and the other chiefs arrived in Denver for peace talks, Col. Chivington received a telegram from his superior officer stating "I want no peace till the Indians suffer more...No peace must be made without my directions." Unaware of Chivington's directions, Black Kettle and his band concluded the talks, then retired to a camp near Sand Creek, Colorado, where they had been promised the protection of the troops at the nearby Fort Lyon.12

But Chivington, with 900 volunteer militiamen, attacked the camp of some five hundred or more Arapaho and Cheyenne, killing women and children as well as warriors. A congressional investigation later found the attack to be a "foul and dastardly masacre which would have disgraced the veriest savage among those who were the victims," but no white official or soldier was ever tried for official misconduct. Twenty years later Chivington remained a hero in Colorado and professed no regrets.13

Ironically, nearly 3,600 Native Americans served in the Union Army during the war. One, Colonel Ely Parker, served as an aide to General U. S. Grant, and was present at Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House. Available Confederate records do not provide a count of Native Americans in service. But Brigadier General Chief Stand Watie, a three-quarter blood Cherokee, became a major figure in the rebel war effort. As one of the signers of a treaty removing the Cherokee from their home in Georgia to what was then the Oklahoma territory Watie became the leader of a minority party in the Cherokee nation. At the outbreak of the Civil War, this minority aligned itself with the Confederacy, while their rivals embrace the Union

Watie organized the First Cherokee Mounted Rifles, which fought at Wilson's Creek, Elkhorn, and in numerous skirmishes along the border with Indian Territory. The Cherokee became known for their effective cavalry work and guerilla tactics, but showed little affinity for textbook military procedure and strategy.

In the years following the Civil War Native Americans of the Far West fought the last and bloodiest of America's Indian Wars in a vain attempt to protect their tribal lands from white settlement. Their effort reached its high-water mark on June 25, 1876 in the Battle of Little Bighorn, at which a combined force of Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho and eradicated Col. George A. Custer's Seventh U.S. Cavalry regiment.

But the western tribes' success proved short-lived, and they soon found themselves under the control of the federal government's Bureau of Indian Affairs and subject to a coordinated campaign to Americanize Indian children in a series of white-run schools.

Browse primary source materials for the theme "Native American Relations"

  • 1. David A. Nichols, Lincoln and the Indians (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1978) 7.
  • 2. Nichols 7.
  • 3. Nichols 11.
  • 4. Nichols 12.
  • 5. Nichols 13.
  • 6. Nichols 15.
  • 7. Nichols 16.
  • 8. Nichols 19-20.
  • 9. Nichols 179.
  • 10. Nichols 189-190.
  • 11. Stan Hoig, The Sand Creek Massacre (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961) 112.
  • 12. Hoig 112.
  • 13. Hoig 168, 176.