American Expansion

After the American Revolution, the U. S. began to sign treaties with Native groups, identified as Tribes, and increasingly tried to take on a dual role of protector and supervisor with sometimes disastrous results.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Indians still lived in villages where several Native groups, European traders, and mixed-ancestry (Métis) people carried on commercial trading locally and internationally, living together peacefully and intermarrying.

How did Indians live in the mid-19th century?

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The American settlers were not interested in being integrated into this kind of society. They found Indian customs alien, and they were determined to gain control of the land, mineral deposits, and other resources in the area.

The new United States government promoted trade and peaceful relations between Americans and Indians. Officials promised that the Indian tribes would hold the right of possession and use of their lands.

How did Indians use trade goods?

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Federal Indian policy stated that land could only be purchased (with money, supplies, and services) and Indian title extinguished through formal treaties. The groups represented by Indian leaders at the treaty councils became identified by the U.S. as tribes or nations, whose rights the U. S. agreed to protect as a trustee would. But the U. S. government could not prevent settlers from steadily encroaching on Indian land. And sometimes Indian groups sold land occupied by other groups.

This eventually led to military resistance by Indian groups in the early 1790s and again in 1810-13 when Tecumseh organized a political movement designed to prevent further land cessions. His defeat led to the sale, often under coercion, of much of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan during the next two decades. The federal government expected Indians to withdraw or assimilate into American society.

In 1830, Congress passed a law that provided for the removal of all Indian peoples to west of the Mississippi River. The rationale was that by separating the “races” trouble could be prevented. Though the settlers far outnumbered the Indians at this time, the Sauk warrior Black Hawk led a resistance movement in Illinois. Black Hawk was defeated by U.S. troops and their Indian allies. Indian people subsequently chose several strategies. Some agreed to go west to Kansas or Oklahoma, where they had been guaranteed a land base and freedom to live as they chose. Others were force-marched from their homes in what has been called a “trail of tears.”

Where Did They Go?

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A few groups, including the Ojibwas, successfully negotiated for small reservations in their homeland at the time they ceded land. Others fled to Canada.

Some tried to withdraw to underpopulated areas or live unobtrusively among their non-Indian neighbors. In 1862, Dakotas, who were the farthest west, still resided in Minnesota, but lived a life of destitution, in debt to traders and unable to support themselves. After federal officials failed to honor the U. S.’s treaty obligations, some Dakotas attacked neighboring settlers, which led to the federal government’s expulsion of many Indians from Minnesota, including the Ho-Chunk, who had provided troops for the Union during the Civil War.

During the late 19th century, small groups returned from Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma to their homeland in Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, joining Indian communities already there. Some Ho-Chunks obtained homesteads in Wisconsin in 1881 and the federal government guaranteed their title to the land. Some Dakotas returned to Minnesota and eventually received land from the government in the 1880s. Most simply tried to avoid antagonizing the settlers and lived as best they could, hunting and fishing and working for wages.


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In the late 19th century, the U.S. continued to recognize Indian communities on reservations as tribes. The members of several tribes might identify themselves as members of one ethnic group. For example, people ethnically Ojibwa lived on several reservations in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The U.S. dealt administratively with each reservation as a tribe. In its dealings with Indian communities, the government embarked on an aggressive assimilation program with the help of missionaries.

To further the assimilation program, federal officials assigned individually-owned plots of land (allotments) to Indians and “surplus” reservation land went to non-Indians. Although the title to these plots was guaranteed to be held “in trust” for Indians by the federal government so that the land could not be taxed by the surrounding non-Indian communities, Congress reneged on this promise. Educational institutions for Indian children forcibly discouraged Native language and culture practices. Federal officials declared many Indian customs illegal. Nonetheless, Native peoples resisted abandoning their way of life. Well into the 20th century, they both accepted American agricultural technology and continued to hunt, fish, and gather. They incorporated some aspects of Christianity into Native rituals. And they used formal education as a strategy to pursue Indian rights.


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Listen to Ojibwas Explain the Impact of the Boarding School Experience on Families Help

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