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Media Resource: Lincoln and Native American Policy

By David J. Kent

Washington D.C.

Friday, May 14, 2021

The San Francisco School Board and the Chicago Statue Commission independently acted to reexamine the appropriateness of Abraham Lincoln school naming and statues, respectively, in their jurisdictions. One of the reasons offered for questioning why we honor Lincoln is his record on Native American populations. This resource paper provides background information.

To understand Lincoln’s role, we need to consider the existing Indian system in place when Lincoln took office. It begins when Europeans first set foot on this continent; they treated the native populations as “savages’ to be dominated—or eliminated. These racist beliefs and practices were codified under President Andrew Jackson when he signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which directed southern Indian populations be pushed westward to free up arable land for cotton plantation owners. The most devastating example of this is known as the Trail of Tears, in which as many as 100,000 Indians from the “Five Civilized Tribes” were forcibly relocated to what is now Oklahoma, with thousands dying along the way. The “Five Civilized Tribes,” so-called because they had adopted practices common to white people, including the enslavement of black people, were the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek (Muscogee), and Seminole. They were moved to what is now most of Oklahoma, then called Indian Territory. Among them were about 8,000 enslaved black men, women, and children. Similar relocations occurred over the next thirty years with other tribes in other parts of the country.

This Indian system was promulgated via a series of treaties between the federal government and Native American tribes in which the tribes gave up land in return for food, clothing, gold, and protection against their enemies (both other tribes and white settlers). Payments were provided by the government to Indian agents responsible for dissemination to the tribes, with local traders providing the food and supplies. Effectively, Indians became wards of the state. Unfortunately, this system was rife with corruption from the beginning. Agents were put in place under the patronage system by their local congressmen, and often colluded with traders to cheat Indians out of their federal subsidies, which led to widespread poverty and hardship. There had been little government interest in changing the system because of the long-standing racism of the white population and the benefits the patronage system afforded to the very congressmen who would need to reform the system.

This is the system that Lincoln inherited. It is accurate to say that Lincoln did little to change the system that had been in place for so long. This is not surprising given that seven states had seceded before his inauguration, with four more soon following suit. On his first day in office, Lincoln was informed of the situation at the remaining federal forts in the South, including Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. With the Confederacy attacking that fort a few weeks after Lincoln’s inauguration, the Civil War began.

Emancipation of enslaved African Americans was a critical element in winning the war and preserving the Union. Slavery had been the focal crisis for decades leading to secession. Whereas a significant percentage of the country were actively working to end slavery, there was no similar public support for reforming the ongoing Indian system. In fact, most white Americans concurred with the forced removal and decimation of native populations as a way to pave the way for whites to take Indian lands as we moved westward.

Which gets us to the latter half of 1862. Frustrated with the constant disrespect and outrageous cheating by agents, traders, and the system itself, in August a band of Dakota Indians led by Little Crow began an uprising in which they attacked and killed hundreds of white settlers in Minnesota. More than 800 settlers were killed over several weeks before U.S. Army retaliation killed many Dakota, and hundreds more surrendered or were captured. They were tried under military tribunals and 303 Dakota were sentenced to be executed for participating in massacres against whites. By law, any death sentences issued by military commissions must be signed off on by the president. Whereas most previous presidents likely would have rubber-stamped such sentences, Lincoln ordered all of the case materials to be sent to him for review. Over several weeks he and a small team reviewed all 303 case files. Lincoln discovered that many of the trials were inadequate and the standard for being found guilty of murder was simply participating in battles. Lincoln decided that a stricter standard of law was required and commuted the sentences of 265 Dakota, approving only those sentences where the trial record adequately demonstrated the remaining 38 were guilty of participating in massacres, rape, or murder. Those sentences were carried out in December of 1862 in what has been called the “largest mass execution in U.S. history.” Less publicized is that the reprieves to the 265 men constitutes the largest mass clemency of people sentenced to death in U.S. history. Lincoln’s humanitarian instincts won out over expediency.

Two other incidents are mentioned with respect to Lincoln’s Indian policy, although he played no significant role in either case. Following long-held removal policy, Navajo Indians were forced to relocate across the width of New Mexico to Bosque Redondo in what has become known as the “Long Walk of the Navajo.” The first group began their journey in August 1864, but more than 50 groups were relocated from that time until the end of 1866, a year-and-a-half after Lincoln’s assassination. In all, about 9,000 Navajo were relocated, with perhaps 200 dying during transit. The second incident occurred on November 29, 1864 in Colorado. Local military leaders attacked and destroyed a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, killing and mutilating between 70 and 500 (most likely 100-150) people, two-thirds of whom were women and children. The Sand Creek Massacre was so shocking that even the U.S. Army and federal government acknowledged it as an unprovoked massacre by American troops. It led to a military investigation and congressional debate about reforming the Indian system, although no substantive changes were made at that time.

Given the long-standing Indian system policy, the lack of public or congressional interest in changing it, and the all-consuming focus on winning a Civil War, it would be unreasonable to expect Lincoln to do much to reform the existing system.

However, Lincoln did become aware that reform was necessary. In his first annual message to Congress in December 1861, Lincoln expressed concern that the Confederate insurrection was affecting Indian relations, and in fact many argued that the Confederacy was instigating uprisings to pull U.S. Army troops away from the military front. In his 1862 annual message, Lincoln suggested that Congress should consider remodeling the Indian system. He reiterated this suggestion in his 1863 and 1864 annual messages, but Congress took no action. Lincoln also promised Episcopalian Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple, one of the few advocates for the sentenced Dakota, that he would prioritize reform of the Indian system in his second term, after the Civil War had ended.

Lincoln’s adherence to a stricter standard with the Dakota 38 was despite political and military considerations that would have provided support to carrying out the executions for all those sentenced. Most white Minnesota settlers believed that all of the original 303 should be executed, and in fact, that all Dakota villages be destroyed and all Dakota be killed or forced out of the state. Lincoln was warned that going against this rabid public sentiment and political expediency, by insisting on due process and fairness, he would lose votes for Republicans in the next election, which indeed occurred. Demonstrating his humanitarian and legal values, Lincoln told Minnesota Governor Ramsey that he “could not afford to hang men for votes.”

It is true that Lincoln failed to reform a long-standing and inherently corrupt system that had been treating Native American populations abhorrently for decades, a system reflecting the deep-seated racism of the white majority. Reforming the system would require a fundamental change in public attitude as well as convincing Congress to change a system that they found politically beneficial. Lincoln simply replacing a few corrupt Indian agents would not be sufficient; reform would take a concerted effort that was impossible during the existential threat to the country the Civil War created.

Cheating of the Dakota that led to the uprising, military trials, and subsequent execution of the Dakota 38, as well as the Sand Creek Massacre, Indian removal, and the overall corruption in the Indian system itself, like slavery, remains a blot on our national history. While we in the present all wished Lincoln had done more, no one could have met the impossible expectation of systemic reform during that time period. We honor Lincoln today for all that he did achieve. We cannot dismiss everything Lincoln accomplished because he couldn’t accomplish everything. Rather it is for us the living to rectify the lingering systemic discrimination that continues to impact our Native American citizenry.

This brief overview is by necessity incomplete. For more on the Indian system and Lincoln’s Native American policies during the Civil War, the following sources can be consulted.

Scott W. Berg. 2001. 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of Frontier’s End, Pantheon Books.

Hank H. Cox. 2005. Lincoln and the Sioux Uprising of 1862, Cumberland House Publishing.

David A. Nichols. 1978. Lincoln and the Indians: Civil War Policy and Politics, University of Missouri Press.

Gustav Niebuhr. 2014. Lincoln’s Bishop: A President, A Priest, and the Fate of 300 Dakota Sioux Warriors, HarperOne.

[Photo of annual Mankato, MN reconciliation ride]

This paper is based on a presentation by David J. Kent given on April 13, 2021 as part of a panel addressing the Chicago Statue Commission’s reevaluation of Lincoln statues. The full panel discussion can be seen here:


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