University of Rochester Library Bulletin: An Unknown Letter from Lewis H. Morgan to Abraham Lincoln

Volume VI · Winter 1951 · Number 2
An Unknown Letter from Lewis H. Morgan to Abraham Lincoln

While searching through the files of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., for new material pertaining to the life of the great American anthropologist, Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-81), a hitherto unknown but important letter of Morgan to President Lincoln was discovered. Since it is the only known communication from Morgan to Lincoln and since it expresses clearly Morgan's practical ideas on how to solve the Indian "problem" the letter is now being published.

Morgan's lifelong interest in the American Indians had not been merely a scientific one. He always appreciated their human qualities, understood their problems as Indians, and when they were unjustly treated or attacked he came out in their defense. This letter is another expression of Morgan's concern over the welfare of the Indian whom he considered "as sound headed as any species of man on earth."

The occasion for writing this letter was President Lincoln's annual message which was delivered to Congress in 1862. In it he recommended, among many other things, a reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The long message, filling over sixteen closely printed pages of text, actually contained only two paragraphs dealing with Indian affairs. They threw attention to "difficulties with the eastern Indians in the progress of the Civil War." The Indians south of Kansas had renounced their allegiance to the United States Government and made treaties with the South, while the Sioux Indians of Minnesota had unexpectedly attacked whole outposts and massacred over eight hundred settlers.

Feeling that this attitude of the Indians was due to their maltreatment by the United States Government, Lincoln concluded, "I submit for our especial consideration whether our Indian system shall not be remodeled. Many wise and good men have impressed me with the belief that this can be profitably done."

Lincoln's message was delivered December first. As soon as Morgan had read it, he hastily penned his answer on December third. The letter probably never reached Lincoln. As the appended official note showed, it was apparently just filed away among the records of the Secretary of the Interior -- and forgotten. No wonder, for in it Morgan, in his clear and forceful style, made a scathing attack on the treatment of the Indians by the United States Government, a treatment which undoubtedly had helped to produce the open revolts mentioned by Lincoln.

Morgan demonstrated an intimate knowledge of the administrative failure attendant upon the Indian question. He specifically pointed to the loose decentralization of the politically appointed agencies, which provided ample loopholes for corruption. He also showed that it had become the practice for the Indian agent to be the partner of the licensed trader, who further exploited the Indian. That is why he favored placing the handling of Indian affairs in the hands of the Army which was less open to corruption.

But Morgan never made a criticism without proposing a positive solution. Thus he offered a six-point program to salvage the Indians, whose land had been plundered and who were being politically and economically exploited. Of these points the most significant was the one suggesting the creation of two Indian territories, each to have the status of a State of the Union, in which the Indians were to develop their own grazing economy. They could then trade their products with those of the other states, thus becoming an integral part of the country. Here Morgan shows his profound awareness of the need of making the Indian economically productive instead of having him remain a liability, aggravated by disinterested sinecures. Moreover he recognized the need of giving the Indians a sense of political security by according them the right of self-govemment.

Notwithstanding certain changes which have taken place on the Indian question in America, the Morgan letter, written some ninety years ago, has a modern flavor, for the Indian on his reservation is still treated with paternal condescension by the government. He remains economically insecure, and politically he retains the status of a second-class citizen. It is still costing the government a great deal of money to administer a bad plan, the core of which Morgan criticized in 1862. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, still under the Department of the Interior, remains a repository for political sinecures; the Indian and his culture is still isolated from the main stream of current American political, cultural, and economic life. Even today Morgan's proposals could, with modifications, become the core of a plan to restore the indigenous American to the active status of a productive American citizen.

Rochester, New York, Dec. 3, 1862 
To the Hon Abraham Lincoln 
President of the United States

Dear Sir:

I desire to thank you for the recommendation, contained in your message, of a reorganization of the Indian Bureau. No work is more needed. Within the last five years I have visited all of the emigrant Bands in Kansas and Nebraska, with two or three exceptions; several of the native nations in Nebraska and Dakota as far up the Missouri as the Blackfoot Country. And also the Indian Bands in this state, in Canada, on Lake Superior in Wisconsin, and some of those in the Hudson's Bay Territory. When I returned from the Upper Missouri in July last, it was with the full intention of embodying in a memorial to you the results of my observations upon the present system of Indian management, and its results; but was dissuaded from it by the distracted condition of the country and the fear that you would find no time to attend to suggestions upon this subject from a private citizen.

I have no hesitation in saying that the present system is a total failure, a failure so complete as to be disgraceful to the government. Its defects are principally in the agency and annuity systems; and the remedy must be found in reorganizing both, and remodeling the Indian Bureau itself.

Without pretending to be in any sense qualified to suggest adequate remedies, I will venture, briefly, to name such as have appeared to me to be the best. First: the Indian Bureau should be detached from the Interior Department; and restored to that of War. At the same time every principal clerk now in it should be removed. The existing abuses are just as well known to them, as they are throughout the Indian Country, and they are believed, whether right or wrong, to be, in various ways, parties to them. Second: the Indian agencies should be consolidated. There are now three or four times too many of them. Third: The payment of money annuities, should in all cases, be made by Government paymasters, to be sent out for the purpose, and upon census rolls previously verified and filed at Washington; and never by the agent as now, and upon rolls which do not reach the Indian Bureau until after the annuities are paid. Fourth: Licensed Traders should be abolished. Fifth: The appropriations for Indian Agricultural Farms should be discontinued. They are now chiefly used by the agents to plunder both the Indians and the Government. Lastly: Territory sufficient to form two Indian states should be set apart by Congress; one to be taken from the South part of Dakota, and the opposite part of Nebraska; and the other from the New York Indian Lands in Kansas, & the Osage Lands in the Indian Territory adjacent. This should be done with a view to the consolidation of the civilized emigrant Bands, and ultimately of the wild tribes in a permanent society, in two nations, under government protection and encouragement. Although it will be an experiment it is well worthy of the efforts of the government.

Upon each of these propositions I will say as much as I think you will have patience to read.

First: Restoration of the Indian Bureau to the War Department. Our direct intercourse with the Indians can be most successfully conducted by Army officers. They alone command the respect of the Indians. Our military posts in the far west have been located with reference to the military control of the Indians, and they are accustomed to it. The substitution of agents never satisfied these where this change was made. The commissary department is the proper one to purchase the Indian annuity goods. There are other reasons, but the chief one is, that military control is the most successful as well as the most acceptable to the Indian, and should be restored as far as it is practicable.

Second: Consolidation of Agencies. In the first place there is but little for an agent to do for a single Band; and it is a simple imposition to claim that he is needed as an actual resident upon the reservation. For example, one agent located at a convenient point, could transact, with ease, all the business of the Kekapoos, Iowas, and Otoes, where there are now three. -- One could do the same for the Delawares, Shawnees, Wyandotts, and Potowattomies, where there are now three, or four. -- One would answer for the Miamis, and the four small bands near them, the Chippewas, Otawas, and Sawks and Foxes; where there are now three; and so in many other cases two or more could be consolidated into one. The agent, by monthly visits, and by being accessible to delegations could give entire satisfaction to all within his agency. To be rid of three fourths or even one half of these agents would be great gain, to say nothing of the proper economy of the act.

In the next place, wherever it is practicable, as in the case of the Upper Platte Indians (Arapahos, Sheyenes, etc.), the agency should be abolished, and these nations be turned over to the commandant of the nearest military post.

I may say here that two new posts are greatly needed on the Upper Missouri; one somewhere above the Yellowstone, and one in the upper part of the region occupied by the Dakotas. This would dispense with two more agencies.

Third: The mode of paying Indian annuities.

This is a most important reform. You must be aware that shameful, persistent and systematic frauds have been practised for years in these payments; and as long as the agents are allowed to make the payments, it cannot be prevented. The control of the money, also, gives the agent too much power over the Indians, and hushes their complaints; it is also unwise to subject these agents to unnecessary temptation. Annuities ought not to be paid in money, except in the cases of a few of the more advanced Bands, but always in goods. Of the two, I think it would be better for the Indian, if his money annuity were sunk in the bottom of the sea. They know nothing of the value or use of money, and rarely ever secure it. It goes, with the exceptions named, to the licensed Trader to pay for goods previously sold; and is taken by him from the table on which the agent delivers it to the Indian, without any accounting or settling whatever. The money annuities so far as you have the power, should be paid in goods; and these should not be delivered at one time, as now, but distributed quarterly. In truth each agent should be a factor, as well as an agent; and a plan should be devised to distribute these goods at different times, when most needed, and when they will do the most good. In the remaining cases where they must be paid in money, it should be done by a Government paymaster sent out for the purpose. It would require but little time to pay all the cash annuities; and by this means, the fraudulent census, so common in past years, will be rendered impossible. If the identical Indian is not present to secure his money, it remains in the Treasury. This one remedy would strike at the root of much of the inequity.

Fourth: Licensed Traders.

You would be nauseated if I should narrate to you the facts which I have gathered, at different times, bearing upon the uses made of the licensed traders by the agents to secure, in the shape of profits, a good share of these annuities. Many of them are no doubt exaggerated, and some untrue, but if a small part of them is true, the wrong ought not to be tolerated for a moment. It is believed that the Trader is, in all cases, a partner of the Agent. He is usually a near relative; and it is an undoubted fact that from one half to nine tenths of the cash annuities goes, on the day of the payment, into the hands of the trader. With the more advanced Bands, as the Delawares, such is not now the case; they had their experience in this direction in former years. The remedy for this abuse is to abolish the office; and to substitute a quarterly distribution of goods direct to the Indian; and where they will not consent to accept goods, make the cash payments quarterly through a paymaster.

Fifth: Agricultural Farms

I intended, before this, to have examined fully the history of these farms, as a plan to benefit the Indian, but have not. They originated in good intentions, but have failed. Their increase to the present scale was not probably originally contemplated. The annual appropriations, for some of them, is now $20,000. This I think is the amount to the Pawnee and Yankton Farms. As now managed the primary object appears to be, to place in the hands of the agents the largest possible amount of money to be squandered. I have been on some of these farms, for instance the Yankton. This Band of the Dakotas know nothing of the use of money. The agent in June last was working 50 Indians on this farm of a thousand or more acres at 50 cents each, per day, and intended to increase the number to 100. At this rate the labor expenditure would be large and extremely profitable to somebody, as the men were paid in goods at the store of the licensed trader, where it is barely possible both prices and accounts run at random. At all events you see here a system of really irresponsible expenditure. -- We are told the Indians need the crops to keep them from starvation; and actually receive them for this most humane object. Not having been actually present at the gathering and distribution of these crops I know nothing concerning it. --

I think, however, a small part of this money could be used judi­ciously to keep a stock of working oxen upon each Reservation, to be owned by the Government, with men to plough a certain amount of land for such families, residing on the reservation, as would then cultivate it; and in purchasing suitable farming implements.

Lastly: New Indian States.

I will not take your time to present any extended remarks upon this important proposition. The time is coming, if it has not now arrived, when the attempt must be made to save a portion of the Indian Family. I have not reflected upon this project, in all of its bearings; but I think some general plan can be adopted with great promise of success. You are aware that the prairie Indians have become expert horsemen, as well as successful tenders and breeders of this animal. They have now the requisite experience and qualifications to become equally successful herdsmen of cattle on our vast prairies, if they could be made to understand, that they could thus not only provide their own meat, upon which they chiefly, and in some instances entirely subsist, but by sending their surplus to the general markets of the country, they could with great ease provide for all their other wants. By this single instrumentality, as herdsmen and raisers of cattle, they could be made a prosperous pastoral people. A more fatal mistake was never made than to suppose the Indian deficient in brains. He is as sound headed as any species of man on the earth. His notions of the objects and ends of life are different from ours. This is the principal fact we have occasion to recognize, and we must deal with him accordingly.

Having such a low opinion of our present system of Indian manage­ment, I ought to add, that the blacksmith shop, and the school, should be preserved; and they are the only two features, so far as my knowledge extends, which are worth retaining.

I have written this letter too hurriedly for the importance of the questions considered, but from a sense of duty; and I sincerely hope some of the suggestions presented will be found worthy of your attention

Yours Respectfully

Lewis H. Morgan