This is the 14th in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.
The 14th president of the United States, Pierce is credited with initiating the first discussions about purchasing Alaska, an arctic territory twice the size of Texas. He also sent ambassadors to negotiate with Hawaii and Cuba as part of his conviction that acquiring new territory was necessary to boost national security.
“The policy of my administration will not be controlled by any timid forebodings of evil from expansion,” Pierce said during his inauguration speech. “Indeed, it is not to be disguised that our attitude as a nation and our position on the globe render the acquisition of certain possessions not without our jurisdiction eminently important for our protection, if not in the future essential for the preservation of the rights of commerce and the peace of the world.”
Although Pierce failed to acquire any of the three territories he wanted, he did expand the borders of the United States. In April 1854, he signed a treaty with Mexico acquiring the Gadsden Purchase, a 30,000-square-mile strip of land in present-day Arizona and New Mexico. The purchase determined the southern border of the continental United States.
Also in 1854, Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, organizing the Kansas and Nebraska territories—comprising parts of present-day Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming—and opening them to white settlers. The bill paved the way for a transcontinental railroad joining Chicago with California.
The biggest obstacle to the railroad, however, was more than 10,000 members of the Kickapoo, Delaware, Sac and Fox, Shawnee, Potawatomi, Kansas, Ottawa, Wyandot and Osage tribes. These residents had rights to the land guaranteed by treaties, yet the federal government was already chipping away at them.
In the decade before the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed, Congress appropriated thousands of dollars to pay for railroad surveys and liquidate Indian titles to the land. Meanwhile, a triumvirate of politicians, railroad companies and land spectators formed the Indian Ring, a “union of dishonor that bought off congressmen, bilked the public purse and expropriated Indian homelands,” Clifford Trafzer wrote in his 2009 book “American Indians/American Presidents.”
Indian agents forged blatantly corrupt deals, negotiating dozens of treaties with eastern tribes that had already been relocated to Kansas. The new treaties removed them a second time, and additional treaties forced other tribes to give up lands to make room for them.
Between 1854 and 1871, the Indian Ring used “threats, bribes and promises to force Native people to cede thousands of acres of land, ushering in a second era of Indian removal in which the government forcibly relocated all but a handful of Indian bands from eastern Kansas, opening the territory for railroad development and white settlement,” Trafzer wrote.
“The settlers on the frontier have suffered much from the incursions of predatory bands,” he said. “The recurrence of such scenes can only be prevented by teaching these wild tribes the power of and their responsibility to the United States.”
Born in New Hampshire in 1804, Pierce went to law school before getting involved in politics. A member of the Democratic Party and a steadfast supporter of Andrew Jackson, Pierce served as speaker of the state legislature and in both chambers of Congress. He also earned the rank of brigadier general during the Mexican-American War before running for president in 1852. He served one term, from 1853 to 1857.
Pierce inherited a country on the brink of civil war. His greatest tension came from the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the slavery ban in Kansas and sparked violence between abolitionists and pro-slavery opponents. The situation, known as “Bleeding Kansas,” propelled the nation closer to war and cost Pierce the Democratic nomination in 1856.
But even as civil war threatened the nation, Pierce was eying other territories. Between 1852 and 1856, government agents negotiated 52 treaties with tribes in the trans-Mississippi West, acquiring more than 170 million acres of Indian homelands in present-day Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Texas and Oklahoma. In the Pacific Northwest in 1855, agents held treaty councils with the Cayuse, Umatilla, Yakima, Walla Walla and Nez Perce Indians, urging them to relinquish their land.
Joel Palmer, superintendent of Indian Affairs in Oregon, told the Indians that the whites and their railroads were unstoppable. “Can you prevent the wind from blowing? Can you prevent the rain from falling? Can you prevent the whites from coming? You are answered No!” he said.
Yakima chief Ou-hi responded, “Shall I give the lands that are part of my body and leave myself poor and destitute? Shall I say that I will give you my land? I cannot say so. I am afraid of the Great Spirit.”
Indian leaders eventually signed three treaties, ceding more than 60,000 square miles for approximately three cents per acre. When they realized they had been tricked into giving up their lands, Natives attacked white settlers and miners, triggering the Yakima War, a bloody three-year skirmish with the United States.
Led by Maj. Gabriel L. Rains, who promised that he would “war forever, until not a Yakima breathes in the land he calls his own,” the army massacred Native villages and killed Chief Peo-Peo-Mox-Mox. Soldiers dismembered his body, removing his eyes, ears and hands, and cut his body into pieces to be used as souvenirs displayed in Oregon towns. The Yakima War raged until 1858.
Pierce left office in 1857 and was succeeded by James Buchanan. He died in 1869 at age 64.