This is the 15th 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.
Uniform federal Indian policy was almost nonexistent when James Buchanan took office in 1857.
The country was on the brink of the Civil War, and the federal government had abandoned any pretense of Indian policy, leaving the “Indian system” to the mercy of dishonest and greedy Indian agents who largely earned their positions as rewards for political service. Corruption penetrated the federal government, funneling illegally obtained money to officials at many levels.
As the South threatened to secede from the Union, the only cohesive Indian policy Buchanan entertained was the belief that they needed to be quarantined on reservations, said Jean Baker, a history professor at Goucher College and author of the 2004 biography, “James Buchanan.”
“As settlers moved further west, the idea of assimilating Indians disappeared,” she said. “The treaty was the new vehicle, and this modern construct of sticking the Indians on pieces of land and giving them a little food was the policy that Buchanan supported.”
Born in Pennsylvania in 1791, Buchanan started practicing law in 1812. He enlisted in the Pennsylvania Militia two years later and served as a private during the War of 1812.
Buchanan began his political career in 1814 as a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. He later served in the U.S. House and Senate, as secretary of state under James K. Polk and as minister to Russia and the United Kingdom before running for president in 1856.
A member of the Democratic Party, Buchanan took office at age 65 with a lifetime of political experience under his belt. He served one term, from 1857 to 1861.
It was a term dominated by the dissolution of the nation, but Buchanan also wrestled with conflicts in Kansas, Nebraska and Utah, where new settlements were taking place and where Indians experienced gross injustices.
Preoccupied with the impending war, Buchanan turned a blind eye toward the Indians, who grew increasingly desperate by the year. Traders with exclusive rights to do business with Indians cheated them, and the Senate bought land from starving Indians then dispersed it to white settlers. Left to their own accord, state and territorial governments also took advantage of Indians, often calling on the military for support.
“Settlers were still moving across the West, so Buchanan supported the construction of forts to protect them,” Baker said. “Buchanan was a huge expansionist. He supported taking over huge swaths of land and justified this in the way his generation of policymakers did. He believed in the superiority of the white man, and that the white men used the land in a better way than the Indians did.”
In his inaugural address, Buchanan pointed to the vast public lands reserved for “a hardy and independent race of honest and industrious citizens,” including generations of settlers to come, along with exiles from foreign shores.
“No nation in the tide of time has ever been blessed with so rich and noble an inheritance as we enjoy in the public lands,” he said. “We should never forget that it is our cardinal policy to reserve these lands, as much as may be, for actual settlers.”
Much of the slavery conflict took place in the Kansas Territory, created in 1854 under the Kansas-Nebraska Act. When Kansas petitioned for statehood, residents had to decide by popular sovereignty whether to allow slavery, a battle that presaged the Civil War. Meanwhile, tribes in Kansas were overlooked, Baker said.
“When you look at Kansas, you’re not looking at Indians,” she said. “The focus is on the North and the South. Indians become collateral damage.”
Buchanan oversaw 11 treaties with Indian nations, acquiring millions of acres of land in New York, the Dakotas and Kansas, and sending Indians to live on reservations. In April 1858, the Yankton Sioux ceded 11 million acres in southeastern South Dakota. Chief Struck-by-the-Ree, whose name appears on the treaty, warned his people that they had little choice but to abandon their land.
“The white men are coming in like maggots,” he said. “It is useless to resist them. They are many more than we are. We could not hope to stop them. Many of our brave warriors would be killed, our women and children left in sorrow, and still we would not stop them. We must accept it, get the best terms we can get and try to adopt their ways.”
Indians also became collateral damage in the Utah Territory as the Mormons—led by Territorial Governor Brigham Young—battled the federal government over land ownership, plural marriage and Indian Affairs. The U.S. Army in early 1858 marched through Salt Lake City in the so-called Utah War, which was peaceably negotiated without casualties.
“Mormons were behaving as violently as anyone else,” Baker said. “What Buchanan saw was that Brigham Young was tampering with Indian tribes and exciting their hostile feelings against the United States. Indians became this collateral issue in Buchanan’s fight against the Mormons.”
In his final message to Congress, in December 1860, Buchanan reported that Mormons and Indians had been brought into subjection. “Utah is now comparatively peaceful and quiet, and the military force has been withdrawn, except that portion of it necessary to keep the Indians in check,” he said.
But Buchanan’s decision to send “expensive military expeditions” to “overawe and chastise the more lawless and hostile” Indians proved damaging to the rest of the country.
“He sent his army out West,” Baker said. “The military was still out there to protect white people against Indians, and when the Civil War started, none of the Army was available to fight the South.”
Buchanan left office in 1861 and was succeeded by Abraham Lincoln. He died in 1868 at age 77.