This is the 19th 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.
Rutherford B. Hayes’ four years in the White House, from 1877 to 1881, marked a distinct change in federal Indian policy, as the government moved away from forced removal of Indians to reservations and toward a system that allotted land to individuals.
Billed as a solution to the government’s insatiable hunger for land, Hayes’ policies reduced the size of reservations and called for acculturation of Indians into Western society. His strategies, which came amid ongoing conflicts with Indian nations, also included approval of the first Indian boarding school.
“Hayes started out his term believing in the reservation system, then he realized that Natives weren’t going to stay on reservations and white settlers wouldn’t stay off their land,” said Nan Card, curator of manuscripts for the Hayes Presidential Library and Museum. “He changed his policy and it became one that was based on land ownership, citizenship and education. Native Americans would be assimilated into the mainstream of American life.”
Born in Ohio in 1822, Hayes was a Harvard-educated attorney and Civil War hero wounded in battle four times. He served in Ohio’s House of Representatives and as Ohio governor before running for president in 1876.
A member of the Republican Party, Hayes was elected in a controversial race settled by a special electoral commission. The 19th president of the United States, Hayes served one term, and was the first sitting president to visit the west coast.
Hayes inherited the Indian Peace Policy, a product of his predecessor, Ulysses S. Grant. The policy, designed to reform the corrupt Indian Bureau, installed rigorous agricultural training on reservations and established schools and churches that converted Indians into Christian citizens.
In his second message to Congress, in December 1878, Hayes pledged to “purify” the Indian Bureau and establish “just and humane” Indian policies that would preserve peace. His “ultimate solution to what is called the Indian problem,” however, was to “curb the unruly spirit of the savage Indian” and train them to be agriculturists or herdsmen.
“It may be impossible to raise them fully up to the level of the white population of the United States; but we should not forget that they are the aborigines of the country, and called the soil their own on which our people have grown rich, powerful, and happy,” Hayes told Congress. “We owe it to them as a moral duty to help them in attaining at least that degree of civilization which they may be able to reach.”
In the same speech, Hayes called for the organization of “mounted Indian auxiliaries,” or special troops of young Native men who, under control of the Army, kept Indians on their reservations.
During his four years in office, Hayes issued several executive orders creating new reservations and reducing the size of existing reservations. The most drastic was the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, which was cut from 7.8 million acres to 1.2 million.
Hayes’ actions came as Indian nations, fed up with forced removal and encroachment of white settlers, fought back. These battles included the Nez Perce War in 1877, the Bannock War in 1878 and the Ute and White River wars, both in 1879.
By the end of his third year in office, Hayes admitted that he lacked the power to keep Indians on reservations and white settlers off. Despite issuing a proclamation warning people unlawfully settling in Indian Territory that they would be removed by military force, Hayes determined that the reservation system was not working.
“It would be unwise to ignore the fact that a territory so large and so fertile, with a population so sparse and with so great a wealth of unused resources, will be found more exposed to the repetition of such attempts as happened this year when the surrounding states are more densely settled and the westward movement of our population looks still more eagerly for fresh lands to occupy,” he told Congress in December 1879. “The difficulty of maintaining the Indian Territory in its present state will greatly increase, and the Indian tribes inhabiting it would do well to prepare for such a contingency.”
In the same speech, Hayes previewed the allotment system, which would privatize Indian land. Land ownership – and the ability to sell to non-Indian buyers – would benefit the Indians and “relieve the government,” he said.
Hayes also called for the education of Indian youth. In 1878, he supported establishment of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in eastern Pennsylvania. The flagship Indian boarding school, Carlisle was the brainchild of Capt. Richard Henry Pratt, who notoriously plotted to “kill the Indian and save the man.” Carlisle opened in October 1879.
In his third message to Congress, Hayes spoke of the “experiment” of boarding schools where children received “an elementary English education and practical instruction in farming and other useful industries.” Early results from these experiments were “promising,” he said.
Throughout his presidency, Hayes contended with issues surrounding Chief Standing Bear and the Ponca Nation of Nebraska. In early 1877, the Office of Indian Affairs ordered the tribe to move to Oklahoma, a journey that cost about one-quarter of its population.
In March 1879, Standing Bear’s son died, and he began walking back to Nebraska to bury him. Standing Bear was arrested and imprisoned in a case that captured national media attention and American sympathies. The incident sparked an Indian-rights lawsuit and a judge ruled that Native Americans were full persons with rights under the law.
With three months left in office, Hayes commissioned an investigation into the incident. In February 1881, he reported that the Ponca were “grievously wronged” and called for Indians to have the same rights as all Americans.
“Nothing should be left undone to show to the Indians that the Government of the United States regards their rights as equally sacred with those of its citizens,” he said. “The time has come when the policy should be to place the Indians as rapidly as practicable on the same footing with the other permanent inhabitants of our country.”
Hayes left office in March 1881 and was succeeded by James Garfield. He died in 1893 at age 70.