This is the 25th 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.
One of the last major armed conflicts between American Indians and the U.S. Army occurred during William McKinley’s watch.
Nineteen months after McKinley took office as the 25th president of the United States, the Third Infantry chased an Ojibwe man to his reservation on the shores of Leech Lake, a 110-acre body of water in central Minnesota, where the man sought refuge from white laws. Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig, 62, was being transported to Duluth as a witness in a federal bootlegging trial when he escaped, triggering military action to recapture him.
The incident came as relationships deteriorated between the federal government and the Ojibwe, who subsisted on the sale of timber from the reservation. Timber companies, exploiting a loophole in the law that allowed them to take dead pine and pay a fraction of what it was worth, were setting brush fires on the reservation to make the trees appear dead and harvesting the wood on the inside.
Frustrated, Ojibwe leaders at Leech Lake sought redress from the government. In late September 1898, they petitioned McKinley to stop the practice.
“Our people are carrying a heavy burden, and in order that they may not be crushed by it, we humbly petition you to send a commission to investigate the existing troubles here,” they wrote in a letter. “We now have only the pine lands of our reservations for our future subsistence and support, but the manner in which we are being defrauded out of these has alarmed us.”
McKinley did nothing to intervene.
Meanwhile, a U.S. Marshal arrived on the reservation to arrest two men accused of helping Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig escape, but a group of 40 Ojibwe overtook the marshal and set the men free. The marshal returned to his base and requested military assistance to arrest everyone who helped free the men.
On October 5, 1898, an army of 80 soldiers—mostly inexperienced—descended by boat on the eastern shore of Leech Lake. A soldier fired first and a force of 19 Ojibwe responded in a conflict known as the battle of Sugar Point. Six soldiers and one white civilian were killed.
Five days later, Commissioner of Indian Affairs William Jones peacefully counseled with Ojibwe leaders and convinced them to give up the accused men. Jones also condemned “the frequent arrests of Indians on trivial causes, often for no cause at all,” and the practice of transporting Indians 200 miles from home to stand trial, and then “turning them adrift without means to return home.”
In his second message to Congress, in December 1898, McKinley called the conflict an “outbreak of a serious character … which happily has been suppressed.” Twelve Ojibwe men were arrested for their roles in the battle, but in January 1899, McKinley granted all of them full pardons.
McKinley, the last president to serve in the Civil War, was born in Ohio in 1843. Trained as an attorney, McKinley served 14 years in the U.S. Congress and two terms as Ohio governor before being elected as president in 1896. A member of the Republican Party, McKinley served one full term in office, from 1897 to 1901.
McKinley took office as the Dawes Commission, headed by Henry Dawes, was dismantling the Five Civilized Tribes. Established in 1893, the commission was charged with convincing the Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, Seminole and Cherokee to accept individual land allotments and register with the federal Dawes Rolls.
Prior treaty agreements exempted the Five Civilized Tribes from the Dawes Act of 1887, which allowed the President to break up reservation land and reassign it to individual allottees. But the Curtis Act of 1898, whose purpose was to dismember the sovereign status of the Five Civilized Tribes, overturned those treaties and abolished the tribes’ governments, invalidated their laws and dissolved their courts.
More formally known as An Act for the Protection of the People of the Indian Territory, the Curtis Act also extinguished land ownership claims, allowing the President to break apart tribal lands into smaller portions and open “surplus” lands to white settlers.
A proponent of assimilation policy and the allotment program, McKinley signed the act in June 1898. Six months later, he told Congress that the Five Civilized Tribes were showing “marked progress.”
The act was “having a salutary effect upon the nations composing the five tribes,” he said. “The Dawes Commission reports that the most gratifying results and greater advance toward the attainment of the objects of the Government have been secured in the past year than in any previous year.”
During his four and a half years in office, McKinley prioritized his goals of expanding U.S. territory and increasing trade agreements in the Far East, said Lewis Gould, emeritus professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. McKinley wanted control of the Caribbean and the Pacific, and in early 1898, he led the nation into war with Spain over the issue of Cuban independence.
The war ended with the Treaty of Paris, which granted the United States possession of Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. Also in 1898, McKinley signed a joint resolution annexing the Hawaiian Islands.
“Hawaii was an important strategic asset,” Gould said. “McKinley couldn’t have cared less about the Native population in strategic terms.”
In his final message to Congress, in December 1900, McKinley spoke of the “uncivilized tribes” on the newly annexed islands.
“Many of those tribes are now living in peace and contentment, surrounded by a civilization to which they are unable or unwilling to conform,” he said. “Such tribal governments should, however, be subjected to wise and firm regulation, and, without undue or petty interference, constant and active effort should be exercised to prevent barbarous practices and introduce civilized customs.”
McKinley was re-elected in 1900, but he served only six months of his second term. He was assassinated by an anarchist in September 1901 while attending a public reception in Buffalo, New York.
McKinley’s vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, completed the term.