Wednesday, June 14, 2017

President Andrew Johnson Defines Fort Hall Indian Reservation [otd 06/14]

President Johnson, 1870-1880.
Library of Congress.
On June 14, 1867, President Andrew Johnson approved an executive order devised by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The order defined a reservation bounded generally by the Portneuf, Snake, and Blackfoot rivers, and by regional divides to the south and east.

There was a slight "catch" involved, however. The Shoshone and Bannock bands for whom the reservation was created had not yet said they would stay there. Various accords signed in 1863, including the “Box Elder Treaty” [blog, July 30], had been peace agreements, not reservation assignments.

Those treaties were largely meant to allow safe passage for white travelers through regions where the Shoshones commonly roamed. In return, government agents would give the bands provisions and other goods. The agreements outlined where the terms generally applied, but did not constraint the bands to remain within those (vague) boundaries.

This loose approach soon became untenable, largely due to white settlement. Many hunter-gatherer societies live “on the edge” of hunger. That was certainly true in the arid country occupied by the Sho-Bans (a modern term). White settlers naturally occupied the most productive lands first. Thus, they depleted natural food sources out of all proportion to their small initial numbers.

By 1865-1867, many bands had become dependent upon the government allotments just to avoid starvation. Officials decided the only workable answer was to move the tribes onto reservations. There, they could be taught to become self-sufficient farmers. Just over a year after Johnson’s executive order, the tribes acquiesced to the "Fort Bridger Treaty of 1868," in which they agreed to occupy the reservation.

In return, the government made many promises. A reservation physician would provide medical service. Also, craftsmen (carpenter, blacksmith, etc.) would be available to teach these skills to the Indians. Tribesmen who made "good faith" efforts to cultivate the land would receive, for up to four years, an allotment of seed and necessary farm implements.
Fort Hall Reservation Indians, ca. 1875. Library of Congress.

A number of buildings would be erected at government expense, and each Indian would receive an annual allotment of warm clothing, or the materials to make those garments. Other clauses promised an allowance that might be used for food, presumably to carry them through the period until they could raise their own.

As a concession to get the Indians to agree, the Bridger Treaty reserved the southern Camas Prairie for their use. Sadly, the Sho-Ban suffered through years of broken promises: inadequate food and clothing, no seed or training, and so on. All that, plus white violation of the Camas Prairie provision, would set off the Bannock War of 1878 [blog, June 8].

Moreover, by the end of the century, “re-negoiations” drastically reduced the size of the reservation, from an original 1.8 million acres to around 540 thousand. Finally, in 1936 and 1937, the tribes created a governing constitution and bylaws, and organized themselves into a Federally-chartered corporation.

It has taken far too long, but at least today the Sho-Ban control their own destiny. They experience the same economic ups and downs as their non-Indian neighbors, but by and large they can provide reasonable services and opportunities for their people.
References: [Hawley]
Charles Joseph Kappler (ed.), Indian affairs: Laws and Treaties, Volume I, Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C. (1903).
Brigham D. Madsen, The Northern Shoshoni, The Caxton Printers, CaIdwell, Idaho (1980).
“Treaties and Cessions,” Shoshone-Bannock Tribes web site.

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