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.”
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.”