…But changes in how the government treated Indians came at a critical juncture in westward expansion. As Grant worked to reform federal agencies, he also supervised the development of millions of acres of federal public lands and presided over the private acquisition of land by pioneers, spectators and railroad and mining companies.
During his eight years in office, Grant approved the Timber Culture Act (granting homesteaders additional acreage if they agreed to plant trees), the General Mining Act (authorizing prospecting and mining for minerals on public lands) and the Desert Lands Act (issuing arid Western lands to individuals who agreed to reclaim and irrigate). He also created the first national park at Yellowstone.
Yet Grant realized that his expansionist goals required the removal of Indians from desirable land. His Indian Peace Policy, designed to reform the Indian Bureau and remove corrupt agents, also called for rigorous agricultural training on reservations and established schools and churches that would transform Indians into Christian citizens.
“From the foundation of the government to the present the management of the original inhabitants of this continent—the Indians—has been a subject of embarrassment and expense,” Grant told Congress in December 1869. Calling the Indians “wards of the nation,” he proposed a new policy to establish “permanent peace” between white settlers and Indian nations.
Yet Grant’s policies toward Indians fell far short of what he promised. White settlers continued to push Indians off the land, relying on the Army to prevent retaliation. While Indians on reservations experienced poverty and increasing desperation, Grant oversaw the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad and the great slaughter of buffalo on the Plains, which destroyed much of the Indian economy.
The peace policy, ironically, led to some of the worst massacres in history. Grant’s strategy to contain Indians on reservations involved aggressive military pursuits, resulting in the Modoc War in California, the Red River War in Texas, the Nez Perce conflict in Oregon, the Black Hills campaign by Gen. George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Indian chiefs Sitting Bull, Gall, Chief Joseph, Geronimo and Cochise led their people into wars against the United States in efforts to preserve their land and ways of life. In 1870, Oglala Chief Red Cloud visited Grant at the White House, where he condemned Indian policy and described his peoples’ suffering.