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.
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.”
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.
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.
The Carlisle Indian School is still in the news, and an ongoing issue.
In a clearing closer and less honored, on the grounds of what is now the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, lie nearly 200 children; gone, but never forgotten; casualties of a federal policy to “kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” A leading architect of that policy, former cavalry officer Richard Henry Pratt, founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School on these grounds in 1879 on a model of military training.