"Establishing a permanent peace": civilizing and subjugating Native Americans during the peace policy era (1869-1877)

In December 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant announced that the United States would pursue a new “peace policy” toward Native Americans living in the Plains and the West. Decrying decades of broken promises and abrogated treaties, Grant pledged that the U.S. government would treat Native American tribes with kindness and justice to both end the country’s Indian wars, and prevent the Native population from decline or decimation. Historians have traditionally described this era, which extended from 1869 to 1877, as a departure from previous interactions between the United States and Native American tribes, because of its emphasis on protecting Native populations and treating them in a compassionate manner. However, this characterization ignores three central aspects of the peace policy as it was implemented during these years. Between 1869 and 1877, the federal government subjected Native Americans to a compulsory assimilation program, in which they were expected to adopt Christianity and the ways of white “civilization.” Further, the government repeatedly utilized the U.S. Army to ensure that Native Americans participated in the assimilation program, by forcing them onto reservations and removing Native populations from their tribal lands. Additionally, U.S. officials consistently indicated that the protection and preservation of the American Indian population came second to the continued expansion of white settlements on the Plains and in the West. This thesis argues that the peace policy, while portrayed by federal officials as a humanitarian policy toward the Native population, was also a means to ensure the rapid and unhindered expansion of white settlements, through the decimation of Native culture, sovereignty, and military capabilities.