By Lotte Govaerts
This post is part of a series about my research on the historic artifact collections obtained by River Basin Surveys (RBS) archaeologists in the mid-twentieth century, and curated here at the National Museum of Natural History. As we have seen in my previous posts, RBS historic sites fall into one or more of the following categories: fur trade, military establishments, or Indian Agencies. In my previous two posts I reviewed the historical context relating to the fur trade and US military presence in the Upper Missouri River Basin. Here, I focus on Indian Agencies.
The history of Indian Agencies in the Northern Plains is closely related to that of the westward movement of the US military frontier. The terms “agency” and “reservation” are sometimes used interchangeably, but they actually refer to distinct entities. Agencies, as institutions, existed before reservations did, but reservations were established around agencies. The US government created the position of “Indian Agent” shortly after its independence. Originally the Indian Agents’ sole duty was to oversee trade with Native peoples, but later on they were also in charge of the forced “acculturation” of the Native peoples they were assigned to. Agencies distributed annuities to the tribes, in exchange for signing away land and rights. “Agency” in the context of the RBS refers to the collection of buildings that included the agent’s house and associated school houses, smithies, churches, stores, and other structures.
In 1819 the Upper Missouri Agency was established in Council Bluffs (now in Iowa). Initially the agent there was responsible for trade with all of the Native peoples along the Upper Missouri. The exact boundaries of the territory were never defined. The Upper Missouri Agency changed location and name a few times, and had various sub-agencies in different locations. It was eventually replaced by new agencies built in association with different tribes. As the US government and the various tribes tried to come to agreements on where the agencies should be located, sites were sometimes occupied only briefly before an agency was moved to a new location. The sites of some of these agencies were investigated by RBS crews: Whetstone Agency (serving mostly Brule Lakota Sioux, but also other Lakota bands), Lower Brule Agency, and Red Cloud Agency III (the third incarnation of the agency built to serve Red Cloud’s band of Oglala Lakota as well as some Cheyenne and Arapaho).
Native peoples increasingly depended on the annuities distributed by Agents, owing to the loss of traditional hunting grounds. It was the US government’s explicit intent to assimilate Native peoples into mainstream US culture. In order to achieve this goal, Native peoples were forced to give up their collectivist and often nomadic lifestyle in favor of individual farming. This transition was problematic for many reasons. There was Native resistance to a forced lifestyle change. Moreover, the agrarian model would often fail because the available land was too poor for farming, and necessary equipment was lacking. There were also frequent problems with the delivery of annuities, leaving people hungry and in poor health.
While some Indian Agents executed their duties to the best of their ability, the position was notoriously associated with corruption. In addition, many agents would leave their posts for extended periods of time and neglect their duties. There were also frequent communication problems between Agents and the government. All of this was naturally to the detriment of the Native peoples assigned to the agencies.
This concludes the discussion of Indian Agencies in the 19th-century Upper Missouri Basin. This is also the final installment of a three-part overview of the historic context for the region excavated by RBS crews in the mid-20th century. Such a context is essential for the interpretation of the collections associated with these sites. Stay tuned as I continue with this series of blog posts about my research on the historical archaeology of the RBS. In the next installments, I will take a closer look at the Garrison Dam and Lake Sakakawea survey area and the historic sites excavated there.
Clow, Richmond L.
1977 Whetstone Indian Agency, 1868-1872, South Dakota History 7(3), 291-308.
Guthrie, Chester L., and Leo L. Gerald
1941 Upper Missouri Agency: An Account of Indian Administration on the Frontier, Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 10, No. 1, 47-56.
Hill, Edward E.
1974 The Office of Indian Affairs, 1824-1880: Historical Sketches. New York, New York: Clearwater Publishing Company, Inc.
Schusky, Ernest L.
1971 The Upper Missouri Indian Agency, 1819-1868, Missouri Historical Review 65: 249-269.
Smith, G. Hubert
1968 Big Bend Historic Sites. River Basin Surveys, Publications in Salvage Archeology 9. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
See also: our main RBS Page
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