Lesson 20 – The Indian System

Lesson 20 – The Indian System

At the time of the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota in 1851, the Dakota of Minnesota were overseen by the United States Indian System, a federal program to manage affairs between the United States Government and the American Indians.  The system was managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs within the U.S. Department of the Interior.  It was a political hierarchy filled with appointed officials.  The United States was divided by region into what was called Indian Superintendencies.  Each Superintendency was then divided by Agencies and sub-Agencies.  The system was supervised by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs while each superintendency had a Superintendent of Indian Affairs and each agency had an appointed agent.

Indian Agent Nathaniel McLean

In Minnesota there was the Minnesota Superintendency which included the Chippewa, Winnebago, and St. Peters agencies.  The Dakota were part of the St. Peters Agency and were known as the “Sioux of the Mississippi,” while, in 1851, their agent was Nathaniel McClean and their superintendent was Alexander Ramsey.  The Commissioner of Indian Affairs at that time was Luke Lea.  Together, McLean, Ramsey, and Lea played a major role in negotiating the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota.

Each year the appointed Indian Agents were responsible for reporting to the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for his agency while the Superintendent then reported to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.  These reports were released in the “Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.”  The reports were organized by superintendency, agency, and sub-agency, and included information relating to negotiation and enforcement of treaties, land matters, Indian emigration and subsistence, intrusions on Indian lands, law and order, annuity and other payments, inter-tribal hostilities, military operations, depredations claims, traders and licenses, missionaries and schools, construction and repair of buildings, purchase and transportation of goods and supplies, and employees and accounts.  Today, these reports provide an in-depth look at the annual condition of each Indian agency as seen through the eyes of appointed officials.

Excerpt from Ceding Contempt

“Mr. Mayer,” said a fine-looking old gentleman who came to meet me at the entrance to the fort.  “I am Agent Nathaniel McLean. I will be your guide at the fort today.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I said habitually.

“Have you enjoyed your visit thus far?” inquired Agent McLean.

“It is a learning experience, indeed,” I answered in the most polite but honest manner possible.

“Yes,” replied Agent McLean with a hearty laugh, “it takes some getting used to.”

I smiled in response.

“Well, let me begin by telling you a little about myself and my role here,” stated Agent McLean as he ushered me through the gates and across the parade ground.  “Have you much understanding of the Indian System in Minnesota?”

“I cannot say that I have,” I admitted.  “I came here to observe the Indians and the negotiations, but some background knowledge would largely benefit my understanding.”

“Well, let me explain,” said Agent McLean.  “Across this great nation the Indians have been categorized and separated by region.  Each region is appointed a superintendent and it is therefore defined as a superintendency.  This region is known as the Minnesota Superintendency.  Within this region there are three agencies: the Chippewa, the Winnebago, and the St. Peters, which includes all of the Dakota Indians.”

Agent McLean spoke not with eloquence but with an effusive sophistication.  He looked to be in his sixties and probably spent a long career in politics.  He appeared genuine in his role, as if filled with integrity.

“Each agency is then appointed an agent.  I am the agent for the St. Peters Agency.  As an agent, we are required annually to report to the Superintendent who is then responsible for reporting to the Commissioner of Indians Affairs in Washington.  The Commissioner maintains, monitors, and regulates each superintendency through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”

“So it is a political hierarchy,” I said, trying to make sure I understood.

“Yes,” affirmed Agent McLean.  “From the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to the superintendencies, down to the agencies.

“And what is your role as an agent?” I asked.

“I oversee the Sioux—also called the Dakota,” he answered quickly.  “My tasks are many and varied and difficult to precisely define.  They can vary greatly from one day to the next.  First and foremost, I must observe and report upon the condition of the Indians within my agency.  I must regulate trade and other transactions and interactions between the whites and the Indians.  I must direct and supervise agriculture.  I must oversee the schools and missionaries.  I must attempt to maintain peace and order between the Indians themselves.  And I must enforce treaties and other legal charters making sure that all terms are being observed and adhered to.”

“That is an incredible list of responsibilities!” I said with astonishment.  “You have a big role to play on this frontier.”

“I am responsible for much that goes on here.  Essentially, I am the intermediary between the United States Government and the Dakota Indians.”

Read the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, for the Year 1851

See this blog post on YouTube.  


“Minnesota Superintendency of Indian Affairs,” https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/Minnesota_Superintendency_of_Indian_Affairs.


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