Q&A: What was the Indian or Reservation System?

Q&A: What was the Indian or Reservation System?

By 1862, the United States had developed a specific method of management over the American Indians.  It was a bureaucracy often called the Indian or Reservation System.  By this system, the Indian tribes were separated by region into a Superintendency.  Within each Superintendency, were any number of Agencies.  In 1862, the Dakota were a part of the Northern Superintendency along with the Ojibwe (Anishinaabe) and the Winnebago (Ho-chunk).

Seal of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs

The Indian System was organized by a political hierarchy.  The entire system was overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and headed by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.  Each Superintendency was headed by the Superintendent of Indian Affairs and each Agency was headed by an Indian Agent.  The positions of commissioner, superintendent, and agent were political appointments made by the President of the United States.  In 1862, William P. Dole was the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Clark W. Thompson the Superintendent for the Northern Superintendency, and Thomas Galbraith the Sioux Agent.

Each year the agents submitted a report to the superintendent while the superintendent submitted a report to the commissioner.  The agents were responsible for reporting many things such as the condition of their tribe, agriculture, education, trade, and significant events.  The agents were also responsible for issuing annuities, regulating trade, and supervising other government appointed positions such as doctors, farmers, blacksmiths, and teachers.  Agents also made recommendations to their superintendents on how they might improve the conditions of the Indians at their agency.

Unfortunately the Indian System, which was rooted in treaty making, was unsuccessful and contributed largely to the U.S. – Dakota War as well as other Indian conflicts across the country.  On the one hand, the system used forced assimilation on the Indians which was met with much resistance and discontent.  While on the other, it was exploited by profiteers, businessmen, and politicians and followed up by claimants, traders, and contractors who all sought to tap federal monies.

Rev. Henry Benjamin Whipple, MNHS Collections

Reverend Benjamin Henry Whipple called the Indian System a “nursery of fraud.”  In the fall of 1862, Whipple met with Abraham Lincoln, giving the President an account of the U.S. – Dakota War and urging him to change the Indian System.  Lincoln was skeptical that such a change could be accomplished, but upon finishing the meeting stated, “If we get through this war (Civil War), and I live, this Indian System will be reformed.”

Read Henry Benjamin Whipple’s essay, “What Shall We do with the Indians” – page 514-519

See this blog post on YouTube


Colin Mustful, A Welcome Tragedy:  Factors that Led to the U.S. – Dakota Conflict of 1862, (Colin Mustful, 2014).


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