“Under This Dark, Bitter, and Hopeless Guise of Misery and Degradation”: The Report of H.R. Schoolcraft On the State of Indian Statistics, 1854

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

On 27 December 1854, the Secretary of the Interior Robert McClelland, who resigned as governor of Michigan to accept appointment to the federal cabinet post by President Franjlin Pierce, replied to a resolution of the United States Senate issued a week prior requesting “a copy of the special report of Henry R. Schoolcraft, of November eighteenth, eighteen hundred and fifty-four, made to the Secretary of the Interior, on the state of Indian statistics.

As McClelland noted, the report was actually submitted to the Department’s Office of Indian Affairs and its commissioner George W. Manypenny, an Ohio journalist and circuit court clerk who served during the single term of the Pierce Administration as did McClelland. Because the resolution was vague, Manypenny’s transmittal letter of 26 December to the Secretary stated that he forwarded Schoolcraft’s report, “presuming it to be te one mentioned in the resolution.”

It seemed to be the right document because, on the 29th, it was read, referred to the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee, and ordered to be printed, with the Homestead’s collection having one of those issued. While it does not say much specifically about California and nothing about the indigenous people of greater Los Angeles, Schoolcraft’s report is of value for its context, especially his closing remarks.

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A lithographic portrait of Henry Schoolcraft retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft was born in 1793 in Guilderland, New York, just west of the state capital of Albany, and developed a passion for geology and mineralogy from a young age, but was something of a well-rounded scholar and studied “the aboriginal period, in American antiquity” in a lengthy biographical sketch of him in an 1890 issue of Popular Science Monthly. After working for his father’s glassmaking factory, he embarked on a journey of exploration that brought him, by 1818, to Missouri—the same year, incidentally, that David Workman arrived in that territory, which became a state two years later, and where he was joined by his brother William in 1822.

After extensive travels in the Missouri region, where he compiled valuable material on mining potential, he returned to New York via New Orleans. He was then hired to accompany General Lewis Cass, the governor of Michigan, on an expedition to find the source of the Mississippi River (which was not then located) and determine the extent of copper mines near Lake Superior, while another explored areas in the Midwest, including the future Chicago.

In 1822, he was appointed an Indian Agent in Michigan and married a half-Irish, half-Ojibwa woman, Jane Johnston, who was sometimes called the “Northern Pocahontas” and considered very talented. After her death in 1842, Schoolcraft, who had two surviving children with her, married a Southern slaveowner, which drove a wedge between him and his son and daughter. Later, he served on the first legislative council of the Michigan Territory and developed his expertise on the natives there.

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In 1832, Schoolcraft was commissioned by the federal government to find the source of the Mississippi and this time he was successful, locating it at Lake Itasca, a name he bestowed, in Minnesota, some 200 miles northwest of Minneapolis. He published a book of his 1820 and 1832 expeditions as well as a memoir on his work among native peoples through the early 1840s. Among his published works was The Red Race of America, issued in 1847, a bibliography of Indian languages, which followed two years later, and, in 1850, American Indians: The History, Condition and Prospects. A major factor in his work among the native people was his religious belief, including missionary and temperance (anti-Alcohol) work.

At the beginning of his report, dated 18 November 1854, Schoolcraft told Manypenny that “it has . . . been found difficult to overcome the reluctance of the Indians to furnish their statistics” and added that “even their gross population has been wrung from them” while “exaggerated estimates of the Indan population have prevailed from the planting of the colonies.” He noted that the earliest attempts at determining their numbers were by the French in the 1730s, who used a formula of five persons for every warrior, to estimate some 82,000 natives between the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia to the Rocky Mountains.

After the British seized Canada, a military geographer, in 1759, came up with an estimate of the “western population of the tribes at 73,580” based on the same ratio. Nearly two decades later, this number was just above 62,000. Explorer Zebulon Pike, in 1806, guessed that the numbers of natives in the upper Mississippi River Valley was just under 33,000, while Indians fighting with the British in the War of 1812 were said to amount to 9,650 warriors or a gross population of a little north of 48,000, while American estimates were 9,000 fighting men, or some 45,000 total natives.

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There was, Schoolcraft continued, a “heavy depopulation of the India[n] tribes which took place in this sanguinary war” with more death caused by disease and the loss of food due to the lack of hunting and farming than in battle. The loss of native life from 1812 to 1816 was followed over the eight years to the mid-Twenties by “languishing depression and inanity” during which “the Indian mind was broken down and sunk in despondency.” Military destruction, “changes of habit,” and the decline of the fur trade, meant that this period “rendered their vast territories worthless to a hunter population.”

He went on to note that any rise in population was due to tribes being “tra[ns]ferred next into the fertile districts of game country, and that large bodies of the wild tribes were icluded in the schedules [of population], who roved over the illimitable plains next [to] the Missouri river.” He cited Adam Smith in asserting that “two states of society . . . of which one is the superior and in the ascendant, cannot exist in prosperity together.” The removal of natives, including the horrific Trail of Tears from the Southeast to the Plains region, was the result and Schoolcraft noted that “stress is laid on this epoch, because it is conceived to be the madir in our Indian history.”

In 1825, the population of aboriginal people east of the Mississippi was said to be just shy of 130,000 and these people “owned collectively 77,402,318 acres of land” with a table showing these amounts, ranging from over 28,000 in Michigan to 47 in Virginia and acrage as high as more than 53.5 million acres (for about 58,000 persons) in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and parts of southern Illinois and Indiana down to 3,000 acres for 420 persons in Rhode Island. Larger populations were found in Ohio (12,150), Missouri and Arkansas (19,000), Illinois (6,706), New York (5,143), and Florida (5,000).

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While to that date the concern was with natives who were “immediately pressing on the limits of the States and Territories,” a new estimate in 1829 from generals William Clark (of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition of the early part of the century) and Lewis Cass arrived at just over 313,000 natives. Of these 20,000 were east of the Mississippi; 94,000 between that river and the Rockies but outside of Arkansas, Missouri and Lousiana; 20,000 in the Rockies; and 80,000 west of that to the Pacific. Those residing in the original 13 colonies was about 16,000, while just about 62,000 were in the states admitted after those original ones.

After discussion of statistics involving the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, Schoolcraft stated that Congress ordered “the present investigation” in 1847 and he added that

Most of the tribes of the Mississippi were mere hunters, some of them in the wildest state of barbarism; roaming after deer; worshipping demons; at war with each other and with the principles of the civilized world.

How many had deviated from this type of barbarism, and how far they had gone towards the industrial state, could only be conjectured.

He also lamented the paying of annuities, saying the system, much abused by inequitable distribution and “squandering [of] the fund.” simply led to tribes that “dwindled away most rapidly.” When attempts were made to conduct a reliable census for 1850, “difficulties have been encountered in this which were not anticipated,” with the conspicuous exception of the Chickasaw of Oklahoma and Schoolcraft detailed the information for the 4,260 members of that tribe, while he also provided data for the Choctaws, Creeks and Cherokees.

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He turned next to those areas absorbed by the United States in the West and Southwest in the preceding decade, observing that “it was an object of considerable interest when these investigations were commenced to ascertain the number of Indians brought into the Union by the annexation of Texas [1845, after nine years of an independent republic] and the acquisition [seizure during the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848] of New Mexico and California.”

Texas was difficult to estimate because of its enormous size and the nature of the roving tribes, but figures from New Mexico provincial governor Charles Bent and Robert S. Neighbors ranged from just below 30,000 to about 37,000. As for New Mexico, there were “considerable discrepancies” in determining the numbers of aboriginal residents, but the latest figures were around 58,000.

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As to the other main region taken by the Americans during the war, Schoolcraft opined that

The Indians of California have been still more vaguely represented. The earliest estimates filed in this office, since its acquisition, by persons in authority, are too extravagant to bear quotation.

Those “collected by the Spanish into Pueblos along the Pacific coast” by the first years of the century were in “18 mission stations” and totaled just south of 15,000 excepting “1,300 Mustees [mestizos] and Mulattoes.” He added, however, that “after the disbanding of the Pueblos, it was impossible to distringuish between the partially reclaimed and forest and mountain tribes.”

Presumably, he meant the secularization by México’s federal government of the missions in the mid-1830s, but it is interesting to see his use of the word “reclaimed” for the so-called “neophytes” taken to the missions as distinguished from those natives who remained outside that system.

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In any case, Schoolcraft went on to record that “moderate estimates have assumed the latter at 16,000, with all but 2,000 being in the northern and central areas of California, and he concluded this brief discussion by stating that “it is believed that the aggregate of 48,000 exceeds rather than falls short of the entire number within the boundaries of this State.” Modern estimates place the number of the indigenous people of California before Spanish colonization began in 1769 at some 300,000.

After discussing the number of natives in Oregon, Washington, and Utah, Schoolcraft reported that “the entire number of Indians on the new line of frotiers, acquired since the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and of the Pacific Territories” was 168,000 and gave the precise number of 45,235 for California. The 1850 census showed that there were some 400,000 indigenous people in the United States and about a quarter of them, between the Rockies and the Mississippi and north of Texas and New Mexico and south of Kansas, were comprised of “these tribes that the examples of our laws, industry, arts, teaching, and manners have had most effect.”

These regions, moreover, had the military posts, Indian agencies, labor schools and other institutions, while twenty of the tribes there “have more or less fully embraced agriculture” as well “live in fixed dwellings, and have adopted the civilized costume.” Those in “the new Kansas and Indian territories,” being removed from the east, had systems of government and constitutions and “much effort and much expense has been incurred with them” as “they have been the subject of humanitarian and benvolent care and sympathy during two centuries.”

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Sanguine as Schoolcraft’s asertions here were, he went on to suggest that “to confound them in our policy with the wild tribes . . . [comprising] robbers, plunderers, and murderers of the bleak plains and mountains, would be the highest injustice.” The “reclaimed” natives were “exalted in their feelings, principles, and manners, who acknowledge the best truths of letters, arts, and christianity, and who live an honor to human nature.”

He cautioned that “without, however, a full and complete census of the population and statistics of the various tribes, reclaimed and unclaimed, it is impossibleto separate one class from the other, or to adopt a just and comprehensive system of policy.” The treatment of the natives was to both “promote the interests of the industrious and lettered tribes” while not serving “to paralyze and destroy the nomades [sic].”

Schoolcraft claimed that Congress recognized that there was “a noble but unfortunate race, who were flying before the circle of civilization,” but the federal policy was not to be challenged by “the impediments thrown in the way by the tribes themselves, or by the inherent difficulties of the rask.” To the scientist in him, “statistics are the very highest test of advancing civilization in the science of government,” yet, he added, “it is not to be expected tha tribes, newly awakened from the sleep of barbarism, should at once appreciate and desire them.”

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Legislation was needed that would assure that Indian agents were conduct the statistical gathering with proper expenses and, moreover, “the objections of the Indians are futile, and founded on entire error” because accurate information about them would allow for the government to act properly. Schoolcraft insisted that “the plan of the inquiry is founded on the highest principles of the age” and would serve to correctly “exhibit their intellectual and moral traits, their history and ethnography.” especially if there was a proper knowledge of native languages—something he noted that Thomas Jefferson stated in his Notes on the State of Virginia decades prior.

For Schoolcraft, “the whole object is one of enlarged humanities,” not just because of the fact that “the aborigines [serve] as our predecessors in the occupation of the continent, to which their footsteps have been providentially led,” but because their very existence served “as a cosmic element in the history of the human race, alike interesting to Europe as America.” Rising to a religious exhortation in conclusion, he proclaimed that

To us, they have been a peculiar people, indomitably bent on false principles, to whom the nomadic life has seemed to embrace compensations for every other means of human happiness. And, while they have been a proverb, a reproach, a by-word, little would it appear to conflict with the mysterious workings of Providence, if, in the progress of history, future times should be able to recognize, under this dark, bitter, and hopeless guise of misery and degradation, the vestiges of a people who once, in a peculiar manner, enjoyed the beaming light of the divine countenance.”

Schoolcraft’s rhetoric was, at times, more enlightened than that of most Americans, though still very alien to our modern sensibilities. The reality was that the federal government never invested much in anything close to a reasonable policy towards the American Indian and, in fact, relied increasingly more on military solutions than bureaucratic ones as the century continued and the toll on the indigenous people was, simply put, appalling.

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Schoolcraft, who published six volumes between 1851 and 1857 on the history and statistics of the nation’s native peoples, died in December 1864 almost exactly a decade after this report was issued. It is an interesting and informative summation by a prominent figure in government relations with Indians with a dramatic conclusion of note, as well.

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