JF Ptak Science Books Post 1708
[This is one in a series of posts prompted by my current reading of Larry McMurtry's novel, Lonesome Dove.]
The Indian of the Plains had few options in the 1860s and 1870s. The buffalo were gone and hunting lands were being taken over by white settlers. With this dissipation of their food source came displacement resulting in inadequate food supply and (in many cases) starvation. The government offered reservation systems, but these in general flawed results of flawed and hurried thinking. In one attempt to determine the efficacy of the government's response to the growing crisis in caring for the removed Indian population, a committee under the titular leadership of Senator James Rood Doolittle of Wisconsin (Republican turned Democrat, 1815-1897), created in January 1867 a report (The Condition of the Tribes, Report of the Joint Committee...) containing a wealth of information about the state of Indians on the reservations, drawing on the results of a questionnaire completed by 27 high-ranking respondents in Indian affairs, including eleven army officers, thirteen agents or superintendents, one teacher, one missionary, and one physician. It does not paint a pretty picture, even coming at the hands of a Congressional investigation.
On the first page of results, the author(s) state:
I've done a very broad, executive summary of the document and its major points:
On Population decline. Almost all agreed that the Indian population was declining; most attributed the decrease to intertribal warfare, while others laid blame on the encroachments of white people, sickness, and intoxication.
General Carleton put it very bluntly;
On the Most common disease. The leading answers were smallpox, venereal disease, and tuberculosis. Also mentioned were mumps, measles, and other diseases. Dr. Davis reported: “All the eruptive diseases…prove very fatal, because the course of the disease is rapid, and the sick get but little care.”
On Intoxication. Intoxication is called a “major problem” by 22 respondents.
On Prostitution. 20 respondents claimed that prostitution prevailed, while 4 felt it was of little import. Col. John Sprague of the U.S. Seventh Infantry wrote that “prostitution is unlimited; a free, full indulgence commences in youth among both sexes.” Most agreed with Abram Bennett, Kickapoo land agent: “Prostitution prevails to an alarming extent among the tribes that are in close proximity to the whites, whom I consider the principal cause of their prostitution.”
On “Reasons for Decay” was question six, and a tricky one for interpretation at that. It reveals the prejudices, or common thought, of the era. Some of the common factors named for the “decay” of the Indian civilization were “dishonesty, polygamy, ignorance and nomadism.” William H. Waterman, superintendent of Indian affairs at Olympia, Washington Territory, expressed a pessimism shared by most of the respondents: “When two races are thus brought in contact, the savage will naturally affiliate with the lowest forms of social life in the stronger race…this is seen everywhere; the lowest, the meanest, the most licentious and morally corrupt of the white race are the intimate associates of the Indians.”
On the maintenance of the reservation system. The eighth question asked whether the current reservations should be maintained or if new and more remote reservations should be opened. Seventeen respondents felt that new reserves would be best; only four said that the reserve system of 1865 should be maintained. General Sprague remarked: “the Indians cannot improve in the presence of white settlements.” He was given to a wider statement later in the report: “a full blooded Indian is always idle.”
On the subject of annuities, or government stipends intended for the Indians, most respondents thought that “very little,” if any, of the money reached the Indians. The large majority felt that the Indian trader got the lion’s share of the money—that the trader abused their privilege, advanced goods to the Indians at very inflated prices, and then stole the rest. A follow up question asked how much of the money was squandered by the Indians on drinks and gambling. Most responded “not much.” According to General Sully, not much was squandered “for the simple reason that the trader…pockets most of the money.” In general, Indian traders fared poorly in this report—General Marcy wrote that if the agents were paid $1,800 yearly, how did they retire after four years with large fortunes?
The ironically named Doolittle Report provides a looking glass into the mentality of Government and Army attitudes towards the Indian in 1865/7, attitudes which certainly framed Indian policies into the 1870s and 1880s.