Lincoln and the Indians


From his time as an Illinois militia captain to his presidency, Lincoln demonstrated a hunger for the land of the Indian, and a determination to eradicate Indian tribes and cultures. Two war criminals under his expert tutelage, Sherman and Sheridan, later settled the Indian question on the Great Plains.

Bernhard Thuersam, Executive Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Post Office Box 328
Wilmington, NC 28402

Lincoln and the Indians:

"The 1829 treaty with the Kickapoos and the Potawatomis pushed back the Indian barrier (in Illinois), and the whites appropriated broad fertile spaces that covered immense mineral riches, including lead, coal (exploited as early as 1809) and petroleum (as yet unknown). A Land Office was established in Springfield in 1823, and it quickly became the haunt of settlers who benefited from favorable laws at that time.

Conditions for workers in the young State were equally designed to encourage settlement by those who had to sell their labor before they could set up in business for themselves. First, they would not have to face the competition of slave labor. In 1824 the inhabitants of Illinois overwhelmingly rejected a proposal for revising the constitution to allow slavery. Little by little, the last traces of slavery inherited from the French disappeared, and contract slave labor at the salt mines of Shawneetown was abolished in 1825. At the same time, a particularly cruel (Illinois) Black Code forbade freed blacks from competing with whites.

It was indeed a violation of the 1804 treaty (reaffirmed in 1816) for Black Hawk and a band of several hundred Sauks and Foxes, men , women and children, to come across the Mississippi River to plant corn on their old land at the mouth of the Rock River. They had been forced to leave it the previous year both by provocations on the part of the settlers and by a small expedition of volunteers and regular soldiers of the United States…after a difficult winter in Iowa, in hostile territory, Black Hawk’s undernourished followers were in no mood to abide by the provisions of the June 27, 1804 treaty signed at St. Louis by the "spokesmen" (without mandate) of their nation…the "spokesmen" received $2234.50 in kind, and the government promised to pay in addition an annuity of $1000. Recalling his confirmation of the 1804 treaty in 1816, he (Black Hawk) said: "I touched the goose quill to the treaty, not knowing, however, that by that act, I consented to give away my village…what do we know of the manners, the laws and the customs of the white people?"

The (Illinois) whites "turned stock into the Indian corn fields, erected fences, beat squaws who climbed over them, plowed up Indian graves, and finally in 1827 (and again in 1830), when the natives were away on a hunting trip, set fire to the vacant lodges. All these provocations and even the winter spent cold and hungry at the mouth of the Des Moines River had not managed to destroy the Indians’ composure. (But) Everywhere armed bands of militiamen crisscrossed the countryside, making "war upon the pigs and chickens," drinking and yelling, "a hard-looking set of men, unkempt and unshaven…."

Among them were Abraham Lincoln and all the young men of New Salem. A troop of 341 volunteer militiamen under the command of Isaiah Stillman massacred three negotiators sent by Black Hawk, then at Dixon’s Ferry attacked a group of thirty to forty Indians who had sent the negotiators. The three hundred men were put to rout ("Stillman’s Run") and fled across Illinois, spreading rumors of Indian atrocities. Hostilities had begun. They ended on August 2 with the massacre at Bad Axe. Only 150 Indians (out of the thousand who followed Black Hawk) escaped the crossfire of US army troops and Mississippi gunboats.

Receiving the chiefs of five Indian nations in Washington on March 27, 1863, three months after the Emancipation Proclamation, he (Lincoln) explained to them: "The pale-faced people are numerous and prosperous because they cultivate the earth, produce bread, and depend upon the products of the earth rather than wild game for a subsistence." The chiefs indicated their approval. What irony in the remarks of the Great White Father, of the good brother of the red and white family! In fact, several months earlier (Lincoln’s) troops had destroyed the Indian cultures in Minnesota following a Sioux revolt. The Sioux had risen up against the corruption of the Indian system, which the Republican administration had inherited with no thought of changing. Bankers, land speculators, agents of the railroads, Indian traders, liquor salesmen, and corrupt officials had divided the spoils and exploited the Indians with ferocity. Lincoln was powerless before the collusion of (the Republican) Congress with those committing fraud. He had been able to resist only the most outrageous demands against the Indians and to organize inquiries into only the most openly scandalous cases. Once the revolt was put down and the Sioux were imprisoned at Camp Lincoln, military authorities pronounced 303 death sentences, a number that the president, after a patient study of the files, reduced to thirty-nine.

Lincoln accepted the deportation of the Winnebagoes from Minnesota following the Sioux revolt (in which they had not participated) and signed the order putting 54,000 acres of stolen Winnebago land up for sale. His armies campaigned in the Dakotas from 1863 to 1865, and he even asked the British for the right of pursuit when the Sioux sought refuge in Canada. The charitable Lincoln became commander-in-chief of the army that distinguished itself at Sand Creek by massacring women and children for the same reasons that, as a simple soldier, he had followed the Illinois militia as it marched toward Bad Axe."

(Lincoln, Land and Labor, 1809-1860, Olivier Fraysse’, University of Illinois Press, 1988)