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Texts Related to the Works of Sarah Orne Jewett

from Helen Hunt Jackson

A Century of Dishonor

First published in 1881 by Harper Brothers.

Possibly relevant to Sarah Orne Jewett's representations of Native Americans in her works was Helen Hunt Jackson's A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government's Dealings with some of the Indian Tribes.  Reprinted here are the preface by H. B. Whipple, Bishop of Minnesota, and the introduction by Julius H. Seelye of Amherst College.  Taken together, they give the flavor of Hunt's argument and help to place it within the context of the varieties of discourse about Native Americans that circulated in the United States after the Civil War.


havebeen requested to write a preface to this sad story of "A Century of Dishonor." I cannot refuse the request of one whose woman's heart has pleaded so eloquently for the poor Red men. The materials for her book have been taken from official documents. The sad revelation of broken faith, of violated treaties, and of inhuman deeds of violence will bring a flush of shame to the cheeks of those who love their country. They will wonder how our rulers have dared to so trifle with justice, and provoke the anger of God. Many of the stories will be new to the reader. The Indian owns no telegraph, employs no press reporter, and his side of the story is unknown to the people.

    Nations, like individuals, reap exactly what they sow; they who sow robbery reap robbery. The seed-sowing of iniquity replies in a harvest of blood. The American people have accepted as truth the teaching that the Indians were a degraded, brutal race of savages, whom it was the will of God should perish at the approach of civilization. If they do not say with our Puritan fathers that these are the Hittites who are to be driven out before the saints of the Lord, they do accept the teaching that manifest destiny will drive the Indians from the earth. The inexorable has no tears or pity at the cries of anguish of the doomed race. Ahab never speaks kindly of Naboth, whom he has robbed of his vineyard. It soothes conscience to cast mud on the character of the one whom we have wronged.

    The people have laid the causes of Indian wars at the door of the Indian trader, the people on the border, the Indian agents, the army, and the Department of the Interior. None of these are responsible for the Indian wars, which have cost the United States five hundred millions of dollars and tens of thousands of valuable lives. In the olden time the Indian trader was the Indian's friend. The relation was one of mutual dependence. If the trader oppressed the Indian he was in danger of losing his debt; if the Indian refused to pay his debts, the trader must leave the country. The factors and agents of the old fur companies tell us that their goods were as safe in the unguarded trading-post as in the civilized village. The pioneer settlers have had too much at stake to excite an Indian massacre, which would overwhelm their loved ones in ruin. The army are not responsible for Indian wars; they are "men under authority," who go where they are sent. The men who represent the honor of the nation have a tradition that lying is a disgrace, and that theft forfeits character. General Crook expressed the feeling of the army when he replied to a friend who said, "It is hard to go on such a campaign." "Yes, it is hard; but, sir, the hardest thing is to go and fight those whom you know are in the right." The Indian Bureau is often unable to fulfil the treaties, because Congress has failed to make the appropriations. If its agents are not men of the highest character, it is largely due to the fact that we send a man to execute this difficult trust at a remote agency, and expect him to support himself and family on $1500 a year. The Indian Bureau represents a system which is a blunder and a crime.

The Indian is the only human being within our territory who has no individual right in the soil. He is not amenable to or protected by law. The executive, the legislative, and judicial departments of the Government recognize that he has a possessory right in the soil; but his title is merged in the tribe-the man has no standing before the law. A Chinese or a Hottentot would have, but the native American is left pitiably helpless. This system grew out of our relations at the first settlement of the country. The isolated settlements along the Atlantic coast could not ask the Indians, who outnumbered them ten to one, to accept the position of wards. No wise policy was adopted, with altered circumstances, to train the Indians for citizenship. Treaties were made of the same binding force of the constitution; but these treaties were unfilled. It may be doubted whether one single treaty has ever been fulfilled as it would have been if it had been made with a foreign power. The treaty has been made as between two independent sovereigns. Sometimes each party has been ignorant of the wishes of the other; for the heads of both parties to the treaty have been on the interpreter's shoulders, and he was the owned creature of corrupt men, who desired to use the Indians as a key to unlock the nation's treasury. Pledges, solemnly made, have been shamelessly violated. The Indian has had no redress but war. In these wars ten white men were killed to one Indian, and the Indians who were killed have cost the Government a hundred thousand dollars each. Then came a new treaty, more violated faith, another war, until we have not a hundred miles between the Atlantic and Pacific which has not been the scene of an Indian massacre.

>    All this while Canada has had no Indian wars. Our Government has expended for the Indians a hundred dollars to their one. They recognize, as we do, that the Indian has a possessory right to the soil. They purchase this right, as we do, by treaty; but their treaties are made with the Indian subjects of Her Majesty. They set apart a permanent reservation for them; they seldom remove Indians; they select agents of high character, who receive their appointments for life; they make fewer promises, but they fulfil them; they give the Indians Christian missions, which have the hearty support of Christian people, and all their efforts are toward self-help and civilization. An incident will illustrate the two systems. The officer of the United States Army who was sent to receive Alaska from the Russian Government stopped in British Columbia. Governor Douglas had heard that an Indian had been murdered by another Indian. He visited the Indian tribe; he explained to them that the murdered man was a subject of Her Majesty; he demanded the culprit. The murderer was surrendered, was tried, was found guilty, and was hanged. On reaching Alaska the officer happened to enter the Greek church, and saw on the altar a beautiful copy of the Gospels in a costly binding studded with jewels. He called upon the Greek bishop, and said, "Your Grace, I called to say you had better remove that copy of the Gospels from the church, for it may be stolen." The bishop replied, "Why should I remove it? It was the gift of the mother of the emperor, and has lain on the altar seventy years." The officer blushed, and said, "There is no law in the Indian country, and I was afraid it might be stolen." The bishop said, "The book is in God's house, and it is His book, and I shall not take it away." The book remained. The country became ours, and the next day the Gospel was stolen.

    Our Indian wars are needless and wicked. The North American Indian is the noblest type of a heathen man on the earth. He recognizes a Great Spirit; he believes in immortality; he has a quick intellect; he is a clear thinker; he is brave and fearless, and,until betrayed, he is true to his plighted faith; he has a passionate love for his children, and counts it joy to die for his people. Our most terrible wars have been with the noblest types of the Indians, and with men who had been the white man's friend. Nicolet said the Sioux were the finest type of wild men he had ever seen. Old traders say that it used to be the boast of the Sioux that they had never taken the life of a white man. Lewis and Clarke, Governor Stevens, and Colonel Steptoe bore testimony to the devoted friendship of the Nez PercÚs for the white man. Colonel Boone, Colonel Bent, General Harney, and others speak in the highest praise of the Cheyennes. The Navahoes were a semi-civilized people.

    Our best friends have suffered more deeply from our neglect and violated faith than our most bitter foes. Peaceable Indians often say, "You leave us to suffer; if we killed your people, then you would take care of us."

    Our Indian wars have not come wholly from violated faith. In time of peace it has been our policy to establish "almshouses" to train and educate savage paupers. We have purchased paint, beads, scalping-knives, to deck warriors, and have fed them in idleness at the agency. Around this agency and along the border were gathered influences to degrade the savage, and sink him to a depth his fathers had never known. It has only needed a real or a fancied wrong to have this pauperized savagery break out in deeds of blood. Under President Grant a new departure was taken. The peace policy was little more than a name. No change was made in the Indian system; no rights of property were given; no laws were passed to protect the Indians. The President did take the nomination of Indian agents from politicians, who had made the office a reward for political service. He gave the nomination of Indian agents to the executive committees of the missionary societies of the different churches. Where these Christian bodies established schools and missions, and the Government cast its influence on the side of labor, it was a success. More has been done to civilize the Indians in the past twelve years than in any period of our history. The Indian Ring has fought the new policy at every step; and yet, notwithstanding our Indian wars, our violated treaties, and our wretched system, thousands of Indians, who were poor, degraded savages, are now living as Christian, civilized men. There was a time when it seemed impossible to secure the attention of the Government to any wrongs done to the Indians: it is not so to-day. The Government does listen to the friends of the Indians, and many of the grosser forms of robbery are stopped. No permanent reform can be secured until the heart of the people is touched. In 1862 I visited Washington, to lay before the Administration the causes which had desolated our fair State with the blood of those slain by Indian massacre. After pleading in vain, and finding no redress, Secretary Stanton said to a friend, "What does the Bishop want? If he came here to tell us that our Indian system is a sink of iniquity, tell him we all know it. Tell him the United States never cures a wrong until the people demand it; and when the hearts of the people are reached the Indian will be saved." In this book the reader will find the sad story of a century-no, not the whole story, but the fragmentary story of isolated tribes. The author will have her reward if it shall aid in securing justice to a noble and a wronged race. Even with the sad experiences of the past we have not learned justice. The Cherokees and other tribes received the Indian Territory as a compensation and atonement for one of the darkest crimes ever committed by a Christian nation. That territory was conveyed to them by legislation as strong as the wit of statesmen could devise. The fathers who conveyed this territory to the Cherokees are dead. Greedy eyes covet the land. The plans are laid to wrest it from its rightful owners. If this great iniquity is consummated, these Indians declare that all hope in our justice will die out of their hearts, and that they will defend their country with their lives.

    The work of reform is a difficult one; it will cost us time, effort, and money; it will demand the best thoughts of the best men in the country. We shall have to regain the confidence of our Indian wards by honest dealing and the fulfilment of our promises. Now the name of a white man is to the Indians a synonyme for "liar." Red Cloud recently paid a visit to the Black Hills, and was hospitably entertained by his white friends. In bidding them good-bye he expressed the hope that, if they did not meet again on earth, they might meet beyond the grave "in a land where white men ceased to be liars."

    Dark as the history is, there is a brighter side. No missions to the heathen have been more blessed than those among the Indians. Thousands, who were once wild, painted savages, finding their greatest joy in deeds of war, are now the disciples of the Prince of Peace. There are Indian churches with Indian congregations, in which Indian clergy are telling the story of God's love in Jesus Christ our Saviour. Where once was only heard the medicine-drum and the song of the scalp-dance, there is now the bell calling Christians to prayer, and songs of praise and words of prayer go up to heaven. The Christian home, though only a log-cabin, has taken the place of the wigwam; and the poor, degraded Indian woman has been changed to the Christian wife and mother. With justice, personal rights, and the protection of law, the Gospel will do for our Red brothers what it has done for other races-give to them homes, manhood and freedom.

H. B. Whipple, Bishop of Minnesota.

NewYork, November 11th, 1880.


The present number of Indians in the United States does not exceed three hundred thousand, but is possibly as large now as when the Europeans began the settlement of the North American continent. Different tribes then existing have dwindled, and some have become extinct; but there is reason to believe that the vast territory now occupied by the United States, if not then a howling wilderness, was largely an unpeopled solitude. The roaming wild men who met the new discoverers were, however; numerous enough to make the Indian problem at the outset a serious one, while neither its gravity nor its difficulty yet shows signs of diminution.

    The difficulty is not because the Indians are wild and savage men, for such men have in the past history of the human race been subdued and civilized in unnumbered instances, while the changes which in our time have been wrought among the cannibals of the South Sea and the barbarians of South Africa, and among the wildest and most savage of the North American Indians themselves, show abundantly that the agencies of civilization ready to our hand are neither wanting nor weak.

    The great difficulty with the Indian problem is not with the Indian, but with the Government and people of the United States. Instead of a liberal and far-sighted policy looking to the education and civilization and possible citizenship of the Indian tribes, we have suffered these people to remain as savages, for whose future we have had no adequate care, and to the consideration of whose present state the Government has only been moved when pressed by some present danger. We have encroached upon their means of subsistence without furnishing them any proper return; we have shut them up on reservations often notoriously unfit for them, or, if fit, we have not hesitated to drive them off for our profit, without regard to theirs; we have treated them sometimes as foreign nations, with whom we have had treaties; sometimes as wards, who are entitled to no voice in the management of their affairs; and sometimes as subjects, from whom we have required obedience, but to whom we have recognized no obligations. That the Government of the United States, which has often plighted its faith to the Indian, and has broken it as often, and, while punishing him for his crimes, has given him no status in the courts except as a criminal, has been sadly derelict in its duty toward him, and has reaped the whirlwind only because it has sown the wind, is set forth in no exaggerated terms in the following pages, and ought to be acknowledged with shame by every American citizen.

    It will be admitted now on every hand that the only solution of the Indian problem involves the entire change of these people from a savage to a civilized life. They are not likely to be exterminated. Unless we ourselves withdraw from all contact with them, and leave them to roam untrammeled over their wilds, or until the power of a Christian civilization shall make them consciously one with us, they will not cease to vex us.

    But how shall they become civilized? Civilization is in a most important sense a gift rather than an acquisition. Men do not gain it for themselves, except as stimulated thereto by some incitement from above themselves. The savage does not labor for the gratifications of civilized life, since he does not desire these. His labors and his desires are both dependent upon some spiritual gift, which, having kindled him, quickens his desires and calls forth his toil. Unless he has some help from without, some light and life from above to illumine and inspire him, the savage remains a savage, and without this all the blandishments of the civilization with which he might be brought into contact could no more win him into a better state than could all the light and warmth of the sun woo a desert into a fruitful field. When English missionaries went to the Indians in Canada, they took with them skilled laborers who should teach the Indians how to labor, and who, by providing them at first with comfortable houses, and clothing, and food, should awaken their desires and evoke their efforts to perpetuate and increase these comforts. But the Indian-would not work, and preferred his wigwam, and skins, and raw flesh, and filth to the cleanliness and conveniences of a civilized home; and it was only as Christian influences taught him his inner need, and how this could be supplied, that he was led to wish and work for the improvement of his outer condition and habits of life. The same is true everywhere. Civilization does not reproduce itself. It must first be kindled, and can then only be kept alive by a power genuinely Christian.

    But it is idle to attempt to carry Christian influences to any one unless we are Christian. The first step, therefore, toward the desired transformation of the Indian is a transformed treatment of him by ourselves. In sober earnest, our Government needs, first of all, to be Christian, and to treat the Indian question as Christian principles require. This means at the outset that we should be honest, and not talk about maintaining our rights until we are willing to fulfil our obligations. It means that we should be kind, and quite as eager to give the Indian what is ours as to get what is his. It means that we should be wise, and patient, and persevering, abandoning all makeshifts and temporary expedients, and setting it before us as our fixed aim to act toward him as a brother, until he shall act as a brother toward us. There is no use to attempt to teach Christian duty to him in words till he has first seen it exemplified in our own deeds.

    The true Christian principle of self-forgetful honesty and kindness, clearly and continuously exhibited, is the first requisite of true statesmanship in the treatment of the Indian question. This would not require, however, the immediate entrance of the Indian upon all the privileges of citizenship and self-direction. Christianized though he might be, he would need for a longer or shorter time guardianship like a child. A wise care for his own interests could not be expected of him at the outset, and the Government should care for him with wise forethought. Obedience to the law should be required of him, and the protection of the law afforded him. The jurisdiction of the courts and the presence of the Government should be felt in the Indian Territory and upon every Indian reservation as powerfully as in the most enlightened portions of the land. The court should go as early as the school, if not before, and is itself an educational agency of incalculable importance.

    When the Indian, through wise and Christian treatment, becomes invested with all the rights and duties of citizenship, his special tribal relations will become extinct. This will not be easily nor rapidly done; but all our policy should be shaped toward the gradual loosening of the tribal bond, and the gradual absorption of the Indian families among the masses of our people. This would involve the bringing to an end of the whole system of Indian reservations, and would forbid the continued isolation of the Indian Territory. It is not wise statesmanship to create impassable barriers between any parts of our country or any portions of our people.

    Very difficult questions demanding very careful treatment arise in reference to just this point. Certain Indian tribes now own certain Indian reservations and the Indian Territory, and this right of property ought to be most sacredly guarded. But it does not, therefore, follow that these Indians, in their present state, ought to control the present use of this property. They may need a long training before they are wise enough to manage rightfully what is nevertheless rightfully their own. This training, to which their property might fairly contribute means, should assiduously be given in established schools with required attendance.

    If the results thus indicated shall gradually come to pass, the property now owned by the tribes should be ultimately divided and held in severalty by the individual members of the tribes. Such a division should not be immediately made, and, when made, it should be with great care and faithfulness; but the Indian himself should, as soon as may be, feel both the incentives and the restraints which an individual ownership of property is fitted to excite, and the Government, which is his guardian, having educated him for this ownership, should endow him with it. But until the Indian becomes as able as is the average white man to manage his property for himself, the Government should manage it for him, no matter whether he be willing or unwilling to have this done.

    A difficulty arises in the cases-of which there are many- where treaties have been made by the Government of the United States with different Indian tribes, wherein the two parties have agreed to certain definitely named stipulations. Such treaties have proceeded upon the false view-false in principle, and equally false in fact-that an Indian tribe, roaming in the wilderness and living by hunting and plunder, is a nation. In order to be a nation, there must be a people with a code of laws which they practise, and a government which they maintain. No vague sense of some unwritten law, to which human nature, in its lowest stages, doubtless feels some obligation, and no regulations instinctively adopted for common defence, which the rudest people herded together will always follow, are enough to constitute a nation. These Indian tribes are not a nation, and nothing either in their history or their condition could properly invest them with a treaty-making power.

    And yet when exigencies have seemed to require, we have treated them as nations, and have pledged our own national faith in solemn covenant with them. It were the baldest truism to say that this faith and covenant should be fulfilled. Of course it should be fulfilled. It is to our own unspeakable disgrace that we have so often failed therein. But it becomes us wisely and honestly to inquire whether the spirit of these agreements might not be falsified by their letter, and whether, in order to give the Indian his real rights, it may not be necessary to set aside prerogatives to which he might technically and formally lay claim. If the Indian Territory and the Indian reservations have been given to certain tribes as their possession forever, the sacredness of this guarantee should not shut our eyes to the sacredness also of the real interests of the people in whose behalf the guarantee was given. We ought not to lose the substance in our efforts to retain the shadow; we ought not to insist upon the summum jus, when this would become the summa injuria.

    Of course the utmost caution is needed in the application of such a principle. To admit that a treaty with the Indians may be set aside without the consent of the Indians themselves, is to open the door again to the same frauds and falsehoods which have so darkly branded a "Century of Dishonor." But our great trouble has been that we have sought to exact justice from the Indian while exhibiting no justice to him; and when we shall manifest that all our procedure toward him is in truth and uprightness, we need have no fear but that both his conscience and his judgment will in the end approve.


Julius H. Seelye.

Amherst College, December 10, 1880.

Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College
With assistance of Mary Dias and Linda Heller.
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