Archives of the West from 1877-1887
Indian Policy Reform
Extract from President Chester Arthur's
First Annual Message to Congress
December 6, 1881
(Richardson, ed. Messages and Papers, Vol. VIII, p.
. . . Prominent among the matters which challenge the attention of
Congress at its present session is the management of our Indian
affairs. While this question has been a cause of trouble and
embarrassment from the infancy of the Government, it is but recently
that any effort has been made for its solution at once serious,
determined, consistent, and promising success.
It has been easier to resort to convenient makeshifts for tiding
over temporary difficulties than to grapple with the great permanent
problem, and accordingly the easier course has almost invariably been
It was natural, at a time when the national territory seemed
almost illimitable and contained many millions of acres far outside
the bounds of civilized settlements, that a policy should have been
initiated which more than aught else has been the fruitful source of
our Indian complications.
I refer, of course, to the policy of dealing with the various
Indian tribes as separate nationalities, of relegating them by treaty
stipulations to the occupancy of immense reservations in the West,
and of encouraging them to live a savage life, undisturbed by any
earnest and well-directed efforts to bring them under the influences
The unsatisfactory results which have sprung from this policy are
becoming apparent to all.
As the white settlements have crowded the borders of the
reservations, the Indians, sometimes contentedly and sometimes
against their will, have been transferred to other hunting grounds,
from which they have again been dislodged whenever their new-found
homes have been desired by the adventurous settlers.
These removals and the frontier collisions by which they have
often been preceded have led to frequent and disastrous conflicts
between the races.
It is profitless to discuss here which of them has been chiefly
responsible for the disturbances whose recital occupies so large a
space upon the pages of our history.
We have to deal with the appalling fact that though thousands of
lives have been sacrificed and hundreds of millions of dollars
expended in the attempt to solve the Indian problem, it has until
within the past few years seemed scarcely nearer a solution than it
was half a century ago. But the Government has of late been
cautiously but steadily feeling its way to the adoption of a policy
which has already produced gratifying results, and which, in my
judgment, is likely, if Congress and the Executive accord in its
support, to relieve us ere long from the difficulties which have
hitherto beset us.
For the success of the efforts now making to introduce among the
Indians the customs and pursuits of civilized life and gradually to
absorb them into the mass of our citizens, sharing their rights and
holden to their responsibilities, there is imperative need for
My suggestions in that regard will be chiefly such as have been
already called to the attention of Congress and have received to some
extent its consideration.
First. I recommend the passage of an act making the laws of the
various States and Territories applicable to the Indian reservations
within their borders and extending the laws of the State of Arkansas
to the portion of the Indian Territory not occupied by the Five
The Indian should receive the protection of the law. He should be
allowed to maintain in court his rights of person and property. He
has repeatedly begged for this privilege. Its exercise would be very
valuable to him in his progress toward civilization.
Second. Of even greater importance is a measure which has been
frequently recommended by my predecessors in office, and in
furtherance of which several bills have been from time to time
introduced in both Houses of Congress. The enactment of a general law
permitting the allotment in severalty, to such Indians, at least, as
desire it, of a reasonable quantity of land secured to them by
patent, and for their own protection made inalienable for twenty or
twenty-five years, is demanded for their present welfare and their
In return for such considerate action on the part of the
Government, there is reason to believe that the Indians in large
numbers would be persuaded to sever their tribal relations and to
engage at once in agricultural pursuits. Many of them realize the
fact that their hunting days are over and that it is now for their
best interests to conform their manner of life to the new order of
things. By no greater inducement than the assurance of permanent
title to the soil can they be led to engage in the occupation of
The well-attested reports of the their increasing interest in
husbandry justify the hope and belief that the enactment of such a
statute as I recommend would be at once attended with gratifying
results. A resort to the allotment system would have a direct and
powerful influence in dissolving the tribal bond, which is so
prominent a feature of savage life, and which tends so strongly to
Third. I advise a liberal appropriation for the support of Indian
schools, because of my confident belief that such a course is
consistent with the wisest economy. . .