When the Great Plains Indians met President Monroe

In 1821, a delegation of Great Plains Indians travelled to Washington, DC, where they met President James Monroe. The trip was organized by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun and Indian agent Benjamin O’Fallon. The aim was to impress the tribal leaders with the strength and wealth of the United States, and to persuade them to keep the peace.

Young Omaha, War Eagle, Little Missouri, and Pawnees by Charles Bird King, 1821

Young Omaha, War Eagle, Little Missouri, and Pawnees by Charles Bird King, 1821

A cheap mode of conquest

The hosting of Indian delegations had been an important part of white men’s relations with Native Americans ever since Europeans first settled in North America. The Spaniards, French and English escorted Indian leaders to their main settlements to awe them and gain their friendship. The Americans continued this practice. It was a relatively inexpensive way of convincing tribal leaders of the futility of resisting the authority of the United States. As Superintendent of Indian Affairs Thomas L. McKenney wrote in 1828:

This mode of conquering these people is merciful, and it is cheap, in comparison to what a war with them would cost, to say nothing of the loss of human life. (1)

When John C. Calhoun became Secretary of War in 1817 (the position he holds in Napoleon in America), he also assumed responsibility for the management of Indian affairs. Calhoun wanted to reform relations with Native Americans. He thought that contact with white civilization was changing Indian culture for the worse. In his view, Indians needed to be protected and civilized. In December 1818, he reported to Congress:

They neither are, in fact, nor ought to be, considered as independent nations. Our views of their interest, and not their own, ought to govern them. By a proper combination of force and persuasion, of punishments and rewards, they ought to be brought within the pales of law and civilization. Left to themselves, they will never reach that desirable condition. Before the slow operation of reason and experience can convince them of its superior advantages, they must be overwhelmed by the mighty torrent of our population. … Our laws and manners ought to supersede their present savage manners and customs. Beginning with those most advanced in civilization, and surrounded by our people, they ought to be made to contract their settlements within reasonable bounds, with a distinct understanding that the United States intend to make no further acquisition of land from them, and that the settlements reserved are intended for their permanent home. The land ought to be divided among families; and the idea of individual property in the soil carefully inculcated. Their annuities would constitute an ample school fund; and education…ought not to be left discretionary with the parents. Those who might not choose to submit ought to be permitted and aided in forming new settlements at a distance from ours. … It is only by causing our opinion of their interest to prevail that they can be civilized and saved from extinction. (2)

In 1821, skirmishes with and among Indians in the Upper Missouri region was taking a toll in lives and money, and hindering the westward expansion of the United States. The area was occupied by some 14 Native American tribes. The small US military presence at Fort Atkinson was inadequate to protect American traders and trappers who were encroaching on Indian territory. As Benjamin O’Fallon, the Indian agent at Council Bluffs, explained to Calhoun in April 1821, the Indians were “disposed to underrate our strength, to believe that the detachment of troops on the Missouri is not a part, but the whole of our Army.” (3) After a Pawnee war party attacked nine fur traders near the Arkansas River, killing several of them and escaping with trade goods, guns and ammunition, Calhoun agreed to O’Fallon’s request to bring the tribal leaders to Washington, where they could be given a warning about their behaviour.

Exciting much interest

Petalesharo (Generous Chief), a Pawnee Brave, by Charles Bird King, 1822

Petalesharo (Generous Chief), a Pawnee Brave, by Charles Bird King, 1822

O’Fallon, accompanied by two interpreters, 16 chiefs and warriors of the Kansas, Missouri, Omaha, Otoe and Pawnee tribes, and one Otoe chief’s wife, left Council Bluffs in early October 1821. The government paid for the group’s travel, room and board. After passing through St. Louis, Louisville, Wheeling and Hagerstown, the delegation arrived at Washington, DC on November 29 and 30, in two contingents. They immediately called on President James Monroe.

Their object is to visit their Great Father, and learn something of that civilization of which they have hitherto remained in total ignorance. They are from the most remote tribes with which we have intercourse, and they are believed to be the first of those tribes that have ever been in the midst of our settlements. The Pawnees are said to be the most warlike tribe we have any knowledge of – not so numerous as some others, but more formidable, because united and accustomed to war. These red men of the forest who now visit us are completely in a state of nature. (4)

Leaving two chiefs and one interpreter in Washington, O’Fallon took the rest of the delegation to Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, where they arrived on December 11. They were back in Washington by December 27. The government commissioned artist Charles Bird King to paint portraits of each of the chiefs.

A friend of British traveller William Faux, residing at Washington, described the delegation as follows:

All of them are men of large stature, very muscular, having fine open countenances, with the real noble Roman nose, dignified in their manners, and peaceful and quiet in their habits. There was no instance of drunkenness among them during their stay here. … These Indians excited so much interest from their dignified personal appearance, and from their peaceful manner, that they received a great number of rich presents, sufficient to fill six large boxes in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington…. There was a notice in the papers that the Indians would dance and display their feats in front of the President’s house on a certain day, which they did to at least 6,000 persons. They showed their manner of sitting in council, their dances, their war whoop, with the noises, gesticulations, &c. of the sentinels on the sight of an approaching enemy. They were in a state of perfect nudity, except a piece of red flannel round the waist and passing between the legs. They afterwards performed at the house of his Excellency M. Hyde de Neuville. They were painted horribly, and exhibited the operation of scalping and tomahawking in fine style.

The Ottaw half-chief and his squaw have taken tea with us and frequently visited us. She was a very good natured, mild woman, and he showed great readiness in acquiring our language, being inquisitive, retaining anything that he was once informed, and imitating admirably the tones of every word. … Our children were full of play with them, and the squaw nursed the younger ones. … The calumet of peace (the tomahawk pipe and their own sumach tobacco) frequently went round, and they expressed a wish to see us again. …

They count by tens as we do…. They hold polygamy as honourable; one wife, no good; three, good; four, very good. In their talks with the residents they show no wish to adopt our habits. (5)

One of the Pawnees, Petalesharo, became a celebrity when a story of how he had once saved a Comanche girl from being burned at the stake appeared in the local newspapers. Students at Miss White’s Select Female Seminary in Washington raised funds to have a medal created for Petalesharo to commemorate his act. The writer James Fenimore Cooper, who encountered the delegation, used Petalesharo as the model for the main Indian character in his novel The Prairie.

Meeting with the President

Sharitahrish (Wicked Chief) by Charles Bird King, 1822

Sharitahrish (Wicked Chief) by Charles Bird King, 1822

On February 4, 1822, the delegation met with President Monroe at the White House.

They were shown into the antechamber to the right of the drawing room. When I entered, I found the whole thirteen, that is twelve men and one woman, seated round the room, and Major O’Fallon, the officer who has charge of them, with four or five other gentlemen, standing at the fireplace. They were all dressed in blue cloth surtouts, with red cuffs and capes, blue pantaloons and boots – in short, in complete American costume, except that they wore on their heads a sort of coronet bedizened with red and blue foil, and stuck all round with feathers of the gayest colours. Their faces, too, were painted, though in a less fantastic style than usual. The squaw sat on a sofa near her husband, dressed in scarlet pantaloons, and wrapped in a green camblet cloak, without any ornament on her long black hair. They consisted, as I was told, of the Pawnees, Kansas, Ottoes, Mahas, and Missouries. The five chiefs were distinguished by two silver epaulettes, & the two half-chiefs by one. They were evidently not easy in their new habiliments – their coats seemed to pinch them about the shoulders; now and then they would take off their uneasy head dresses, and one sought a temporary relief by pulling off his boots.

Upon Major O’Fallon suggesting that they left the presents they intended for the President, the young men were immediately dispatched by their chiefs, and the squaw by her husband, for their intended tokens of friendship and good will. They returned in a few minutes with buffalo skins, pipes, moccasins, and feather head dresses. The President entered, with the Secretary of War, and taking his seat, delivered to them, through the interpreters, an extempore address, from notes held in his hand – and, as they used two distinct languages, it was necessary that every sentence should be twice interpreted. The President told them he was glad to see them – that, when he had met them before, he was too much engaged in receiving his great council to show them the attention he wished – and that now he had more leisure, and he was as pleased to see them in the dress of their white brethren as he had been before in that of their own country. He adverted to the visit they had made to our large towns – to our arsenals, navy yards, and the like, and told them that as much as they had seen, it could give them but a faint idea of our numbers and strength – as the deer and the buffalo they might chance to meet in passing through their forests bore a small proportion to those they did not see. That they had met with few of our warriors, because they were not wanted at the seat of our government, and because we were at peace with all the world – but if we were in a state of war, all our citizens would take arms into their hands and become brave warriors. He enjoined them to preserve peace with one another, and to listen to no voice which should persuade them to distrust the friendship of the United States. They were told that they should receive some presents, and be conducted safely back to their wives and children by Major O’Fallon, whose advice they were told to consider as the advice of their great father, the President, and were earnestly recommended to pursue. (6)

Each of the chiefs responded in turn, beginning with the principal leader of the Grand Pawnees, Sharitahrish.

My Great Father – Some of your good chiefs, or, as they are called, Missionaries, have proposed to send of their good people among us to change our habits, to make us work, and live like the white people. I will not tell a lie, I am going to tell the truth. You love your country; you love your people; you love the manner in which they live, and you think your people brave. I am like you, my Great Father, I love my country; I love my people; I love the manner in which we live, and think myself and warriors brave; spare me then, my Father, let me enjoy my country, and pursue the buffalo, and the beaver, and the other wild animals of our wilderness, and I will trade the skins with your people. I have grown up and lived thus long without work; I am in hopes you will suffer me to die without it. We have yet plenty of buffalo, beaver, deer, and other wild animals; we have also an abundance of horses. We have every thing we want. We have plenty of land, if you will keep your people off of it.

My Father [O’Fallon] has a piece on which he lives [Council Bluffs] and we wish him to enjoy it. We have enough without it; but we wish him to live near us to give us good counsel; to keep our ears and eyes open, that we may continue to pursue the right road; the road to happiness. He settles all differences between us and the whites, and between the red skins themselves. … We keep our eye constantly upon him, and since we have heard your words, we will listen more attentively to his.

It is too soon, my Great Father, to send those good men among us. We are not starving yet. We wish you to permit us to enjoy the chase, until the game of our country is exhausted; until the wild animals become extinct. Let us exhaust our present resources, before you make us toil, and interrupt our happiness. Let me continue to live as I have done, and after I have passed to the Good or Evil Spirit from the wilderness of my present life, the subsistence of my children may become so precarious as to need and embrace the offered assistance of these good people. (7)

After each had spoken, “they partook of wine, cake, and other refreshments, of which they were no wise sparing; and then lighting their pipes, filled with wild tobacco, they smoked awhile and presented their several pipes to the President, Chief Justice, and others, to take a whiff, in token of peace and amity.” (8)

An American who was present at the meeting commented:

It is impossible to see these people, and believe, as I do, that they are destined, in no very long lapse of time, to disappear from the face of the earth, without feeling for them great interests. With some vices, and much grossness, they possess many fine traits of character; and we never can forget that they were the native lords of that soil which they are gradually yielding to their invaders. Yes, I firmly believe that all our liberal and humane attempts to civilize them will prove hopeless and unavailing. Whether it is that they acquire our bad habits before our good ones, or that their course of life has, by its long continuance, so modified the nature of their race that it cannot thrive under the restraints of civilization, I know not; but it is certain that all the tribes which have remained among us have gradually dwindled to insignificance or become entirely extinct. … Considering the race to be thus transient, I have often wished that more pains were bestowed, and by more competent persons, in recording what is most remarkable and peculiar among them, now that those peculiarities are fresh and unchanged by their connection with us. (9)

The delegation left Washington in late February. Their visit cost the government over $6,000. It was considered worthwhile. The Washington Gazette editorialized:

The object of their interesting mission, we believe, has been fully accomplished: these aborigines are deeply impressed with the power of the long-knives, that for the future the tomahawk will not be raised with their consent, against their white brethren. (10)

The tribes from which the delegates came remained relatively peaceful as white settlers swept across the headwaters of the Missouri.

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  1. Herman J. Viola, Diplomats in Buckskins: A History of Indian Delegations in Washington City (Bluffton, SC, 1995), p. 24.
  2. Richard K. Crallé, ed., The Works of John C. Calhoun, Vol. V: Reports and Public Letters (New York, 1855), pp. 18-19.
  3. Diplomats in Buckskins, p. 25.
  4. Niles Weekly Register (Baltimore), December 15, 1821.
  5. William Faux, Memorable Days in America: Being a Journal of a Tour to the United States (London, 1823), pp. 378-382.
  6. Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, DC), February 11, 1822.
  7. Jedidiah Morse, A Report to the Secretary of War of the United States on Indian Affairs (New Haven, 1822), pp. 244-245.
  8. Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, DC), February 11, 1822.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Diplomats in Buckskins, p. 25.

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They were painted horribly, and exhibited the operation of scalping and tomahawking in fine style.

William Faux