1852 - 1880s Annuity system failures

GroVentre Indians taking their annuities home on travois on the Fort Belkanp Reservation in north central Montana

         The most serious problem affecting Indian/white relations on the Great Plains in the 1860s grew out of the failure of the annuity system - an invention of the Great White Father.  This 'tangled consequence' of failed promises resulted from the vast number of treaties struck with roaming tribes (for the acquisition of land) throughout the 1850s. 

         The government obtained title to these lands through Indian land cessions and thereby assumed an obligation to provide compensation to the tribes in the form of annuities.  Since a reduced land base for the Indians drastically reshaped their ability to sustain themselves by the chase, the annuities were a critical component to survival. 


   A stereopticon image of Pawnee Indians receiving annuities guaranteed to them by treaty.  


     Following ratification of these treaties by the U.S. Senate, the distribution of promised annuities was the responsibility of officials of the Indian office.  Some historians have concluded that the tribes received no more than half that was promised them.  "The annuity system," wrote Hiram Chittenden, 'probably gave rise to more abuses than any other one thing in the conduct of Indian affairs." 

         In the summer of 1864 as new wars broke out between whites and the plains tribes, DeSmet saw the effects of this abuse first hand.   As explained by historian Hiram Chittenden,  "The unhappy war which is now raging so fiercely over all the extent of the Great Desert, east of the Rocky Mountains, has, like so many other Indian wars, been provoked by numerous injustices and misdeeds on the part of the whites, and even of agents of the Government.  For years and years they have deceived the Indians with impunity in the sale of their holdings of land, and afterward, by the embezzlement, or rather the open theft, of immense sums paid them by the government in exchange therefore."

         S.J. Killoren adds: "The sorry fact is that despite the ready promises given by negotiators Mitchell and Fitzpatrick in 1851, Manypenny in 1853-54, Cumming and Stevens in 1855, Carson, Bent, and agent Jesse Leavenworth in 1865, the Indian Office made no plans and took no steps to develop the capability of fulfilling such commitments.  There continued to be general disregard for the 1834 directive specifying on-site residence for each tribal agent, who "shall not depart from the limits of his agency without permission." 

        There were no organized procedures for distributing annuities, and agents in remote areas were without means of transportation, offices, or abodes to store the annuities and supplies provided - this despite the 1847 legislation which called for "Superintendents, agents, and sub-agent" to be furnished with offices for the transaction of the public business, and the agents and sub-agents with houses for their residence."