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The Indian agent

March 17, 2013
Sue Eckhoff - Grundy County Heritage Museum , Reinbeck Courier

Between 1800-1840, the Indian agent was probably the most thankless job in the west. No man was ever caught more in the middle than he was. Appointed by the federal government to live among the Indians, he dispensed annuities, worked toward keeping the white settlers and Native Americans from conflict, was to keep an eye out for violations of laws and report them, maintain flexible cooperation with U.S. Army personnel, and to see to the successful removal of tribes from areas procured for settlement to reservations.

Singlehandedly he was supposed to restrain the legions of traders who cheated the Indians and illegally sold them whiskey. He was expected to teach the Indians how to farm in areas not fit for agriculture, and where the government often supplied the wrong types of farm implements.

It was also the agent's responsibility to keep white settlers off Indian land. In this capacity, as in so many others, he was practically powerless since the government steadily undermined his role by giving into the demands of land hungry pioneers. For all this he was paid less than a village postmaster. Not surprisingly many agents were ineffective, or plain dishonest, and the few who were committed to the job ultimately failed.

No one knew the paradoxes of the position more than William Bent. He was unusually well qualified to be an Indian agent, having lived among the Cheyenne and Arapahoe as a respected trader for years. He spoke their language and was married to a Cheyenne woman. When the Pikes Peak gold rush of 1858 brought thousands of miners into Cheyenne and Arapahoe territory, the Indians appealed to Bent as the one white man they trusted. Bent appealed to the federal government, who promptly made him an agent. As such, Bent quickly came to realize that the power of the white man was too great to be resisted, and he subsequently resigned in frustration.

For every good agent though, there were many more corrupt ones. Samuel Colley, a Cheyenne agent and his son amassed a fortune of $25,000 in two years by selling goods that rightfully belonged to the Indians. Another agent arrived at a reservation to find that his predecessor had not been seen for a month, and that there was $14,000 in unpaid bills. One agent had to be replaced for killing an Indian. His successor arrived to find there was a salaried school teacher, but no school. This enterprising young man admitted to supplementing his agent's salary of $1,500 to $4,000 by acting as a private secretary.

One notable Indian agent was Iowan Leander Clark, who served as agent to the Sac and Fox tribes in Iowa beginning in 1866.



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