Narrative Historical Overview


Indian Policy: The Colonial Legacy

At the time of European contact with the North American continent, all Indian nations exercised the powers of sovereigns by forming treaties, trade agreements, and military alliances with other Indian nations. In recognizing such sovereignty, each Indian nation consisted of a unique group of people who had a distinct language and a distinct moral, cultural, and religious structure; controlled and regulated a specific geographical area; and possessed governmental powers acknowledged by the tribal people and enforceable by some sort of tribal authority.

Indian Culture map

After British colonial settlement, many sovereign Indian nations negotiated similar agreements with new sovereign partners - the colonial administrations of Britain and its colonies. By signing such treaties, both the colonists and the Indian nations recognized each other's sovereignty: the Indian nations recognized the colonial governments as sovereign nations, while the colonial governments also acknowledged the sovereignty of the Indian nations.


Colonial and British governmental actions, however, indicated that they did not fully accept Indian sovereignty.  In fact, various colonial governments enacted four types of policies in their dealings with American Indians, each of which began to diminish the sovereignty of Indian nations:

  • Dispossession.  When the colonists initially bartered for Indian lands claiming that they could make the region more profitable, the Indians refused to sell.  Colonists resorting to dispossessing Indians - simply claiming and moving onto Indian land and refusing to move.
  • Removal.  The colonists asserted that because they could use the land more profitably than tribal nations, Indians would have to remove themselves from their ancestral lands and relocate beyond the boundaries of colonial settlement.  If Indians refused to relocate, the colonists responded that they would be forceably removed.
  • Assimilation.  While the colonists preferred that Indian people remove themselves from their settlements, they were willing to accept some Indian presence within the colonies if they assimilated into their society by accepting Christianity and British culture and traditions.
  • Elimination. If the Indians refused to move, assimilate, or accept colonial governors, colonists had the right to wage a "just war."

Individual colonists and colonial governments continually ignored informal agreements and formal treaties with Indian nations and engaged in warfare when they felt it was both just and necessary.  At the same time, the British Crown began reinterpreting the nature of tribal sovereignty. As individual colonists continually encroached upon Indian lands, the British Crown assumed a protectorate position - arguing that the Crown must protect the tribes against excesses and injustice at the hands of British colonists.   Map of North America 1700At the same time, the British sought to protect their colonies from the influence of two other European nations which settlements in North America: French colonists living in the French interiord who had secured the loyalty of many frontier tribes, and Spanish colonists living in Florida and the Southwest.



It was the fear of French alliances with the Indian people on the frontier that led to British recruitment of Indian allies during the French and Indian War. At the War's end, the British adopted the first formal policy directed at protecting the Indians: the Proclamation of 1763 which established a western boundary along the crest of the Appalachian Mountains across which the British colonists could not settle. As such, it provided a boundary that distinguished "Indian Country" from non-Indian country. It was, in fact, the first formal designation in North America of a distinct Indian Country set aside for Indian people.


Map of Proclamation Line 1763 The King had good reason to enact the Proclamation.  Many colonists were not only eager to move westward beyond the Appalachians into Indian Country, they were also quick to claim that the Indians were in the way of such progress.  Indeed, many colonists believed Indians to be an impediment to white progress, humanity, and most importantly, to Christianity.  Indeed, such intolerance was deeply rooted in their commitment to Christian superiority - the belief that Christian Europeans were superior to non-Christian, non-European peoples.


Such beliefs were buttressed by the authority of the Catholic Church through a series of Papal Bulls or decrees, the most important of which went into effect after Columbus returned to Europe. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the Inter Caetera granting Spain the right to conquer the lands Columbus had already "discovered" as well as any that might be "discovered" in the future. Thus, by the end of the 15th Century, what came to be known as the Doctrine of Discovery - the belief that white, Catholic Europeans had the right to discover and thereafter own the land whille the natives retained only the right to occupy it - was a well-established idea in the Christian world. Just how well the European colonists understood its significance is illustrated in the words of Diedrich Knickerbocker who in 1809 published A History of New York:


“But lest any scruples of conscience should remain on this head, and to settle the question of right forever, his holiness Pope Alexander VI, issued one of those mighty bulls, which bear down reason, argument and every thing before them; by which he generously granted the newly discovered quarter of the globe to the Spaniards and Portuguese ... Thus were the European worthies who first discovered America, clearly entitled to the soil; and not only entitled to the soil, but likewise to the eternal thanks of these infidel savages, for having come so far, endured so many perils by sea and land, and taken such unwearied pains, for no other purpose under heaven but to improve their forlorn, uncivilized and heathenish condition--for having made them acquainted with the comforts of life, such as gin, rum, brandy, and the small-pox; for having introduced among them the light of religion, and finally--for having hurried them out of the world, to enjoy its reward! “


A Summary of Colonial Indian Polices

  1. By the end of the colonial era, intolerance, Christian superiority, and the belief in the Doctrine of Discovery guided colonial attitudes toward American Indians and such attitudes were translated into formal and informal dispossession, removal, assimilation, and elimination policies.  
  2. Throughout the colonial era, the King adopted a protectionist attitude toward the American Indians - and attitude that resulted in the Proclamation Line of 1763. 
  3. These early attitudes and policies of the colonies and the King contributed to the federal Indian policies designed by the newly-created United States government.