Abraham Lincoln was noted for his reasonable approach to personal conflicts and, as he grew into the Presidency, his willingness to listen and not act in haste was helpful when faced with serious diplomatic problems. However, Lincoln was not at his best when dealing with Native American issues and it may have been a result of his family history.
Lincoln’s grandfather, also named Abraham, had been killed in a Shawnee raid in 1786, and Lincoln’s father, Thomas, then only five years old, witnessed the murder. Thomas himself narrowly escaped death in the same incident when his older brother shot and killed an attacker who was ready to strike young Thomas. After the death of the elder Mr. Lincoln, the surviving family lost their Kentucky homestead, and the story was told and retold with some bitterness by Thomas to his young son Abraham. Although there were several small tribes near their later homes in Indiana and Illinois, the Thomas Lincoln family had little interaction with Native Americans for many years.
However, in 1832, a group of several hundred Sauk and Fox Indians crossed the Mississippi river and raided settlements in Northern Illinois. At the request of the U.S. Army Commander in the area, the Illinois governor called for volunteers for the State Militia to attack and expel the Indians. Abraham Lincoln, then 23 years old, was elected as the Captain of a unit, the customary way to select officers in militias, and he led his men in preparation for what became known as the Black Hawk War. His unit never engaged in battle but he did see the aftermath of the conflict. One of his friends said later that Lincoln could not understand why the first response by so many Indians was often violent; as if he could not recognize that the Indians may have endured prior indignities by White settlers. Lincoln’s narrow view of the issues facing the indigenous tribes was certainly learned at an early age from his family and others who had immigrated to the frontier.
During the period from 1840-1860, Lincoln resided in Springfield, Illinois where almost all Native Americans had left the area, moving farther west and north; so he only had a few contacts with individual Indians, and almost no encounters with tribal issues for those years. In letters from that time, he only made minimal references to Indian affairs, but clearly he believed that that the White expansion westward was a benefit to the Country; and he accepted the fact that the tribes would be impacted. Actually, Lincoln, like many of his countrymen at that time, believed that the “civilizing influence of the culture of the new Americans” would eventually prove advantageous for the Indian societies.
In 1862, however, he was forced to face a serious situation when, as President, he sent Union troops to Minnesota and the Northwest Territories to quell an uprising by a force of several combined tribes of Sioux. General Polk’s U.S. Army units captured over 500 Indian warriors and, through military courts, condemned 303 to death; and then he planned a mass execution. When Lincoln read the dispatches from General Polk, he intervened and ordered that no executions were to occur until he could personally examine the charges against each man. Lincoln said that he wanted to assure that, “only those who were directly involved in killing, mutilation, and rape” were subject to the death penalty, and he eventually reduced the sentences of most of those who were convicted. However, he did not commute the sentence for 38 of the men in what then became the largest mass execution in American History.
Soon thereafter, Lincoln was scheduled to host a delegation of Indian Chiefs from different parts of the country at the White House, arranged by Indian Agents who were government representatives to the various tribes. The meeting’s purpose was to diffuse conflicts arising because some tribes were assisting the Confederate forces and others were expected to oppose the new intercontinental railroad and telegraph systems. In a planning session to discuss protocols, before the actual meeting, Lincoln said he intended to ask those Chiefs who had tribal members supporting the “rebels” if they had considered their fate when the Union won the war; however the Agents suggested a “softer tone.” Then Lincoln, in an undiplomatic moment, said that it might be difficult to reach agreements with the the Indians because “we are not as a race so much disposed to fight and kill one another as our red brethren.” Most in the planning session thought it was an incongruous statement considering the terrible loss of life continuing on both sides in Civil War battles. Lincoln quickly realized the gaffe and began to speak of the nobility of the tribal leaders. Later, at the official meeting, Lincoln was cordial and respectful to the assembled Chiefs but allowed the Agents to cover the more serious matters. However, his earlier comments probably reflected his true sentiments.
Like all of us, Abraham Lincoln had a few “blind spots” where even his usual calm and compassionate nature could not overcome deeply embedded perceptions. By 1864, however, through dispatches from reliable Western Generals who honestly explained the Indian perspectives, discussions with honorable civilians, including missionaries, who worked with various tribes, his ongoing conversations and growing respect for Cherokee Chief John Ross (in Cherokee “Guwisguwi” or “Little White Bird”), and probably his own introspection about his uncharacteristic bias against American Indians, Lincoln began to seek to improve relations with the tribes and to explore ways the government could provide assistance.
It seems that even good people, with honorable intentions, may have a paternalistic attitude toward those who are different, rather than what should be respect and tolerance. Lincoln usually sought to become better acquainted with those with whom he disagreed or anticipated conflict, once saying, “I don’t like that man, I think I should like to get to know him better.” It was only late in his life, however, that he was able to apply that philosophy to American Indians. But, he did finally change!
Perhaps there is a message here about overcoming personal biases, even if the epiphany is somewhat delayed.
contact the author at email@example.com