Category: Muster

California’s slavery reparations task force and the lessons of history

California’s slavery reparations task force and the lessons of history

The nine members of California’s reparations task force have a monumental job before them. They have already conducted a detailed investigation into the history of anti-Black discrimination in the United States; they’re also expected to make a formal recommendation to the California legislature as to who will be eligible for reparations and how such a program should be enacted. Members of the task force have consulted experts in history, law, economics, urban studies, and more. They’ve made much of their work publicly accessible through livestreamed meetings and their “Interim Report,” released this June.[1]

Don’t be fooled by the title. The report is only “interim” in that it precedes the committee’s final policy recommendations, to be issued next summer. But there’s nothing provisional about it. The report is a sweeping, painstaking, 500-page history of state-sponsored discrimination against African Americans, in California and nationally. It details 170 years of government policies and individual actions that deprived African Americans of their liberty, labor, wealth, land, education, and often their lives. “White supremacy,” the report underlines, “is a persistent badge of slavery that continues to be embedded today in numerous American and Californian legal, economic, and social and political systems.” The document is a difficult but necessary lesson in history.[2]

Earlier this year, the task force made headlines with a closely contested vote over who would be eligible for reparations. By a 5-4 margin, the commission decided to limit eligibility to those who can trace their ancestry to an enslaved person or to a free Black person who arrived in the United States prior to the turn of the 20th century. Kamilah Moore, the chair of the task force, argued that a reparations program based on lineage rather than race would have the best chance of surviving a legal challenge. A specific plan for how reparations would be allocated – whether in the form of cash payments, baby bonds, land transfers, tuition assistance, or other methods – is yet to be determined.[3]

African American man standing over gold mining claim in California.
Unidentified Black man in Gold Rush California in 1852. Courtesy of the California State Library.

Although California’s task force is the first of its kind, the campaign for reparations has deep roots. From the moment they were emancipated, freedpeople demanded recognition for their service to the country. They argued that generations of unpaid labor coupled with their loyalty to the United States during the Civil War entitled them to some form of compensation – ideally land. Some freedpeople received small parcels, most famously the beneficiaries of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15. By Sherman’s orders, thousands of formerly enslaved people received confiscated Confederate land along the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, divided into parcels of not more than 40 acres.[4]

But the program was short-lived. When President Andrew Johnson began pardoning ex-Confederates en masse, most of that land was taken from freedpeople and returned to Southern rebels. The federal government gave far more land to Gilded Age railroad corporations than to freedpeople and their descendants.[5] Black people continued advocating, however. Callie House, a formerly enslaved woman, organized a national reparations movement and, in 1915, sued the U.S. Treasury Department for $68 million. House’s claim was struck down by the US Supreme Court.[6]

For the past century-and-a-half, a meaningful reparations program has remained, more or less, a pipe dream. But that could change, beginning with California.

That California is leading the nation in the campaign for slavery reparations may seem curious to some. California, after all, was a free state, far distant from the plantations of the Deep South, where the majority of America’s enslaved population labored. Furthermore, California remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War. The Golden State has only a tenuous link to the history of American slavery – or so it would seem.

But, as a growing group of scholars have revealed, California was a free state in name only.

Beginning in 1849, white Southerners joined the international rush to the gold diggings around Sacramento. Hundreds of them brought enslaved Black laborers with them. Even after the ratification of California’s antislavery constitution in 1850, many African Americans remained in bondage within the state.[7]

California’s lawmakers enabled and empowered the slaveholders in their midst. A Mississippi planter-cum-California politician named William Gwin served as the state’s ranking U.S. Senator through most of the antebellum era. He stuffed California’s lucrative federal positions with his Southern-born friends, ensuring that a cabal of proslavery partisans would control the political fortunes of the Far West. The California Supreme Court, too, was a haven for white Southern transplants. Five of the seven justices who sat on the state supreme court between 1852 and 1857 hailed from the slave South, while even one of the Northerners was a supporter of the slaveholding extremist John C. Calhoun. In dozens of cases between 1852 and 1855, California’s courts rejected the freedom claims of Black Americans and remanded them to their purported owners.[8]

When the Civil War broke out, those proslavery powerbrokers threatened California’s loyalty to the Union. General Edwin Vose Sumner, the commander of the U.S. Department of the Pacific, estimated that there were thousands of would-be rebels in the state. While “there is a strong Union feeling with the majority of the people of this State,” Sumner reported, “the secessionists are much the most active and zealous party.”[9] Rebel activity was so strong in Southern California that the U.S. was compelled to construct a military complex, known as Drum Barracks, just outside Los Angeles. Thousands of U.S. troops passed through Drum Barracks over the course of the war.[10]

Southern sympathies persisted into the postwar period and threatened the hard-won rights of Black Californians. The California Democratic Party swept back to power in 1867 on an anti-Black, anti-Chinese, and anti-Reconstruction platform. Governor Henry Haight castigated Republican efforts to protect freedpeople in the South. He likened Reconstruction to military despotism, which devolved “political control to a mass of negroes just emancipated and almost as ignorant of political duties as the beasts of the field.”[11] California was the only free state that refused to ratify the 14th and 15th Amendments during the Reconstruction era. The state legislature didn’t ratify those amendments until 1959 and 1962, respectively.[12]

Whether California will pass a reparations package to address some of these injustices remains to be seen. If so, it would be a historic achievement in a nation that has long resisted such measures. The members of the task force have already made a powerful case with their interim report. And, as that report makes clear, any path to reparations must begin with a lesson in history.

[1] Lil Kalish, “California’s reparations task force explained,” Cal Matters, April 13, 2022; Kevin Waite, “Why California’s slavery reparations task force has the power to transform us all,” Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2021. For a catalogue of the task force’s public meetings, see

[2] “Interim Report,” California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans, June 2022:

[3] “California reparations to be limited to descendants of enslaved people, taskforce decides,” The Guardian, March 30, 2022; “California’s reparations effort moves ahead: Here’s what’s next,” Los Angeles Times, March 30, 2022.

[4] William Tecumseh Sherman, Special Field Order No. 15, fulltext available via Blackpast at: For particularly poignant appeals for land, see the letters of the freedpeople of Edisto Island, in Ira Berlin, Steven Hahn, Steven F. Miller, Joseph P. Reidy, Leslie S. Rowland, “The Terrain of Freedom: The Struggle Over the Meaning of Free Laboru in the U.S. South,” History Workshop Journal 22:1 (Autumn 1986), 127-129.

[5] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988); see also, James L. Roark, Masters Without Slaves: Southern Planters in the Civil War and Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press (New York: Norton, 1977); White, Richard, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011).

[6] Mary Frances Berry, My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations (New York: Knopf, 2005).

[7] Stacey L. Smith, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Kevin Waite, West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021); Rudolph M. Lapp, Blacks in Gold Rush California (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977).

[8] Waite, West of Slavery, 91-122; Smith, Freedom’s Frontier, 47-79; and Leonard Richards, The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: Vintage, 2007).

[9] Sumner to Colonel E.D. Townsend, Assistant Adjutant-General, Department of the Pacific, April 28, 1861, Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. L, Part 1, p. 472.

[10] Glenna Matthews, The Golden State in the Civil War: Thomas Starr King, the Republican Party, and the Birth of Modern California (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); John W. Robinson, Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977, 2013); Waite, West of Slavery, 181-208.

[11] Henry H. Haight, Inaugural Address of H.H. Haight, Governor of the State of California, at the Seventeenth Session of the Legislature, and Special Message of Governor H.H. Haight, of California Declining to Transmit Senate Resolutions Condemnatory of President Johnson (New York: Douglas Taylor’s Democratic Book and Job Printing Office, 1868), 9-10.

[12] Kevin Waite, “Reconstruction in the American West,” in Andrew L. Slap, ed., The Oxford Handbook on Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

Kevin A. Waite

Kevin Waite is a political historian of the 19th-century United States with a focus on slavery, imperialism, and the American West at Durham University (UK). His first book, West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire (UNC Press, 2021), won the 2022 Wiley-Silver Prize from the Center for Civil War Research and was a finalist for the Lincoln Prize.

Previewing the September 2022 JCWE Issue

Previewing the September 2022 JCWE Issue

This issue includes one original article, two very interesting lectures, a review essay, and the usual slate of excellent book reviews that together continue to expand our understanding of the field, its key actors, and its central questions.

The first of the published lectures is Thavolia Glymph’s acceptance speech for her Tom Watson Brown Award–winning book, The Women’s Fight: The Civil War’s Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation. She delivered the speech during the Southern Historical Association’s virtual annual meeting on November 5, 2021. Glymph’s lecture captures her book’s argument that Black women, despite assertions to the contrary in the literature, are highly visible in the archives historians already use. Glymph’s essay both crystallizes one of her book’s broadest arguments and offers examples of how historians can work with the existing archives of Black women’s lives.

The next essay is Louis P. Masur’s Robert Fortenbaugh Memorial Lecture, “Abraham Lincoln and the Problem of Reconstruction.” This was the Fifty-ninth Fortenbaugh Lecture, delivered at Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute on November 19, 2021. Masur draws on his books, especially Lincoln’s Last Speech: Wartime Reconstruction and the Crisis of Reunion, to reexamine the Civil War history of the issues that became central during Reconstruction and to advance ideas about Lincoln’s potential trajectory, had he lived.

Evan Turiano’s “‘Prophecies of Loss’: Slave Flight during Virginia’s Secession Crisis” explores how slave escapes became a political issue during Virginia’s struggle over secession. Through close readings of speeches, newspaper accounts, and other sources, Turiano captures how unionists, early in the debate, argued that secession would open the door to increased flight by enslaved people. Yet as the debate progressed, secessionists reconfigured the argument, drawing attention to Lincoln’s critiques of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and suggesting that he would likely be an unreliable enforcer of it. Throughout, Turiano embeds the stories of fugitive enslaved people to show how their actions, not just their invocation, mattered in the debate.

Richard Bell’s review essay, “Peepholes, Eels, and Pickett’s Charge: Doing Microhistory Then and Now,” examines the relationship between microhistory and the Civil War Era. Bell discusses the ongoing, now fifty-year-old debates about what microhistory is, beyond a tight focus on a small subject. Bell also asks which works in Civil War Era scholarship are microhistory, whether they acknowledge it or not, and what the field could gain by self-consciously adopting microhistorical approaches.

The book review section continues to be a source of pride for the journal, and we remain grateful for book review editor Kathryn Shively’s dedication in the face of pandemic-related challenges in publishing and academia. We also thank Northwestern University’s Department of History, which has provided financial support for the book review section over the past year, and Mikala Stokes, a PhD candidate at Northwestern, who has assisted Shively in producing the section. 

Kate Masur and Greg Downs

Kate Masur is an associate professor at Northwestern University, specializing in the history of the nineteenth-century United States, focusing on how Americans grappled with questions of race and equality after the abolition of slavery. Greg Downs, who studies U.S. political and cultural history in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is a professor of history at University of California--Davis. Together they edited an essay collection on the Civil War titled The World the Civil War Made (North Carolina, 2015), and they currently co-edit The Journal of the Civil War Era.

“An Earthquake”: Lincoln’s First Inaugural, Fugitive Slave Rendition, and Virginia’s Secession

“An Earthquake”: Lincoln’s First Inaugural, Fugitive Slave Rendition, and Virginia’s Secession

[Editor’s Note: This article is adopted from Evan Turiano’s forthcoming  “‘Prophecies of Loss’: Debating Slave Flight During Virginia’s Secession Crisis,” which will appear in the September 2022 issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era.

The Virginia secession convention was set into motion on November 15, 1860, barely a week after Lincoln’s election. On February 4, 1861, Virginians went to the polls to elect 152 convention delegates. At first, relatively few Virginians favored secession. Voters rebuked many of the most ardently pro-secession candidates in the February 4 election and only about one-sixth of the elected delegates entered the convention favoring disunion.[1]  Most of the remaining delegates, two out of every three, favored union upon certain conditions.[2] Both of these groups approached their position with a commitment to protecting slavery and, specifically, with an eye toward stopping enslaved people from fleeing toward freedom. Unionists argued that secession would unleash a wave of escapes that could threaten slavery’s future. Secessionists, on the other hand, insisted that freedom seekers already posed a grave threat to slavery, one that Lincoln would only exacerbate as president.

As Virginians debated secession through February 1861, conditional unionists looked anxiously to the incoming administration for signs of concession and conciliation, particularly on the question of fugitive slave rendition. The pivotal moment came on March 4th, when Lincoln addressed a tense, packed crowd at the Capitol’s east portico. Lincoln began with an acknowledgement that the Constitution provided slaveholders with a right “for the reclaiming of what we call fugitive slaves.”[3] For some historians, this has been the critical, sole takeaway from Lincoln’s words on fugitive slave rendition as he assumed the presidency.[4] Instead, proslavery Virginians on both sides of the secession debate heard Lincoln’s message on fugitive slave rendition as a hostile one. Proslavery unionists heard their warnings about the relationship between secession and the forfeiture of constitutional rights clearly echoed. Secessionists, on the other hand, perceived Lincoln’s commitment to maintaining the right to a jury trial for accused fugitives from slavery, one that undermined the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. In the fallout of Lincoln’s speech, Virginia secessionists were able to use Lincoln’s evident hostility to win support for their cause, and to ultimately win disunion in the Old Dominion.

Capital Building in background with a large crowd in foreground of the sepia tone photograph.
“Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, March 4, 1861,” from the Benjamin Brown French Photograph collection.

On March 4th, Lincoln addressed states on the fence like Virginia with a clear message: if they seceded, “fugitives, now only partially surrendered, would not be surrendered at all.”[5] He had made the same point on the campaign trail before a crowd in Cincinnati in 1859. Speaking through cheers and laughter, Lincoln challenged Southern whispers of secession. “Are you going to build up a wall some way between your country and ours, by which that movable property of yours can’t come over here any more, to the danger of your losing it?” If secessionism was an effort to promote further Northern participation in fugitive slave rendition, Lincoln asked, “When we cease to be under obligations to do anything for you, how much better off do you think you will be?”[6] As if to prove Lincoln’s point, alongside a transcript of the inaugural address, the March 5 edition of the Richmond Daily Whig ran a story about a fugitive from slavery named John Bell. Bell had been in the custody of a US Marshal and was set to sail from New York City to Richmond. He was, instead, forcibly freed by a “mob of negroes and whites.”[7]

While unionists saw their warnings of forfeited rights echoed and their calls for concessions largely ignored, Lincoln’s inaugural address provided secessionists with fuel for their arguments about the uselessness of the Constitution’s fugitive slave protections. Instead of offering a commitment to returning fugitive slaves within the Union, he called the overreach of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law into question and suggested that accused fugitive slaves might deserve equal protection under the Constitution.[8]

Lincoln delegitimized a key premise of the 1850 law by claiming that there remained “some difference of opinion” as to whether the federal government had any constitutional authority to participate in fugitive slave rendition. Furthermore, he asked, “Ought not all the safeguards of liberty known in civilized and humane jurisprudence . . . be introduced, so that a free man be not in any case surrendered as a slave?” Lincoln went on to suggest that the 1850 law be amended to guarantee that “the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states.”[9] In the eyes of secessionists, this, too, amounted to a rejection of fundamental features of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. The Liberator, otherwise critical of Lincoln and his address, recognized that his call for a national protection of Black legal rights in the face of fugitive slave rendition represented something “no other President has yet done.”[10] Many proslavery Virginians were inclined to agree that Lincoln’s messaging was unprecedented. Over the course of March, they came to believe that their best hope for stopping slave flight might lie outside the United States.

Virginia’s proslavery unionists struggled to maintain their position in the face of the broadly negative reception of Lincoln’s address. Convention delegate William C. Wickham wrote to a fellow Virginia Whig, Winfield Scott, a week after the address to complain that it “has had a most unhappy influence upon some of the members of our Convention.”[11] In a letter to his wife, another unionist described the address as “an earthquake” that “embarrassed” the unionist faithful.[12] Those who stayed in the unionist camp tried with limited success to train focus away from the policies Lincoln suggested and toward his threats regarding the forfeiture of constitutional protections that would come with secession. Lincoln’s firm stance, they argued, indicated that slavery in the seceded states would receive no special protections and would in fact face aggression across a newly foreign border.

For secessionists, on the other hand, Lincoln’s firm message proved fortuitous. When slaveholding Virginians read transcripts of Lincoln’s first inaugural address, they understood his discussion of fugitive slave rendition as antagonistic to their property rights. Lincoln’s rejection of these property rights in favor of jury trial protections was, according to one historian, “of far greater significance to conservatives of the upper South” than was his denial of the legal right to secession.[13] The Richmond Daily Whig reflected this concern. “To offset the admission of the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave ‘delivering up,’” the editors explained to their readers, “the President apparently insists upon the guarantee, that Northern citizens (meaning Negro citizens, perhaps?) shall have legislative Protection, South.”[14] Editors at the Daily Whig tapped into a decades-old conflict between the legal rights claimed by African Americans accused of being fugitive slaves and the proslavery desire for an airtight property right. In Lincoln’s call for the privileges and immunities of African American citizens to be protected despite the Fugitive Slave Law, they heard reverberations of a movement at least as old as the Missouri Crisis that had since become a cornerstone of political abolitionism.

Over the course of March 1861, their appeal began to work. Secessionists, still a minority in the state when Lincoln issued his inaugural address, raked in former conditional unionists as that bloc came to believe that concessions—on fugitive slave rendition and otherwise—would not come. For example, Halifax County delegate James C. Bruce began the convention with concerns about the South’s independent economic prospects and a commitment to striking a compromise with the federal government. By late March—while still holding out hope for a compromise—Bruce lamented that since the Prigg v. Pennsylvania decision nearly two decades earlier, fugitive slave rendition had become so impossible that “when a slave escaped, his master looked upon him as much beyond his reach as if he were dead.” This “distinct and solemn violation of the Constitution” was, Bruce had come to realize, just one example of the “the hatred of our Southern institutions and our system of slavery” that was “irradicably ingrafted into the minds of the Northern people,” where, he feared, it “can never be eradicated.”[15] Bruce cast one final bid for unionism on April 4, and by the final vote he had joined the secessionist ranks.[16]

On the eve of secession, Virginia slaveholders were tremendously concerned about the security of their human property and the protection it received from the federal government. During the secession crisis, the question of whether they were more likely to be able to prevent escapes—and reclaim people who fled—inside or outside the Union animated fierce debates. Instead of the concessions proslavery unionists hoped for, Lincoln’s inaugural address struck Virginians as hostile to their peculiar institution. In the inauguration’s wake, secessionist arguments that hostile Northerners rendered constitutional protections worthless began to prevail. Throughout, virtually all proslavery Virginians knew that enslaved people would make political calculations to seize their own freedom.

[1] Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), xvii; William W. Freehling and Craig M. Simpson, ed., Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011), xi.

[2] Freehling and Simpson, eds., Showdown in Virginia, xviii–xix. On the centrality of anti-slaveholder politics in the secession and formation of West Virginia, see William A. Link, “‘This Bastard New Virginia’: Slavery, West Virginia Exceptionalism, and the Secession Crisis,” West Virginia History 3 (Spring 2009): 37–56.

[3] “First Inaugural Address—Final Text,” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy G. Basler, 8 vols. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 4:263.

[4] See, for example: Daniel W. Crofts, Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 236–37. For a more nuanced view that considers the limits Lincoln proposed, see Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 158.

[5] “First Inaugural Address—Final Text,” Collected Works of Lincoln, ed. Basler, 4:269.

[6] “Speech at Cincinnati, Ohio,” Collected Works of Lincoln, ed. Basler, 3:454.

[7] Richmond Daily Whig, March 5, 1861. For more on Bell, see Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015), 214–15.

[8] “First Inaugural Address—Final Text,” Collected Works of Lincoln, ed. Basler, 4:262-71.

[9]  “First Inaugural Address—Final Text,” Collected Works of Lincoln, ed. Basler, 4:264; For an argument connecting this statement to fugitives from slavery, see James Oakes, The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution (New York: W. W. Norton, 2021), 116–17.

[10]  Liberator (Boston), March 8, 1861.

[11] William C. Wickham to Winfield Scott, March 11, 1861, in The Lincoln Papers, ed. David C. Mearns (New York: Doubleday, 1948), 2:481.

[12] Henry T. Shanks, The Secession Movement in Virginia, 1847-1861 (Richmond: Garrett & Massie, 1934), 178.

[13] Dwight Lowell Dumond, The Secession Movement, 1860–1861 (1931; repr., New York: Negro Universities Press, 1968), 260.

[14] “Views of the Press on Mr. Lincoln’s Inaugural,” Richmond Daily Whig, March 7, 1861.

[15] James C. Bruce, March 23, 1861, in George H. Reese, ed., Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861, February 13-May 1, 4 vols. (Richmond: Virginia State Library), 1:241-42.

[16] Donald Gunter, “Bruce, James Coles (1806–1865),” in Encyclopedia Virginia (Charlottesville: Virginia Humanities, 2021),

Evan Turiano

Evan Turiano is the Macaulay Honors College Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Queens College, CUNY. He received his Ph.D. from the Graduate Center, CUNY.

Haunted Former Safe Havens of Reconstruction

Haunted Former Safe Havens of Reconstruction

I had had enough of ghost stories as the author of a book about the Colfax Massacre.  I had discovered the awkwardness of being a white woman who became the expert on the suffering of Black people. And while no one had told me it was not right, I came to see my role as distasteful.  I had resolved to focus on happier material for my second book, finding in the Radical Republicans of the Civil War era a set of doughty champions and telling the story of their great victories over slavery and racism.

I was still seeking out less grim history when I initiated my research into New-Orleans area “safe havens” during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.  Surely there were instances to be rediscovered in the archives when the presence of the Union Army, sympathetic officials, and ultimately Black voters created bastions of physical security and political power for African Americans in the city.  The country town of Colfax – 225 miles to the north – had been one such safe haven. The town had been a center of law and order for Black residents and a reliably Republican polling place in 1870 and 1872 elections.  Already I knew the names of New Orleans sites with similar reputations: the federal Custom House, Economy Hall in Treme, the Mechanics Institute, home to the Reconstruction-era legislature, and Elephant Johnny’s, a bar and polling site depicted in a well-known lithograph.  I was following a hunch that Provost Marshal courts were sometimes dispensers of justice where Black people went for redress of post-Emancipation grievances.  And in case my research proved partial or fruitless, I knew I could rely on the one surviving relic in New Orleans that was already almost famous as a haven for refugees from slavery in the Civil War era, Camp Parapet.

Camp Parapet served as the setting of one of the most bombastic confrontations I discovered for When It Was Grand, my book about the Radical Republican movement.  In 1862, the pure-hearted Vermont abolitionist General John W. Phelps had told the wily and political Major General Benjamin Butler that he would not obey orders to put Black men to work building levees at Camp Parapet. Phelps resigned his commission rather than obey orders to stop raiding nearby plantations and forming Black army regiments at Parapet.[1]

Historic map with a river at top and historic fort identified.
“Approaches to New Orleans,” 1863, featuring Camp Parapet in red on the left. Courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection

For my new project, a quick review of historical sources suggested I would find plenty of examples of the use of military power and the largess of the federal state to improve the prospects for Black people in the vicinity of Camp Parapet after Phelps’s resignation.  This safe haven remained at the center of Black life in that part of Jefferson Parish even after the departure of federal troops and Freedmen’s Bureau agents.  And unlike most of the other identified locations, the physical footprint of Camp Parapet remained partially intact and still designated today by a historical marker – one that made no mention of the site’s history as a bastion of Black power in New Orleans.

How had our memory of Camp Parapet as a civil rights site been forgotten?  To answer this question, I had to reckon with the ghostly post-Reconstruction history of the location.

Local newspapers hold onto stories that ultimately slip out of the historical narrative. With digitization, researchers, including my own students, are transformed into history detectives after a few keystrokes.  Early in my research into Camp Parapet, I was struck by the way my chronological list of matches confirmed my hunch that Black families benefited from federal intervention at Camp Parapet.  I read about the establishment of Black churches, a hospital, and medical offices in the vicinity.  A series of reports documented how wartime Provosts Marshal, a Freedmen’s Bureau court, and a justice of the peace office headed by a Black official addressed crimes against Black laborers and residents at Camp Parapet.[2]  I found evidence of community life such as a Black-owned nightclub, parades, and a mutual aid and parade society calling itself Sons and Daughters of Camparapet.[3]  I also found evidence that this prosperity did not escape the observation of conservative white Jefferson Parish residents.

At Parapet (now part of Carrollton in metropolitan New Orleans but then a satellite community with open farmland), the earliest signs of trouble concerned elections.  An early victim was a white man well known for his whiskers who was attacked violently with scissors and shorn of his beard after voting against a local white coalition.  An attack on the poll station at Camp Parapet muddied 1876 election results with more than 500 false Democratic Party ballots, and the arrest there on trumped-up charges of William Smith Calhoun, Colfax, Louisiana’s white Republican eminence, is a clear indicator in retrospect of the onset of KKK-style agitation.[4]

By the time serious violence broke out in 1893, the management of Camp Parapet had passed from Civil War and Reconstruction-era Black-friendly authorities to a generation of white male officials elected mainly by white voters. The new political leaders desired demonstrating their commitment to white supremacy for their most virulent constituents.  These men found special meaning in an incidence of deplorable violence in the still-operating Camp Parapet justice of the peace precinct office. Now staffed entirely by white officials, the office still symbolized thirty years of law and order and even racial justice for East Bank Jefferson Parish residents.  The murder of a white official on the site and the disappearance of the perpetrator into adjacent swamps aroused suspicions of collaboration, a possible race war, and fears of local Black aggression.  Eight days of rioting ensued. Armed white residents interrogated Black residents. Consisting of every elected official in the parish, several mobs perpetrated murders, tortures, and other crimes in and around this early Reconstruction safe haven.[5]

After killing an uncounted number inside the ruins of the old fort, white officials circulated gleeful detailed accounts of their atrocities in the press before consolidating their symbolic victory. They purchased Camp Parapet and transformed the subterranean powder magazine and grounds into an unofficial parish jail and pauper’s graveyard. Without generating records, the watery, pitch-black detention facility and prior site of  hair-raising tortures operated until 1922.[6]  By the 1960s, white women wearing hoop skirts were commemorating “acts of Confederate valor” on the site in a ritual that persists into the present day.[7]

B/W photo of earthen mound with an entrance in foreground.
Camp Parapet Powder Magazine in 1976, Courtesy of the National Parks Service

The version of myself that wrote The Colfax Massacre in the early 2000s would have documented in detail the terrible things that I learned about Camp Parapet, acting on the principle that we all should bear witness to so much suffering and crime.  Now I can hardly bring myself to type the grisly titles of newspaper accounts into my citations.  Surely the alignment of state power with the violence of white supremacy in this instance is too important to ignore and the untold story of Camp Parapet is my obligation to promote.

I had imagined a new project in which I tracked sacred spaces in the advancement of Black citizenship in New Orleans or perhaps the region.  The Camp Parapet research made me pause to consider.  How many ghost stories have arisen from white terrorists’ mocking appropriation of sites that had born witness to Black celebrations?  Who benefits if I persist in my inquiry?

For seventy years until 2021, a taunting white supremacy summary of the events of the Colfax Massacre stood planted in the mass grave of sixty-nine men who died defending the right to vote for the Republican Party.  The Jim Crow marker is now gone. In keeping with the wishes of descendants of the victims, however, the marker has not been replaced. Most of them remain members of the extended Colfax community.  We must find a way to remember the tragedy of 1873 in Colfax and 1893 in Jefferson Parish in ways that promote wholeness in our own contested present.

What shall we commemorate at Camp Parapet?  The present colorblind acknowledgment of the powder magazine as a Civil War site will not suffice.  In its place, I propose to mark the date of a parade of June 11, 1864, launched with music and banners from the fort and destined for Congo Square at the top of the French Quarter.  Tens of thousands showed up, singing and cheering for the new Restoration Louisiana constitution, which had permanently abolished slavery in the state.[8]

Let the tally of the murdered appear elsewhere.


[1] LeeAnna Keith, When It Was Grand: The Radical Republican History of the Civil War (New York: Hill & Wang, 2020), 160-165.  See also Elizabeth Leonard, Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022), 99, 102.

[2] “Trimonthly Report of Operations, Volume I,” Subordinate Field Offices, Records of the Field Offices for the State of Louisiana, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1863-1872, Smithsonian Museum of African American History, Washington, D.C.,; “Letter from Hon. John Hutchins: Further Vindication of Gen. Banks,” Liberator, March 17, 1865; General Court Martial Orders from the Headquarters of the Department of the Gulf, 1862, American Memory, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.,; Chandra Manning, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), 275.

[3] “Zion’s Benevolent Association of Sons and Daughters of Camparapet, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, Constitution, By-Laws, and Rules of Order, 1872,” New Orleans Black Benevolent Association Collection, Archives and Special Collections for Black Studies, Xavier University, New Orleans, Louisiana.

[4] “Cut Off Colone’s Beard: Now They Go to Jail for Trying to Intimidate Louisiana Voters,” New York Times, May 10, 1910; “The Republican and the Returning Board,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, November 23, 1876; “Arrest of W. S. Calhoun, Indicted for Forgery,” New Orleans Times, April 19, 1875.

[5] Ida B. Wells-Barnett, The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States (Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany: Outlook Verlag g.m.b.h, 2018), 31.

[6] [Jefferson Parish News], New Orleans Times-Picayune, July 17, 1894; “Jeff Restoring War Memorial,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, March 28, 1963.

[7] “Awards Given by UDC Group,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 18, 1963.

[8] William Lloyd Garrison, “Letter to Professor Newman, No. II,” The Liberator, July 22, 1864; Eric Sieferth, “Where Do Second LInes Come From? The Origins Go Back More Than 200 Years,” Historic New Orleans Collection,

LeeAnna Keith

LeeAnna Keith teaches history at Collegiate School. She is the author of When It Was Grand: The Radical Republican History of the Civil War.

Crossing Borders as Refugees: A Comparison of Dakota and Poles

Crossing Borders as Refugees: A Comparison of Dakota and Poles

Civil War era historians have made several comparisons between Russia’s suppression of the Polish rebellion in 1863 and the U.S. efforts to quash the enslavers’ rebellion in the United States. Most of these comparisons are either imbued by traces of U.S. exceptionalism, such as the many U.S. centric interpretations of the Russian fleet visit to New York and San Francisco, or illustrate a lack of understanding of the European as well as Polish situation. However, a consideration of the refugee situation offers fresh insights, something especially in light of the recent events in Ukraine, giving the topic contemporary meaning.

U.S. historians tend to overlook a crucial aspect that internationalized the suppression of a domestic rebellion in Poland by Russia—the Alvensleben Convention, which opened the door to Russian forces to pursue Polish refugees into neighboring Prussia. A similar desire, that was also never formally enacted, followed the conflict between Minnesota settlers, U.S. forces, and the Dakota nation in 1862, which some Civil War era historians have also dismissed as not part of the conflict.[1] While some Dakota fled westward into the Plains, others escaped across the border into Canada and U.S. authorities were keen to pursue them and bring these refugees to justice, which they illegally did in one instance. In both cases we see nationalities that lack states and have suffered decades of oppression (Poles and Dakota) strike back at imperial powers (Russia and the United States) bringing about imperial border issues with neighboring empires (Prussia and Great Britain-Canada). The comparative refugee crisis broadens our understanding of the Civil War era and, offers a much more insightful comparison then what diplomatic historians have so far shown or the flawed recent comparison of guerilla warfare with regard to the Polish rebellion. Furthermore, looking at Poles and Dakota expands the Civil War narrative westward, which is long overdue. Such an exercise might address a call by Enrico Dal Lago to consider imperial comparison as the next stage of the transnationalization of the Civil War era in his recent Journal of the Civil War Era essay.[2]

In late January 1863, the Poles once more rose up in rebellion against their Russia overlord. Only two years earlier, they had done so already (often not noticed or mentioned by Civil War era historians). The Poles had long complained about their state being absent from the European map despite them having a national identity that dated back centuries. The Polish people also took issue with the autocratic governing by Russia and military duties imposed on them. This could have been just another domestic disturbance of the era subdued by the imperial authorities without much international concern or attention, leaving aside public protests of course.[3]

The Polish Rebellion of 1863 escalated when the newly appointed Minister President of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck tried to score political points and ingratiate his country to Russia. Preparing for the process of German Unification, he orchestrated the so-called Alvensleben Convention. Signed on February 8, 1863, Prussia permitted Russian forces to cross into Prussian territory in pursuit of fleeing rebels and apprehend them. All Polish revolutionaries captured were to be turned over to a Russian military court upon extradition. International pressure soon came to bear on Prussia as Great Britain and France viewed the agreement as meddling in Russia’s internal affairs. Russia never insisted on the implementation of the convention. As a result, those Poles lucky enough to reach Prussia were able to escape Russian prosecution, death sentences, and Siberian exile.

B/W photo of group of armed 19th C. soldiers
Polish scythemen of the January Uprising.

Thousands fled across the border with Prussia and Austria to find safety. The Grazer Zeitung reported that over 800 refugees had crossed into Austria, where they were welcomed; but there was concern that the events in Poland could destabilize the Polish province of the Austrian Empire as well.[4] There was also the case of two Polish students arrested by the Prussian authorities on request from Russia for extradition back to Russian Poland. In this case, the French representative in Berlin had stepped in to protect the two students as French citizens.[5] Otherwise the authors have not located stories of Poles returned to Russia by the Prussian authorities during or after 1863.

Contemporaries and modern historians like to focus on the shared rebellion story between Poles and enslavers or the way U.S. and Russian authorities dealt with rebellious subjects; however, nobody has yet explored the refugee story and how this aspect of the Polish rebellion may have parallels in the United States. Polish nationals, who had a long and proud national identity, dating back to the days when Poland ruled over much of Eastern Europe, were caught in an imperial borderland with fluid borders making their escape impossible. Polish national identity and Russian imperial goals clashed, but this was hardly the only place where this happened.

The Alvensleben Convention speaks volumes to another incident that transpires along the U.S.-British Canada border between 1862 and 1865. Amid the U.S. Civil War, the Dakota nation, white settlers, and the U.S. Army waged a short-lived war that led to a Dakota military defeat. After the U.S.-Dakota War, between 1862 and 1865, a question arose about how to handle the Dakota nation living in Minnesota. The U.S. Army moved Dakota prisoners from Minnesota to various reservation and prison camps throughout the Midwest and Northern Plains.[6] In early 1863, Congress abolished all treaties with the Dakota. With the decision, the State of Minnesota wanted the Dakota gone, and the U.S. Army wanted the Dakota punished. The governments followed what Major General John Pope, commander of the Department of the Northwest, called for in 1862: “punishment beyond human power to inflict” where he believed it was his “purpose to utterly exterminate” the Dakota.[7] Two “punitive expeditions” chased the fleeing Dakota who did not surrender into Dakota Territory; however, some Dakota fled north into British Territory.[8] The border between Minnesota and the British-Canadian province of Rupert’s Land served as an important barrier between the Dakota nation and the pursuing U.S. forces. The Dakota recognized the political nature of the border and used it to their own advantage. They also understood themselves as people from a sovereign nation. Canada became an important borderland to uplift Dakota diplomacy while Americans attempted to squash their sovereignty and self-determination.

Several thousand Dakota moved north from Minnesota into British Canada. During the War of 1812, Dakota joined British attacks on Fort Mackinac in the Great Lakes, the British awarded these Dakota allies with “Indian Peace Medals” which celebrated their participation and promised the Dakota protection from the U.S. Army in the future.[9] After 1862, the Dakota used the medals to persuade the British to follow through on their promises. Initially, they did. Alexander Dallas, governor of Rupert’s Land, recognized the Dakota migrants as “refugees” and offered food, supplies, and even guns and ammunition to help them in their desolate condition. As time went on, the white settlers living in Rupert’s Land worried about the Dakota living free near them with weapons. They worried the Dakota might attack their settlements just as they did in Minnesota in August 1862. This frantic worry persuaded Dallas to begin conversations with the U.S. Army stationed seventy miles away at Fort Pembina, Dakota Territory.[10] Dallas wanted a contingent of soldiers to march into British territory, collect the Dakota refugees, and return them to the United States. Unlike the Alvensleben Convention that would have allowed Russians access into Prussia, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton denied Major Edwin Hatch’s request to move into British Canada with his independent cavalry battalion from Minnesota.[11]

Group of Indigenous men standing in a black and white historic photograph.
Israel Bennetto, “Indians who fled to Canada after the Dakota were defeated at Wood Lake,” Minnesota Historical Society.

Despite the agreements and the orders to not attempt an extraction of Dakota from Rupert’s Land, Hatch devised a sinister plan to kidnap two Dakota chiefs rather than collect thousands of Dakotas living in British Territory. Little Six and Medicine Bottle participated in the Dakota War, and court records show that the men allegedly engaged in the murder of white civilians during that conflict. Hatch believed that if they could kidnap the two leaders and bring them to justice, the remaining Dakota would return to the United States. In November 1864, Hatch worked with two local civilians, John McKenzie and a Frenchman named Giguere, to kidnap the Dakota chiefs. McKenzie and Giguere personally knew Little Six and Medicine Bottle, and invited them to McKenzie’s home to continue an ongoing discussion on the Dakota living in Rupert’s Land. That night, the white men offered the Dakota chiefs whiskey drinks that had been laced with laudanum. Once intoxicated and drugged, the men placed rags doused in chloroform over Little Six and Medicine Bottle’s mouths. They took their incapacitated bodies seventy miles back to Fort Pembina. The Dakota men eventually ended up at Fort Snelling in Minnesota where they faced an irregular military tribunal that sentenced them to death by hanging based on incomplete and shoddy evidence.[12]

The United States denied participation in the kidnapping, as it was performed by two British subjects. The British government also denied participation in the affair as Giguere was a Frenchman and McKenzie formerly lived in Minnesota several years before the incident. In fact, despite the irregular and illegal abduction, Hatch, McKenzie, or Giguere did not face any punishment. With 10,000 spectators watching at Fort Snelling on November 11, 1865, Little Six and Medicine Bottle were hanged and forever remembered as fugitive refugees brought to justice after the Dakota War.[13] Several thousand Dakota would remain in Rupert’s Land. As the space transitioned to the official province of Manitoba, the Dakota remained, and the provincial government aided in helping the Dakota build a home near the place Portage la Prairie.[14] Just like the Poles, members of the Dakota nation had crossed an imperial border to escape the punitive efforts of an imperial power only to discover that the border was not upheld as strongly as they had believed.

Enrico Dal Lago suggests that we should look at comparisons with nation-state formations, industrial development, and imperial expansion between the United States, Germany, and Japan; however, there are other comparisons that complicate the Civil War era narrative.[15] Both Dakota and Poles rose at about the same time against imperial oppressors and hoped that crossing an international border would offer them protection. While we are unaware of Prussia extraditing Poles back to Russia, Little Six and Medicine Bottle suffered an illegal and unjust fate.

As we study the Civil War era and make international comparison, we need to look beyond the old and obvious. Sure, comparing revolutionary Poland with the enslavers’ rebellion has validity. The much more meaningful and interesting comparisons, however, are on the edges of those events where nationalities and empires clashed. Nobody has yet set Dakota and Poles on a similar plane as refugees fleeing imperial oppression. By comparing Poland and Mni Sota Makoce (Dakota Homeland) we first of all broaden the Civil War Era narrative westward, which is long needed, we give voice to the Dakota people, we liberate the Poles from being placed on the same level as enslavers, we move beyond the military narratives, and importantly we can realize the complexities of imperial borders, local actors, and oppressed nationalities. It alters our narratives of the Civil War era and opens the door for other yet unseen but meaningful comparisons in the future.

[1] Public-facing scholarship by Megan Kate Nelson and Gary W. Gallagher shows debates over the role of the American West plays in the traditional Civil War narrative. See, for example, Megan Kate Nelson, “Why the Civil War West Mattered (and Still Does),” HistoryNet, September 17, 2017,; Gary W. Gallagher, “Fighting on Multiple Fronts: Should Campaigns Against Native Americans and Confederates Be Viewed as One War or Two?” Civil War Times (April 2019): 46-53; Gary W. Gallagher, “How the West Wasn’t Won: Henry H. Sibley’s 1862 Invasion of New Mexico signaled Confederate plans to create a western empire. Or did it?” (April 2019): 34-41, 75-76.

[2] Enrico Dal Lago, “Writing the US Civil War Era into Nineteenth-Century World History,” Journal of the Civil War Era 11 (June 2021), 255-271.

[3] For works on the Polish Uprising and international impact see: Niels Eichhorn, “The Rhine River: The Impact of the German States on Trans-Atlantic Diplomacy,” in Civil War-Global Conflict, edited by Simon K. Lewis and David Gleeson (Columbia, South Carolina Press, 2014), 146-171; Robert Frank Leslie, Reform and Insurrection in Russian Poland, 1856–1865 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1969).

[4] Grazer Zeitung (January 26, 1863).


[6] Gontran Laviolette, The Dakota Sioux in Canada (Winnipeg, Manitoba: DLM Publications, 1991), 140-141, 148-149

[7] John Pope to Henry Sibley, September 28, 1862, Record Group 393, Records of the United States Army Continental Commands, 1821-1920, Pt. 1, Entry 3436, Letters Sent, September 1862 – July 1865, Correspondence, Department of the Northwest, 1862-1865, Volume 3, National Archives, Washington D.C.

[8] For more detail on the punitive expeditions, see Paul N. Beck, Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013). Other historians have explored the experiences of Dakota after 1862, such as Linda M. Clemmons, Dakota in Exile: The Untold Stories of Captives in the Aftermath of the U.S.-Dakota War (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2019).

[9] Pascal Breland 1873 Report, Alexander Morris Fonds Collection, F 82, Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan; James McKeagney, 1873 Correspondence, Alexander Morris Fonds Collection, F 82, Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan.

[10] Thomas Fraser to A. G. Dallas, March 16, 1864, Sioux Indians Colonial Office Report, 12-13; Laviolette, 150-151.

[11] “The Neutrality Proclamation,” London Gazette, May 14, 1861; The Queen’s Neutrality Proclamation, Downing Street, London, February 1, 1862, Broadside Portfolio 1, No. 13, The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress; Alan R. Woolworth, “A Disgraceful Proceeding: Intrigue in the Red River Country in 1864,” The Beaver (Spring 1969): 54-55; for more information on Hatch, see Patrick Hill, “Edwin Aaron Clarke Hatch,” Minnesota Heritage 7 (2013): 134-137.

[12] Edmund Head to Frederic Rogers, March 4, 1864, Sioux Indian Correspondence, British Colonial Office, University of Alberta Library, The Internet Archive, 6; Bureau of Military Justice Report, War Department, November 17, 1865, Little Six (Shakopee) and Medicine Bottle Trial Transcripts, Southern Minnesota Historical Center 0165, Folder 5, Minnesota State University, Mankato, Minnesota, 1-2; Major Edwin Hatch Diary, January 18, 1864, Edwin Hatch Family Papers, 1805-1939, P1437, Minnesota Historical Society; “Fuller Details of the Capture of Little Six and Medicine Bottle,” St. Paul Daily Press, February 3, 1864; Woolworth, “A Disgraceful Proceeding,” 57-59; Roy W. Meyer, “The Canadian Sioux: Refugees from Minnesota,” Minnesota History 41, No. 1 (Spring 1968): 15.

[13] “Little Six and Medicine Bottle Not to be Hunt,” Pioneer and Democrat (St. Paul, Minn.), October 23, 1865; Woolworth, “A Disgraceful Proceeding,” 59.

[14] “Sioux Indians of Manitoba – [Minister] of the Interior, 6 August, submits dispatch, 7 June from [Lieutenant] Governor and [recommends] that the Indians be furnished with certain articles,” August 6, 1873, RG2, Privy Council Office, Series A-1-a, Library Archives Canada, Ottawa; D.R. Cameron, Dufferin, to Alexander Morris, May 1874, P5281, Microfilm M135, Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

[15] Dal Lago, “Writing the US Civil War Era into Nineteenth-Century World History,” 256-257.

Niels Eichhorn John Legg

Niels Eichhorn holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas. His most recent book, Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019). His current book project is titled, Guerra: Revolutions and Civil Wars in the Americas, 1848-1877. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History. John R. Legg is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at George Mason University. His dissertation investigates Dakota migration from Minnesota into British Canada during the nineteenth century. After the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, this movement transformed into a strategic survival mechanism as Dakota circumvented U.S. genocidal practice and sought refuge and protection from the British government. John has a forthcoming chapter on Indigenous history and The Oregon Trail in Playing at War: Identity & Memory in American Civil War Era Video Games (LSU Press).

Congratulations to the Winner of The Journal of the Civil War Era’s George and Ann Richards Prize

Congratulations to the Winner of The Journal of the Civil War Era’s George and Ann Richards Prize

Portrait photo of Cynthia Nicolleti.

Cynthia Nicoletti  has won the $1,000 George and Ann Richards Prize for the best article published in The Journal of the Civil War Era in 2021. The article, “William Henry Trescott: Pardon Broker,” appeared in the December 2021 issue.

Nicoletti’s essay details the efforts of William Henry Trescot, “executive agent” for South Carolina, who secured pardons in order to facilitate the restoration of land the federal government had seized from lowcountry planters during the war.  She demonstrates how Trescot’s maneuvering in the Johnson White House and with Freedmen’s Bureau officials throughout 1865 and 1866 was integral in explaining the failure of Reconstruction-era land redistribution in the United States.

In the words of the prize committee, “Nicoletti offers an important new perspective on a familiar subject: the pardoning of ex-Confederates by U.S. president Andrew Johnson. Taking a novel methodological approach to this topic, her well-written article shows the critical role that the South Carolinian William Henry Trescot played in not only encouraging Johnson’s issuance of pardons but also facilitating the restoration of land to former slaveowners in the U.S. South. In doing so, “William Henry Trescot, Pardon Broker” makes a substantial contribution to the scholarship on the Reconstruction era and strengthens our understanding of its legacies. The denial of freedpeople’s demands for land redistribution as an essential foundation of self-determination and restorative justice was far from inevitable, as Nicoletti concludes. “Instead, the nation that emerged from the struggles of the Civil War was one that was actively made by men like William Henry Trescott.”

Cynthia Nicoletti is a legal historian and professor of law at Virginia Law. Her book, Secession on Trial: The Treason Prosecution of Jefferson Davis, won the 2018 Cromwell Book Prize, given by the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation each year for excellence in scholarship to an early career scholar working in the field of American legal history.

Awarded annually, the Richards Prize celebrates the generosity of George and Ann Richards, who were instrumental in the growth of the Richards Civil War Era Center and in the founding of The Journal of the Civil War Era.

For more information, visit



Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is a Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College. She previously worked in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama where she developed the Hallowed Grounds Project. She earned her M.A. in History from Tufts University in 2003, and Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).

Connecting the Nation: The U.S. Army and the American West in the Study of the Civil War Era Image?

Connecting the Nation: The U.S. Army and the American West in the Study of the Civil War Era Image?

Read the introduction to the A Prelude to an Unholy Union roundtable here, the first installment here, and the third installment here.

In the aftermath of a fatal confrontation between elements of Washington Territory’s militia and an enraged anti-Chinese mob, elements of the U.S. Army’s Fourteenth Infantry Regiment occupied Seattle between February and August of 1886 in an attempt to preserve order amidst a burgeoning anti-Chinese movement in the Pacific Northwest and to protect the civil rights of Chinese residents. Even for an army accustomed to intervening in civil disputes, the Seattle deployment made a deep impression.  “The position was a novel one,” Brigadier General John Gibbon, the commander of federal forces in the region, later wrote; “I had seen nothing like it since directly after the close of the Civil War in the South.”[1]

With the appearance of a slew of important studies on Chinese immigration and the anti-Chinese movement in recent years, historians of the United States today are much more familiar with those topics than they would have been a generation ago.[2]  And, thanks  to Beth Lew-Williams’s The Chinese Must Go!: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America there is greater awareness of the powerful anti-Chinese movement in the Pacific Northwest, a region which is often terra incognita in our broad-gauge surveys of American history.[3]   Explaining how an immigration bureaucracy devoted to coercive forms of gate-keeping began to emerge from borderlands encounters between trans-national Chinese immigrants, a burgeoning anti-Chinese movement, and federal officials from both the US and Canada, The Chinese Must Go! possesses important implications for twentieth-century American history. Although a handful of historians had already written on the anti-Chinese movement in the Northwest since the 1940s and detailed many of the episodes and themes that populate The Chinese Must Go!, no other scholar approaches Lew-Williams’s ability to delineate the significance of this historical moment.[4]  At the same time, however, the forward-looking nature of Lew-Williams’s analysis rips events in the Puget Sound out of a central context through which contemporaries understood them.  That is to say, the federal response to the anti-Chinese movement reflected something more than a retrospective early step in the development of a punitive immigration regime. The aggressive federal response in Washington Territory in the mid-1880s initiated an unacknowledged crisis of Reconstruction, one that unfolded in the streets, in federal courts, and in diplomatic correspondence.

One does not need to squint very hard to bring this very different history of the anti-Chinese movement in the Pacific Northwest into focus.  Politically, the violent anti-Chinese movement in the West that began at Rock Springs, Wyoming in September of 1885 and culminated in the crisis at Seattle emerged during a delicate period when the first Democratic administration since the antebellum period sought to establish its legitimacy.  Not only did the regular army’s occupation of and rule over an American city on behalf of a scorned non-white minority group serve as powerful illustrations of still-evident Reconstruction divisions, but so too did Washington Territory’s peculiar politics, which featured a Republican governor appointed by the Arthur administration ruling a population mostly made up of white Democratic voters. Moreover, when Governor Watson Squire cabled for assistance, the federal response was swift and overwhelming.  By steamship and by rail nearly the whole of the Fourteenth Infantry Regiment—several hundred men—reached Seattle only a few hours after receiving their orders. They quickly swept into action by relieving state forces, patrolling the streets, and (under a declaration of martial law) imposing a curfew, arresting mob leaders,  protecting Chinese neighborhoods, and helping Chinese residents who had been driven into a steamer bound for San Francisco reach federal court so they could testify in habeas corpus hearings.  

President Cleveland’s proclamation to “insurgents” in Seattle that they must disperse.

Not surprisingly, the politics of the Federal response traced back to the Civil War and Reconstruction; they illustrate a tangible connection between the histories of those eras and the Trans-Mississippi West.  To start from the beginning, the Cleveland administration justified the military deployment by borrowing language from the 1861 Militia Act and §3 of the 3rd Enforcement Act in the order sent to John Gibbon, commander of the U.S. Army’s Department of the Columbia.[5]  Gibbon’s decision to arrest leading anti-Chinese agitators for possible trial in federal court, meanwhile, evoked the specter of military rule during Reconstruction, not simply because of the military’s forceful intervention into civil society (well-established practice in period labor disputes after all), but because federal forces were arrayed against a social movement committed to protecting white breadwinners and their dependents from the scourge of an ostensibly unassimilable and un-American minority.[6]  (Gibbon’s vociferous rejoinder to the charge that arresting civilians violated the posse comitatus restrictions imposed by Congress in 1878 provides an important clue to a revisionist reading of the history of posse comitatus during Reconstruction that I have written about elsewhere.)[7]  And, in the nation’s capital, those men overseeing the affair were living reminders of the rebellion and Reconstruction from Grover Cleveland, the first Democratic president since James Buchanan, to the cabinet officials in charge of territorial affairs, secessionist and Confederate diplomat turned Secretary of the Interior L.Q.C. Lamar and Secretary of State Thomas Bayard, whose strident assaults on Congressional Reconstruction served as a regular feature of life in the US Senate in the late 1860s.  And, in yet another demonstration that history is stranger than fiction, the outbreak in Seattle fell smack in the middle of yet another battle between a Republican Senate and a Democratic president over the Tenure of Office Act and Executive Branch authority.[8]

In short, reverberations from the Civil War and Reconstruction could not only be felt in 1886, but they remained strong twenty years after Appomattox.  In fact, I would argue, that we can glean a host of specific insights about the Civil War and Reconstruction from what happened in Seattle in 1886, not all of them expected, but all rooted in the ironies, complexities, and ambiguities that marked those weighty eras. (That’s as far as my word count and publisher would like me to go, I suspect.)    So permit me to close by finding another moral to the story, one which stems from the cross-pollination between the fields I was either trained in (the history of the American West and military history) or have gravitated toward (the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction and the history of the post-Civil War U.S. Army).  For all their connections to the Civil War and Reconstruction, I would suggest that the actions of white anti-Chinese mobs in Washington Territory and the federal response to them speak to a broader interpretation of nineteenth-century American history that transcends the Civil War.  In this reading, the history of the United States in this period is to an important degree the story of a (usually) low-grade insurgency waged against federal authority by sovereign white citizens who (usually) resided on the country’s geographical margins.[9]  The southern rebellion, in fact, might be regarded as simply the most forceful expression of a much larger pattern of behavior, first manifest against Native Americans, tax collectors, and the proprieties of the General Land Office, but later fueled by the racialized and gendered aspirations of Jacksonian American and the failings of federal governance.[10]  Almost never—outside of the Civil War, really—did the government resort to violent force against disorderly whites opposed to the government.  Often, in fact, the insurgents won the day politically, a thought perhaps worthy of reflection today.[11]

[1] John Gibbon, “Chinese Troubles in Seattle,” Box 1, Folder 20, John Gibbon Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 352.

[2] See especially Gordon Chang, Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019); Elliott Young, Alien Nation: Chinese Migration to the Americas from the Coolie Era through World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); Andrew Gyory, Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Lon Kurashige, Two Faces of Exclusion: The Untold History of Anti-Asian Racism in the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016); Mary Ting Yi Lui, The Chinatown Trunk Mystery: Murder, Miscegenation, and Other Dangerous Encounters in Turn-of-the-Century New York City (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005);  John Haddad, The Romance of China: Excursions to China in U.S. Culture, 1776-1876 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008); Liping Zhu, The Road to Exclusion: The Denver Riot, 1880 Election, and Rise of the West (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2013); Yong Chen, Chinese San Francisco: A Trans-Pacific Community, 1850-1943(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002).

[3] Beth Lew-Williams, The Chinese Must Go!: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018).

[4] Jules Alexander Karlin, “The Anti-Chinese Outbreaks in Seattle, 1885-1886,” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly 39, no. 2 (1948): 103-30 and “The Anti-Chinese Outbreaks in Tacoma, 1885,” Pacific Historical Review 23, no. 3 (1954): 271-83; Carlos A. Schwantes, “Protest in a Promised Land: Unemployment, Disinheritance, and the Origin of Labor Militancy in the Pacific Northwest,” Western Historical Quarterly 13, no. 4 (1982): 373-90; Robert Edward Wynne, Reaction to the Chinese in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, 1850-1910  (New York: Arno Press, 1978).  Specialists in history of the nineteenth-century US Army have also taken note of the army’s mission in Seattle.  See Edward Coffman, The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784-1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 246-47; Robert Wooster, The American Military Frontiers: The United States Army in the West, 1783-1900 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009), 249-50; Michael Tate, The Frontier Army in the Settlement of the West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 199), 99-100.

[5] Adjutant-General R.C. Drum’s order appears in The Annual Report of the Secretary of War for The Year 1886 (Washington: G.P.O., 1887), 186.  See also “An Act to provide for the Suppression of Rebellion against and Resistance to the Laws of the United States, and to amend the Act entitled ‘An Act to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union,’ &c., passed February twenty-eight, seventeen hundred and ninety-five,” US Statutes at Large 12 (1861): 281; “An Act to enforce the Provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and or other Purposes,” U.S. Statutes at Large 17 (1871): 14

[6] A good overview of military interventions in labor disputes can be found in Jerry Cooper, The Army and Civil Disorder: Federal Military Intervention in Labor Disputes, 1877-1900 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980).  For understanding the contours of anti-Chinese sentiment in the nineteenth century; for Seattle proper, consult Schwantes, “Protest in a Promised Land”; Wynne, Reaction to the Chinese; and Lew-Williams, The Chinese Must Go!, 113-36.

[7] 1886 Annual Report, 187-88; Kevin Adams, “Army of Democracy?: Moving towards a New History of Posse Comitatus in Democracy and the Civil War: Race and African Americans in the Nineteenth Century, eds. Kevin Adams and Leonne Hudson (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2016), 63-82.

[8] Richard E. Welch, Jr., The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988): 53-6.

[9] An early reflection of my thinking on this theme appears in Kevin Adams and Khal Schneider, “‘Washington is a Long Way Off’: The Round Valley War and the Limits of Power on a Federal Indian Reservation,” Pacific Historical Review 80, no. 4 (2011): 557-96.

[10] Here we see resonances of one of Lew-Williams’s most important insights, that the federal government’s utter inability to implement a Chinese “Restriction” Act of 1882 that westerners believed would solve the “Chinese Question” transformed direct action mob violence against Chinese—which had always been present—into a centerpiece of the movement.

[11] Samuel Watson has also argued that rebellious Euro-American settlers “paradoxically…had the political advantages of insurgency” and has explored why soldiers proved reluctant to use force against said settlers.  See Samuel Watson, “Continuity in Civil-Military Relations and Expertise: The U.S. Army during the Decade before the Civil War,” The Journal of Military History 75, no. 1 (2011): 229-32 and “Military Learning and Adaptation Shaped by Social Context: The U.S. Army and Its ‘Indian Wars,’ 1790-1890,” The Journal of Military History, 82, no. 2 (2018): 382.

Kevin Adams

Kevin Adams is an associate professor and chair of the History Department at Kent State University.

The Reconstruction Politics of the Allotment Era in Indian Territory

The Reconstruction Politics of the Allotment Era in Indian Territory

Read the introduction to the A Prelude to an Unholy Union roundtable here and the first installment here

In the post-Civil War period, Republicans in Congress and the White House were as equally interested in bringing the American West into the nation as they were in the former Confederate South. Even during the war, Republicans had turned their focus westward to write and pass popular legislation. In the 1870s, as White Southerners aggressively worked and ultimately beat back the Federal Reconstruction project, Republicans once again looked to the West to recapture public support and build the free labor, multiracial democracy that had been undermined in the South.

Home of Creek Freedmen, ca. 1900. National Archives, Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior.

Indian Territory—modern-day Oklahoma—was one of these critical western sites of Reconstruction. In 1866, the United States forced the Five Tribes—the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole Nations—to sign new treaty agreements known as the Reconstruction Treaties. The U.S. government’s Reconstruction requirements for Indian Territory included allotment, the dividing up of communally held tribal lands into individually owned private properties. While the allotment era is well known and studied, it remains siloed in Native rather than U.S. history. Examining its political inspiration and implementation, however, reveals that allotment after 1865 was not just Indian policy. It was also Reconstruction policy through which Republicans sought to unite the nation under a homogenous American sovereignty, culture, and citizenry that recognized the rights of freedpeople.

Allotment reflected a core political priority of Reconstruction— private property ownership—and was advanced by Henry L. Dawes and other Republican politicians who explicitly saw allotment as the key to what they called “Indian Emancipation.”[1] Allotment also helped achieve the overarching goal of Reconstruction in Indian Country: the dissolution of tribal governments and the integration of Native people into the American body politic. As Frederick Douglass put it in 1884, “The tendency of the age is unification, not isolation.” Federal officials in Indian Affairs shared that impulse for uniformity.[2] However, many Native nations had proved resilient to assimilation. Thus, in 1885, the Board of Indian Commissioners codified the following recommendations: “No more of the ‘imperium in imperio.’ Treat Indians as families and individuals. Extend the law over them as individuals. Give them land as individuals. Punish them as individuals.”[3] While emancipation and the Reconstruction Amendments brought Black Americans into the American body politic as citizens, allotment promised to do the same for Native Americans by disempowering tribal governments in favor of U.S. control and eventual citizenship.

In 1886, the Supreme Court gave Congress the clearance to make these changes to Indian policy. As the Court determined in United States v. Kagama, Native American land and people fell under the political rule of the U.S. federal government.[4] This was a significant departure from the historical relationship between U.S. and Native sovereignties, and the decision gave birth to the age of Congress’ plenary power in Indian affairs. Passing a year later, the Dawes Act used those new wide-ranging powers to transform Native Americans into private property-holding individual citizens once and for all.

In most histories of Indian Territory, the Allotment era follows the Reconstruction era, and this demarcation has limited historians’ ability to identify linkages between the two sets of reform.[5] The life and work of Senator Henry L. Dawes, the namesake of the 1887 Act, offers one window into the connections between Reconstruction and allotment. A stalwart Republican who served in Congress from 1857 until 1893, Dawes realized the political priorities of Reconstruction in his vision for allotment policy.[6]

Dawes’ interest in allotment was based on his mission to promote the Republican party, through which he also promoted Republican political goals born in the Reconstruction era.[7] He hoped to restore Republican idealism, and Indian reform offered “a comfortable revival of the party’s egalitarian principles… and a living example of the proper role of government in assimilating new groups.”[8] Believing in individualism, national institutions, the principles of racial equality, and the supremacy of federal power, Dawes found a natural fit between his political philosophy and the project of allotment.

Dawes was not the first to try to pass an allotment bill in Congress, but unlike previous versions, Dawes’ act included U.S. citizenship for Native Americans who took up allotments. His version of the policy reflected Republican values and employed the legal and cultural tools of Reconstruction: citizenship, federal law, and single-family homes.Like many late 19th century reformers, Dawes had no doubt Native peoples would “pass away.” But rather than disappear into extinction, allotment offered a better path: political absorption and disappearance into the American population and citizenry.[9] Dawes’ version of allotment “drew heavily on the ideals of civil equality that had informed Reconstruction-era legislation establishing black people’s freedom and citizenship.”[10] Through citizenship, Native Americans, just like southern freedpeople, would join the collective American nation-state. Meanwhile, allotment would destroy tribal citizenship and sovereignty to realize the Reconstruction Republican ideal of a homogenous citizenry.

Despite the federal government’s numerous attempts to enact allotment, the Five Tribes had vigorously and successfully contested the policy in favor of their own governments’ sovereignty.[11]  They escaped the terms of the Dawes Act of 1887 because they did not live on reservations; they owned their land fee simple as a result of their Removal era treaties.[12] Allotment only came with the establishment of the Dawes Commission, initially led by Henry Dawes himself, which operated between 1893 and 1914. And even then, each of the Five Tribes mounted a significant resistance to the Dawes Commission’s attempt to negotiate allotment. Only when Congress passed the Curtis Act of 1898, which set an expiration date for the Five Tribes governments, did the Dawes Commission have the power to allot the Five Tribes without their governments’ consent.

Allotment was not only a Reconstruction policy in its conception but also in its implementation. In Indian Territory, allotment empowered federal officials to continue the Reconstruction effort to provide greater political equality to formerly enslaved people. The Dawes Commission not only set out to allot Native American members of the Five Tribes but their former slaves and descendants as well. Observing freedpeople’s exclusion from land and citizenship within the Five Tribes, the Commission argued that the tribes did not truly hold lands in common.[13]Linking their project to the goals of the 1866 Treaties, the Commissioners wrote, “the United States is bound by solemn treaty to place… freedmen securely in the enjoyment of their rights [and] cannot ignore the obligation.”[14]

The Commission’s attention to political rights and race created new possibilities for freedpeople and their descendants. While some freedpeople in the Seminole and Creek nations had successfully gained access to common tribal lands after 1866, allotment gave many more freedpeople access to land for the first time. However, the Commission’s use of racial categories to enroll tribal members made race more of a defining feature of legal status than it had ever been before. While instituted to achieve homogenous citizenship, allotment ended up reproducing the strict racial divisions present in the post-war South.

As academic and indigenous writing has been well documented, the Commission’s race-based allotment system caused incalculable harm. Still, the scholarly focus on its effects has also obscured the fuller history of the Commission’s relationship with freedpeople in Indian Territory.[15] Allotment had been a requirement of several of the Five Tribes’ Reconstruction Treaties of 1866, but so had recognizing their freedpeople as full citizen members. The Five Tribes’ failure to achieve progress on these issues allowed the Dawes Commission to take up those tasks, initiating a new phase of reconstruction—one that gravitated out of Native control—to realize both policies in the 1890s.

From the beginning, the Commission opposed the tribes’ efforts to limit freedpeople’s access to tribal land. They sought not only to enroll freedpeople but also to give them allotments of equal size. When the Creek Nation tried to negotiate a 40-acre limit for freedpeople, Commissioner Archibald McKennon commented, “This proposition… will not be considered by us for a moment.”[16] The Choctaw and Chickasaw refused to include their freedmen at all. This was a non-starter for the Commission, despite its desire to come to an agreement and begin allotment. As Senator James K. Jones wrote to Dawes in 1897, “I agree with you fully in what you say about the absurdity of making an agreement without taking the Chickasaws Freedmen into account.”[17] As Alaina E. Roberts has argued, the Dawes Commission helped make Indian Territory “a rare place…in which people of African descent formerly enslaved by the Five Tribes—Indian freedpeople—were…legitimized by the U.S. government.”[18]

In Indian Territory, allotment accomplished what the 1866 Reconstruction Treaties could not. It gave political recognition to freedpeople in Indian Territory in the hopes of creating a homogenous American citizenry. At the same time, it made some of the fastest progress toward the destruction of the alternative American sovereignties tribal governments represented and the political absorption of Indian Territory into the United States. Allotment marked the culmination of the Reconstruction era goal to turn Native Americans—like freedpeople in the South—into individual private property-owning citizens. Thus, from its formulation to its implementation among the Five Tribes, the allotment era was closely linked to Reconstruction politics and priorities.


[1] Like the Free Soil Party before it, which believed in “freedom in the West, freedom grounded in land ownership,” the Republican Party promoted individual property ownership and homes in the post-war South & West. Robert C. Williams, Horace Greeley: Champion of American Freedom (New York: NYU Press, 2006)

[2] Frederick Douglass, The Future of the Negro, July 1884,

[3] “Report of the Board of Indian Commissioners, 1885” in H.R. Exec. Doc. No. 1, 49th Cong., 1st Sess. (1885), pg. 785

[4] United States v. Kagama, 118 U. S. 375 (1886), pg. 379,

[5] This distinction is primarily made based on periodization (1866-1877) and (1889 – 1914). Kent Carter’s The Dawes Commission and the Allotment of the Five Tribes, 1893-1914 (Orem, Utah:, 1999) is the most detailed single volume on allotment in Indian Territory. See also David A. Chang The Color of the Land: Race, Nation, and the Politics of Landownership in Oklahoma, 1832-1929 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2010). For the experience of allotment in Indian Territory see Rose Stremlau, Sustaining the Cherokee Family: Kinship and the Allotment of an Indigenous Nation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Claudio Saunt, Black, White, and Indian: Race and the Unmaking of an American Family (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Alaina E. Roberts, I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021).

[6] The secondary literature on Dawes, however, is surprisingly thin and he lacks any kind of sustained biography. Frederick Hoxie’s A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880-1920 is the best and in-depth assessment of Dawes’ Republican politics in relation to Reconstruction and allotment. Richard White also gives Dawes’ motivations several paragraphs in The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), pg. 605-605.

[7] See Hoxie, A Final Promise, Ch. 1 “The Appeal of Assimilation”

[8] Frederick Hoxie, Beyond Savagery: The Campaign to Assimilate the American Indians, 1880-1920 (doctoral dissertation, Brandeis University, 1977), pg. 104

[9] Proceedings Mohonk Lake Conference, 1886, pg. 84

[10] Barbara Krauthamer, Black Slaves, Indian Masters: Slavery, Emancipation, and Citizenship in the Native American South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), pg. 150.

[11] The Tribes’ resistance to allotment contributed significantly to its extended implementation over more than two decades.

[12] The Osage, Miami and Peoria, and Sac and Fox in Indian Territory were also exempt from the 1887 Dawes Act.

[13] “Report of the Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes, 1894” in U.S. Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes: Annual Reports of 1894,1895, and 1896 (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1900), pg. 20

[14] Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes, Annual Report (1894), pg. 19

[15] Historians sometimes miss the fact that the Dawes Commission was required by the Curtis Act to enroll freedpeople separately and did not make that classification on their own.

[16] Tams Bixby and A. S. McKennon to the Secretary of the Interior, November 15, 1898, Box 52 (1898, Oct. – Dec.), Folder 7, Henry L. Dawes Papers, Library of Congress

[17] Senator James K. Jones to Henry Dawes, May 3, 1897, Box 52 (1897, May – July) Folder 2, Henry L. Dawes Papers, Library of Congress

[18] Roberts, pg. 43


The Case of the Abstracted Indian Bonds

The Case of the Abstracted Indian Bonds

Read the introduction to the A Prelude to a Unholy Union roundtable here.

“The investment was made in these particular bonds without consultation with the Indians and without their assent, and the bonds have been stolen.” – Rep. Thomas M. Edwards (R-New Hampshire), July 7, 1862[1]

White building with columns in the front. Walkers are in front of the structure in the historic photograph.
U.S. Department of Interior, 1859 in Benjamin Brown French “Photographs,” p. 146.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

One night early in the secession winter, for a third and final time, a clerk named Godard Bailey entered his own empty office in the Interior Department building, removed thousands of dollars of negotiable bonds belonging to the Indian trust fund from his safe, and delivered them to War Department contractor William Hepburn Russell. As Russell told Bailey when they first met that July, Secretary of War John Buchanan Floyd had been propping up Russell’s firm with “acceptances”—legally dubious memoranda approving future payments—which Russell used as security on loans. The acceptances now encompassed a sum greater than Russell’s contracts, had no legal justification, and were increasingly likely to “embarrass” both Russell and Floyd. Russell had learned that Bailey was Floyd’s relative by marriage, and Russell played on Bailey’s loyalty to convince the clerk to “loan” him a portion of the bonds in his office for use as security on still more loans to cover his outstanding debts. Bailey carried out the first “abstraction” just hours after Russell proposed it. He made two more trips in September and December, but by now Russell had failed to redeem the first bonds he had “hypothecated” with Wall Street banks. His creditors claimed them and they were lost to the government for good. His discovery now inevitable, Bailey wrote a confession of sorts to outgoing Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson: “[I]n justice to yourself, I ought not to permit you to quit office without informing you of the fact that a portion of the bonds constituting the Indian trust fund are no longer in my custody. Those bonds I entrusted, in July last, to third parties, for purposes which it is not necessary to discuss here.”[2]

Bailey’s effort to avoid the discussion were in vain, and when it came to light, the case of the “abstracted Indian bonds” was notorious even in the last days of the Buchanan administration.[3] All parties escaped criminal conviction as the war pushed the affair from the public’s mind, but not before it provoked a congressional investigation and a novel intervention by the federal government in how it invested and managed the funds generated by Indian dispossession—the Indian Trust Fund—as a part of the national debt.[4] During and after the war, in discussions of the bonds, Republican policy makers rhetorically joined tribes and northern taxpayers as common victims of a robbery by disloyal Democrats and, in doing so, bound tribes to their vision of national political economy.

The House of Representatives’ investigation concluded in February 1861 that although the extent of the government’s liability could not yet be determined, the Indian bondholders were entitled to compensation for the violation of “so sacred a trust.” The fund Bailey plundered in 1860 held three million dollars in twenty-four accounts for seventeen tribes, amounting to their compensation for their coerced abandonment of land in several states. Most of the bonds in the fund, like most of the cabinet officials who procured them, were from slave states. Although federal law since 1841 commanded Secretaries of the Interior to buy federal bonds with revenue from Indian land sales, Democratic Secretaries of the Interior continued to buy southern municipal bonds. Eighty-two percent of the value of the bonds in the fund was in bonds from eight slave states. All the stolen bonds were from Missouri, North Carolina, and Tennessee.[5] With Bailey’s theft and southern secession, most tribes now had no hope of repayment. One of the smaller funds, for example, the confederated Wea, Kaskaskia, Piankeshaw, and Peorias’ trust fund (created from the forced sale of the tribe’s Kansas reservation), contained Tennessee bonds bearing six percent interest (“Tennessee 6s”), Florida 7s, Louisiana 6s, Missouri 6s, North Carolina 6s, South Carolina 6s, and Pennsylvania 5s. At some point, Bailey, as clerk, sold the tribe’s New York and Illinois bonds and bought South Carolina state bonds on which, like the other southern bonds, the tribe would never see interest payments.[6] In his first annual report, Commissioner of Indian Affairs William P. Dole concluded that “the weight of this abstraction or defalcation” must fall on the United States, and it was duty-bound to pay tribes the income they would have derived from the interest.[7]

Congress was also prodded to action by the owners of the accounts themselves. In early June 1862, Delawares petitioned Congress to receive United States bonds in lieu of the municipal bonds they had in Bailey’s safe. The Delawares held two funds generated by their forced abandonment of land in Missouri and Kansas, a school fund and a general “permanent fund” which, their treaty required, “shall from time to time be invested by the President of the United States, in safe and profitable stocks.”[8] At a valuation of nearly one million dollars, the resulting Delaware General Fund was the largest single account in the Indian trust fund in 1860. They had received none of their treaty-promised interest payments since the secession crisis began, and now the bonds were gone.[9]

The Delawares’ memorial prompted Congress not only to correct the Delawares’ account, but to re-fund the trust fund generally. In July, the Republican Congress passed legislation to liquidate the bonds from northern states (mainly Pennsylvania) and distribute the proceeds to the tribes. It also paid the outstanding interest on the secessionist states’ bonds and appropriated money to refund the trust accounts to par with the original principal. Congress required the full value of the bonds to be entered on the Treasury’s books to the credit of the tribes, with interest payments paid at five percent semiannually. In effect, the Federal government federalized debt that was primarily owed from the seceded states. House Committee on Indian Affairs chair Thomas Edwards of New Hampshire insisted that “there can be no question, upon any fair interpretation of the existing treaties, as to the responsibility of the Government for the bonds abstracted while in custody.” New York Republican Roscoe Conkling agreed. “The cestui que trust, who has been robbed by his trustee, ought to be reimbursed.” Evading one thorny issue, Edwards focused on the bonds belonging to the Delawares, Iowas, Weas, Peorias, Piankeshaws, and Kaskaskias. The Cherokees and Choctaws held the accounts next largest to the Delawares’, but as to the “now disloyal” slaveholding tribes, “we have made no provision for them in this bill.”[10]

After the war, Republican office holders and the partisan press revived memories of the theft and moved to federalize more of the debt due to tribes. The Republican press framed the pre-war purchases of southern bonds and Bailey’s theft of them as typical of the sordid doings of Democratic “robbers” before the war and even as a part of the larger secession plot. The government was still paying $97,140 annually in lieu of interest on bonds stolen during the Buchanan presidency, the National Republican of Washington told its readers; it was “one of the many legacies left us by that corrupt Democratic administration.”[11] Republican office holders, then, insisted it was the federal government’s obligation to refund the principal and the lost interest of “non-paying” bonds—and not only those stolen from the Interior Department in 1860.[12] In 1871, Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano drafted a bill (it would pass in 1876) that directed future Secretaries of the Interior to place funds for any tribe in the Treasury, in lieu of reinvesting it, from which they would be paid a minimum interest rate of five percent. This ended a progression of the trust fund from its composition of mostly state securities to US bonds, now the federal Treasury itself holding the debt on its books and issuing the interest payments as proof of its obligation as trustee—although, per the legislation, the Secretary could still invest Indians’ money in federal bonds at his discretion.[13] While Congress deliberately denied the slaveholding tribes of Indian Territory restitution during the war, the Federal government now tied the future of the Indian Territory to the financial future of the United States at the war’s end. The March 3, 1871 Indian Appropriation Act, best known for its rider to the Yankton’s appropriation that ended treaty-making with all tribes, also included a line item to allocate funding for “certain abstracted and non-paying State stocks belonging to various Indian tribes (and held in trust by the Secretary of the Interior).” This appropriation re-funded the Cherokee national and school funds, Chickasaw national and “incompetents” funds, the Choctaw general fund, and the Creek orphans’ fund for a total of seventy-thousand dollars (in addition to continuing funding interest payments to other tribes required by the 1862 legislation.)[14]

The Indian Trust Fund had grown in the antebellum period as an expedient to dispossession that also funded, mainly, the slave state economies that benefitted most dramatically from Indian removal.[15] In light of the bond abstraction, Republicans reconsidered Indians as sellers of land entitled to compensation, victims of fraud, and beneficiaries of a trust relationship with the United States. None of these descriptions were novel, and set beside the violent dispossession that continued in the Gilded Age, they appear as cynical rationalizations of federal power over Indians. But Republicans also used them to advance a new kind of financial management of Indian policy. Trust, a keyword of modern tribal politics, began to take the modern aspects of both a permanent tribal resource and the medium of ongoing negotiations between tribes and the federal government, albeit within a framework built, as Congressman Thomas Edwards described the fund in 1862, “without consultation with the Indians and without their assent.”[16]

[1] “Indian Bonds,” Congressional Globe, 37th Congress, 2nd Session (1862), 3156.

[2] “Abstracted Indian Trust Bonds,” House Report 78, 36th Congress, 2nd Session, February 12, 1861, pp. 1-20, 28.

[3] New York Times, Feb. 13, 1861; William P. MacKinnon, “Prelude to Armageddon: James Buchanan, Brigham Young, and a President’s Initiation to Bloodshed,” in James Quist and Michael J. Birkner, es., James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War (Gainseville: University of Florida Press, 2013); Summers, The Plundering Generation, 239-260.

[4] “Abstracted…Bonds,” 2.

[5] Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (ARCIA) 1860, pp. 236-242; Francis Paul Prucha, The Great Father: The United States Government and the Indians, (2 vols,, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 416-417.

[6] “Treaty with the Kaskaskia, Peoria, etc.,” May 30, 1854, 10 Stat 1082.

[7] ARCIA 1861, pp. 26-27.

[8] Treaties with the Delawares, September 24, 1829, 7 Stat. 327 & May 6, 1854, 10 Stat., 1048.

[9] “Petition of the Chiefs of the Delaware Indians in Kansas,” Senate Miscellaneous Doc. 100, 37th Congress, Second Session (1862).

[10] “An Act relating to Trust Funds of several Indian Tribes invested by the Government in certain State Bonds abstracted from the Custody of the late Secretary of the Interior,” 37th Congress; Session 2, July 12, 1862; “Indian Bonds,” Globe, 3156-3158.

[11] National Republican (Washington, D.C.), March 9, 1876; New York Times, Oct. 30, 1876.

[12] “Letter from the Attorney General, transmitting papers and report upon the condition of the Indian trust funds,” House Executive Doc. 59, 40:2 (1867), 4.

[13] “Act of June 10, 1876,” 19 Stat. 58.

[14] Prucha, The Great Father, 531; “An Act making Appropriations for the current and continent Expenses of the Indian Department, and for fulfilling Treaty Stipulations with various Indian Tribes, for the Year ending June thirty, eighteen hundred and seventy-two, and for other Purposes,” U.S. Statutes at Large, v. 16 (1869-1871), 41st Congress, 544-571.

[15] Claudio Saunt, “Financing Dispossession: Stocks, Bonds, and the Deportation of Native peoples in the Antebellum United States,” The Journal of American History, 106:2 (2019), 315-316, 317.

[16] “Indian Bonds.” 

Khal Schneider

Khal Schneider teaches at CSU, Sacramento.

Prelude to an Unholy Union: A Muster Roundtable

Prelude to an Unholy Union: A Muster Roundtable

The roundtable ahead features three posts that gather Southern and Western history in a continental conversation, from Khal Schneider, Alexandra Stern, and Kevin Adams, respectively. I write to offer background and context for those pieces, all of which build toward October 2024, when the Western History Association and Southern Historical Association will hold concurrent conferences in Kansas City, Missouri, the first such for two of the largest historical organizations focused on regional history in North America.

Group of soldiers standing in a row.
15th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, c. 1861-1865, tintype.

I came to know of these plans in the autumn of 2017, when, as the William S. Vaughn fellow at the Robert Penn Warren Center at Vanderbilt, I learned of the initiative from Anne Hyde, editor of the Western Historical Quarterly. I shared the irony that the manuscript upon which I was working at the Center, an exploration of the unruly cultural stratigraphy of several counties in the southern Colorado borderlands, had unexpectedly developed a strong “Southern” strain—a post-Civil War (1869-70) migration of white “refugees” from Congressional Reconstruction from north Georgia to Huerfano County.  Their descendants, even today, identify as “the Georgia colony.”  Anne explained that discussions were underway between the WHQ and The Journal of the Civil War Era toward joint or special issues of that would preview the conference, and invited me to serve as convener of topic sessions at WHA meetings and to guest-edit the special issues.  Thus, in this Call for Proposals, was born The Unholy Union.

“The editors of the Journal of the Civil War Era and the Western Historical Quarterly seek contributions toward joint programing at the WHA in the years ahead, and two special joint issues of the journals in 2020/21. James F. Brooks of the University of California, Santa Barbara will serve as guest editor on this shared project. We hope to inspire comparative insights and unearth hidden connections between history in the “South” and the “West”, however far flung those might prove.”

2021 saw two special issues appear that  confirmed our sense that a serious new scholarly school of thought was emerging.  In March, The Journal of the Civil War Era featured four articles:

Andrew Shaler’s exploration of the Cherokee and Wyandot Companies offered a new cut on distinctions between “settled” Indians and “unsettled” overland emigrants inspired by the California gold finds.  Departing from their recently assigned “homelands” in Indian Territory and Kansas, respectively, these overlanders offered non-Indians who joined their caravan expertise in gold prospecting as well as skill in westering through Indian Country.  Shaler argues that “Cherokee and Wyandot emigrant companies effectively navigated a liminal space between the ‘indigenous’ and ‘settler,’ ‘Indian’ and ‘emigrant,” and actively maintained complex relations with both communities.”  Their dispossession and forced removal from homelands east of the Mississippi came strangely coupled with heightened perception of Cherokee and Wyandot progress toward civilization in many white eyes. Their Companies drew praise from new members, who also benefited from the gold prospecting and panning experience Cherokees could offer once they arrived in California. While some emigrant Indians remained in California, (most prominent, John Rollin Ridge, grandson of Treaty Party leader Major Ridge), most returned after their sojourn. Among those were a contingent who camped on the banks of Cherry Creek in Colorado, and noticed some flakes of float gold, and which news would travel back to the east via those who traveled the Cherokee Trail.

Max Flomen drew us into a world of movement as well, as the “renegades” produced by Indian dispossession and expanding slavery sought shelter and the faint promise of independence and freedom in the borderlands of Mexican Tejas, and later the Republic. Maroons, runaways, emigrant dispossessed Indians, renegades, and weapons smugglers all sought, for their particular ends, emancipation from the bonds of American imperialism, while aspiring planters looked to be in the vanguard of an expanding cotton kingdom. The weakness of Mexican control in the borderlands held promise for contending groups who, ironically, tended to reinforce each other’s strengths. The renegade factions flourished in the frailty of Mexican authority, while emigrant planters from the Old South found themselves welcomed by the same weak state for the role they played in frontier defense. As experiments in “alternative emancipations” mounted, Mexicans and Texicans maintained tactical alliances to quash those campaigns. Yet by 1836, of course, Texicans had become Anglo-Texans, and “committed to ‘whitening’ the Greater Southwest” (the failed annexation of New Mexico in 1841 aside). Rebellions and outbreaks of the enslaved held by Creek, Cherokee, and Texan planters in 1842 and 1845 illustrated the potential for Mexico to destabilize even after surrendering territory, which would stimulate Texas’ annexation.

In “War Waits,” Lance Blythe entered debates around the relevancy of the Civil War to other, contemporaneous, conflicts in the West.  Treating the complex array of violent exchanges among Native peoples, between Natives and New Mexicans, and between US Army forces and both Natives and New Mexicans, he offers a powerful argument that fore-fronting the causative role of the Civil War “tends to efface, if not erase, local, deep, and long histories in favor of the relatively recent US history, a phenomenon that can be seen in recent historiography of the Civil War in the West.”  Emphasizing the local over the national, he employed two cases, the Battle of Apache Pass in July 1862, and the Massacre at Fort Fauntleroy at Ojo de Oso in 1861, to make a granular, spirited case that we attend to causal conditions in the canyons, mesas, sheep husbandry, and protagonists’ personal histories for our meanings, well below the vantage of “the nation state.”  We come away convinced that “the United States was not a full participant in the local borderland wars…and US officials and soldiers in the Civil War era ultimately played a marginal role in the true wars of the Southwest.”  Kit Carson, the local, laid pillage to Canyon de Chelly for reasons his commander, James Carlton, little understood.

Angela Pulley Hudson chased a glancing reference to a deployment of western Indian Scouts in support the Freedmen’s Bureau in the post-War South to an unexpectedly fruitful exploration of “western” Indians in the Old Southwest–including the 1887-1894 incarceration of Geronimo’s Chiricahua Apaches at Mount Vernon Barracks, Alabama. Her work not only reverses the predominant “westering” directionality of our narratives, by bringing Apaches eastward to Alabama, but also provides for discovery of a resident Indian people, the MOWA Choctaws, who became neighbors and informal kinsfolk to the Apaches.  Hudson plays provocatively with the notion that Indian “removals” might have trended eastward, and that the “removals” of the 1830s in the Old Southwest were less complete than popularly imagined.  Two “Native Souths” entail here, and neither fully what we might expect. As if anticipating my own Georgia Colony story, Hudson suggests “rather than tending to follow the westward path of U.S. expansion, what if we follow people and stories where they lead, even if that lands us in unfamiliar historiographical waters?”  Venturing that Apaches and Choctaws employed each other’s presence to enhance their own sense of indigeneity, she asks us to wonder if the imprisoned Apaches rescued their Muskogee cousins from becoming “vanishing Indians.”  She later expanded on this essay with a Muster post.

The special issue of the Western Historical Quarterly appeared in the summer of 2021 and featured another four articles under the Unholy Union rubric.

 In “Reimagining ‘Defeat’ in the Transnational West” Matthew Hulbert brought South and the (South)west into conversation in a wry examination of how some former Confederates, rather than surrender their futures to the victorious Union, sought a new location where the “social and cultures features of the Confederate experiment” might be kept alive, under the protection of Mexican Emperor Maximillian.  Crossing the Rio Grande at Las Piedras, some imagined a return of the halcyon days of the Old South, while others, particularly those whom Hulbert details, imagined a new white supremacist landscape that would contain many of the socioracial features of what we come to be known at the New South.  Placing Confederado thinkers John Newman Edwards, Henry W. Allen and Alexander W. Terrell as representatives of specific imagined futures for the post-Civil War South.  Although they may never have seen realization, understanding their visions, and the strategies by which they sought to bring them to realization, “is paramount to our broadest understanding of how Confederates conceived of defeat and coped with it culturally, both at home and abroad.” One comes away from the essay wondering at Confederado naivete, yet recognizing that the “Old South” did, indeed, survive in deed and word:  several emigrant colonies in Brazil, for instance, and more robustly in the many echoes of Edward Pollard’s The Lost Cause today.

In “’No Country Will Rise Above its Home, and No Home Above its Mother:’ Gender, Memory and Colonial Violence in Nineteenth Century Central Texas,” Patrick Troester tackled another enduring myth of westering–the victimization of innocent women and children as justification for white men’s violence–while situating its origins in the Old Southwest.  By bringing a gender focus to literary representations, especially memoirs, of colonization (seldom used term) in the “settling” of Texas, he argued that “Anglo women served as active colonial agents through their work making homes, raising children, and building social ties—labor which bound them firmly to more overt forms of colonial violence by men and the emerging state.” Mary Maverick, daughter of Northport, Alabama attorney William Adams, misremembered her father as appointed by Andrew Jackson as Indian Agent for Choctaws and Cherokees.  Her husband to be, Samuel Maverick, disliked the hands-on daily work of managing enslaved workers on his father’s Tennessee plantation, and sought more bountiful returns in side-ranging land speculation.  Although the family prospered, “Mary faced the same bitter frustrations as other slaveholding women in the American South coupled with a quintessentially western sense of frontier isolation, “a slave of slaves.”

In “Between Civilization and Savagery: How Reconstruction Era Federal Indian Policy Lead to the Indians Wars,”  Boyd Cothran brought us farther west (and east) than any in our series across the two journals. His essay arced from the lava-beds stronghold of the Modocs to Washington, DC, and Ulysses S. Grant’s halting formulation of a “Peace Policy” that would seek, finally, to end the Indian Wars and bring Indians into the new body politic of the reunited states. That the Peace Policy would fail is attributable to an inability to grasp the “entrenched realities of life on the ground throughout the American West.”  Focusing on a single year, 1873, the messy realities of the West could unravel high-minded political reforms and kneecap Gilded Age avarice.  Francis Amasa Walker, the leading architect of the Peace Policy, a gifted intellectual and theorist, failed to craft a nationwide response to the knotty social realities of Indian-Settler relations in the West, and the Modoc War served as the “precipitating event” that would lead to a resumption of the Indian Wars as a final solution.

Steve Kantrowitz closed out our special issue with “Jurisdiction, Civilization, and the Ends of Native American Citizenship: the view from 1866” asked to place the imagined futures of Freedmen and Indians in conversation with one another to clarify the hidden contradictions that the 1866 Civil Rights Bill held for American Indians. Birthright citizenship, which seemed so straightforward in the case of newly freed women and men, became vexingly complicated once Senators contemplated embracing the “wild and savage” as fellow members of the body politic. The fact that Indians “bore a very different relationship” to the newly freed became obvious during debate.  Where “rights and equality” lay at the core of freedmen’s citizenship debates, Senators were undecided on issues of Native “jurisdiction.” Were Indians bound first by their tribal affiliation and therefore “foreign,” or were (some, at least) cloven from tribal passions and in the continuum of dependent subjects of the United States, hence “domestic”? If the latter, how might individual Indians be place on the spectrum of savagery to civilization?  How could “birthright” citizenship also allow for “enculturation” citizenship? Kantrowitz uses these questions to argue that in our “settler’s empire, republican constitutional principles could not be allowed to hamstring the fundamental sovereignty of settlers and their governments.”


In the Fall of 2021, I had the pleasure of serving as discussant for another WHA session, one continuing the themes that yielded the special issues, “South Meets West: Examining Federal Power and Policies After the Civil War.”  I found those papers exciting in their own right, and so strongly aligned with our ongoing work that I suggested to Khal Schneider, Alexandra Stern, and Kevin Adams they submit them to Muster, so that their insights might be included in our conversations before Kansas City. The various pieces will appear in a special roundtable over the next two weeks.

James Brooks

James F. Brooks is the Gable Chair in early American history at the University of Georgia and is research professor in history and anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.