Visit of the Hon. Carl Schurz to Boston/Address by the Rev. George E. Ellis, D.D.

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Boston: John Wilson and Son, pages 41–48

The Chairman. Gentlemen, the committee have received several letters from distinguished gentlemen, two of which I propose to read; the others will appear in the morning papers. [He then read the letters from ex-President Hayes and ex-Secretary Sherman, printed on pp. 74, 75.] Gentlemen, I am now going to call for testimony for the Indians from a gentleman who knows something of their feelings. I ask you to listen to the Rev. Dr. George E. Ellis.


This occasion of welcome and respect to our guest—a distinguished statesman and public servant—reminds me of a scene where last I was in his company when he was treated with like honor and grateful regard. It was quite unlike this scene, and yet there is an intimate relation between them. It was nearly a year ago, when, with the honored President of the nation, and a marvellous concourse of people, he attended what we may call the Commencement Day at the Hampton Normal Institution for Negroes and Indians. It was in Virginia Hall. The pupils are called blacks and red men; but they seemed of every color, even some of the prismatic ones. When our guest rose to speak to them, there was a greeting which interpreted itself. It was not boisterous or noisy; but its sounds and gestures, the gaze of eyes, the attent of ears, all expressed its heartiness, its depth, and fulness of feeling. The Indians recognized in him their wise and kind friend,—their benefactor; the one leading man who had proposed and put on trial at last the one hopeful method for future experiment by our nation, for justice, mercy, and peace between us and the native tribes. Our guest has honorably and nobly linked his name and repute with this new policy. He has the sympathy and confidence of all the humane and right-minded of our whole people in it. The nation may be won to it. And there is every reasonable prospect that it may prove to be the means of redressing the fearful sum of wrongs and treacheries chargeable upon the nation in its dealings with the aborigines. Yet I think that a word of explanation—though not of palliation—may be spoken for our Government.

I had shared to the full the popular impression which has so often found a sharp and stinging utterance, that the course of our Government, through its full century, toward the Indians, has been treacherous, unscrupulous, malignant, and inhuman. A weary course of thorough study and investigation for a special purpose, pursued through the whole mass of State documents,—for nearly a hundred volumes of which I have been indebted to our guest,—has led me to qualify and relieve that bitter judgment, so far, at least, as any set object, or planning, or intent of wrong is concerned. I grant that, in fact, in effect, and with painful accumulations of evidence, such has been the humiliating and often unscrupulous and cruel character of the dealings of our Government with the Indians. But it has not been so in intent, in premeditated or deliberate defiance of humane methods. Far otherwise. Very easily might a mass of evidence be spread before us, with testimony from documents, messages of Presidents, beginning with those of Washington, acts and resolves of Congress, schemes, appropriations, and all sorts of public measures devised by our Government and the constituency behind it,—all showing an honorable intention to treat the aborigines, as a whole and in their tribes, with mercy, humanity, and a lavish generosity. And these righteous aims have been complemented by an infinite succession of philanthropic, missionary, and educational enterprises, undertaken by individuals and associations. Sums of money, which would have covered any estimate which the Indians themselves would have made of the value of what have been regarded as their lands, have been paid for ends of peace with them, to say nothing of the cost of fighting them.

Yet all these humane and kindly purposes have been thwarted, and the actual results are humiliating to us; convicting us of grievous wrong; seemingfully to justify the stinging reproaches against our Government. Possibly, those reproaches may be somewhat lightened by a candid statement of the means and causes through which just intentions have in effect yielded to injustice and treachery. These good purposes have faltered, and have then been overridden by circumstances unforeseen, but resisting, by obstacles, complications, incidental and temporary contingencies, defying even, the power as well as the deliberate intentions of the Government. There have been three principal and obstinate agencies of this mischief which have started up, unforeseen and unprovided for, and before which the Government has yielded.

1. We must recognize that spring and source of so much of our national trouble,—the conflict between the Federal and State jurisdictions, by which, as in the first signal case of Georgia, paralleled ever since down to our own times, the Government pledged to Indians territory which afterward came under the sway of local Legislatures.

2. The rapid opening and occupation of vast regions for improvement by the whites, so that in decades of years the frontier lines have encroached on Indian domains,—the lines changing like an horizon, while the settlements of the Pacific coast have griped the central wilderness, tightening its borders and reducing its extent.

3. The enterprises of exploration, of mail routes, of telegraphs, and mining by the people, who are stronger than the Government; before whom the Government has quailed, temporized, and then broken its solemn pledges.

Nor in this century of public faithlessness and inhumanity, of oppression and cruelty, have our people been merely the inflictors of wrong. Suffering and vengeance have been returned upon them in full measure. Twelve white persons certainly—some intelligent estimates assure us twenty—have died in battle, ambush, or torture, for every single Indian life that has been extinguished in the long-contested struggle between the races on this continent. And the cost of killing each Indian has been set at a million dollars. As to their extermination in this process, our most careful authorities tell us that there are as many Indians now on our so-called domain as there were when the whites first came. The relations of the whites with the aborigines on this continent having begun in wrong, have been resented and resisted by them, after their own modes of wile and warfare, to such effect as to persuade the whites that they had to deal with incarnate fiends. This conviction, which has been stamped afresh upon the dreads and perils of those who have advanced our frontiers over each successive western valley, river, and mountain range, has perpetuated the belief that the right of civilization against barbarism involves the right of extermination. Yet humanity and righteousness protest against that gigantic outrage. Still, there is only one effectual alternative to extermination,—and that is the assertion by the natives of the rights and privileges of civilization. From them must come the evidence that they are not wild beasts, prowling through thickets and plains, but entitled to the rights of human beings,—to homes and fields of their own.

We must face the simple and rigid condition that not until the Indians break up their tribal relations, and occupy, in severalty by families, as farms, tracts of regions which heretofore they have only roamed over and skimmed,—only then will the whites allow them to be owners of the soil, and treat them as such. And in exacting that condition the whites will claim that they follow the law of all civilized people, and even the law of Nature. The reason why no individual, tribe, people, or nation can assert and hold dominion over any portion of the high seas or ocean, is because no permanent occupancy or improvement can be set up there. All are free to course them or to fish them; but they have no owners. By the same test, however, in councils and treaties with tribes of Indians, our Government may have shammed a recognition of their territorial rights. It has been but a sham. From the first coming here of the whites they have never honestly held—yielding all that followed the admission—that any tribe of Indians found in occupancy of a portion of territory had a bona fide title of ownership of it. Though they might, after first getting a footing in it through conquest or vacancy, amid an incessant internecine warfare, have hunted over it for two or three generations, still it was not theirs as against any rival roamers. They had merely skinned vast spaces of it of its natural productions; they set up no tokens of possession, with bounds and fencings and improvements. These are the white man's credentials for title and possession; and not till the Indian copies them and holds by them will he be treated otherwise than as the vermin of the soil.

While we find cause of satisfaction and encouragement in the adoption of an Indian policy for the future which will rectify our errors and wrongs, we must not imagine that we are thus to relieve a most serious and perplexing duty of its difficulties and embarrassments. The Indian question will be a troublesome one to our Government and people so long as there are Indians. And there will be special race characteristics about it, in many respects unlike those which invest a wise dealing with the blacks and the Chinese. Some of us have charitably tried to interpret the remark attributed to our great General, that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” as simply meaning that the Indian element or quality must be suppressed, overruled, or killed out of a man, before he will be a safe or promising subject to deal with. If this be a fair construction of the stern sentence, it will find multitudes to accord with it. We need only to remind ourselves what dreads and disgusts are stirred up by the presence and prowling of a tramp around our best-guarded rural homesteads, to conceive what apprehensions will threaten the inhabitants of frontiers on the border lines of civilization and savagery, in the neighborhood of Indians, even while they are advancing in the early stages of fixed residences and farming.

Another fact which we must recognize and allow is this: Whatever course our Government pursues toward the Indians, be it the very wisest and most humane, will have about it the essential element of arbitrariness, dictation, and compulsion. If we consult the Indians about it, as with a purpose of having their consent or approval, it will be under the implication that they have got to yield to it. We are not ready to assume that they are competent judges as to what is best for them. Our judgment in the case will have sway, whether they accord with it or not. And when in wisdom and humanity our plans for them are decided, they will be compelled to comply. This element of arbitrariness is unavoidable, because it is our judgment in the case, though it may or may not be theirs. And something more than human in generosity and unselfishness would be expected of us, if in planning and deciding as to what is the best disposal to be made of the Indians, we are not largely influenced by considerations of our own security and interest. The greeting which our honored guest received from the Indians at Hampton is but the first note of the eulogies which will extend through the centuries to come, for the initiation of his Indian policy.