Between the Revolutionary War and the aftermath of the Civil War, over the course of almost a century, the United States and Native American nations signed some 368 treaties that would define their relationship for centuries to come.
The treaties keyed off the fundamental idea that each tribal group was an independent nation, with their own right to self-determination and self-rule. But as white settlers began moving onto Native American lands, this idea came into conflict with the relentless pace of westward expansion—resulting in many broken promises on the part of the U.S. government.
Treaty With the Delawares/Treaty of Fort Pitt - 1778
In September 1778, representatives of the newly formed Continental Congress signed a treaty with the Lenape (Delaware) at Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania. In the first official peace treaty between the new United States and a Native American nation, both sides agreed to maintain friendship and support each other against the British.
But mutual suspicion continued, especially after Pennsylvania militiamen killed nearly 100 Lenape (most of them women and children) at the village of Gnadenhutten in March 1782, mistakenly believing they were responsible for attacks against white settlers. After the American victory, more and more white settlers moved onto Lenape territory, until the Treaty of Greeneville in 1795 forced them and other Ohio Country Native Americans to surrender most of their lands.
Treaty of Hopewell - 1785-86
In the years following the Revolutionary War, Andrew Pickens and other commissioners of the new U.S. government concluded three highly similar treaties with the Cherokee, Choctaw and Cherokee Nations at Hopewell, Pickens’ plantation home in northwestern South Carolina.
Collectively known as the Treaty of Hopewell, these agreements extended the friendship and “protection” of the United States to the southern Native American tribes; all three ended with the same sentence: “The hatchet shall be forever buried, and peace given by the United States of America.”
Despite this sentiment, white settlers were already moving onto the lands designated for the Cherokee, leading to more conflict and the Treaty of Holston (1791), in which the Cherokee forfeited still more land.
Treaty of Canandaigua/Pickering Treaty/Calico Treaty - 1794
Seeking to improve relations between his government and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, a powerful group of six Iroquois-speaking tribes (the Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca and Tuscarora Nations), President George Washington sent his postmaster general, Timothy Pickering, to negotiate a treaty at Canandaigua, New York.
The treaty restored more than 1 million acres of land to the Seneca that had been ceded by treaty 10 years earlier and recognized the sovereignty of the Six Nations to govern themselves and set laws. It also promised an annual payment by the United States to the Haudenosaunee of $4,500 in goods, including calico cloth.
Over the years, as the Six Nations’ territory was further reduced, the Onondaga, Seneca, Tuscarora and some Oneida remained in New York on reservations, while the Mohawk and Cayuga left for Canada and the Oneida settled in Wisconsin and Ontario.
Treaty of Greeneville - 1795
As more white settlers moved west into the Great Lake region, a Native American confederacy including the Shawnee and Delaware, who had already been driven westward by U.S. expansion, as well as the Miami, Ottawa, Ojibwa and Potawatomi, mounted an armed resistance beginning in the late 1780s.
After U.S. troops under General “Mad” Anthony Wayne defeated them in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, Miami chief Little Turtle and other Native leaders ceded large parts of what would become Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin in the Greeneville Treaty.
But the treaty provided only short term resolution, as continued U.S. expansion quickly nullified its effect. By 1808, Shawnee war chief Tecumseh had organized a Native confederacy to mount armed resistance to continued U.S. seizure of Native American lands.
Treaty of Fort Wayne - 1809
In this treaty, negotiated by William Henry Harrison, then governor of Indiana Territory, with Native tribes including the Delaware, Potawatomi, Miami and Eel River tribes, the United States acquired 2.5 million acres of land in what is now Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio, for the equivalent of about two cents per acre. Tecumseh and others argued that the treaty’s signers had no authority to sell the land and warned Americans not to settle there.
In 1811, Harrison led an attack on a Native American camp on the Tippecanoe River, beginning a new U.S.-Native conflict that would last through the War of 1812. After Tecumseh’s death in battle in 1813, his confederacy dissolved, along with his dream of Native American independence.
Andrew Jackson & Indian Removal Act - 1830
Over the decade (1814-24) that Andrew Jackson served as a federal commissioner, he negotiated nine out of 11 treaties signed with Native American tribes in the Southeast, including the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, Seminoles and Cherokees, in which the tribes gave up a total of some 50 million acres of land in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky and North Carolina.
Elected president in 1828, Jackson spearheaded the Indian Removal Act (1830) through Congress, by which the U.S. government granted land west of the Mississippi River to Native tribes who agreed to give up their homelands.
Though removal was supposed to be voluntary, in practice Jackson used threats of withheld payments and legal and military action to conclude nearly 70 removal treaties over the course of his presidency, opening up some 25 million acres of land in the South to white settlement, and slavery.
Treaty of New Echota - 1835
Many Cherokee resisted removal from their ancestral lands in the Southeast, bringing their struggle all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But despite the Court’s ruling in Worcester v. Georgia (1832) that the Cherokee and other tribes were “sovereign nations,” the removal continued. In 1835, U.S. government met with a group of Cherokee representatives at New Echota, Georgia, to sign a treaty that traded all 7 million acres of Cherokee land for $5 million and land in Indian Territory.
The majority of Cherokee opposed the treaty, but Congress ratified it anyway, and in 1838 the federal government sent 7,000 U.S. soldiers to enforce the removal of the Cherokees. An estimated 10 to 25 percent of Cherokee would die during the 1,200-mile trek to Oklahoma, later known as the “Trail of Tears.”
Fort Laramie Treaty - 1868
In this treaty, signed at Fort Laramie and other military posts in what is now Wyoming, the U.S. government recognized the Black Hills of Dakota as the Great Sioux Reservation, the exclusive territory of the Sioux (Dakota, Lakota and Nakota) and Arapaho people. But after gold was discovered in the Black Hills, miners and settlers began moving onto the land en masse.
Native resistance to the treaty’s violation culminated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, after which government troops flooded the region. By that time, Congress had ended the nearly 100-year-old practice of making treaties with individual Native American tribes, declaring in 1871 that “henceforth, no Indian nation or tribe...shall be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation, tribe or power with whom the United States may contract by treaty.”
In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that the Black Hills were illegally confiscated, and awarded the Sioux more than $100 million in reparations. Sioux leaders rejected the payment, saying the land had never been for sale. Controversy continues over the sacred land—as well as other broken treaties.