The American Indian Agent, 1791-1861 Questioning the Literary and Cinematic Stereotype as well as Historical Narratives to find the real Indian Agent

Abstract

The American Indian Agent is a known figure in the national drama. Originally defined by nineteenth century political opponents, settlers, frontier business interests, the American military, Indian policy reformers and even Indians, the Indian agent ranges from inept to cupidinous; cruel to inhuman. Western fiction writers, screenwriters and episodic television dramatists of the twentieth century took the agent’s tarnished reputation and created a stereotype stock character for Westerns emphasising all his malevolent attributes. The historical profession has largely perpetuated the cultural and literary perception of the Indian agent, until some historians began to identify individualized exceptions to agent perfidy. As examples of benevolent agents grew, the profession revised its analysis allowing that some agents assisted Indians while most remained obdurately delinquent.Most historical research on Indian agents has focused on the period from 1861–1888, the Civil War to the end of the Apache Wars. Large swaths of history remain lightly explored as the Indian agent existed from 1791–1908. This thesis examines the Indian agent in the early years of the Republic, from 1791–1861, interacting with Indians from New York to Puget Sound, from Georgia to New Mexico and the vast Great Plains in between. Crucially this thesis places the agent in the world of the Indian agency as well as the competing worlds of politics, business, religion, settlement, and government administration of which he was also a part.The results are surprising. Although there were a few criminals and several men overwhelmed by conditions, most agents of Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, and Antebellum America were honest, sincere public servants, many coming to favor the Indians and spending their own money, and in a few cases, their blood to aid Indian development and freedom.This conclusion runs counter to both popular and historical perceptions. It seems almost everyone has adopted the old Aristotelian idea of petitio principii or “begging the question”. The bad and inept Indian agent must be bad and inept. No longer. These are the real Indian agents of 1791–1861

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