The War-Treaty Ratio


In yesterday's New York Times, John Tierney summarizes an argument I first encountered in Terry Anderson's book Sovereign Nations or Reservations?:

As the economists Terry Anderson and Fred McChesney have documented, the downfall of the American Indians correlates neatly with the rise of two federal bureaucracies.

The first was the standing army established during the Mexican War of the 1840's. Before then, settlers who wanted Indian land usually had to fight for it themselves or rely on local militias, so they were inclined to look for peaceful solutions. From 1790 to 1840, the number of treaties signed with Indians each decade far exceeded the number of battles with them.

But during the next three decades there were more battles than treaties, and after the Army's expansion during the Civil War the number of battles soared while treaties ceased. Settlers became an adept special interest lobbying for Washington to seize Indian land for them. For military leaders, the "Indian problem" became a postwar rationale for maintaining a large force; for officers like Custer, battles were essential for promotions and glory.

Indians no longer had any bargaining power, and they were powerless to resist the troops that avenged Custer's death. They were consigned to reservations and ostensibly given land, but it was administered by another bureaucracy, the agency that would grow into what's now the Bureau of Indian Affairs.