Most people believe that Native American reservations were a concept established by the United States of America — but that’s not true. We simply took the concept and ran fast and hard. It was actually the British Empire that first decided to subjugate, assimilate, or push the Native Americans onto small parcels of land. They did this through treaties that would never have seemed “fair” to the Native Americans — and which were destined to be broken by European settlers anyway.
The first reservation ever established was the Brotherton Indian Reservation in New Jersey. This was a 3,284 acre piece of land “given” in August 1758. A few years later, plans were drawn up that would determine how future purchases would be made. The idea was always to consult with the Native Americans first, but settlers would generally push onto Native American lands first, become violent, and then the Native Americans would understandably fight back. Then a new treaty would be made, only for the cycle to begin anew some years later. This would keep going for about 200 years.
By 1824, the famous John C. Calhoun conceived the Office of Indian Affairs to formally adopt treaties for the purchase of land or granting of reservations. 38 such treaties were adopted quickly.
Southern California tribes were forced to sign treaties that pushed them onto reservations during a 41-year period between 1851 and 1892. But Congress wouldn’t ratify the treaties, which meant their signing was swept under rug until 1896, when the Bureau of American Ethnology declassified them for the first time.
Toward the end of Custer’s life (he was killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876), President Ulysses S. Grant was doing his best to avoid more violence with Native American tribes. He failed pretty miserably. His 1868 “Peace Policy” aimed to reorganize the Indian Service to “relocate” tribes. If the goal was to avoid violence, forcibly moving people from their ancestral homes was likely a bad way to go about it.
Somehow, he thought the idea would be received better if the men in charge were Christian officials nominated by the Church itself. You might have guessed that this too was a horrible idea.
The Native American tribes routinely ignored or fought back against the relocation orders (why wouldn’t they?) which forced the U.S. government to deploy the army to watch Native American movement. This led to the Sioux War (during which Custer was killed) and the Nez Perce War. President Rutherford B. Hayes decided to scrap the “Peace Policy” by 1877, and smartly asked the Christian officials to relinquish their posts. They acquiesced completely by 1882.
The Indian New Deal (also called the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 or the Howard-Wheeler Act) guaranteed new rights for Native Americans, gave them back sovereignty of their own lands, and provided them with the authority to manage their own lands. Of course, by this point in time, “their own lands” were all reservations.