In a misguided attempt at peace, the US Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act in 1851, which authorized the US Army and local government officials to establish a specially allocated region of the state of Oklahoma as a reserved spot for habitation for Native American tribal peoples who were being forcefully relocated from their ancestral homelands. This period of time in US history was tumultuous on many fronts, perhaps to the point of being overwhelming to the government officials of the day.
The Indian reservation emerged at the same time the nation was facing controversy and hostilities brought about by the women’s suffrage movement and the issue of freed slaves, and the abolition of slavery altogether, which made the United States a place facing controversy in government, at home, and on the frontier. The nation’s eastern shores were being flooded with impoverished and desperate immigrants from Ireland in their efforts to escape the devastating consequences of the Irish Potato Famine.
The push for Indian reservations was fueled by the invention of the Colt revolver and the advancement of the Iron Horse (railroad). Railroad lines were criss-crossing the nation from east to west at break-neck speed and were demoralizing the Native American peoples as a whole as it engulfed ancestral home lands, hunting grounds, and sacred spaces.
As a rule, the Indian reservation was located on land that made agricultural pursuits impossible, the lands the white man wouldn’t have wanted anyway. The inability of the displaced tribe to feed itself only compounded the misery and heartbreak suffered by these people as they were forced at gunpoint to leave their beloved homelands.
The 300 Indian reservations that exist today stand in evidence of the dismal economic outlook faced by these peoples. Today’s reservations are located in remote deserts and other regions of the southwest and western United States where life is harsh, even under the best of circumstances.
The white settlers felt the distress caused by the system of the Indian reservation, too. Hostilities between the exiled Native Americans and the US Army forcing their relocation spilled over into the lives of the white settlers, jeopardizing their safety, their supplies, and their efforts.
Sometimes the land parceled out to the settlers was reclaimed by the government to create Indian reservations. Widespread corruption on the part of the government officials charged with overseeing Indian reservation operations also caused problems for the settlers. Other settlers were opposed to the idea of the Indian reservation for moral reasons.
Economics, agriculture, ancestry, and geography aside, the era during which the Indian reservation got its start can be tragically summarized in the story of the meeting of a Civil War general and Comanche tribal chief in 1868. Chief Tochoway (Turtle Dove) introduced himself as a “good Indian” to Philip H. Sheridan when Sheridan was touring the western frontier. In reply, the general said, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.”