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Ulysses Grant’s Failed Attempt to Grant Native Americans Citizenship

The man elected president in 1868—Ulysses S. Grant—was determined to change the way many of his fellow Americans understood citizenship. As he saw it, anyone could become an American, not just people like himself who could trace their ancestry back eight generations to Puritan New England. Grant maintained that the millions of Catholic and Jewish immigrants pouring into the country should be welcomed as American citizens, as should the men, women, and children just set free from slavery during the Civil War. And, at a time when many in the press and public alike called for the extermination of the Indians, he believed every Indian from every tribe should be made a citizen of the United States, too.

Grant was sworn into office as president in 1869, and set forth his vision in his first inaugural address. Calling American Indians the “original occupants of the land,” he promised to pursue any course of action that would lead to their “ultimate citizenship.” It was not an idle promise. In the spring of 1865, he had been appointed the nation’s first General of the Army, a post that involved overseeing all the armies of the United States—including in the West, where conflicts with native tribes had raged throughout the Civil War. In this position, Grant had relied on his good friend and military secretary, Ely S. Parker, a member of the Seneca tribe, for advice. Now, as the newly inaugurated president of the United States, he was ready to implement his plans for the Indians, with Parker at his side as his Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

Parker and Grant’s friendship began in 1860, when Parker was working at the time as an engineer for the Treasury Department in Galena, Illinois, and often visited a leather goods store, where the proprietor’s son, Ulysses, worked as a clerk. Ulysses Grant had developed a deep sympathy for the Indians while serving in the army during the Mexican War. Later, on active duty in California and the Columbia River Valley, he saw firsthand the misery that Indians endured in his own nation. Grant never bought into the popular notion that Americans wanted to improve the lives of the native peoples, noting that civilization had brought only two things to the Indians: whiskey and smallpox.

Read entire article at Smithsonian.com