Who was Carl Schurz?

Carl Schurz, 1877 -- Library of Congress

"Most of the Indian wars grew, not from any desire of the Government to disturb the Indians in the territorial possessions guaranteed to them, but from the restless and unscrupulous greed of frontiersmen who pushed their settlements and ventures into the Indian country."

 

The Spokane Evening Review stigmatized Carl Schurz for refusing to give up the Indian prisoners of the Nez Perce War to be "tried before the courts for the murders and horrible atrocities." Schurz, who was Secretary of the Interior when the war ended had a different take on the sources of Indian-white conflict. In 1881 he published an article in the North American Review titled "Present Aspects of the Indian Problem." He began with a blunt assertion about white mistreatment of Indians:

"That the history of our Indian relations presents, in great part, a record of broken treaties, of unjust wars, and of cruel spoilation, is a fact too well known to require proof or to suffer denial." (1)

He argued that although whites tended to blame the Indians for the wars on the frontier -- notice that the Spokane Evening Review article refers to them as "blood-stained demons" -- often the blame lay with the settlers themselves:

"It is also a fact that most of the Indian wars grew, not from any desire of the Government to disturb the Indians in the territorial possessions guaranteed to them, but from the restless and unscrupulous greed of frontiersmen who pushed their settlements and ventures into the Indian country, provoked conflicts with the Indians, and then called for the protection of the government against the resisting and retaliating Indians, thus involving it in the hostilities which they themselves had begun." (2)

Schurz conceded that "in some instances, it must be admited, outrages were committed by Indians without provocation, which resulted in trouble on a large scale." (2) Then he continued, "But I desire to point out that by far the larger part of our Indian troubles have sprung from the greedy encroachments of white men upon Indian lands."

Carl Schurz had migrated from Germany to America in 1848, during a period of widespread revolutionary activity. In the United States he became an abolitionist and during the Civil War he rose to the rank of general. He toured the South after the war and urged the federal government to guarantee the right of freedmen to vote. Schurz was elected to the senate from Missouri for a term running from 1869 to 1875. He supported Rutherford B. Hayes for the presidency in 1877 and became the new president's Secretary of the Interior. In this post he advocated such measures as the creation of a Federal forest service. This program was not enacted until 1905, but his ideas made Schurz one of the forerunners of the American conservation movement. After leaving office he devoted much of his time to writing and supporting various reform causes. From 1892 to 1901 he was head of the National Civil Service Reform League.

This sequence of articles on the Colville Reservation indicates that over time most inland Northwesterners were willing to take a more favorable view of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce.

Quotations above are from Carl Schurz, "Present Aspects of the Indian Problem," North American Review, cxxxiii, number 296 (July, 1881). Page numbers follow the quotations.

 

Read more of what Carl Schurz had to say about "Present Aspects of the Indian Problem."

 

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