Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 23rd in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.
Nineteen days after taking office, Benjamin Harrison signed a proclamation opening Indian Territory in Oklahoma to settlers.
The March 23, 1889 proclamation made 1.9 million acres of “unassigned lands” available to white settlers and kicked off one of the most chaotic chapters in American history. At high noon on April 22, a gunshot rang out and an estimated 50,000 settlers crossed into the territory by wagon, horseback, bicycle, train or foot and claimed all the available land before nightfall.
The Oklahoma Land Run came on the heels of two acts signed by Harrison’s predecessor, President Grover Cleveland. The Dawes Act of 1887 authorized the President to divide Indian land into individual allotments and the Indian Appropriations Act of 1889 officially opened surplus or unassigned lands to white settlers.
Known for its “boomers,” settlers campaigning for the land to be opened, and “sooners,” those who illegally entered the territory ahead of time, the land rush has become an iconic era in the history of the West. Thousands of Americans gained new hope as they claimed 160-acre parcels and the opportunity that came with land ownership.
But the rush also set the tone for Harrison’s presidency, which was marked by similar land grabs and last-ditch efforts by Indians to hold on to their territory.
During Harrison’s four years in office, six states were admitted to the Union, including four during his first year alone: North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington and Montana. Idaho and Wyoming were admitted in 1890.
Harrison also forced the Sioux Nation in the Dakotas to divide into separate reservations and relinquish 11 million acres of land, and the Crow to give up 1.8 million acres of land for general settlement in Montana. As more Indians accepted land allotments, Harrison also opened to white settlers “surplus” lands acquired from the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations and the Sac and Fox.
Born in Indiana in 1833, Harrison was the grandson of the ninth U.S. president, William Henry Harrison. A conservative attorney and advocate of big business, Harrison served as a colonel during the Civil War and a U.S. senator before running for president in 1888. A member of the Republican Party, he served one term, from 1889 to 1893.
During his administration, Congress passed the first Forest Reserve Act, granting the President power to create national forests. Harrison used the act 17 times, setting aside land in Colorado, Oregon, California, Washington and the New Mexico, Arizona and Alaska territories. He also opened the second, third and fourth national parks and set aside the first prehistoric Indian ruin to come under federal protection, at Casa Grande, Arizona.
Harrison was less inclined to preserve the lives and ways of living Indians. In his first message to Congress, in December 1889, Harrison called Indians an “ignorant and helpless people” whose best chance at survival was assimilation.
Reservations were generally surrounded by white settlements and the only way to manage the Indian was to “push him upward into the estate of self-supporting and responsible citizen,” he said. Adults should be located on farms and children should be enrolled in school.
“It is to be regretted that the policy of breaking up the tribal relation and of dealing with the Indian as an individual did not appear earlier in our legislation,” Harrison told Congress. “Large reservations held in common and the maintenance of the authority of the chiefs and headmen have deprived the individual of every incentive to the exercise of thrift, and the annuity has contributed an affirmative impulse toward a state of confirmed pauperism.”
Indians viewed these policies as campaigns to take their land, and some sought answers from spiritual sources. In the winter of 1889, a Paiute man named Wokova had a vision of the Creator and the dead of his nation. When he returned from the vision, Wokova encouraged his people to work hard and live peacefully with the white settlers, promising that “eventually they would be reunited with the dead in a world without death or sickness or old age,” Stephen Cornell wrote in his 1990 book, The Return of the Native: American Indian Political Resurgence.
Wovoka also brought back a ceremonial dance he said would bring about this transformation. Known as the Ghost Dance, the ceremony quickly spread to other tribes, including the Sioux at Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Burned by a legacy of broken promises, the Sioux adopted the Ghost Dance and “gave to the prophecies a hostile content: In their version, the whites were to be annihilated by a massive whirlwind,” Cornell wrote.
Government officials in Washington, fearing the ceremony could incite violence, sent military troops to Pine Ridge. Leaders of the Ghost Dance movement retreated to the reservation’s isolated northern boundary.
In the early morning of December 15, 1890, agents surprised Chief Sitting Bull and tried to arrest him. When Sitting Bull resisted, agents shot him at close range, escalating tensions between the Sioux and the U.S. military.
On the morning of December 29, 1890, soldiers from the Seventh Cavalry perched on a hill above Wounded Knee Creek and shot unarmed men, women and children. An estimated 146 Sioux and 29 soldiers were killed in the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre, which marked the last time the U.S. militia systematically slaughtered Indians.
Harrison, who had a reputation as “the human iceberg,” took no responsibility for what happened at Wounded Knee. He honored the Seventh Cavalry for their distinguished service, and 20 soldiers later received the Medal of Honor for their part in the massacre.
In his third message to Congress, a year after the massacre, Harrison admitted that the Sioux had some “just complaints” stemming from the reduction of rations and the delay in receiving government services. But, Harrison said, “the Sioux tribes are naturally warlike and turbulent” and posed a threat to white settlers near the reservation. The “uprising” was handled with a militia that prioritized the “thorough protection” of the settlers and “of bringing the hostiles into subjection with the least possible loss of life.”
During his final year in office, Harrison commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America. In a proclamation issued in July 1892, Harrison appointed October 21 as a general holiday set aside for citizens to “honor the discoverer and their appreciation of the four completed centuries of American life.”
Harrison left office in 1893 and was succeeded by Grover Cleveland. He died in 1901 at age 67.