Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the first 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.
Thirty years before George Washington became the first president of the United States, he renovated Mount Vernon, his legendary plantation on the banks of the Potomac River.
Then a 27-year-old army commander, Washington in 1759 transformed his family’s modest farmhouse into a mansion. He also moved the main entrance, reorienting the home from eastward-facing to westward, symbolizing one of his deepest convictions: “that the future lay in those wild and wooded lands of the Ohio Country,” biographer Joseph Ellis wrote in his 2004 book His Excellency George Washington.
“Even when ensconced on the eastern edge of the continent at Mount Vernon, Washington spent a good deal of his time and energy dreaming and scheming about virgin land over the western horizon,” Ellis wrote.
When Washington was elected as president in 1789, he brought to the office the uneasy conviction that Native Americans were destined to be displaced as white settlers moved westward. He also brought a nickname: Members of the Iroquois Confederacy called him “Conotocarious,” which means “devourer of villages.”
Born in Virginia in 1732, Washington’s first career was surveying, but he also earned a reputation as a military commander in the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars. He served in the First Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention before being unanimously elected as president of the United States. As the first president of a new country, Washington inherited a problem already hundreds of years in the making: what to do with the indigenous population. During his two terms as president, Washington forged the first relationships between the federal government and Native Americans, setting the tone for the next 227 years of federal Indian policy.
“Indians were part of Washington’s life from the time he was 16 years old until he retired from the presidency,” said Mary Thompson, a research historian at Mount Vernon. “He was the first president to worry about boundaries, about white people encroaching on Indian land, about the treaty-making process.”
Near the beginning of his first term, Washington declared that one of his highest priorities was an Indian policy “directed entirely by the great principles of justice and humanity.” The first federal Indian policy was enunciated in June 1789, two months after Washington took office.
During his eight years in power, Washington oversaw seven treaties, including the Treaty of Greenville, which granted the U.S. most of the present-day state of Ohio. Yet he also worked tirelessly with Secretary of War Henry Knox to create sovereign “homelands” for Indians, believing that Indians were “prior occupants” and should be considered as foreign nations rather than subjects of the state.
In July 1790, Congress passed the first Indian Trade and Intercourse Act, which “articulated a sharp divide between settlers’ lands and Indian country, and restricted access to Indian country only to federal agents and licensed Indian traders,” states the 2004 “Encyclopedia of United States Indian Policy and Law.” The law also introduced federal policies regarding the prosecution of non-Indians who commit crimes in Indian country and federal oversight of Indian land.
Washington’s Indian policies were pragmatic, supporting limited contact between Indians and settlers. But the President also pushed to change Indian behavior, believing that the federal government could not hold back the avalanche of white settlers.
In 1796, Washington concluded that settlers, not the government, controlled the national agenda regarding Indians. “I believe scarcely anything short of a Chinese wall or a line of troops will restrain land jobbers and the encroachment of settlers upon the Indian territory,” he wrote.
Washington knew the government didn’t have a strong enough army to keep the settlers out, Thompson said. Instead, he initiated treaties with individual tribes and sought audiences with others, recommending they “settle down and live like white people.” This “civilization policy” became an essential part of Indian policy into the 19th and 20th centuries.
“Washington was ready to put money into buying farm equipment and spinning wheels,” Thompson said. “He wanted to pay people to teach them how to live the settled agricultural lives. He encouraged the sending of missionaries. He really felt that as cultures got closer together and got more alike, it would make it easier for them to live together.”
Yet Washington also warned that to dispossess the Indians of their land would constitute a moral failure that would “stain the character of the nation.” In an open letter to the Cherokee Nation in 1796, Washington promised that if the Cherokee did their part, the federal government would enforce the treaties and ensure Cherokee survival. Washington meant the commitment to be a matter of law and personal promise, but it was one he could not keep.
“The irony is that the Indians did what they were told,” Thompson said. “They bought land, lived on plantations, had slaves, raised crops, wore the same clothing as the white settlers, and then Andrew Jackson came along with the extermination policies.”
Washington left office in 1797 and was succeeded by John Adams. He died at Mount Vernon in 1799. He was 67.