Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 13th 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.
During his 32 months in office, Millard Fillmore earned a reputation for being anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigration and anti-black.
The 13th president of the United States, Fillmore supported federal policies that targeted minorities, religious groups and other disenfranchised populations, said Paul Finkelman, a historian and professor of human rights law at University of Saskatchewan. A stubborn, insecure and unpleasant man, Fillmore is perhaps best known for signing the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which allowed for the capture and return of runaway slaves.
“Fillmore signed it without any qualms at all, and then he vigorously enforced it,” said Finkelman, who authored the 2011 biography “Millard Fillmore.” “A lot of what he did was horrendously unfair. He was pretty much on the wrong side of history every time he turned around: the wrong side of slavery, the wrong side of religious tolerance. He didn’t like anyone.”
Born into poverty in 1800, Fillmore was raised in the burned-over district of upstate New York, a region made popular by religious revivals and political reform movements. Fillmore grew up where famous abolitionists like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass would come to live, yet he remained “totally oblivious” to issues of human rights, Finkelman said.
“He didn’t seem to care about slavery one way or the other,” Finkelman said of Fillmore. “He had abolitionists as some of his closest neighbors, and yet he ignored them all.”
A self-made man, Fillmore went to work at a textile mill at age 14. When the Panic of 1819 hit, he transitioned into a law career. In 1828, Fillmore was elected to the New York State Assembly. He also served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, chancellor for the University of Buffalo and comptroller for the state of New York before running for vice president in 1848.
A member of the Whig Party, Fillmore served under Zachary Taylor for 16 months. He took office as president in July 1850 after Taylor’s sudden death, inheriting a country in crisis over slavery.
On his second day in office, Fillmore’s entire cabinet resigned and it took him months to find replacements. Meanwhile, Congress was wrangling over the Compromise of 1850, which, among other things, decided whether newly acquired territories in the West would allow slavery and enacted a more stringent fugitive slave law.
Congress eventually passed all five parts of the compromise as individual bills, and Fillmore signed them into law. As a result, California joined the Union and slavery was allowed in territories heavily populated with Native Americans, including most of modern-day Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.
In his first message to Congress, in December 1850, Fillmore estimated 124,000 indigenous people had come under the jurisdiction of the United States because of the Mexican cession. He recommended that Congress “provide for the raising of one or more regiments of mounted men” to help protect settlers in the new territory.
“Texas and New Mexico are surrounded by powerful tribes of Indians, who are a source of constant terror and annoyance to the inhabitants,” he said. “Separating into small predatory bands, and always mounted, they overrun the country, devastating farms, destroying crops, driving off whole herds of cattle, and occasionally murdering the inhabitants or carrying them into captivity. The great roads leading into the country are infested with them, whereby traveling is rendered extremely dangerous and immigration is almost entirely arrested.”
Shortly before the nation acquired the California Territory in 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. By the time California was admitted to the Union in 1850, miners were pouring in from as far away as Europe, China and Australia.
In 1851, federal Indian agents negotiated 18 secret removal treaties with tribes in California. These agents worked with 402 Indian leaders representing 139 tribes or bands, who agreed to cede their land in exchange for reservations, education and a supply of livestock and dry goods. Yet the three U.S. commissioners charged with negotiating the treaties were part of a “corrupt Indian system” and most of the treaties were fraudulently negotiated.
The Senate, finding the treaties problematic, failed to ratify them and “Indian title to the land was left unresolved,” Larisa Miller, an associate archivist at Stanford University, wrote in a 2013 article in Prologue, a publication of the National Archives. “It was unclear if Mexico—from which California was acquired—recognized Native land titles. If Mexico did not, then Indians in California came under U.S. sovereignty without legal claims to the land.”
California lawmakers also feared the designated reservations were on the most valuable agricultural and mineral land in the state. In 1852, a California Assembly report proposed that senators “induce the federal government to remove the Indians of this state beyond its jurisdiction.” Suggested destinations included Oregon, New Mexico, Utah and Catalina Island.
During his partial term in office, Fillmore supervised dozens of treaties with Indian nations, including 13 with Oregon tribes. Anson Dart, superintendent of Indian Affairs, was ordered to remove the Oregon tribes, including several Chinook and Tillamook bands, to the east of the Cascade Range. Congress never ratified these treaties.
Fillmore made an unsuccessful bid for president in 1856 as the nominee for the Know-Nothing Party, an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic party. He carried one state and came in third behind James Buchanan and John Fremont.
Fillmore left office in 1853 and was succeeded by Franklin Pierce. He died in 1874 at age 74.