Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 11th in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, their challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their time in office.
James Knox Polk oversaw the greatest acquisition of territory in U.S. history.
The 11th president, Polk increased the size of the United States by two-thirds, roughly 800,000 square miles, by acquiring present-day California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Washington and Oregon, as well as parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Wyoming and Montana. He also completed the annexation of Texas, expanding the nation by an additional 400,000 square miles and increasing its jurisdiction over hundreds of thousands of Native Americans.
“In the earlier stages of our national existence the opinion prevailed with some that our system of confederated states could not operate successfully over an extended territory,” Polk said in his inaugural address. Yet, “the title of numerous Indian tribes to vast tracts of country has been extinguished; new states have been admitted into the Union; new territories have been created and our jurisdiction and laws extended over them. As our population has expanded, the Union has been cemented and strengthened.”
Born in North Carolina in 1795, Polk later moved to Tennessee, where he practiced law, served in the state militia and became a firm supporter of Andrew Jackson. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives and as governor of Tennessee before successfully running for president in 1844. A member of the Democratic Party, Polk served one term, from 1845 to 1849.
In his first message to Congress, he urged a comprehensive adoption of Jacksonian policies—including Indian removal—and called Jackson “the most eminent citizen of our country.” He also reasserted the Monroe Doctrine, warning against European interference with America’s plans to advance across the continent.
Printed copies of the message were rushed by train to citizens all over the country. In Philadelphia, crowds reportedly shouted, “Hurrah! Jackson is alive again!”
Known as the last strong president before the Civil War, Polk took office with four goals: reduce the tariff, reform the banking system, acquire California and settle the boundary dispute over Oregon. He achieved all four, said Michael David Cohen, a history professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and editor of the James K. Polk Project.
“There’s no president who was less of a human being than Polk,” Cohen said. “He had almost no hobbies outside of his work. He spent long hours in his office and had no real interests besides doing his job.”
To achieve his goals, however, Polk went to war against Mexico and risked military action with Britain. Acquisitions of new land sparked debate over the expansion of slavery in the West, laying the foundation for the Civil War.
During his four years in office, Polk also wrestled with the beginning of the California Gold Rush, the Mormon settlements in Utah and the destruction of buffalo herds on the Plains. The Smithsonian Institution was established and charged with preserving artifacts from each Indian nation before they disappeared.
By the early 1840s, pioneers in covered wagons were migrating along the Oregon Trail to destinations in the Pacific Northwest and Canada. Shortly after taking office, Polk began negotiations with Britain over Oregon, which since 1818 was jointly occupied by Americans and British.
The Oregon Treaty of 1846 divided the Oregon Country along the 49th parallel, acquiring Washington, Oregon and parts of Montana and Wyoming. Congress in 1848 passed the Oregon Organic Act, establishing the Oregon Territory and setting the stage for statehood. The act included provisions that lands were not to be taken from the Indians without their consent.
Polk was simultaneously eyeing California, hoping to acquire it before any European nation could. In January 1846, he sent an envoy—and Gen. Zachary Taylor—to Mexico to offer $20 million for California and New Mexico.
Mexican leaders viewed this as aggression and attacked Taylor’s forces, sparking the beginning of the Mexican-American War. The war ended in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which called for Mexico to cede about half its national territory in exchange for $15 million.
The treaty established the Rio Grande River as the southern border of Texas and acquired much of the present-day Southwest. It also spelled out Indian policy in the new territories, “now occupied by savage tribes.” Natives living in the newly acquired territories would be subject to U.S. laws, the treaty states. And, “when providing for the removal of the Indians from any portion of the said territories,” the U.S. would not encourage them to return to Mexico.
In a special message to Congress in July 1848, Polk called for immediate establishment of territorial governments to protect inhabitants and newly acquired wealth.
“New Mexico and Upper California have been ceded by Mexico to the United States, and now constitute a part of our country,” he said. “Embracing nearly ten degrees of latitude, lying adjacent to the Oregon Territory, and extending from the Pacific Ocean to the Rio Grande, a mean distance of nearly 1,000 miles, it would be difficult to estimate the value of these possessions to the United States. They constitute of themselves a country large enough for a great empire.”
Polk also oversaw 10 treaties with Indian nations, seven of which negotiated acquisition of Indian land. The Kansas, Potawatomi, Chippewa, Winnebago, Pawnee, Menominee and Stockbridge tribes all agreed to give up part of their ancestral homelands.
Polk left office in March 1849 and died three months later, at age 53. He was succeeded by Zachary Taylor.