Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 12th 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.
Zachary Taylor took office as the 12th president of the United States with 40 years of experience as a career soldier.
As a U.S. Army major during the War of 1812, Taylor battled the British and Shawnee forces. He also fought for Indian removal during the Black Hawk War in 1832 and the Second Seminole War from 1837 to 1840. During his campaigns against the Seminole, Taylor requested special permission to use bloodhounds to track Indians through the swamps of Florida.
“I am decidedly in favor of the measure, and beg leave to urge it as the only means of ridding the country of the Indians, who are now broken up into small parties that take shelter in swamps and hommocks, making it impossible for us to follow or overtake them without the aid of such auxiliaries,” Taylor wrote in a July 1838 letter. “I wish it distinctly understood, that my object in employing dogs, is only to ascertain where the Indians can be found, not to worry them.”
The Florida legislature authorized acquisition of the dogs and sent Taylor 33 bloodhounds and five handlers. Taylor did not use the dogs, however, as they were trained to track the scent of black slaves and proved worthless in finding Indians. Unable to subdue the Seminole, Taylor resigned from his post in 1840—two years before the war ended.
But Taylor’s reputation as an Indian fighter had already set the course of his life, said Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“At that time, most politicians got their experience in one of two ways: fighting against the Indians or fighting in the Mexican War,” Gerhardt told ICTMN. “Taylor did both.”
When Taylor took office in 1849, gold miners were heading to California by the thousands, setting off the bloodiest stage of westward expansion in history. By Taylor’s second year in office, 80,000 miners had poured into California, where lawmakers pursued policies of genocide.
In 1851, California Gov. Peter Burnett predicted that “the war of extermination will continue to be waged until the Indian race becomes extinct.” In the next 20 years, California’s Indian population would decrease by 80 percent, from 150,000 people to 30,000.
Born in Virginia in 1784, Taylor later moved with his family to a plantation in Kentucky. He joined the U.S. Army in 1808 and by 1810 had purchased a plantation of his own, along with 83 slaves.
In 1811, on the cusp of the War of 1812, Taylor went to Indiana to assume control of Fort Knox. His military career spanned the next 40 years, culminating with his service as major general during the Mexican-American War, which ended in 1847 with Mexico ceding one-third of its land to the United States.
Taylor’s victory earned him the title of national hero, which he used in his campaign for president the following year. A member of the Whig Party, Taylor beat two other candidates and took office in March 1849.
Taylor served as president for only 16 months. He died in July 1850 at age 65, of cholera or gastroenteritis from contaminated food.
During his short tenure as president, however, Taylor pushed for Indian assimilation and removal. He expanded the reservation system with the hope that “confined Indians” would embrace agriculture and Western civilization, Patit Mishra wrote in the 2008 “Encyclopedia of United States Indian Policy and Law.”
“President Taylor used the position of commissioner of Indian Affairs to reward his political supporters,” Mishra wrote. Two commissioners, Orlando Brown and Luke Lee, “believed that Native culture was inferior to that of white Americans but that it could be elevated by education.”
Taylor inherited a country that was rapidly expanding. Under James K. Polk, the United States had increased by more than 1 million square miles, and with new states petitioning to enter the Union, Taylor faced a battery of questions about how the land should be governed and whether new states should allow slavery.
“His policies largely had to do with tariffs, trade and slavery,” Gerhardt said of Taylor. “All of his policies played into Indian affairs because it was all about acquiring territory. Every time they acquired territory, they had to decide about slavery.”
Yet Taylor, known for his casual dress and informal speech, proved divisive when it came to slavery, Gerhardt said. Tensions between the North and South were mounting, and in early 1850 when Taylor took a stance against slavery in the Southwest, the Southern states threatened to secede.
In response, Taylor, a slave-owner himself, threatened to hold the Union together by armed force.
“If he had lived longer, he might have provoked a civil war earlier,” Gerhardt said of Taylor. “He had hard stances—pro-union, anti-slavery. He was divisive, and Lincoln modeled himself after him.”
Taylor also oversaw three treaties with Indian nations and one with Hawaii. The Navajo and Ute in 1849 entered into agreements with the United States that guaranteed U.S. citizens maltreating Indians on their land would be subject to federal laws. These treaties also required tribes to grant citizens “free and safe passage” through their territory.
In February 1850, Taylor signed a treaty of friendship, commerce and navigation with Hawaii, calling for “perpetual peace and amity between the United States and the king of the Hawaiian Islands, his heirs and his successors.” The treaty opened the way for annexation of Hawaii in the late 19th century.
Five months before his death, Taylor ordered the removal of the Chippewa from northern Wisconsin. In his executive order, signed February 6, 1850, Taylor revoked the Chippewas’ rights to hunting, fishing and gathering wild rice on land already ceded to the United States. “All of the said Indians remaining on the lands ceded as aforesaid are required to remove to their unceded lands,” he wrote.
During their march from northern Wisconsin to Minnesota during the following winter, an estimated 400 Chippewa died.