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Report of Henry Knox on the Northwestern Indians (June 15, 1789)
[Conflict between whites and Indians along the Wabash River created a crisis in Indian Affairs. Secretary of War Henry Knox (the official charged with supervision of Indian relations) in this report urged adoption of what he believed to be a just and humane policy that recognized Indian rights to the soil, rejected the principle of conquest, and compensated the Indians for lands they ceded. Why did Knox advocate such a policy? What are its implications, not only for Indians but for American Indian policy, as well as for American national identity and self-perception?]

. . . . In examining the question how the disturbances on the frontiers are to be quieted, two modes present themselves, by which the object might perhaps be effected; the first of which is by raising an army, and extirpating the refractory tribes entirely, or 2dly by forming treaties of peace with them, in which their rights and limits should be explicitly defined, and the treaties observed on the part of the United States with the most rigid justice, by punishing the whites, who should violate the same.

In considering the first mode, an inquiry would arise, whether, under the existing circumstances of affairs, the United States have a clear right, consistently with the principles of justice and the laws of nature, to proceed to the destruction or expulsion of the savages, on the Wabash, supposing the force for that object easily attainable.

It is presumable, that a nation solicitous of establishing it s character on the broad basis of justice, would not only hesitate at, but reject every proposition to benefit itself, by the injury of any neighboring community, however contemptible and weak it might be, either with respect to its manners or power . . . .

The Indians being the prior occupants, possess the right of the soil. It cannot be taken from them unless by their free consent, or by the right of conquest in case of a just war. To dispossess them on any other principle, would be a gross violation of the fundamental laws of nature, and of that distributive justice which is the glory of a nation.

But if it should be decided, on an abstract view of the question, to be just, to remove by force the Wabash Indians from the territory they occupy, the finances of the United States would not at present admit of the operation.

By the best and latest information, it appears that, on the Wabash and its communications, there are from 1500 to 2000 warriors. An expedition against them, with the view of extirpating them, or destroying their towns, could not be undertaken with a probability of success, with less than an army of 2,500 men. The regular troops of the United States on the frontiers, are less than six hundred; of that number, not more than four hundred could be collected from the posts for the purpose of the expedition. To raise, pay, feed, arm, and equip 1900 additional men, with their necessary officers for six months, and to provide every thing in the hospital and quartermaster's line, would require the sum of 200,000 dollars; a sum far exceeding the ability of the United States to advance, consistently with a due regard to other indispensable objects.

Were the representatives of the people of the frontiers (who have imbibed the strongest prejudices against the Indians, perhaps in consequence of the murders of their dearest friends and connexions) only to be regarded, the circumstances before stated, would not appear conclusive-an expedition, however inadequate, must be undertaken.

But when the impartial mind of the great public sits in judgment, it is necessary that the cause of the ignorant Indian should be heard as well as those who are more fortunately circumstanced. It well becomes the public to inquire before it punishes; to be influenced by reason, and the nature of things, and not by resentments.

It would be found, on examination, that both policy and justice unite in dictating the attempt to treating with the Wabash Indians: for it would be unjust, in the present confused state of injuries, to make war on those tribes without having previously invited them to a treaty, in order amicably to adjust all differences. If they should after wards persist in their depredations, the United States may with propriety inflict such punishment as they shall think proper . . . .

The time has arrive, when it is highly expedient that a liberal system of justice should be adopted for the various Indian tribes within the limits of the United States.

By having recourse to the several Indian treaties, made by the authority of Congress, since the conclusion of the war with Great Britain, excepting those made January 1789, at fort Harmar, it would appear, that Congress were of opinion, that the Treaty of Peace, of 1783, absolutely invested them with the fee of all the Indian lands within the limits of the United States; that they had the right to assign, or retain such portions as they should judge proper.

But it is manifest, form the representations of the confederated Indians at the Huron village, in December, 1786, that they entertained a different opinion, and that they were the only rightful proprietors of the soil; and it appears by the resolve of the 2d of July, 1788, that Congress so far conformed to the idea, as to appropriate a sum of money solely to the purpose of extinguishing the Indian claims to lands they had ceded to the United States, and for obtaining regular conveyances of the same. This object was accordingly accomplished at the treaty of fort Harmar, in January, 1789.

The principle of the Indian right to the lands they possess being thus conceded, the dignity and interest of the nation will be advanced by making it the basis of the future administration of justice toward the Indian tribes . . . .

As the settlements of the whites shall approach near to the Indian boundaries established by treaties, the game will be diminished, and the lands being valuable to the Indians only as hunting grounds, they will be willing to sell further tracts for small considerations. By the expiration, therefore, of the above period, it is most probable that the Indians will, by the invariable operation of the cause s which have hitherto existed in their intercourse with the whites, be reduced to a very small number . . . .

[Source: American State Papers: Indian Affairs, I: 13-14.]