“The Most Barbarous and Inhuman Practice”: The Elimination of Slavery in the Territories, as Seen in the Office of Indian Affairs Microfilm Series

Today’s post is written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives at Denver and Subject Matter Expert for Native American Related Records

It is represented to me in a communication from the Secretary of the Interior that Indians in New Mexico have been seized and reduced into slavery. . . . I do hereby order that the heads of the several Executive Departments do enjoin upon the subordinates, agents, and employees under their respective orders or supervision in that Territory to discountenance the practice aforesaid and to take all lawful means to suppress the same. —President Andrew Johnson, June 9, 1865

Such violations of the personal liberty of Indians, and the exaction from them of requited labor, should not be tolerated in a country professing to be free. —Secretary of Interior James Harlan, June 12, 1865

I have notified all the people here that in future no more captives are to be purchased or sold, as I shall immediately arrest both parties caught in the transaction. This step, I think, will at once put an end to the most barbarous and inhuman practice which has been in existence with the Mexicans for generations. —Indian Agent Lafayette Head, July 17, 1865

The year was 1865. The Civil War had ended months earlier, yet vestiges of slavery still existed in the territories. Alerted, President Andrew Johnson sought to stamp it out and directed Commissioner of Indian Affairs William Dole to look into it further. 

The records telling this story can be found in Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. (In 1865, the agency was called the Office of Indian Affairs and so for historical accuracy will be referred to by that name or OIA throughout this essay.) While some of the letters were published within the agency’s annual reports and are now widely available online through academic institutions, the originals found in our Washington, DC facility were long ago microfilmed and have been a steady supplier of source material for historical monographs for decades, at least for those willing to slog through the rolls. Recent digitization of these microfilmed series by the National Archives have made the records all the more accessible. Now, from the comfort of one’s own home, they can be browsed in our online Catalog. The three series referenced in this essay—Registers of Letters Received, 1824–1880; Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs, 1824–1880; and Letters Sent by the Office of Indian Affairs, 1824–1886—encompass 1,260 rolls of microfilm but are now accessible with just a few clicks. 

Back to our story. President Johnson had spoken, and thus the machinery of government began churning to carry out the order. Recently appointed Secretary of the Interior James Harlan, possibly best known today for firing clerk Walt Whitman from the Office of Indian Affairs, wrote to Commissioner William Dole on June 12th ordering him to look into the issue. This first brings us to Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs, 1824–1880, microfilm publication M234 (NAID 159715232)

What sort of records are in this collection? Largely correspondence and reports sent to the OIA commissioner’s office from agency employees, but also at times letters from private citizens; American Indians themselves; presidents; congressmen; and, as was the case here, other federal agency officials—all serving to show how intertwined the agency’s business was with the government at large. Topics covered run the gamut including education, health, medical care, finances, general administrative issues, agriculture, land, emigration, finances, claims, complaints, instructions, requests, and decisions. This collection is even more important in that Indian agents’ individual correspondence were not considered government records and thus were not saved, until 1875 legislation changed that. Organized by OIA office, thereunder by year and loosely by a number filing system, the massive 629-cubic-foot series is indexed by the Registers of Letters Received, 1824–1880, microfilm publication M18 (NAID 2103470)

To more easily find the letter from Harlan to Dole, we thus consult M18’s roll 64, which covers the dates January 1, 1865, through June 30, 1865. Each register is organized alphabetically by author, thereunder by date, but it is often not as easy as that—although some letters from Harlan are filed under “H,” the one in question is actually filed under “I” for the Interior Department. We find the entry on frame 131; the letter was received June 13th, assigned number 1049, and filed under “New Mexico.” 

The register provides a brief description of the letter’s contents and indicates that the presidential order and letter were forwarded to Superintendent Delgado of the New Mexico Superintendency on June 14th. (Disestablished in 1885, the superintendencies were organized by state or territory and were in charge of all lesser OIA agencies, subagencies, and offices within their jurisdiction, akin to the later area offices and the regional offices today.) However, a cursory search of M234 doesn’t turn up the letter, so it seems likely that Harlan’s letter and the copy of Johnson’s order today would be found in the Records of the New Mexico Superintendency of Indian Affairs, 1849–1880, microfilm publication T21. This microfilm series, an amalgam of records from various series, is in the process of being digitized, along with those from other superintendencies.

Commissioner Dole did not simply forward on the material; he also wrote a cover letter asking Delgado for help. We know this from consulting Letters Sent by the Office of Indian Affairs, 1824–1886, microfilm publication M21 (NAID 2105779). These transcribed outgoing letters are organized chronologically, with each volume containing an index of letter recipients. Here we find on roll 77, frame 169, the June 14th letter.

The index page for “D” within roll 77 of Letters Sent by the Office of Indian Affairs, 1824–1886, microfilm publication M21. Superintendent Delgado has only one letter mentioned here, from an unrelated matter in April 1865. In order to find the June letter that apparently wasn’t indexed, one has to dive into the volume and go page by page until finding the letters written on June 14th.

If we follow the steps outlined above for navigating the letters received by the commissioner’s office, we see that Delgado replied to Dole on July 16th, opening with his opinion that the issue was “greatly exaggerated.” He then defends American Indian captivity, invoking the “civilizing” rationale that would become so common in the later assimilation era. But in closing, he possibly realizes the mood of the administration and ends with a hearty rebuke of slavery and a promise to do everything he can. 

That ended the issue in the Territory of New Mexico for the time being. At some point, however, Delgado or another OIA staffer let Colorado Territorial Governor John Evans, who was also the OIA Colorado Superintendent, know about the issue. It is unclear from our digitized series how Evans was notified, as no letter appears to have been sent directly from the commissioner. Regardless, at some point in June of 1865, John Evans, on his last political legs after his involvement in the abhorrent Sand Creek massacre the winter before, ordered the long-tenured U.S. Indian Agent Lafayette Head to canvas southern Colorado Territory for slaves. 

Assembled from parts of existing territories in 1861, this map shows the Territory of Colorado and is found in our Record Group 46, Records of the U.S. Senate, holdings. U.S. Indian Agent Lafayette Head’s responsibility encompassed the central area along the southern border, just west of the Spanish Peaks (NAID 23812162).

Head seems to have approached the task with gusto, for he compiled a detailed list of 61 captives in Costilla County. Within M234, we see not only Governor Evans and Head’s letters but also the actual roll of captive Native Americans—largely Navajo and Ute. The M21 register entry, as well as the correspondence itself, mentions Conejos County but the said report is not found with these letters.

Head assures Evans that he’s ordered the captives freed and threatened arrest on those who tried to enslave anyone in the future. But as was the case nationwide, what do the freed people do then, and where do they live? Head asked, and Evans passed the questions on as well.

What happened? Evans clearly asked for more guidance but was shortly replaced, and correspondence from the Colorado Superintendency for the rest of the year discusses only visitors, budgets, and annual reports. Perhaps a deeper dive into M234 or a future digitized series will shed more light on the topic, as more and more microfilmed and original record series are going live within our online Catalog.

But until next time. . . .

Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs, 1824–1880, microfilm publication M234, roll 198, frame 772.

Notes: Text of President Johnson’s June 9th, 1865 order, as well as Secretary Harlan’s letter, come from the “Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Year 1865,” available via Google Books.