Dear Diary; the Official Diaries of Office of Indian Affairs Superintendents, 1907-1917

Today’s post is by Cody White, Archivist and Subject Matter Expert for Native American Related Records.

Superintendent Albert Reagan of the Nett Lake Agency in Northern Minnesota was fed up with Tom Fisher. Fisher, a reservation policeman, was already on thin ice with Reagan when Fisher dropped into the agency office on November 16th and complained that he worked too hard. The superintendent vented to his office diary, listing exactly how little Fisher did compared to how much he was paid. This workplace drama, from November 1909, is painfully detailed in a 5-931 US government memorandum book, letter sized, 352 pages, as required by an amendment of the Indian Office Regulations, and today found at the National Archives at Chicago. But why? This is that story.

506a. Each agent shall keep a book, to be know as a Diary, in which shall be recorded from day to day every event of importance or interest occuring within his jurisdiction
The commissioner’s 1907 order to amend the Indian Office Regulations and require an office diary, as saved by the Northern Cheyenne Agency.

On September 16, 1907, Commissioner of Indian Affairs F. E. Leupp sent notice to agency disbursing officers across the country, instructing them that each reservation agency was to keep a diary, recording “every event of importance or interest occurring within his jurisdiction.” In some locations such diaries were already in existence and can be found in agency files dating back to the 1880s, which begs the question if it was yet another example of the commissioner hearing about something being done in the field and liking it so much he proscribed it nationwide. Some diaries read like a novel, some like a local newspaper section. Some entries are mundane while others are heartbreaking. What was covered was largely left to each superintendent; while the commissioner suggested recording natural disasters, visits by inspecting officials, employee absences, and similar subjects, nothing was set in stone. The diaries that survived and are in our holdings today run the gamut of topics: weather, social engagements, student travel, business, staffing issues, visitors, and sometimes death. Coverage varies greatly among the diaries that were saved. But given what we have, the following blog is a snapshot of what happened on reservations across the country in the month of November, from 1907 through 1917.

With no special form designated by the commissioner to be used, most superintendents relied on the 5-931 and 5-932 blank books. Here we see the various books and forms available in the US Indian Service, from the “Regulations of the Indian Office. Effective April 1, 1904.

Western Shoshone Agency (1907)

With the diary edict going into effect only a month earlier, the superintendent at the Western Shoshone Agency, located on the Nevada and Idaho border, dived right into the assignment. The month started off with Dr. Murphy resigning to go into private practice on November 1st, then the very next day Mr. Mallion resigned as industrial teacher, worried “his health would fail him here.” On the 4th Murphy and Mallion “left for the east,” the same day Mary Boney resigned “on account of delicate health” from the school. Despite these staffing changes, the superintendent noted that the weather was fine and water was more abundant than usual. Illness struck the reservation on the 7th and 8th, with adults reporting being sick as well as several children at the agency school. A new doctor arrived that Friday, the 8th, but no cause of the illness was given. The month’s entries grow sporadic; supplies and vegetables arrive, along with a snowstorm on the 14th and 15th. A tribal member who was a missionary spent a week talking with folks on the reservation. The month closed out with “fine fall weather.”

Tongue River Agency (1908)

photo of diary - thin bound book with "5-932 Department of Interior US Indian Service" typed on cover
The series Superintendent’s Diaries, 1908–1911 (NAID 2580090) kept by the Tongue River Agency, renamed the Northern Cheyenne Agency in 1939, is held by the National Archives at Denver

The commissioner’s order didn’t dictate who was to keep the diary, and in the case of the Tongue River Agency in south central Montana, it appears it was not the superintendent, as Superintendent John Eddy is noted as attending a training school from November 1st through the 2nd. Nor was it the assistant clerk, R. E. Adamson, who took annual leave starting on the first to attend “business college in Billings.” Most entries are of a routine nature—families receiving coal shipments, a light fall of snow, and the branding of 411 calves in two weeks. Mr. Dady left for Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma with a group of students on November 14th, returning Thanksgiving Day on the 26th. Superintendent Eddy himself departed the next day, the 27th, with students for the Rapid City Indian School just east in South Dakota.

Nett Lake Agency (1909)

green diary cover with "Records School" written and "Department of Interior 5-931" stamped on cover
The series Agency and School Data Books, 1908-1914 (NAID 5687172) kept by the Nett Lake Agency is held by the National Archives at Chicago

The 1909 diary entries from the Nett Lake Agency, located just 55 miles south of International Falls, Minnesota, and the Canadian border, reads like a novel, with each day woven into the next, and the continuing theme of displeasure with policeman Tom Fisher running the entire month. However, what at a glance appears to be a malingering employee may today in hindsight be an act of civil disobedience worthy of acclaim; most of the superintendent’s complaints are that Fisher didn’t pursue runaway and missing school children vigorously enough, or at all. November 1909 starts with a bang, with the superintendent giving the agency farmer, whom he’d just fired for drinking and fighting, six hours to get off the reservation, not to return “unless permitted to do so by the Honorable Commissioner.” The superintendent then notes that he moved out of the missionary house into the now vacated farmer’s house on the 6th.

On November 8th came the first complaint of the month about Fisher not locating tardy or missing students, followed on the 10th with another line entry that Fisher “did not yet get the school children as ordered by the teacher.” Fisher still hadn’t by the 15th, when the superintendent vented in the diary “Fisher was told to get some tardy school children but did not yet nor report why they did not attend.” What did Fisher do? The next day he rolled into the superintendent’s office to report he was overworked. One can almost read the apoplectic superintendent’s mood in his parentheses entry after noting the visit: “all he does is light the fire in the morning in the school house and get the children in—and in this he has neglected to do—and then oversee the wood cutting for one hour in the afternoon, the children cutting the wood.” He then painstakingly details Fisher’s pay and benefits, $20 a month with a sack of flour and some bacon and clothes, before closing with how that day’s meeting concluded: “if he did not wish to do the work he was at liberty to quit. He did not quit, but must do better.” Fisher did not do better. On the 18th he was ordered to find a girl and not only did he not find her, he never showed back up to the office. The next day Fisher instead found the girl’s father and had him visit the superintendent to talk about the daughter’s absence, showing almost a preternatural aversion to bringing children back to school. At 5:15 PM on November 23rd, the school reported two girls missing and Fisher was ordered to find them. But the superintendent left for the field from the 24th to 29th to take a census. Upon his return it was reported that Fisher had done nothing to find the girls. That very day, the 29th, Fisher resigned as policeman and took a job as a laborer.

Tulalip Agency (1910)

The series General Records, 1861–1950 (NAID 178281376) kept by the Tulalip Agency contains the subset “Superintendent’s Diary” and is held by the National Archives at Seattle

The start of November 1910 on the Tulalip Reservation, north along the coast of the Puget Sound from Seattle, opened with former students, Alexander Bagly and Anna Bob, married at 8:00 PM on November 6th by the Reverend P. Gard in the club building. Election day was held on the 8th, and on the 11th, the launch Birmingham arrived with the new seamstress Miss Boley. On the 17th several school pupils headed to Seattle, subpoenaed in the case against Bob Celestine for the murder of Mary Chealco, both tribal members. Our first mention of Thanksgiving is found in this volume; on the 24th “Thanksgiving was observed by all,” and a football game between Tulalip and Marysville High School was held, with Tulalip winning 5-0. In all the commotion, however, two students—Gus Harry and Willie Sam—ran away, and the month ended without us learning their fates.

Wind River Agency (1911)

white slim bound book, "Superintendents Diary Oct 1907" written at top
The series Superintendent’s Diary, October 10, 1907–May 5, 1912 (NAID 875822) kept by the Wind River Agency is held by the National Archives at Denver

The superintendent at the Wind River Agency, just southeast of Yellowstone National Park, dwelled on the weather throughout much of the month. There was a slight snow to start the month, and on the 11th, the temperature went from -7 degrees Fahrenheit in the morning to -11 below that night at 10:30 PM. Snow fell, a few inches on the 18th, but melted soon after and the superintendent worked mostly routine tasks, verifying the will of an elder, working on family history cards, and traveling between the agency headquarters and the school. The temperature notes make more sense on the 28th, when he reports that it being -10 degrees, the foreman was working on a problem: no coal. The reservation mine had closed and an outfit down in Lander, Wyoming, was charging $7.80 a ton, a “prohibitive” cost. The superintendent had an oil company come to quote them for an oil burning plant for the school, but the issue was never resolved that month. Thanksgiving was held on the 30th, with all children sent home from the school.

Moqui Agency (1912)

cloth bound volume with "Office Diary July 1912" written in decorative letters on front
The series Diaries, November 28, 1911–September 30, 1916 (NAID 16357964) kept by the Moqui Agency, renamed the Hopi Agency in 1923, is held by the National Archives at Riverside

The diary from the Moqui Agency, tucked underneath the Navajo Nation just north of Winslow, Arizona, is by far the easiest to read, given it is the only one found that was typewritten. However, the entries are sparse. On November 2, 1912, two touring cars from Denver passed through on their way to the coast and warranted a mention. That same day Sarah Abbot arrived to “conduct a party of pupils to Phoenix,” ostensibly the boarding school there. The next day word came back to the agency that the two Denver autos had broken down 14 miles out. The 6th was “a very busy day” but no particular reason was given. The diary ends the month early, with the last entry on the 14th when Alfred Maelo passed away at 7:00 PM “after an illness of 1 week with spinal meningitis.” His body was sent home to Hotevilla. He was six years old.

Crow Creek Agency (1913)

The series Diary, 1870–1915 (NAID 12008614) kept by the Crow Creek Agency is held by the National Archives at Kansas City

Along the Missouri River, just north of Chamberlain, South Dakota, where I-90 crosses the mighty river, lies the current Crow Creek reservation. As mentioned, little direction was given by the commissioner on how detailed these diaries were to be, and the Crow Creek Agency superintendent took the far extreme in brevity, using less than a full page for all of November. The month begins and ends with travel to Sioux Falls to talk over legal issues in shipping cattle, and we learn among little else that the first snow to cover the ground fell on the 14th.

Flathead Agency (1914)

The series Chief Clerk’s Office Diaries, 1910–1915 (NAID 2123987) kept by the Flathead Agency is held by the National Archives at Denver.

The agency diary from the Flathead Agency, north of Missoula, Montana, in the forested area around Flathead Lake, starts out with pages of blank entries; the dates are filled in but no entries. Around the middle of the month it picks up with generic visitor information, such as when BIA special agent Fred Cook arrives on the 18th and visits the towns and various folks throughout the month. On the 23th they were still plowing the agency farm fields, and on the 26th they had “Splendid weather for Thanksgiving.”

Blackfeet Agency (1915)

The series Diary of Superintendent C. L. Ellis, October 1915–February 1917 (NAID 1224750) kept by the Blackfeet Agency is held by the National Archives at Denver

The diary from the Blackfeet Agency, which hugs the Canadian border in northern Montana and comprises the eastern border of the Glacier National Park, focuses solely on the weather, reading like someone’s elderly father who watches the weather channel all day and reports everything back. While a few notes about reservation visitors can be found, every day has something about the weather. A good example of the detail is from November 5: “Weather cloudy with rain and snow squalls. Moderate west wind. Heavy snowfall in the mountains. Temperature fell to about 10 above zero during night.”

Crow Agency (1916)

This volume is oddly found within the series Census Rolls and Tribal Enumerations, 1889–1920 (NAID 1756288) kept by the Crow Agency and is held by the National Archives at Denver

November 1916 was a big month on the Crow Reservation, located in south central Montana. Right away on Wednesday, November 1st, Range Number 3 had around 7,000 cattle that agency staff needed to start counting in order to load up the next day for market in Omaha, “to points in Colorado,” and some to Billings. But the big news was a visit from Office of Indian Affairs Commissioner Cato Sells, who arrived on the Number 42 train on November 2nd. The next day Sells inspected the Reno Ditch, an irrigation canal started in 1891, and came away “impressed with the progress.” For the rest of the day he “put in a free day with the Indians here at the office.” That night the superintendent and the commissioner took in a social at the school. That weekend the commissioner was taken to a roundup west of Lodge Grass, and “Mr. Sells there went through the herd on horseback.” Sells took the time to visit with many of the tribal members, whom the superintendent seemed to derisively note “wanted something for themselves.” On Sunday morning Sells departed on the Number 43 for Great Falls. The rest of month is also well detailed, the Crow Agency superintendent being one of the most fastidious chroniclers to date with these diaries. On Thursday, November 30th, a “number of dinner parties” were held for Thanksgiving, but “the crowning event of the day” was the grand opening of the new school building. The band played and a new piano was unveiled, which “seems to be more than could have expected for the money we paid.”

Navajo Agency (1917)

The series Journal of Agency Activities, October 11, 1907–August 21, 1920 (NAID 295106) kept by the Navajo Agency is held by the National Archives at Riverside

The content of the diary from the Navajo Agency consists solely of who arrived and who left, akin to the neighborhood news sections of small town papers of times past. Heavily detailed on where the superintendent was, very little about reservation life or activities is provided. This is also one of the latest diaries that was found; it is unclear if their demise was sanctioned or if they just faded away as a pet project of a commissioner past. But the era of documenting daily comings and goings of the OIA agencies had closed by the late 1910s.

A very special thanks to my friends across the country who helped compile the sources for this blog: Valerie Szwaya, National Archives at Seattle; John Seamans, National Archives at San Francisco; Andrew Hayt, National Archives at Riverside; Elizabeth Burnes, National Archives at Kansas City; and Leo Bellville, National Archives at Chicago. Additional thanks to Michael Wright, National Archives at Fort Worth, and Desiree Capitanio, National Archives at Atlanta, who confirmed that such diaries were never done, or at least never saved, from any of the agencies administering the Five Tribes.

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