“Making White Men ‘Good’ ”

December 6, 1879

Thomas Nast

“Making White Men ‘Good’ ”

American Indians; Symbols, Uncle Sam; Wars, American Indian Wars;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

American West; Colorado;

Little Hatchet. "Me know nothing about White River massacre. White man bad; steal, kill, get drunk, and lie. Me good--make pale face 'good' too."

As Americans continued to settle the American West in the decades following the Civil War, successive presidential administrations adopted a stance of inducing the American Indians to sign over their traditional homelands to the federal government and be removed to “reservations.”  The U.S. Army, which was used as an instrument to enforce the treaties and keep law and order, fought a series of Indian Wars in the West from the late 1860s into the 1880s.  The Indian Bureau was a federal agency within the Interior Department charged with overseeing the treaties and the displaced Indians, and was administered by federal employees—called “Indian agents”—assigned to each tribe.  In September 1879, the Ute Indians in northwestern Colorado went on the warpath and killed their Indian agent, Nathan Meeker, in what the press labeled the “Meeker massacre” or (as in this cartoon) the “White River massacre.”

Cartoonist Thomas Nast favored the complete assimilation of American Indians into the civic and social life of the United States republic.  This would entail the Indians adopting a settled agricultural lifestyle and granting them the full civil rights of citizenship in return (reform ideas codified in the Dawes Act of 1887).  While celebrating those ideals in his cartoons, Nast also condemned the undue violence of the army toward the Indians and of the Indians against settlers, Indians agents, or other Indians. 

Here, the artist takes the famous declaration of General Philip Sheridan, the army commander in the West, that “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead” (it appears on the front panel of Uncle Sam’s desk), and has Little Hatchet, the Ute rebel leader, claim that the Indians only want to make the white man “good”—that is, “dead.”  This clever construction allows Nast to criticize the violence of the Indian perpetrators of the White River massacre, the biased attitude and violent actions of officials like Sheridan, and the illicit whiskey and arms trade (via Little Hatchet’s statement and the rifles the Indians carry) that existed between white traders and the Indians.

In 1869, Horace Greeley, reform-minded editor of the New York Tribune encouraged Nathan Meeker, the Tribune’s agricultural editor, to establish a cooperative farming commune in Colorado.  The newspaper sold subscriptions for the venture, reaping a rapid response totaling nearly $100,000.  As president of the Union Colony, Meeker traveled to Colorado, where he bought 12,000 acres and founded the town of Greeley.  In 1878, Meeker secured an appointment as Indian agent for the White River Ute reservation, where he soon became unpopular because of his strict policies. 

The previous Indian agent had begun working with the army in an attempt to stop an illegal trade in whiskey, guns, and ammunition between the Indians and white traders, and to halt incursions of the Utes onto the adjacent land of white settlers.  Meeker intensified the effort to compel the resistant Indians to labor as farmers, which the Ute men considered to be women’s work.  The Utes were resentful of being forced to abandon their traditional way of life and of the restrictions placed on their freedom of movement.  They were also upset that white miners were taking over their lands, promised to them by an earlier treaty, upon which mineral deposits had been discovered recently.

In July 1879, the Colorado governor alerted Interior Secretary Carl Schurz that the Indians were burning timber in order to concentrate the game for easier hunting.  Meeker was directed to arrest the guilty parties, which incurred the wrath of the Utes against the Indian agent.  On September 10, Meeker wrote to the governor that a group of Utes had shot one of their fellow Indians who was plowing a field (and thus seen as cooperating with the white man) and had assaulted the Indian agent himself.  Meeker beseeched the governor to send troops for protection. 

Major Thomas Thornburgh was dispatched with one infantry company and three cavalry companies.  On September 29, the army contingent was ambushed by several hundred Utes, who killed Thornburgh, ten enlisted men and a wagon-master, and wounded twenty others, including the new commander, Captain Payne.  On October 3, a cavalry company of 45 black soldiers came upon the standoff and exchanged fire with the Indians.  However, it took the arrival three days later of a reinforcement of 550 soldiers, under the command of General Wesley Merritt, for the Indians to retreat after a brief skirmish.  When Merritt reached the federal Indian agency on October 11, he found all but one of the buildings burned, the women and children missing, and the naked, beaten, dead bodies of Meeker and the ten male members of his staff. 

General Sheridan ordered 1500 troops to assist Merritt in the suppression of the uprising, but the situation was soon turned over to a peace commission in order to negotiate the safe release of the kidnapped families of the federal employees.  The women and children were released, and an army base was established in the vicinity (the town erected around it was named Meeker).  In January 1880, a peace contingent of Ute chiefs met with Interior Secretary Schurz, who saw to it that they were financially compensated for the land taken from them.  The assembled Indians explained that they were unable to turn over the perpetrators of the massacre because they were members of a different Ute tribe.  That spring, the Utes and the federal government signed a treaty that allotted 160 acres of farm land to individual Indians, rather than communally to tribes, and was thus a forerunner of the Dawes Act of 1887.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Making White Men ‘Good’ ”
July 14, 2024

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