Greenback America

Greenbacks and Native Americans in the Civil War

This entry is reposted from the Greenback America Tumblr. Follow the team there for many more posts and updates about their exhibit plans. 

By Michael Caires
Greenback America Post-Doctoral Fellow

Recently, Native American Tribes celebrated an Army Corps of Engineers decision to deny a permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline, effectively handing a victory to opponents of the project. As winter descends on Oceti Sakowin camp in North Dakota, and news cycles change, it will be tempting to quietly forget this issue in our rapidly changing world. Kevin Gower, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, noted the danger of this impulse, “the ignorance of the non-Native public about the Native American past and present” was the gravest issue facing Native Americans today. He added that without a knowledge of the history of the Sioux Nation or their lands, the pipeline issue is almost incomprehensible. 

Far from the battlefields of the Civil War, far to the West of politicians and leaders in Washington and Richmond, there was a war that few Americans have never heard of.  At the same time that Union forces pushed into the South, a potent combination of white settlers and the US Army descended upon the Great Plains. While many readers have no doubt heard of the Battle of Little Bighorn and the Sand Creek Massacre, scholars and museums are still at the early stages of integrating these stories into a geographically larger and more capacious vision of the nineteenth century. In a small, but meaningful way, the story of Native Americans in the West links up with creation of the greenbacks and their effects across country.

The start of the story, much like the Civil War itself, occurs in the 1850s with a series of treaties between the US and the tribes of the Great Plains and the Southwest—the most important being the Fort Laramie Treaty in 1851. The US government’s interests in the 1850s was not exactly the land itself, but securing roads and forts that would support white settlers on their journeys to California or Oregon. As part of the treaty, the Sioux Nation, a confederacy of several tribes, agreed to confine itself to certain areas and not attack whites who travelled through the area. In return, the US agreed to pay the tribes a yearly annuity for ten years in gold for the loss of the land ceded to the government.

After the Legal Tender Act of 1862, the United States began paying all its bills with paper money instead of gold, which set up a possible clash over the terms of the treaties. Much like the long list of broken promises and treaties between Native Americans and the US government, the US stopped paying gold to these tribes and instead tried to pay in greenbacks during the Civil War. In some cases, it seems that US Army officers and government Indian agents took advantage of the fact that gold was more valuable than greenbacks when making annuity payments. One newspaper reported that government agents took the gold meant for Dakota’s annuity payment and traded it for greenbacks, pocketing the difference. After 1862, gold was incredibly hard to come by and it seems that US agents simply paid in greenbacks with no adjustments for the difference in the value promised in the treaties.

Native Americans noted, and distrusted, the difference between gold and greenbacks. For many tribes, this issue could be a spark for the larger issues swirling around them in the 1860s. Facing greater and greater restrictions on their movements and encroachment of their lands, various tribes across the West saw the use of depreciated greenbacks as another burden, even an incitement to war. Writing from Missouri, one government agent explained that tribes used their gold to buy supplies to survive the winter, but with the greenbacks they found that “they are getting poorer every year.” An Indian Agent in Wisconsin wrote to Washington in 1864 that the Chippewas complained that they “want what was promised to him.” Gold, not greenbacks. Big Eagle, chief of a Sioux Tribe, recounted how in the lead up to the Dakota War of 1862, the failure of the government to pay tribes in gold led to “war talk” which eventually turned into a conflict that lasted from August to December of that year in Minnesota that concluded with expulsion of the eastern Sioux from that part of the country.

We are reminded of the significance of these stories and the history of Native Americans in the Civil War Era when we look at the headlines. The conflict between the Standing Rock Sioux and the Dakota Access Pipeline this year impresses upon all Americans the significance of a story of conflict over the land and economic injustice that stretches back hundreds of years.