Jessica Crabtree

A Brief History of Indian Reservations

by on Sep.01, 2010, under JOURNAL: Nature, art, cultural perspectives

Q: What was the first Indian reservation?

A: The most common answer is the Lenape reservation at Indian Mills, established by the New Jersey colonial assembly in 1758. However, the history of reservations in the colonies goes back much earlier, predating the Lenape reserve by at least a century.

Pamunkey-Mattaponi Reservation
(Virginia, 1658)

The first colonial record of an Indian reservation comes from the Virginia colony, where in 1658 – a hundred years before New Jersey’s Lenape reservation was formed – the Virginia General Assembly voted on a land reserve for the Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes. These were among the most powerful members of the region’s Powhatan Confederacy (of Pocahontas fame).

A 1677 treaty between the English throne and the representatives of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi recognized their rights as autonomous nations. The reservation survived the transition of the American Revolution and has remained a continuously sovereign entity to this day.

Mashantucket Pequot Reservation
(Connecticut, 1666)

Another example of the earliest reservations originated just a few years later, further north in New England. There, in the aftermath of the devastating Pequot War, the Connecticut colonial assembly set aside a land reserve for the Mashantucket Pequot.

Like the Pamunkey-Mattaponi nation of Virginia, the Pequot reservation still exists today, but only narrowly escaped being dissolved on several occasions. King Philip’s War in 1680 pitted American colonists against an alliance of Wampanoag, Narraganset, and other Indian nations of New England, and nearly resulted in the extermination of several peoples, including the Pequot. In the ensuing centuries, the reservation area dwindled from 3,000 to 200 acres, and was nearly liquidated until the surviving Mashantucket band underwent a cultural revival in the 1970s.

Back to the Indian Mills Reservation
(New Jersey, 1758)

In the mid-1700s, the Lenni-Lenape people (also known as the Delaware) had lost access to most of their traditional grounds and petitioned for a land reserve on which to form a small autonomous community. Known as Brothertown, or Brotherton, it was organized largely under Christian missionary efforts and became an amalgam of members from various nations, including Pequots, Narragansets, and Mohegans, who associated on the basis of their common religious practices.

The reservation was formally dissolved in 1801, but by that time they had reorganized on land donated by the Oneida Nation of New York. Eventually they were forced to move again, resettling in Wisconsin along with much of the Oneida Nation during the Indian Removals of the 1830s.

The “Proto-Reservations” of New England

The case of the Brothertown Indians closely resembles the so-called “Praying Indian Towns” of Puritan Massachusetts that were a precursor to the first reservations. The first of these was founded in Natick in 1651, followed by many others over the next couple of decades.

The original intent of the Praying Towns was to give Indians who had converted to Christianity a separate environment where they could pursue a more European lifestyle apart from their Indian counterparts, while still being segregated from the colonists – and also to make these communities a buffer between the Indian territories and outlying white settlements.

This became a precarious position when hostilities broke out between the Indians and New Englanders in the later 1600s, and both sides mistrusted the loyalties of the “Praying Indian” converts. Because the praying towns were under Puritan administration, they essentially became internment camps when they were put in lock-down at the outbreak of King Philip’s War. Many of the Indian inhabitants were later deported to Deer Island, where the majority perished from exposure and starvation.

Sadly, these early incidents became a template for the later reservation dealings.

Reservation Policy

The term “Indian Reserve” was first put to official use in 1763, after the French and Indian War when England secured control of the bulk of American colonial territory. All the land between a Proclamation Line (drawn at the edge of the original 13 colonies) and the Spanish claims in the American West was designated an Indian Reserve, past which colonial settlement was not allowed.

This lasted only up to the time of the Revolution, when the new American government considered the proclamation null and settlement quickly expanded into the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys. This in turn led to a new wave of desperate and bitter conflict between settlers and various Indian alliances. In 1851 the Indian Appropriations Act set aside what remained of the reserve area in the lower Midwest, including what is today Oklahoma, as the location for a mass-scale relocation program for Indians from all over the country.

Gradually, all the federally allotted lands were either confiscated, opened to settlement, or drastically reduced in size. This era saw the rise of the notoriously corrupt “Indian agents” who brokered deals for the supply of the Plains reservations.

In 1887, the Dawes Act discontinued the practice of granting land parcels to Indian nations altogether. This ruling was partly reversed in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which reinstated many of the legal rights of Indian nations on reservation and changed the regulations regarding land privatization by restricting sale of land to or by individuals.

Many of the nations mentioned above who faced removals and tribal reorganization in the past, such as the Narraganset and Oneida, have consequently encountered legal quagmires involving the status of land held in trust.

Today, there are over 300 federally-recognized reservations in the United States.

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