Title Reviewed:
American Indian Policy in the Formative Years: The Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts, 1790-1834

Author Reviewed:
Francis Paul Prucha

Donald F. Carmony


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 59, Issue 2, pp 165-166

Article Type:
Book Review

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American Indian Policy in the Formative Years: The Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts, 1790-1834. By Francis Paul Prucha. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962. Pp. viii, 303. Notes, bibliographical note, index. $6.75.)

Father Prucha concentrates on American Indian policy from 1790 until 1834 when "The formative years were over, and the United States looked to the future with an Indian policy that was considered reasonable and adequate" (p. 274). Three initial chapters provide valuable background about historical and administrative precedents from the colonial era through the early 1790's. Chapter IV adds a concise and useful account of the development of the "Indian Department" as a division within the War Department. These early chapters indicate that problems concerning Indian-white relations which the Americans faced had earlier beset the British but in a modified context.

According to Prucha, though American Indian policy was expressed in formal treaties with the Indians "it took shape primarily in a series of federal laws 'to regulate trade and intercourse with the Indian tribes, and to preserve peace on the frontier'" (p. 2). "To maintain the desired order and tranquility it was necessary to place restrictions on the contacts between the whites and the Indians. The intercourse acts were thus restrictive and prohibitory in nature–aimed largely at restraining the actions of the whites and providing justice to the Indians as the means of preventing hostility. But if the goal was an orderly advance, it was nevertheless advance of the frontier, and in the process of reconciling the two elements, conflict and injustice were often the result" (p. 3). Prucha recognizes that governmental policy "remained more an ideal than a reality because the means applied had been out of all proportion to the magnitude of the problem" (p. 276).

Chapters V-VIII detail innumerable examples of white exploitation and abuse of Indians, especially as regards the fur trade, disposition of whisky, intruders on Indian lands, and crimes in Indian areas. At times these chapters are perhaps more repetitive than necessary. Limited attention is given to Indian removal and efforts to civilize the Indians.

Fortunately, Prucha attempts to tell his story in as factual a manner as possible. He searches hard for facts upon which to base interpretations and conclusions, not for facts to buttress a largely preconceived framework. Thus, unlike too many ethno-historians, he is principally concerned with explaining what happened in the context of the period, not what should have happened in terms of subsequent developments and concepts. The result is a book which makes a significant contribution to increased knowledge and understanding of the formative period in American-Indian relations.

Indiana University Donald F. Carmony

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.