The Great Chief of the White People Meets with the Great Chief of the Indians

March 27, 1863 (Friday)

Through the latter part of March, 1863, a band of fourteen Native Chiefs and two squaws from the West made a journey from their homes to Washington, DC to talk peace. They had been invited by President Abraham Lincoln. They represented six tribes from the Southern Plains – the Cheyennes, Kiowas, Arapahoes, Comanches, Caddos, and Apaches. On this date, they gathered in the East Room of the White House.

The entire delegation, pictured with their interpretor and Mrs. Lincoln (far right).

The fourteen chiefs sat on the floor in a semi-circle as gawkers surrounded them. Many of these spectators were families of foreign ministers from England, Prussia, and even Brazil. Also in attendance was Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase, Secretary of State William Seward, Naval Secretary Gideon Welles, and even the hardly-ever-mentioned Secretary of the Interior John Palmer Usher.

After about fifteen minutes, President Lincoln came into the over-crowded room, stuffed with feathers and bonnets to near bursting. Standing before the Native chiefs, their interpretor introduced each of them, and in turn they stood to shake hands with the man they were told was the “Great White Father in Washington.”

“Say to them,” spoke Lincoln to the interpretor, “I am very glad to see them, and if they have anything to say, it will afford me great pleasure to hear it.”

The first to speak was Lean Bear, the chief among the Cheyennes. As he stood to face Lincoln, he asked for a chair, perhaps out of a perceived nervousness. Soon a comfortable armchair was fetched and he began his oration.

From left to right,:War Bonnet, John Simpson Smith (interpreter), Lean Bear (center), Standing in the Water.

“The President is the Great Chief of the White People,” spoke Lean Bear via the interpretor. “I am the Great Chief of the Indians. Our Wigwams are not so fine as this; they are small and poor. I hope the Great Chief will look upon his people with favor, and say in his wisdom what would be best for them to do. … I will hear all the Great Chief has to say; and when I go away I will not carry [his words] in my pocket, but in my heart, where they will not be lost.”

Lean Bear told Lincoln that so many white people were moving into his country. His own people wished to live in peace with them, but he was fearful that the whites did not share this wish. Even so, he promised to keep his warriors in line unless they were threatened by the whites. Of the Civil War, he promised to remain neutral.

The only other Native to speak was Spotted Wolf, also of the Cheyennes. He told the President that he was happily surprised to see that the whites were so friendly in Washington. Everywhere he went he found only brothers.

“When I look about me and see all these fine things,” spoke Spotted Wolf, “it seems like some kind of magic. I do not even know how I got here, so far away from home. It seems to me that I must have come on wings – like a bird through the air.”

With nobody else electing to speak, Lincoln took the opportunity to explain to the Natives just how large the world really was. “You have all spoken of the strange sights you see here, among your pale-faced brethren,” he began, “the very great number of people that you see; the big wigwams; the difference between our people and your own. But you have seen but a very small part of the palefaced people. You may wonder when I tell you that there are people here in this wigwam, now looking at you, who have come from other countries a great deal farther off than you have come.”

At this point, a globe of the Earth was brought forward and Professor Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute delivered a quick geography lesson. He explained that the world was actually round, how it was formed and that there was so much water all over its surface. Henry showed the Chiefs the countries of the delegates gathered in this room. He pointed out Washington DC, as well as the Southern Plains.

The squaw Etla and her husband, Lone Wolf

“There is a great difference between this palefaced people and their red brethren, both as to numbers and the way in which they live,” continued the President. “The pale-faced people are numerous and prosperous because they cultivate the earth, produce bread, and depend upon the products of the earth rather than wild game for a subsistence.”

He explained that this was the main difference between the whites and the Natives. But, he suggested, there was also another: “Although we are now engaged in a great war between one another, we are not, as a race, so much disposed to fight and kill one another as our red brethren.” In this, Lincoln was clearly mistaken, as his “red brethren” must certainly have gathered.

Lincoln then turned to the question posed by Lean Bear: What would be best for the Natives to do? “I really am not capable of advising you whether, in the providence of the Great Spirit, who is the great Father of us all, it is best for you to maintain the habits and customs of your race, or adopt a new mode of life,” admitted Lincoln. “I can only say that I can see no way in which your race is to become as numerous and prosperous as the white race except by living as they do, by the cultivation of the earth.”

The President then spoke the sentiments which had been heard by Natives before and since; the sentiments that many had already grown to distrust. “It is the object of this Government to be on terms of peace with you, and with all our red brethren,” assured Lincoln. “We constantly endeavor to be so. We make treaties with you, and will try to observe them; and if our children should sometimes behave badly, and violate these treaties, it is against our wish.”

Spotted Wolf (seated) and Newa.

Following his speech, Lincoln again shook each of the Chiefs’ hands, thanking them for meeting with him. When he got to the end of the line, he sought the hands of the two nearby Squaws, shaking them as well. At some point, Lincoln gave Lean Bear a medal supposedly honoring his commitment for peace. With this, the President left the East Room and the Natives were surrounded by whites still gawking and asking questions of the interpretor.

Following their trip to Washington, most of the Native representatives seemed pleased with the outcome. Lincoln promised to do his best to keep the white settlers from killing them. But a little over a year later, their hopes of peace were quite literally murdered.

In the Spring of 1864, a war broke out between the Plains Indians and the Federal soldiers. Following further assurances of peace from the officers in Denver, Colorado, Lean Bear decided to return to his tribe. With Lincoln’s medal on his person and papers that stated he was a “friendly,” Lean Bear approached the blue-clad soldiers to explain that he was given a medal by the Great White Father, but they opened fire and killed him, massacring the rest of the tribe. They were following orders given by Col. John Chivington to kill all Indians on sight.1

The delegation with identification (sans Mrs. Lincoln).

  1. Sources: Conversations With Lincoln edited by Charles M. Segal; Diplomats in Buckskin: A History of Indian Delegations in Washington City by Herman J. Viola; Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 6; Washington Daily Morning Chronicle, March 28, 1863; Indians of Oregon by Donald B. Ricky. Most of the photos have been collected from here. []
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