Study Guide

Senator Henry M. Teller in The Dawes Act of 1887

By Henry Laurens Dawes / The Forty-Ninth Congress of the United States of America

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Senator Henry M. Teller

Teller: A Man of Contradictions

Teller's a hard guy to draw a bead on.

On the one hand, he seems like a really decent dude. A New York-born lawyer, he moved to Colorado during the gold rush, figuring that miners might need lawyers to protect their claims.

He was one of the most influential people fighting for the statehood of Colorado, and he entered the Senate when Colorado became a state in 1876. Teller was widely respected by his constituents for consistently seeking to pass laws that were in their best interest. During a time when many men living on the frontier succumbed to a vast array of vices like alcoholism, gambling, and frequenting brothels, Teller did not. He was earnest and straightforward, and a natural leader (source).

So when Teller spoke up protesting the content of the Dawes Act, people probably sat up and listened. He's quoted as saying,

The provisions for the apparent benefit of the Indians are but the pretext to get at his lands and occupy them […]If this were done in the name of Greed, it would be bad enough; but to do it in the name of Humanity […] is infinitely worse (source).

Telling it like it is, right?

On the other hand, Teller's defense of Native American land rights conflicted with his stance on their cultural practices. As Secretary of the Interior in 1883, just four years before the Dawes Act was born, he approved a "Code of Indian Offenses" which sought to prohibit Native American cultural practices throughout the U.S. (stuff like tribal dances and plural marriage), which included pretty stiff penalties (source).

People Before Trees

It's unfair to judge a 19th Century lawmaker by 21st century standards. But looking back on some of his decisions can be a bit jarring. Not only did he advocate for the dissolution of Native American culture, but he didn't seem too concerned about our natural resources, either. As the Secretary of the Interior under Chester A. Arthur, he opened federal land to settlement and logging, and opposed creating national forests and parks.

I would rather see people living on the land than to see timber on it, no matter how beautiful it is (source).

At the time, it was really important that lands be utilized for their resources in order to support a quickly growing population. And it's not like the settlers were stripping the land bare and laying waste to it like modern agriculture or mining tends to do today. We get it. But if he'd aired those views in the modern era he'd be publicly lambasted.

Or hired to head up the EPA. Either one.

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