"Trick or Treaty?" Treaty Negotiations in 18th and 19th Century North America

When students are asked to summarize interactions between Indian peoples and Euro-Americans on the North American continent, they often describe the relations as tenuous, violent, and one-sided, pointing to the “inevitability” of westward expansion and dispossession of Indian lands. Indians were often manipulated by treaties crafted by shrewd, greedy whites. While this interpretation has some merit, the simple explanation of warfare, deception, and removal does not tell the complete story and undermines the complexities of the relationship between Indian peoples and Euro-Americans from the time of contact to the present day. Historian Colin Calloway argues in “treaty after treaty Europeans and Americans produced documents…to justify, codify, and perpetuate their acquisition and occupation of America.” Indian leaders often understood written treaties had the authority to take away Indian lands, often referring to the process as “pen and ink witchcraft.” However, far from being “victims” Calloway maintains Indians participated in the treaty process in various ways including by signing the agreements, speaking out forcefully, displaying political shrewdness, negotiating, protesting, and at times fighting in the “courts of the conqueror.” Calloway reminds us that as “treaty making and treaty relations changed over time, multiple Indian nations negotiated with changing Euro-American governments in very different circumstances.” The collection of treaties below (both those used in this lesson as well as those available through the online sources cited), provide an opportunity for students and teachers to examine their assumptions about Native Americans and their white competitors and to explore challenging and changing relations which helped to build our nation. During this lesson, we will look at some specific ways treaty documents reflect attitudes Native American and colonial or US have towards themselves and one another.  We will examine and analyze documents from three periods which reflect distinct stages in relations between particular Native groups and Euro-Americans.  The first occurs during America's colonial period and attempts to establish boundaries between Natives and British settlers.  The second commences the period of Native American "removal" from eastern lands to Indian Territory.  The third reflects an attempt to "settle" the Plains and establish the reservation system.

Additional creators: 

Matt Livinghood

School name: 

The Bolles School

School district: 




Grade Level: 


Subject Area Focus: 

Social Studies/History

Estimated days to complete: 


Creator Name: 

Jennifer J. Gomez