Major E. C. Watkins’ Frustrating Adventure: Defining Family in the Post-Civil War North American West

Friday, January 4, 2013: 10:50 AM
Cornet Room (Sheraton New Orleans)
Anne Hyde, Colorado College
This paper narrates the travels of United States Indian Service officer, Edwin Charles Watkins, to examine the tussle between U.S. policy makers and Native Americans to redefine the concepts of family among the Native and mixed-blood population.  An inspector in the Department of Indian Affairs between 1874-1878, Watkins made unannounced visits to dozens of Indian reservations, agencies, and schools all over the West.  His confidential reports to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs show what policy makers imagined should happen on reservations and how Indian people accommodated, resisted, or ignored these demands. Central to the vision of policy makers and on-the-ground practitioners (agents, missionaries, and teachers) were rigid conceptions of family. Single-generation nuclear families from a single ethnic group were to live in a single house, farm a single piece of land, speak a single language, and practice a single religion. As Watkins discovered repeatedly, Native people lived multiply and demanded that their families include a multitude of generations, races, kinship groups, and households.  Even the seemingly simple questions of who was an Indian and who should live on a reservation eluded Watkins and his fellow bureaucrats as they tried to figure out how to label mixed bloods and “half-breeds”, civilized and savage, citizen and ward.

This paper argues that the debate over family and what it entailed among Indian people represents the crux of conquest in the North American West.  Battles over definition of proper family, household, and livelihood in the years of the “Peace Policy” and Indian Wars shaped the culture of all Americans in those years. Major Watkins and the people he visited and attempted to categorize were practicing a new version of state-building together as the U.S. implemented an unprecedented bureaucracy to remake families. This effort, common to many empires in the nineteenth-century, had surprising consequences.