When the Vassalboro Historical Society received the vintage wooden carrying case in 1999, little did they know that the box contained a National treasure. It was the case carried by John D. Lang, one of only nine Indian Commissioners appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant in early 1870. In it he kept the documents which helped him as he and the other Indian Commissioners made recommendations to the President as to how and where the Native American tribes should be re-located. Seven diaries and more than 300 letters of correspondence narrate the inner struggles he faced as a peaceful Quaker doing the work of the government.
The Treasure Trove
His involvement began in 1842 when at a general meeting in Philadelphia, Lang and Samuel Taylor, Jr., of Fairfield were appointed by the Society of Friends to “examine the state of the western Indians and to see if anything could be done to alleviate their condition.” In order to fulfill this task, Lang visited twenty tribes, visiting with them, eating with them, listening to their complaints, offering suggestions and solutions.
Lang visited schools where he noted of the Winnebago tribe, “....about 60 scholars. We visited their school room in the afternoon which was comfortably fitted up for the purpose and also examined a large number of writing books some of them written in good plane [sic] hand and their general appearance as well as those I have examined among white people of similar age and appointment.”
One page written in his hand is titled The Number of Winnebago Indians and lists the numbers of men, women & children under each chief. Under 13 chiefs there were a total of 614 men, 755 women and 814 children. Also noted is “Produce Raised on New Mission Farm” and lists the amounts of wheat, oats, corn, potatoes and more. Lang’s diaries provide amazing details about Indian life in the tumultuous 1800s.
Lang was given credit for negotiating a treaty with the Osages whereby they would relocate peacefully, leaving their land to the thirty to forty thousand squatters who were given the land by the government. Because of Lang’s assistance, the tribe was given eight million dollars, substantially more than a previous treaty would have given them.
Page from Lang Library
After a visit to the Seminoles he recorded in his diary, “We found that a Band of the Seminole Indians were temporarily settled on the Cherokees land nearby the Council ground. At the head of this band were two chiefs by names of Wild Goat & Alligator who were noted warriors….Wild Goat & Alligator made many bitter complaints of treatment of the white men toward them both before and since their removal to where they now are….”
In a detailed and methodical manner Mr. Lang listed the “Subjects of General Demand”; following is a portion of the list:
Fear of being removed again
The manner of paying annuities tending to draw Traders, Indians depend too much on whiskey.
Children can be civilized
Better to educate in the Tribe than among the whites till the Indians are more civilized
Best mode of teaching farming by men to work with the Indians...
Military post corrupt the morals of women
In the Second Annual Report to the Secretary of the Interior for Submission to the President in 1870 (a copy of which is in the collection) he wrote,
"If such claims are allowed there will be a legion of leeches, stimulated by this man's success, crowding around the poor cheated Indian, eager to become agents for him that they may fatten on his spoils and become as bloated with ill-gotten gains as many of their predecessors have been. The scramble has already commenced. They will rob the red man of his annuities, his hunting grounds, his houses, lands, and furs--all in the name of the Government, until the latter will resemble the man described by the poet:
With one hand he dropped
A penny in the urn of poverty,
And with the other took a shilling out."
He went on to conclude, “Congress and tax-payers, disgusted, will then cut off all appropriations. Those who are well acquainted with the Indian character know that he is no match for the overreaching dishonesty and cupidity of the selfish white man; and of the objects for which the commissioners were appointed, as I understand it was to assist in extricating him from these snares and advancing him toward that better civilization which I trust is in store for him.”
Lang reportedly traveled over 200,000 miles as a Commissioner, much of it at his own expense. His mission was to serve the Indians as well as the government. He was a truly honorable man.
Following Lang’s death in 1879 the Report of The Board of Indian Commissioners included: “His deep interest in the cause of Indian civilization extending over a period of more than half a century, his staunch friendship for that race, his known integrity, strong good sense, and superior business qualifications, recommended him for service on this Board, to which he was appointed by President Grant in 1879. He was regular in his attendance upon the meetings of the Board, often at great personal sacrifice, took an active part in its deliberations, laboring faithfully and unselfishly, even when the infirmities of age were creeping upon him, for the elevation of the Indian race, and cheerfully responded to any call for service in their behalf.”
John D. Lang
Vassalboro Historical Society volunteers will dedicate many hours to transcribing the diaries and documents. We will protect the collection which includes not only the diaries and correspondence, but treaties with the Seminole, Cherokee, Creek and the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations, a color-coded map of showing where Indian tribes were and their numbers, and the Report of a Visit to Some of the Tribes of Indians West of the Mississippi. We are certain that more treasures await as we process the collection. We hope that anyone interested in the collection will contact us by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, mail to VHS President, PO Box 43, East Vassalboro, ME 04935 or by leaving a message at 207-923-3505.
Article & Photographs by Jan Clowes