The Treaty Trail: Isaac Stevens' Treaty Councils 1854-1856
Treaties and Councils: What is a Treaty?
Treaty Trees
Shown here are the "Treaty Trees" at the site of the signing of the Medicine Creek Treaty on December 26, 1854. Photograph by Asahel Curtis and Walter Miller, 1914; Washington State Historical Society Collection.
ADDENDUM: The Treaty Tree was lost to a winter storm in December 2006. Click here to read more about this loss.

Today, all Americans live on what was once Indian land. Treaties transferred that land from Indian to United States control.

Treaties are documents that formalize relationships and understandings between two or more sovereign states. Sovereign states govern themselves, recognizing no superior power. Like the thirteen original states, Indian tribes were originally considered independent nations with established territories and the power of self-governance. Treaties brought Indian tribes into the Union with their inherent sovereignty intact, although federal statutes, court decisions, and administrative policies limited its actual exercise.

Long before the American Revolution, Indian tribes formed complex networks of alliances. In 1751, Benjamin Franklin noted the contrast between the masterful alliances within the Iroquois Confederation and the inability of early colonial leaders to do the same.

"It would be a very strange thing if Six Nations of Ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a Union and be able to execute in such a manner, as that it has subsisted for ages, and appears indissoluble, and yet a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies."
Letter to James Parker, 1751.

President George Washington signed the first treaties with Indian tribes for the newly independent United States. These first negotiations were between two bargaining equals and were treaties of peace. Both sides were militarily powerful.

Indian tribes believed the treaties became effective when they were signed. But United States law required Congress to approve all treaties after they were negotiated. Between 1789 and 1871, the United States negotiated approximately 800 treaties, but Congress ratified fewer than 400-including the ten treaties negotiated by Isaac Stevens between 1854 and 1856.

For further information, please explore the Federal Indian Policy portion of the Treaty Trail website.

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