The Treaty Signers Database: A Visual Representation of Westward Expansion in the United States

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Though treaties (in addition to other agreements and legislation between tribal nations and the United States government) define federal Indian policy as we know it, the men who signed the treaties between early Native Americans and Euro-Americans often remain obscure. Who they were and the direct impact they had on land cessions in North America have gone relatively unnoticed in the grand scheme of the United States’s colonial endeavors.

In this blog post, we discuss the Indian Land Tenure Foundation’s Treaty Signers Project, which highlights the individuals who signed the treaties that dispossessed Native peoples of their original homelands. We also examine the Treaty Signers Database, which the Native Lands Advocacy Project (NLAP) developed for the Treaty Signers Project. We explore the significance of the project and the importance of the database as it relates to upending standard colonial narratives. 

The Indian Land Tenure Foundation

The Treaty Signers Database, developed by the Native Lands Advocacy Project (NLAP), is a component of the Treaty Signers Project, which was created by the Indian Land Tenure Foundation (ILTF). Established in 2002, the ILTF is a community-based organization which seeks to aid Native American nations and their people in their efforts to reclaim control over their original homelands. Their mission is to see that “land within the original boundaries of every reservation and other areas of high significance where tribes retain aboriginal interest are in Indian ownership and management,” and the key strategies ILTF implements in furtherance of fulfilling that mission are Education, Cultural Awareness, Economic Opportunity, and Legal Reform. The ILTF is also one of NLAP’s long-standing partners, having supported NLAP’s work since our founding in 2019.

The Treaty Signers Project and Database

The Treaty Signers Project was born out of a desire to shed light on the individuals, both Native and non-Native, who signed the treaties between Native Nations and Euro-Americans. The inception of the project came after the Minnesota Historical Society published The Relentless Business of Treaties: How Indigenous Land Became U.S. Property by Martin Case in 2018. This publication was the first real endeavor to compile information on the men who acted as representatives of the U.S. in treaties with Native Nations. The goal of the Treaty Signers Project is to reshape the mythos surrounding the expansion of the United States into the North American west, as well as to challenge our understanding of who the key players were in creating that mythos.

NLAP was brought on to assist ILTF in creating an interactive dashboard that visually represents the Treaty Signers Database and makes it user-friendly. While the database itself is significant, our dashboard makes a difference because connecting interactively US individual signers to the place of signing to resulting land cessions gives a dynamic at a glance visual representation of westward expansion in North America; it highlights in different colors and pathways the relationship between settlers to the treaties they signed, then to the land cessions that were born out of those treaties, clearly uncovering the path of a westward movement of land grab, enabled by signers who sometimes even came straight from Europe.

Changing the Narrative

Treaties between Native Americans and early Euro-Americans served as an early vehicle of colonization; indeed, treaties were the means by which lands and resources were wrested from Natives. The signers of these treaties have become memorialized in history as obscure names on paper, with little indication as to who they were or what their motives were in signing these significant documents. The ILTF seeks to change that narrative and to shed light on the identities of these treaty signers, both Native and non-Native, so that we may better understand how the world we live in came to be. Furthermore, this database makes treaty, cession, and signer information—data that has previously existed in disparate archives and historical documents—highly accessible to those tribes and Native individuals whom they concern.

At first glance, the Treaty Signers Database is a veritable sea of information. Upon inspection, however, and with the aid of the website’s “How To” section, one can see that it is a well-composed hub of data regarding the treaty signers. Not only does the database hold information on the names and birth/death places (when available) of the signers, but it also provides details on the treaties themselves. The knowledge that this database makes accessible to the general public is endlessly valuable, as it not only contextualizes the names and stories of both the treaties and the treaty signers, but it also displays the ways in which they are interconnected. ILTF is particularly interested in those signing individuals who signed multiple treaties and gained personal wealth out of these agreements, as there seems to be a clear pattern between some of those signers and the development of trails of successful capitalist ventures.

How to Use the Treaty Signers Database: The Basics

The Treaty Signers Database dashboard can be accessed on the website or viewed on Tableau Public. Below is a brief overview of the dashboard. Click on the images to get a closer look!

How to Use the Treaty Signers Database: Example Search

The following is an example of how to use the Treaty Signers Database, specifically the Main Map. The treaty which we will be using for our example search is the Sioux Treaty of 1837

It is important to note that not every search will produce the same results. For instance, some searches may produce a series of data points without lines connecting them. This is because not every treaty could be geolocated. Similarly, treaty signers whose birth or death location could not be identified are placed on Ellis Island.

Ready to explore the Treaty Signers Database?

Indian Land Tenure Foundation. (Accessed 2024). https://iltf.org/

Written by Mauryn Morfitt

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