Annuities were a fixed sum of money or goods that the US government paid to Indigenous people on a regular basis for the sale of their lands. Treaties with Indigenous nations typically specified payments in dollar amounts over a period of years in return for land cessions. The payments were sometimes made in cash but often were used to purchase goods and supplies for the benefit of Indigenous people. Annuities brought an abundance of manufactured goods into the hands of Indigenous people, resulting in tremendous cultural changes in terms of dress, diet, decorative and artistic pursuits, and technology. Annuities also resulted in the increased dependence upon the government for survival.
The concept of annuity goods grew out of the British practice of giving presents to Indigenous groups to ensure their allegiance during the colonial period. After the occupation of their lands, many Indigenous people became dependent upon manufactured goods for their survival, and the government used goods as a political tool. When the US government began to negotiate treaties with Indigenous nations, it initially made annual cash payments for land. But cash was not inherently useful for many Indigenous nations and often ended up in the hands of unscrupulous traders. Consequently, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) began administering the procurement and distribution of goods purchased with the money designated by the treaties. These tasks soon became the primary undertaking of the BIA, with substantial contracting and accounting implications and opportunities for corruption.
Annuities were typically distributed at Indian agencies, government outposts operated by federally appointed agents who acted as direct liaisons to Native Americans. To keep the distributions peaceful and to assist in the dispensing of goods, the agent was often assisted by the military. Before 1847, cash or goods were presented to Indigenous leaders, who then distributed them to their followers. This means of distribution was unsatisfactory because the leaders and their friends benefited the most, and not all members of a tribe were included or treated fairly. After 1847, annuities were distributed to heads of families or other entitled individuals.
Annuities began to be distributed to the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Ute nations as a condition of the treaties they signed. The Cheyenne and Arapaho received annuity goods under the terms of the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie and the subsequent Treaty of Fort Wise in 1861. The Treaty of 1849 with the Utes was simply to establish peaceful relations and did not involve land cessions. It specified possible distribution of “donations, presents, and implements” but not in set amounts on a regular basis. Treaty provisions for payment of annuity goods were included in ratified and unratified treaties with the Utes as early as 1855. Beginning in the early 1870s, agents recognized that some Utes attended more than one distribution of annuity goods at different agencies, so annuity distributions were set for the same date at all agencies.
Types of Annuities
Throughout the nineteenth century, Native Americans looked forward to, and in many cases depended on, annuity goods. Because of the remoteness of the Ute agencies and poor government planning and execution, sometimes annuity goods did not arrive in time for them to be distributed, or they did not arrive at all. When goods were late or absent, the Utes suffered over the winter months for lack of adequate shelter, clothing, blankets, and food. Because annuities were a stipulation of their treaties, late, absent, or poor-quality goods caused considerable distrust of the US government.
Hundreds of blankets were issued to the Utes each year; bed ticking or sheeting was occasionally issued. Hundreds of yards of blue, scarlet, and calico cloth, and sometimes flannel, were included each year. Manufactured clothing included shirts—often of hickory or red or gray flannel cloth—coats, pants, hats, and, occasionally, vests, and shoes. Thousands of yards of canvas were issued annually, and were mostly used for tipi covers. Needles, awls, and thread were routinely issued in large quantities for manufacturing clothing and sewing tipi covers, leatherwork, and decorative beading. Shears (scissors) were issued periodically.
Thousands of beads were virtually the only adornment items issued. Other personal items included coarse and fine combs and small zinc-shell mirrors. Hundreds of pounds of tobacco and hundreds of pipes and pipe stems were also issued annually. Axes of various types were the tool most in demand and issued in the greatest quantity, though files were also frequently included. Cooking items included hundreds of tablespoons, butcher and other knives, cooking kettles, and tin cups; frying pans were issued less often.
Food was often distributed throughout the year but frequently bought with annuity money. This was most commonly beef—often distributed as live animals—as well as bacon, flour, baking powder, potatoes, beans, peas, coffee, salt, and sugar. Because Indigenous people mostly provisioned themselves by hunting and fishing, rifles, percussion caps, gunpowder, lead, bullet molds, cartridges, and fishing hooks and line were regularly issued. Dependence upon firearms is demonstrated by the wide variety of gun parts that were ordered, including trigger springs, levers, and guards, as well as mainsprings, locks, tubes, screws, ramrods, and sights. Sometimes these items were specified for Colt, Winchester, Remington, and Leman rifles and pistols. These repair parts were likely not issued to the Indians but kept on hand at the agencies to make repairs as needed.
Also purchased from the annuity funds were goods to equip the agencies and their employees. This included a large amount of hardware, such as bolts, washers, nuts, screws, nails, tacks, rivets, wire, horse and mule shoes, and iron and steel for blacksmithing. Tools for blacksmiths, carpenters, farmers, and other employees were also frequently ordered, including blacksmith’s bellows, curry combs, horse brushes, sheep shears, scythes, shovels, hoes, mattocks, squares, glass cutters, glazier points, trowels, saw sets, augers, whips, harnesses, harness punches, needles, and awls.
Sometimes small quantities of other food or items were mixed with the annuity good orders, including matches, knife and fork sets, butter, crackers, chocolate, tea, oatmeal, pepper, and graham flour.
Agents seem to have had some input into the quantity and types of annuity goods that were acquired—particularly beginning in the mid-1870s—but sometimes items purchased for Indigenous nations were inappropriate or of poor quality. In 1867, for instance, 10,000 pounds of rice was sent to Utes. Because the Utes did not know what rice was or how to prepare it, the governor asked to be able to sell it so that he could buy twice the quantity of wheat. In 1875 agent Edward H. Danforth at the White River Agency reported that the black iron and galvanized iron pails sent the previous year were of poor quality, and he requested tinned iron pails instead. He complained that some of the Utes did not like the coats and pants sent to the White River Agency in 1877, so they traded them to nearby white settlers. The problem with the pants may have been that they did not fit well, as he requested that suspenders be sent the next year. He also noted that the Indians did not like the sheet-iron kettles that were sent and considered them “worthless.”
The Army hats, baking powder, butcher knives, and tinned iron kettles sent to the Los Pinos Agency in 1875 were reported to be of poor quality by Agent Henry F. Bond. He further noted that the Utes preferred drab-colored felt hats and did not want the largest sizes of kettles. Most important was that good-quality baking powder should be sent. Ouray and Sapinero complained that the quantity of annuity goods sent to the Los Pinos Agency in 1877 was less than what was promised and that the clothing was not suited to the climate.
For all parties involved, annuity goods were a source of difficulty. For the government, acquisition, shipping, and accounting for goods were major tasks that were not always handled well. For Indian agents, distribution of annuity goods was also a major task, and when goods failed to arrive at the promised time or at all, they had to face disgruntled Indigenous people and defend the government in its failure.
Agents were also subject to accusations of misappropriating annuity goods for personal gain and were sometimes dismissed as a result; they also faced dismissal for failing to be fiscally competent with their accounts. For Indigenous nations, the arrival of sufficient and high-quality annuity goods was a matter of survival. Insufficient or poor-quality goods made their lives more arduous, and failure of goods to arrive could result in illness, death, or difficulty surviving the winter.