History, Department of


Date of this Version



R. Paul Collister, "The “Broken Reed of a Staff”: the Pawnee Agency, Pawnees, and Agent W. De Puy, 1861-1862," University of Nebraska-Lincoln Digital Commons, 2023.


Copyright © 2023 R. Paul Collister


In January 1863 Henry W. De Puy published an open letter to the President. Through the previous year De Puy’s administration at the Pawnee Agency at Genoa, Nebraska Territory (N.T.), had been wrecked and he had been accused of stealing from the Pawnees and his own employees. The Indian Commissioner’s Office had turned him out of office without a hearing. Even President Lincoln had not seen fit to intervene on the agent’s behalf in a department of the President’s own executive branch. De Puy did not want his old job back. He seems to have been sincere in his desire only to have his legitimacy as a governmental officer fully vindicated.

The administration of Indian affairs at the agency level presents contradictions that prevent clear generalizations. The role of the agent varied, depending both on the time and the native people in question. Agents were sometimes diplomats trying to exert some influence over a people yet politically independent. With other peoples, or at another time with the same given people, the agent might be an authority figure in this own right. In this latter case, the agent to one degree or another replaced the traditional authorities of a native people that by then was dependent on the protection or largess of the United States government. In any case, the agent had broad responsibilities to keep his charges at peace, see to their general welfare, provide any services promised to them by treaty, and pursue some program of assimilation to 19th-century Anglo-American civilization.

By the mid-1800s the Indian service was becoming notorious for patronage and corruption. A confusing situation arose in which good officers might be accused of being scoundrels by those who themselves sought economic or political gain. At both the administrative level of the local agent and that of a superintendency, officers received uncertain support from the so-called Indian Office (more properly the Office of Indian Affairs) at Washington. Money, supplies, military support, and even official forms for administrative paper work often failed to come as needed or expected. Then there were agents who might come under suspicion for good reason. Further, the agent, an employee of the Department of the Interior, might come in conflict with the military. Then in the early 1860s the Civil War brought much added stress.

This account of Henry De Puy’s time with the Pawnees will hopefully serve as a useful case study of local Indian service administration during the Civil War years. This paper is also intended to be a useful account of a year of Pawnee struggles. This will be their story as well.