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Depredation Claims


July 11, 2020 by Pamela Nowak

In the immediate months following the U.S.-Dakota War, Whites who had suffered material loss began filing claims for monetary compensation from the Federal government. While such depredation claims were first awarded prior to 1800, most people alive today are unfamiliar with them and their immediate and continuing impact on Native Americans.

Simply stated, a depredation claim is a claim made for compensation for losses incurred as a result of “depredations” committed by Native Americans. Congress first legislated the practice on May 19, 1796.  The statute provided that if property were seized or destroyed by Indians, the property owner could present a claim to the superintendent/agent of the tribe involved. The agent would then demand satisfaction from the tribe, which had 18 months to make compensation. If payment was not made, the United States could deduct the amount from the annual stipend (annuity payment) due to the tribe and arrest those specific individuals involved. The act also provided that if a White man took the property of a friendly Indian, a claim could be filed and the award paid by the U.S. government.

A series of subsequent modifications were made to the original statute over time. In 1834, the original provisions were re-enacted and additional clauses added. One of those restrained Whites from entering reservations without a license from the agent/superintendent. Another applied a three-year window in which to file any claims. THAT clause was repealed in 1859. Under the repeal, the responsibility of the Federal government to pay claims was also removed but payment from tribal annuities was left intact.

In effect, this removed the guarantee of payment from claims made by Native Americans and left them without recourse if any White refused to pay on a claim. It also continued the practice of draining annuities and removed any restrictions on time limits. For tribes today, that effectively means claims for long-past losses can still be filed.

Like the whole of U.S.-Indian policy, the depredation claim laws have shifted. In 1870, Congress legislated that no future claims would be paid except via special appropriation. Two years later, the Department of the Interior was instructed to create procedures for presenting claims. For years following, the responsibilities were shifted from one division to another. In 1885, monies were set aside in the Federal budget for investigation of any such claims still on file.

In 1890, an official report indicated (among other findings):

  • 1,371 claims totaling $4,612,553.07 claimed and $1,640,017.33 allowed were settled
  • 6,053 claims totaling $20,933,939 were on file
  • 2,293 claims totaling $5,172,017.35 were subject to consideration
  • 2,380 claims totaling $11,138,368.53 were dismissed without consideration (some of these could be resubmitted due to paperwork errors)

Information on claim numbers, amounts, and legislative history taken from Access Genealogy (,them%20have%20been%20a%20constant%20source%20of%20contention.)

For the student of White/Native relations, the history of the depredation claim system is complex and intricate in its shifts. For tribal governments today, it is a burden that can still rear up and embroil tribes in legal battles. For Whites, it has been largely forgotten. For the researcher, the claims are valuable historical resources.

In researching for NEVER LET GO, I found the depredation claims filed by the White survivors of Lake Shetek to be invaluable on many levels. Though they must, of necessity, be taken as records of bias, they do contain vital information about family members, property lost, and events.

Most of the Dakota Conflict depredation claims were filed by attorneys who would receive a percentage of the amount awarded. It was in their interest to avoid over-inflating values since this would decrease the likelihood of award by the Commission.  In addition, three witnesses had to attest to the property ownership. For the historian, this means that the claims were usually a close representation of property owned (though valuation might be placed a bit high). As well, because attorneys were paid on a percentage basis, they usually urged claimants to be as detailed as possible, which offers a list of property which often included not only buildings  and livestock but also articles of clothing and household goods. These lists thus provide detailed clues to what was important to families.

In addition, depredation claims list all family members and others living in the household at the time of the event. Because a family member was providing the information, this created a reliable source for names (including spelling), ages, and genders.

Since all claims also included a narrative of events, the historian has available a primary account of what occurred and a timeline. Where there are other claims to examine, a more solid timeline can be created.

Finally, by reading “between the lines,” one can pick up on neighbors’ opinions of one another, the events a community in general found most significant, and discern biases.

Next week, I’ll discuss the particular depredation claims of the Lake Shetek families and what they revealed.

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As I count down to my January 2021 release of NEVER LET GO, I’ll be posting weekly blogs about the history of Lake Shetek, the Dakota Conflict or the people and cultures involved. Or, I may touch on the writing process or interesting tidbits included in the novel.

For more details on the novel, please visit my HOME page. 

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