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U.S. Treaty Making with American Indians: Institutional Change and Relative Power, 1784–1911


Arthur Spirling is Assistant Professor, Department of Government and Faculty Associate of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science, Harvard University, 1737 Cambridge St., Cambridge, MA 02138 ( I am very grateful to Christopher Alcantara, Justin Grimmer, Burt Monroe, Michael Peress, Kevin Quinn, Phil Schrodt, and Brandon Stewart for helpful comments. I am similarly indebted to audiences at the IQSS Applied Statistics Workshop, Comparative Politics Faculty Seminar, Polmeth 2010, and the Princeton ‘New Methodologies’ conference for feedback on an earlier draft. The University of Rochester’s the star lab provided logistical support when I was initially gathering data for this project. Direction and assistance from four referees and the Editor made the manuscript much better in terms of content and style. The usual caveat applies. Data may be found here:


Native Americans are unique among domestic actors in that their relations with the U.S. government involve treaty making, with almost 600 such documents signed between the Revolutionary War and the turn of the twentieth century. We investigate the effect of constitutional changes to the treating process in 1871, by which Congress stripped the president of his ability to negotiate directly with tribes. We construct a comprehensive new data set by digitizing all of the treaties for systematic textual analysis. Employing scaling techniques validated with word-use information, we show that a single dimension characterizes the treaties as more or less “harsh” in land and resource cession terms. We find that specific institutional changes to treaty-making mechanisms had little effect on agreement outcomes. Rather, it is the relative bargaining power of the United States economically and militarily that contributes to worsening terms for Indians over the nineteenth century.