Union Agency emerged in June 1874, when federal officials eliminated individual agents for each of the Five Civilized Tribes and consolidated those responsibilities in one office at Muskogee. The agent and his two clerks assumed responsibility for fifty-five thousand American Indians and more than 26.5 million acres of land. In 1876 the staff occupied a new, two-story, native-stone building atop Agency Hill, three miles west of Muskogee. Merchants and Indians complained about the isolated location, and the next year the agent rented rooms in a Muskogee hardware store. For many years the office operated from rented quarters in the business district. In 1899 a fire swept through the downtown area, destroying the agency and all of its records.
In August 1914 Union Agency became the Five Civilized Tribes Agency. The following year it occupied offices in Muskogee's Federal Building. By then the agency was a major employer with a staff of approximately 150. By 1931 allotment reduced the number of charges to twenty-eight thousand Indians and 1.6 million acres of land. In 1949 the Five Civilized Tribes Agency merged with the Muskogee Area Office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They continue to serve the Five Civilized Tribes and ten other tribes in eastern Oklahoma.
The responsibilities of the agency evolved as federal Indian policy changed. From the 1870s through the 1890s the agent's primary duties involved distributing annuities, resolving tribal disputes, and expelling intruders. All other aspects of administration remained under the control of tribal governments. In 1893 the Dawes Commission inaugurated allotment, and in 1898 the Curtis Act initiated the end of tribal governments. As a result, Union Agency assumed major new responsibilities. Selling townsite lots and allotments, approving land and mineral leases, paying royalties, enforcing probate rules, overseeing guardians of minors, and disbursing living allowances became primary duties. Distributions to tribal members grew from $3 million in 1906 to more than $28 million by 1931.
During the Great Depression the agency assumed important relief tasks such as paying old-age pensions, organizing work projects, maintaining Civilian Conservation Corps camps, and distributing clothing. The Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act of 1936 again changed the agency's relationship to its clients. The law gave Indian tribes the authority to reestablish their own governments. As tribal leaders increasingly assumed control of programs directed by the agency, it dedicated more effort to social programs, educational opportunities, trust administration, and economic development.
Union Agency and the Five Civilized Tribes Agency endured many controversies. As early as 1887 local newspaper writers accused the agent, Robert L. Owen, of speculation in illegal townsites. Allotment and the demise of tribal government attracted hordes of opportunists, commonly known as "grafters." Sometimes in collusion with agency personnel, grafters illegally acquired mineral rights and land as well as misused guardian authority. Selection of agency employees by a deeply rooted patronage system further complicated circumstances. These problems reached a peak in the 1920s as politicians, rival oil company lease hounds, and swindlers of all kind overwhelmed most efforts of the agency to protect its charges. Numerous highly publicized investigations accompanied these developments. Beginning in 1930 the sensationalism and malfeasance dissipated, and the agency returned to serving effectively its constituents.
The original 1875 Union Agency is now the Five Civilized Tribes Museum. Located on Agency Hill in Muskogee's Honor Heights Park, the building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NR 70000535).
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Kent Carter, "A Faithful Public Servant: J. George Wright and the Five Civilized Tribes," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 81 (Spring 2003). Angie Debo, And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968). Grant Foreman, Muskogee: The Biography of an Oklahoma Town (St. Louis: Blackwell Wielandy Company, 1943). H. Craig Miner, "A Corps of Clerks: The Bureaucracy of Industrialization, 1866-1907," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 53 (Fall 1975).
Bill Corbett and Rachel Whitaker
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