Bureau of Indian Affairs

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The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was created in 1824 and assigned to the War Department of the U.S. national government. In 1849 the BIA was transferred to the U.S. Department of the Interior, where it still remains. Many of the records of individual Indians were created and maintained by the BIA.

There was no federal government during the Colonial Period. Relationships with the Native Americans during this time period were handled by the individual colonies and by European governments such as England, France, and Spain.

When the Continental Congress was formed in 1775, three departments of Indian Affairs were also formed – northern, central, and southern. Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry were two of the early departmental commissioners.

In 1789, the U.S. Congress formed the War Department and placed Indian relations under that office, but a separate bureau was not formed until 1824, as noted above.

The BIA has had several responsibilities during its existence – trade with Native Americans, administration of funds, oversight of health and education of the American Indian, administration of land holdings for tribes and individual Indians, and a number of other duties. Agents were appointed to serve on reservations or among the Native American population to administer the affairs of the tribes, under the direction of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

Records of each of the responsibilities of the BIA were created and maintained at the Agency Office level on each reservation. Many of those records, including land allotment records, heirship records, school and health records, are still housed there. Some of the agency records have been transferred to the National Archives in Washington D.C. or to one of its several branches.

In addition to the agency level, the Bureau of Indian Affairs also has created and maintained area offices, each of which oversees the administration of several agencies. Records created in the area offices usually do not contain much information about individual Indians.

For a time in the 1800s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs also included a level of administration known as Superintendencies. Records kept by these offices often were limited to correspondence, leases and other legal agreements, nad many other administrative records. Most of these have little information about individual Native Americans, although they are interesting sources of the history of relationships between the federal government and the tribes.


  • Hill, Edward E. The Office of Indian Affairs, 1824-1880: Historical Sketches. New York: Clearwater Publishing Co., 1974. A description of Agencies, Area Offices, etc. of the BIA, with tribal index.
  • Johnson, Curtis E. and Galli, Marcia J. A History of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Its Activities Among Indians. San Francisco: R and E Research Associates, 1977.