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Although the bureau, which was called the Office of Indian Affairs, was formed in 1824, similar agencies had existed in the U.S. government as far back as 1775, when a trio of Indian agencies were created by the Second Continental Congress. Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry were among the early commissioners, who were charged with negotiating treaties with Native Americans and obtaining their neutrality during the American Revolutionary War. In 1789, the United States Congress placed Native American relations within the newly-formed War Department. By 1806, the Congress had created a Superintendent of Indian Trade within the War Department who was charged with maintaining the factory trading network of the fur trade. The post was held by Thomas L. McKenney from 1816 until the abolition of the factory system in 1822. In 1832 Congress established the position of Commissioner of Indian Affairs. In 1869, Ely Samuel Parker became the first commissioner of Indian affairs who was himself an Indian.
The abolition of the factory system left a vacuum within the U.S. government regarding Native American relations. The current Bureau of Indian Affairs was formed on March 11, 1824, by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, who created the agency without authorization from the United States Congress. McKenney was appointed the first head of the office, which went by several names at first. McKenney preferred to call it the "Indian Office", whereas the current name was preferred by Calhoun. Like its predecessors, the bureau was originally a division of the Department of War. In 1849 it was transferred to the Department of the Interior. The bureau was renamed to Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1947 (from the original Office of Indian Affairs).