The Department of Everything Else
Appropriately, because western problems stimulated the department's birth, the West was the scene of many of its activities. Two of its major bureaus, Indian Affairs and the General Land Office, operated chiefly in the West, and a galaxy of lesser offices performed duties vital to western interests. In the history of the opening of the West and the conquest of the frontier, the role of the Department of the Interior attains towering significance.
Native Americans were tragic victims of the westward movement. As the tribes fell one after another to military conquest, or simply to the effects of diminishing game and territory in which to pursue it, the Indian Affairs bureau stepped in. It employed 2,000 to 3,000 personnel by the 1880s, when the reservation program got into full swing, and managed the affairs of 260,000 people assigned to 138 reservations, mostly in the West.  On these reservations agents and their staffs sought, first, to control the Indian and keep him away from the paths of westward expansion, and second, to "civilize" him, by which they meant transforming him into a Christian farmer embracing the values of 19th-century white America. As one Indian Commissioner expressed it with unconscious irony, the aim was "to make the Indian feel at home in America." Employing an elaborate system of rewards and penalties, agents, schoolteachers, "practical farmers," missionaries, Indian policemen, and sometimes soldiers labored to attain the two objectives of control and civilization. 
Although the government's Indian policies wreaked cultural havoc upon most tribes and later underwent fundamental revision, they arose from genuinely humanitarian impulses and reflected the most enlightened thought of the times. Far from aiming at extermination, as popular myth would have it, Indian policy reflected the intense desire of the generation that freed the slaves to present the Indian with what was viewed as the grandest gift at the nation's command--assimilation into the Euro-American mainstream. Unfortunately, the well-meaning authors of this policy failed to foresee its terrible cost in human suffering.
Indian policy evolved in a storm of continuing controversy, with reformers, humanitarians, politicians, and frontiersmen--to say nothing of the Indians themselves--prompted by diverse impulses and offering conflicting advice. Not least of the disputes was with the War Department, which had yielded the Indian Affairs office with bad grace in 1849 and fought bitterly and almost successfully for three decades to win it back. In 1860 Secretary Thompson, burdened by the problem of peacekeeping on the frontier, agreed to the transfer; but Congress failed to act. The Indian Bureau operated under constant and often well-founded criticism of corruption and inefficiency in its handling of the millions of dollars in supplies purchased each year for the reservations. More than any other responsibility, Indian affairs tried and troubled successive Secretaries of the Interior.
The extinguishment of Indian title to the land and the concentration of the tribes on reservations freed the public domain for other uses. Over this process presided the General Land Office. Dating from 1812, the Land Office played a major role in trans-Appalachian settlement under the Public Land Sales Act of 1820, which allowed tracts as small as 80 acres to be sold for $1.25 an acre. It loomed especially large in the westward movement following enactment of a momentous trio of laws in 1862. Under the Pacific Railroad Act, land grants made possible the speedy construction of the Union Pacific, Central Pacific, Northern Pacific, Santa Fe, and Southern Pacific railroads. Under the Morrill Act, land grants financed the establishment of state universities and agricultural colleges. And under the famed Homestead Act, settlers obtained free 160-acre homesteads. Railroads received more than 94 million acres, while homesteaders ultimately claimed almost 290 million acres. 
Led by railroad promoters to expect a bountiful land that had "only to be tickled with a hoe to laugh with a harvest," sodbusters discovered rather that a homestead, as one Irish immigrant put it, was more often a wager between the government and the settler over whether the settler could make a living.  But most stayed, and by 1890 they had spread so broadly over the plains and mountains that for the first time census statisticians could not trace a frontier line of settlement on the map of the West.
Large portions of the public lands passed into private ownership in ways that later generations have lamented. Fraud and corruption sometimes marked the process. Corporate interests and speculators reaped windfall profits while individual homesteaders struggled against frequently overwhelming obstacles. Although the Land Office shares in the criticism, it must be stressed that its successive commissioners could never persuade Congress that stewardship over almost a billion acres--half the United States--required a more ample staff than was ever allowed. Even at its peak in the 1880s the Land Office scarcely surpassed one thousand personnel, and nearly half of these were clerks who toiled in Washington over huge ledger books in which land transactions were recorded. As one historian has noted, the Land Office labored under the handicaps of "crowded quarters, inadequate personnel, overburdened officials, low pay, and rapid turnover of clerks." 
More important in its defense, the General Land Office administered laws made by Congress. Some, such as the Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862 and 1864, explicitly favored limited corporate interests. Others, such as the Timber Culture Act of 1873 and the Desert Land Act of 1877, were invitations to fraud and spoliation. Still others, including the Homestead Act, were based on faulty knowledge of western climate and geography and thus in some of their consequences caused great misfortune. The fault lay less with the administration of the law than with the absence of a body of law expressing a comprehensive policy for the equitable disposition of all classes of public lands. 
Interior played other important roles in westward expansion. Some ended when the need passed. Others endured and grew. Between 1850 and 1857, in cooperation with the Army, Interior's Mexican Boundary Commission ran the new international boundary agreed upon in the treaty ending the Mexican War and the 1853 Gadsden Purchase. In 1858-60 Interior commissioners fixed and marked the boundary between Texas and New Mexico. Between 1856 and 1873, under a series of laws aimed at easing and speeding the transcontinental journey, Interior's Pacific Wagon Road Office carried out a comprehensive program of improving the historic western emigrant routes. Beginning in 1862 Interior watched over the organization, construction, and operation of the Pacific railroads, handling land grants and looking after the government's interest in general. Finally, although the governors and other high officials of the western territories owed their appointments to the President, beginning in 1873 they reported to the Secretary of the Interior. As states were created from these territories, Interior served as a kind of midwife at their births.
In the years following the Civil War the Interior Department challenged the War Department's historic preeminence in the conduct of official explorations of the American West. Ferdinand V. Hayden's United States Geological Survey of the Territories, begun in 1869, produced beautifully illustrated books describing the rich resources of the West. Because of his preoccupation with utilitarian attractions, he has been termed "par excellence the businessman's geologist."  One-armed Maj. John Wesley Powell, famed pioneer of the Colorado River, conducted the Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, launched in 1874. Powell's work and ideas, emphasizing the need for scientific, rational treatment of the West and its resources, helped lay the base on which the next generation founded the conservation movement.
Together with the War Department surveys of Clarence King and Lt. George M. Wheeler, the Hayden and Powell surveys overburdened the West with explorers and caused rivalries that unsettled the scientific community as well as official Washington. The solution, adopted in 1879, was consolidation of all the western surveys in the Interior Department and formation of the United States Geological Survey. Clarence King served briefly as the first director of the Geological Survey, to be followed, 1881-94, by John Wesley Powell.
While Interior's new Geological Survey concerned itself with the West's utilitarian treasures, the department assumed special responsibility for scenic treasures as well. In 1872 Congress established the world's first national park, Yellowstone, under Interior jurisdiction. Others, including Sequoia, Yosemite, and Mount Rainier, followed in the 1890s. After civilian management of Yellowstone proved ineffective, the Secretary of the Interior arranged for military contingents to protect several of the parks until Congress created a specialized bureau--the National Park Service--for this task in 1916.
Although the West claimed a major share of Interior's attention, only one 19th-century Secretary, Colorado's Henry M. Teller (1882-85), clearly represented western interests. The others so rarely understood western problems that as late as the turn of the century Mr. Dooley, Finley Peter Dunne's perceptive Irish commentator, remarked: "The Sicrety iv th' Interior is an important man. If possible, he ought to come fr'm Maine or Florida. At any rate, he must be a resident iv an Atlantic seacoast town. . . If he gets th' idee there are anny white people in Ann Arbor or Columbus, he loses his job."