Concentrating on the first two decades of the nineteenth century, this article explores the limitations of state-directed efforts to incorporate colonial Brazil’s autonomous native peoples, especially those known as the Botocudo. Significant discord divided state actors charged with implementing plans to transform into loyal subjects these mobile hunters and foragers, who inhabited a forested expanse separating the colony’s primary inland mining district from the Atlantic coast. Actively engaging settlers, soldiers, and agents of the state, the Botocudo contested Portugal’s geopolitical strategy of absorbing native domains in order to link the interior with coastal markets. Despite being condemned as cannibals and subjected to military conquest, they managed to curtail the most violent elements of this strategy. The gap between royal policy and exchanges with Indians in the forests exposed the fragility of attempts to subordinate these peoples and seize their lands as the colonial period came to an end. Altering the politics of empire, native capacities played an unrecognized role in the history of this decisive era.