Nineteenth-century republicans across the political spectrum agreed: the Spanish monarchy produced ‘miserable Indians’. Abolishing tribute and privatising communal lands, known as resguardos in New Granada (roughly today's Panama and Colombia), would transform that wretched class into equal citizens. Drawing on late eighteenth-century privatisation efforts by the Spanish Crown, early republican leaders in Gran Colombia inaugurated an era seeking equal access to wealth from communal land for all indigenous community members. After Gran Colombia (the first Colombian Republic, 1819–30) dissolved into New Granada, Ecuador and Venezuela in 1830, New Granada's experiments with indigenous resguardo policies went further. By then, legislative efforts considered the needs of all resguardo members, including unmarried mothers and their illegitimate children. Complex laws, diverse ecological terrain and nuanced social realities required well-trained surveyors to ensure each eligible indigenous family received a fair share of land. Whereas indigenous communities in Pasto, Santa Marta and the Cauca river valley resorted to armed insurrection against liberal policies through the War of the Supremes (1839–42), those in the highlands near Bogotá did not. Instead, these republican indígenas – with their greater access to the levers of power housed in the national capital – chose to engage in the reforms of a decentralising state. This article reveals how contentious experiments seeking republican equality within indigenous resguardos as a path towards abolishing the institution were consistently stymied by efforts to ensure that indigenous community governance and communal landholding remained intact.