History, as taught to children, throughout the world, is primarily a means of instilling national pride. What if, instead, its purpose were to introduce them to the messy reality of the world? Would there be enough time, before the years of education were over? Or indeed, if aging itself were over? The toy-box histories of heroes and the wonders of progress, showing good intentions only sometimes gone awry, would be replaced by foot-lockers so full of weighty life-altering matters, we would not be able to carry them.
So it is with Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory by Claudio Saunt. If we Americans care to know little of the diaspora-in-chains from Africa, we care even less about the reality of the populist-motivated, government-implemented land grabs, terror-forced relocation of the original occupants from what they had called for generations, “our land.”
While a good-deal has been written in recent decades¹ of the European descent on the Americas and the catastrophic impact it had, from the North West Territories to Tierra del Fuego, the details often go missing. Claudio Saunt, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, has chosen to look at a focused time and place: his own, and neighboring, states — Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi– in the decades of the 1820s and 30s, leading up to the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the years following, of its implementation. Native Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Cherokee, and Seminole were forcibly removed from the lands of their ancestors, often with promises of better land and better lives in the vast unknown beyond the Mississippi: unknown not only to the whites making the promises, but to the tribes as well. They had hunted and cultivated their lands for centuries with scant, if any, knowledge of peoples beyond their borders; the “western wilds” as it was called in one Cherokee petition to congress.
Unworthy Republic tells the story of the lead up to, and execution of, the removal of some 80,000 people to what was then, and is still often called, “Indian Territory,” in one of the first state-sponsored mass expulsions in the modern world,” with all the bureaucratic appurtenances of record keeping, names and family units, births, deaths, property expropriated, food consumed, cost of conveyance, we have come to associate with much more recent exterminating regimes. As Sven Lindqvist points out in his matching history, Exterminate All the Brutes, and Raul Peck in his documentary of the same name, accountants, mass relocation and extermination did not spring without precedence from Nazi foreheads.
Divided into five interlocking sections, the book takes us through the increasing pressure on Native people in the South for their lands, much of it disguised as benevolence. While Native populations, as best as can be determined, had lost half their numbers between 1600 and 1700, and an additional one-third by the 1800s – by disease, starvation, armed conflict and relocation– in all the colonies, Saunt’s focus is on the particularly focused and executed removal, in the South, of so many in a coordinated effort. He documents with treaty, and proclamation, newspaper headlines and congressional oratory, the perfidy of white intention and action, and the contempt for neighbors who, for all their “savagery,” often lived with less want, and in more comfort than they themselves did.
Some religious leaders, especially in the North, called for removal because the Indians were in danger from their white neighbors (which they were) and/or because they were picking up sinful habits from them and would soon degenerate and be lost if they were to stay in their homeland. One well known spokesman envisioned a Native Eden west of the Mississippi. He called it Aboriginia.
James Barbour, the Secretary of War under John Quincy Adams, proclaimed in 1828 that “collocating the Indians on suitable lands west of the Mississippi” would “provide the happiest benefits to the Indian race.” Even Thomas Jefferson, in a private letter, wrote that he “wanted to separate native people from their lands for good.”
Those in close proximity to the territory in question were more forthright: they needed what was not theirs to expand the highly lucrative cotton trade. With slave labor and more land, fortunes were to be made.
The politics of demand and negotiation in the sixty year old Republic was centered in “Washington City,” as the District of Colombia was then called. The Southern states, which had come reluctantly into the Union, skirmished endlessly with the barely constituted Federal government over the status of Native peoples: were they sovereign nations, with treaty obligations as were European nations, or were they “people of color,” barely distinguishable from enslaved Africans? If they lived in Georgia or Mississippi surely the state had jurisdiction over them, not the Federal government.
The Princeton educated governor of Georgia, George Troup, in long letters to the U.S. President and other officials, said that the land of Georgia was “the birthright” of the newly arrived whites and that the native people were merely “occupants — tenant at will.” John Bell, the Chair of the House Committee on Indian Affairs declared that “Treaties were a mere device, intended only to operate on their minds.” The state of Georgia claimed that it had dominion over the Cherokee, and made it a crime to oppose expulsion; it forbade the Cherokee from meeting in tribal council.
Even the celebrated Supreme Court Justice John Marshall ruled that the Cherokee Nation was a ‘domestic dependent nation,’ not a foreign state. Native people were in a ‘a state of pupilage,’ he contended, as ‘a ward to his guardian.’
Although Saunt does not mention it, one of the most prominent men who opposed the removal of the Indians, and one of the only Southerners, was Davey Crocket (the Davey Crockett), Congressman from Tennessee. A summary of his speech in the House of Representatives on May 19, 1830, includes this:
“He had always viewed the native Indian tribes of this country as a sovereign people. He believed they had been recognised as such from the very foundation of this government, and the United States were bound by treaty to protect them; it was their duty to do so. And as to giving to giving the money of the American people for the purpose of removing them in the manner proposed, he would not do it. He would do that only for which he could answer to his God. Whether he could answer it before the people was comparatively nothing, though it was a great satisfaction to him to have the approbation of his constituents. … he never would let party govern him in a question of this great consequence. … He had many objections to the bill–some of them of a very serious character. One was, that he did not like to put half a million of money into the hands of the Executive, to be used in a manner which nobody could foresee, and which Congress was not to control.
If this bill should pass, [the plan would be to] send and buy them out, and put white men upon their land. It had never been known that white men and Indians could live together; and in this case, the Indians were to have no privileges allowed them, while the white men were to have all. Now, if this was not oppression with a vengeance, he did not know what was.”
In the 1828 campaign for President, Andrew Jackson rode hard on the necessity of Indian removal, and tarred those who opposed it –and there were many, especially among Pennsylvania Quakers, which he needed to win– as “traitors.”
Of course, if the Indians refused to go, as they were refusing, it was incumbent on the Federal government, not the states, to see to it — to create the transport trains, set up the logistics, scout the stopping points, and provide the guards to keep marauding whites away, and the Indians within the cordons. The roots of today’s states rights arguments lie deep in poisonous soil
As the Removal Act was passed, in the spring of 1830, the logistics of moving 80,000 people some one thousand miles became the focus: who was to do it, in what manner, with what combination of promises, threats and outright murder was to be used? Who was to pay for it? How were they to be fed? Sanitary conditions kept? Disease treated? Who were to be the guides and guards?
As we’ve seen in recent decades, the belief in free enterprise as “the best of all possible worlds” has resulted in private companies taking over prison administration and sending mercenaries to fight in foreign wars. So it was then. Though a few U.S. Army troops were along, the bulk of the supplies, cart provisioning, wilderness clearing and road building was contracted out – to the unscrupulous, the unskilled and to downright thieves. Those being herded, were thought to be “dissipated, idle, and reckless.” Records were kept, however:
Of course, finance capital was a strong force beneath it all. Saunt does a very good job of showing that Northern banks, despite s certain piety and even resistance to Indian removal among New Englanders, were not about to lose out on profits to be made through lucrative loans and complex trade deals. Land speculators — even including some of the army officers rounding people up– surveyed, divided up and sold to frantic buyers the newly “abandoned” land. Also for sale or trade were homes, kitchen ware and bedding, plows, livestock, and orchards.
One chapter deals extensively with the vicious warfare in Florida. Though large groups of Seminole accepted being transported away from their homes many others chose to stay and fight. Easy extirpation of these “savages” proved not to be so easy. Young white men, excited to “see some action,” soon found out that the swamp dwelling householders were excellent snipers, and canny foes. Death among the white “armies” though not as great as that of the Natives, reached into the several thousands.
In the bleakness of the humanscape, there are some bright lights, and those to praise. For the first time, groups of women, especially in New England, gathered to circulate and sign petitions against Removal. Quakers, as in so many things, led the way in resisting Indian removal. The Cherokee Phoenix newspaper began publishing in 1828, the first bi-lingual paper to exist (It continues to exist today, after a long hiatus, in a reconstituted form.) The tribes fought back in the courts and in public opinion, arguing their case, and bringing cases before the courts. One man, John Ross of the Cherokee, was particularly tenacious in his decades long battles and deserves high status in an evolving American pantheon. Even in Congress there was opposition to the Southern plantation–Northern financial barons. In the debate in the Senate in April 1830 the freshman Senator from New Jersey held forth for three days and six hours appealing to the conscience of the nation and recalling the “olive branch” held out by the Native peoples when it was needed in the early days of colonization. The United States, he said, “had violated treaties, disregarded native sovereignty and abandoned its own values.” No matter, the Senate approved the Removal Act 28 to 10. The vote in the House was much closer, and passed by only three votes, after defection, at the last minute by three members.
“Unsettling” does not capture the effect of reading the book, nor “Trail of Tears” the experiences of the tens of thousands of people who were forced to trek “at the point of a bayonet, ” deprived of the most common articles of householding, dying in the cold, of cholera, of measles, of starvation, or by whim and by intention of the soldiers guarding them and whites who came upon them.
¹ Among others:
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles C. Mann (2005)
An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (2014) [Used, along with Exterminate All the Brutes, by Raul Peck for his documentary.]
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, Dee Brown (2007)
One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark (History of the American West), Colin G. Calloway (2020)
Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation, John Ehle (1988)
GoodReads keeps up commendable lists of various topics: here, Native American
I’ve been researching my colonizational ancestors and finding my knowledge of history lacking. Thanks for your article. Always two sides to any story, and I’m more aware now?