2 April 2020
HIST 442: The Myriad Complications of an Indian Removal Procedure
The Jacksonian era flowed with industrial progress and booming industry. This market revolution sent ripples across the country. One of the more notable ripples is the Indian Removal Act of 1830, a complex affair of racial tension on behalf of whites, the fortitude of ‘mixed-blood’ warriors, the fight and plight of the Indians, and the subsequent Trail of Tears. On the face of it, the Indian Removal was a matter of progress, security, and protection against savagery. Underneath, it was about the money which was waiting to be tilled from the rich, cotton-farming land of the South. Beneath the shield of whichever claim, the Indians were pushed off the cotton-padded South and over the Mississippi in one of the most convoluted tales in American history.
The decade of the 1830s was one of rapid change. People experienced “an abrupt and decisive commercial revolution in agriculture, rapid territorial expansion, the beginnings of industrialization and sustained urban growth, the democratization of politics—a generation of change that transformed Jefferson’s republic…into Jackson’s boisterous capitalist democracy” (Johnson 9). In such a time, there were more and more opportunities in the fertile, wide South. As more surplus crops were sold, subsistence-farming declined, and agriculture grew more commercial, vast, rich farmland became more valuable. Cotton was a popular crop in high demand internationally, and it grew especially well in the South; people followed the money. As the population grew, however, land began to run short.
About 125,000 Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole Indians lived east of the Mississippi River in 1820 (LaFantasie, “Democracy and Race”). In the face of an influx of white settlement and pressure to assimilate and isolate, the Indians had cultivated a peaceful and flourishing life—a life lived atop of millions of acres of fertile farmland, ripe for cotton-growing. In other words, they were sitting on a pile of green cash, and, to the white people, this was a financial waste, an obstacle to be hurdled. As the population kept increasing, as whites began putting pressure on their respective governments, and as the financial opportunity had made itself evident, the southern states, led by Georgia, began to demand the federal government to revoke the Indians’ titles (LaFantasie, “Democracy”).
But, perhaps blinded by the dollar-bill signs in their eyes, or otherwise persuaded, whites did not attribute this push for removal simply to the vast financial gain that lay wait in the cottonfields. Instead, they invented a holy war against savagery, a collision of fronts between ignoble primacy and progress. The Indians were considered ignorant, brutish savages whose innate principles (or lack thereof) served as a pesticide for progress. Thus, rather simply and in an age-old fashion, the whites’ campaign against the indigenous tribes was cemented.
INTERPOLATION ON THE APPARENT ABSENCE OF PRESBYTERIANS
Something that I find curious, in light of all this, is the evident lack of sympathy on behalf of the mission churches and revivalists of the 1820s. During the Second Great Awakening, Christians across the country were lit up in an ecumenical renaissance, working towards their newly prioritized ideals of perfectionism, free will and discipline in the face of the cold, lonely, industrial, mass-manufacturing reality, according to Paul E. Johnson’s A Shopkeeper’s Millennium. These Christians, who “stressed the equality of all before God, regardless of wealth, social standing, or education” and who believed the millennium could “only take place when the true believers and all converts made the world a truly Christian place to live in” seem to be rather silent about this major development in the South, despite their fervent anti-Jacksonian beliefs (LaFantasie, “Revivalism and the Social Order”). I suppose we cannot expect them to be forward-thinking simply because they are holy, but even on the grounds of ‘converting the savages’ or some other agenda, one would think the Revived would step in.
Or maybe even the rapidly developing African Methodist Episcopal church organization which had made such leaps and strides in white-dominated arenas, who had taken up their own space in America, one might think would help the cause of the marginalized and attacked Indians. I suppose they, unlike the whites, had no political power and couldn’t have helped if they tried.
The absence of the whites remains suspicious.
The problem with the anti-Indian campaign was that the racial lines in the South were blurry at best; Indians dressed and acted like whites, whites married Indians, Indians married whites, and the Indians, Spanish, French, and Africans who had settled there in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries left little room for any sort of monoracial culture. The Cherokee especially grew to live like whites; under Chief John Ross, the Cherokees were advised to assimilate as much as possible to the white man’s world to avoid discrimination and/or removal—they had houses and cotton plantations of their own, a written language, a newspaper, a written constitution, and, as they increasingly sold their own surplus crops, they stopped living communally as they once had (LaFantasie, “Democracy”). The Cherokee Nation in the South became sort of a city within a city, a Vatican, a microcosm within America that reflected the larger white world: the Cherokee’s disposition towards their black slaves became increasingly tense and harsh. In short, they adopted the white man’s way, a very individualist, capitalist culture—they began to play the game.
The Indian identity itself became complex in light of all the intermarriage and ‘mixed-blood’ offspring. William McIntosh, to name one ‘mixed-blood’, who had aligned himself with Jackson during the war of 1812, was a Creek chief whose portrait pictures him wearing “a ruffled shirt and cravat of a white gentlemen, while also wearing an Indian robe, sash, leggings, and moccasins” —his mother was Creek, his wife was Cherokee and his father was Scotch-Irish (LaFantasie, “Democracy”). Such mixing of not only blood but of culture belies the substantially acculturated and blended state of the South at the time. This makes an argument for Removal more complex; how to define an Indian? Where does the Indian blood stop and the white blood begin? Simply based on color—the “one-drop” rule of the early nineteenth century? It was already evident that ‘mixed-bloods’ functioned more easily in a white society, developing into wealthy plantation-owners: “Largely of mixed ancestry, slaveholders were wealthier, had investments in other enterprises such as gristmills, ferries, and way stations along the Natchez Trail, raised crops for markets, and were more likely to read English, and were the driving force behind acculturation” (LaFantasie, “Democracy”). Naturally, tension grew between the Indians, the whites, and this spectral group of everyone in-between.
Tension became somewhat infectious; as it grew between whites and Indians and between Indians and blacks, so it grew between factions of Indian tribes (LaFantasie, “Democracy”). This is evident in the case of McIntosh, who was murdered by another Creek faction after ceding land. Perhaps this internal deterioration, this conflict within the American Indian nation on top of all the external conflict, helped whites to divide and conquer. Perhaps they could have withstood all the pressure and the attacks had they not been so fractured over money—but, then, they would not be playing the game.
Or perhaps any resistance was futile when on top of the food chain sat President Andrew Jackson. Jackson had gained a reputation by this time, after forging his way through the Tennessee frontier, fighting and defeating Indians and opening up vast expanses of land; to America’s great face he added about a third of Tennessee, three-quarters of Florida, three-quarters of Alabama, a fifth of Georgia, a fifth of Mississippi, a tenth of Kentucky and a tenth of North Carolina (LaFantasie, “Democracy”). He was a defender of America, a warrior, a boisterous, rugged, self-made man who would not tolerate an Other standing in the way of progress and profit. And above all, a landowner, a landlover. Perhaps he pushed for Indian Removal simply in the interest of preserving his reputation amid all the pressure from his devotees underneath: “By attacking the Indians, Jackson impressed Americans with his powerful blows for white equality, states’ rights, and frontier values” (Watson 112).
Either way, Jackson’s disposition towards the Indians was clear. He never saw them as competent adults but as his “red children” who must be protected paternally and, most importantly, legislatively (Watson 112). Jackson began to push for Removal funds with support from his followers, and “the Jacksonians beat back all amendments and passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 by a thin margin, less than three months after its introduction [sic]” (Watson 110). To crush any opposition from the strong-headed Cherokee, Chief Justice John Marshall ruled in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia that the Cherokee Indians did not have standing to bring a suit against the State of Georgia (LaFantasie, “Democracy”). The deed was essentially done, and the golden fields of cotton were opened thus, officially solving the problem of the whites’ Infested Destiny. In an extremely convoluted proclamation, Jackson said about the Removal, “While the safety and comfort of our own citizens has been greatly promoted by their removal, the philanthropist will rejoice that the remnant of that ill-fated race has been at length placed beyond the reach of injury and oppression, and that the paternal care of the General Government will hereafter watch over them and protect them” (qtd. in Watson 111).
The execution of the Indian Removal Act and the orchestration of the Trail of Tears was certainly not a simple answer. But, lost in the complexity of it all, morale fell further and further, as “in the process, Indians unaccustomed to white law and notions of private property ownership fell victim to shameful frauds, as land-hungry schemers cheated countless tribal members out of their lands” (LaFantasie, “Democracy”). Chief John Ross was kidnapped and imprisoned, the treaty was deemed unnegotiable, and “[w]ithout effective political power, [the Indians] found themselves at the mercy of the pressure of the marketplace and the hardening racial attitudes of white Americans” (LaFantasie, “Democracy”). The long and short of it is, it was a dirty affair; the Removal was not a clean cut.
One may stop to wonder what sort of happenstance, what gathering of forces or karma or succession of dominos could result in passing such an act in fewer than three months and subsequently result in eighteen thousand captive Cherokees trudging through the cold at bayonet-point just eight short years later. Could it be that the only answer to those freezing red corpses is profit? A cash crop? Perhaps cotton blew in the southern breeze like tufts of Jackson’s white hair. One would like to believe that there was more to the land than money, more to the removal than money, that the Indian problem was too complex, that cities simply cannot exist within cities.
Johnson, Paul E. A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837. Hill and Wang, 2004, pp. 9-
LaFantasie, Glenn. “Democracy and Race,” Lecture No. 009. COVID-19-era March 2020.
LaFantasie, Glenn. “Revivalism and the Social Order,” Lecture No. 014. COVID-19-era March 2020.
Watson, Harry L. Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America, revised ed. Hill and Wang, 2006, pp. 110-112.