The Long, Bitter Trail: Andrew Jackson and the Indiansby Anthony Wallace
An account of Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act of 1830, which relocated Eastern Indians to the Okalahoma Territory over the Trail of Tears, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs which was given control over their lives.
An account of Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act of 1830, which relocated Eastern Indians to the Okalahoma Territory over the Trail of Tears, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs which was given control over their lives.
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The Long, Bitter Trail
( 1 )THE CHANGING WORLDS OF THE NATIVE AMERICANSLIKE the Europeans, the Native Americans lived in rapidly changing societies. Their ancestors had entered North America from Siberia in several streams of migration, beginning tens of thousands of years ago and ending well before the arrival of Europeans. As they spread southward, finally reaching the southern tip of South America, they adapted to the different zones of climate and vegetation, and developed—as did other peoples in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Pacific Islands—increasingly distinct cultures and languages. Some of them, particularly in the region from what is now northern Mexico south to Peru, pursued a long course of cultural evolution parallel to that followed by the great civilizations of other continents, first developing agriculture (probably a female innovation), then creating dams, irrigation, and metallurgy, city-states, and eventually (certainly no later than A.D. 1000), highly organized empires (dominated by men). By the time Europeans first “discovered” the Americas, in the years from A.D. 1000 to 1500, advanced urban civilizations had existed for centuries in Mexico, Central America, and the Andean slopes, with irrigation agriculture, metallurgy, systems of writing and numerical calculation, centralized political power, elaborate religious beliefs and ceremonies, and far-flung trade networks. Of particular concern to us is the fact that the Mesoamerican city-states, by wars of conquest and by trade, had spread agricultural practices and some aspects of their political traditions far and wide, long before the arrival of Columbus.Among those who benefited from the diffusion of agricultural practices, centuries before Columbus, were the people who lived east of the Mississippi River and south of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River valley. This vast land of temperate climate, extensive forests, and fertile meadows and prairies was inhabited by well over a million Native Americans. Although they were divided into dozens of tribes, each with its own unique language (although all these languages belonged to fewer than a dozen language groups), they all shared one basic feature: a subsistence economy based on the deliberate growing of corn and other vegetables in carefully tended gardens, supplemented by hunting and gathering. The Southern tribes, and particularly the Cherokees, the Choctaws, the Chickasaws, and the Creeks, with whom we shall be mostly concerned (along with a later offshoot of the Creeks known as the Seminoles), living between the Ohio River and the Gulf of Mexico, had larger, more urbanized populations, with more elaborate ceremonies and more impressive architecture, than the Northern horticulturists. But all were different in basic subsistence pattern from the peoples to the north of the Great Lakes, where the growing season was too short for corn, and to the far west of the Mississippi, where the high plains and cold mountains were also unfriendly to the Eastern style of horticulture. These Northern and Western tribes (with the exception of the Mexicanized Pueblo Indians of the Southwest) were therefore completely dependent on hunting and gathering for their food.
The eastern half of the United States was, in aboriginal times, almost entirely covered by forests. In what are now the states of Florida and Louisiana and the coastal and piedmont areas of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, the trees were evergreens. To the north grew mixed broadleaf deciduous and evergreen species. East of the Mississippi, in what is now Illinois, prairie intruded, an eastern extension of the sea of grass that spread over much of the land west of the big river. Within this great forested region, however, along the edges of rivers and lakes, lay numerous grassy meadows. For hundreds of years before Columbus, Native Americans had built their villages in these natural clearings, raised corn and other vegetables, and hunted, fished, and gathered wild fruits, nuts, and maple syrup in the forests nearby, and to the north, especially in swamps around the Great Lakes, wild rice. Maize (“Indian corn”) was the staple food throughout the region, except for some coastal areas and southern Florida, where seafood was predominant in the diet, and on the prairies, where the hunting of large herd animals like the buffalo assumed more importance.The basic social and subsistence unit throughout the Eastern woodlands was the village. Each village was composed of a number of large communal houses, each occupied by a number of families, usually linked by matrilineal kinship. This meant that the women and their children belonged to a unilineal descent group, or clan (in technical jargon, a “sib”); the husbands were in a sense peripheral, being members of other clans. These clans were usually named after animal species important to the economy, such as the beaver or the deer, or symbolic of such virtues as speed, courage, or cunning, such as the wolf or the eagle, but there was no belief that the members of a clan were descended from their totem. The population of such villages ranged from a few hundred to a few thousand. The women cultivated garden plots in the meadows around or among the houses, working together clan by clan to plant, weed, and harvest the “Three Sisters” (corn, squash, and beans), and tobacco, which was smoked ceremonially. The women also managed the household, preserving, preparing, and cooking food, making pottery and baskets and clothing. The men helped to clear the fields, to raise and repair the houses; and they helped to provide food by hunting, trapping, and fishing. The prime hunting season was in the fall, after the corn had been harvested and the Green Corn ceremony, a thanksgiving ritual found everywhere in the Eastern woodlands, had been performed.And everywhere, too, the men made war, in a never-ending cycle of revenge, or blood feud, between villages and tribes.
Although the basic subsistence technology of the Northeastern and Southeastern Indians was largely shared, there were significant differences between the two regions. One of these was in population. Various authorities have offered wildly disparate numbers, but a reasonable estimate of the Native American population of the Southeast—an area of about 350,000 square miles—at the time of first contact with Europeans is 1 million. After disease, war, and removal had taken their toll, the original population had been reduced by over 90 percent, to roughly 75,000. The original population of the Northeastern horticultural area, by most estimates, was considerably lower, and it was distributed over a much larger area. Part of the Northern region, the lower Ohio Valley, was for reasons that are obscure (perhaps it was the result of unrelenting warfare) almost uninhabited. There were pockets of dense population along the New England coast, where fishing groups might have local population densities as high as four persons per square mile, exceeding the average density of three per square mile in the Southeast.A second major difference between the Southern and the Northern tribes had to do with the participation of men in the agricultural enterprise. In the North, men left the tending of the gardens entirely to the women, and these relatively small gardens produced little surplus beyond the needs of each village. Among the tribes of the Southeast, however, the men labored in large communal fields, raising corn and other vegetables, producing a surplus that was stored in communal granaries to be traded or eaten in time of need.
The third major difference between the Southern and Northern tribes was the more complex level of political organization in the South. The Native Americans of the Southeast were the heirs of a highly advanced pre-Columbian civilization, named by archaeologists the “Mississippian Tradition,” which was ultimately related to the high cultures of Mexico and Central America. The variety of corn (Eastern flint) that they grew originated among the Maya of Guatemala; the Mississippian religious symbolism echoed Aztec motifs, presumably brought north by traders from the Valley of Mexico. And like the Maya and the Aztecs, the Middle Mississippians built large pyramidal ceremonial mounds, some as high as 100 feet. A major Middle Mississippian central area, with pyramid, plaza, residences, and a perimeter defended by palisades and moats, might have as many as forty thousand residents. All this implies a strong, centralized administrative authority. At its apex, about A.D. 1200, the Mississippian Tradition produced what anthropologist Charles Hudson, a specialist on the Southeastern Indians, has called, perhaps too enthusiastically, “the highest cultural achievement … in all of North America.”By the time Europeans arrived in numbers in the sixteenth century (perhaps after European diseases like smallpox and measles had already been introduced by occasional previous visitors), the Native Americans of the Southeast were no longer building temple mounds. But there remained a highly structured political unit, the chiefdom, and maybe even some nascent city-states. In these chiefdoms there was a clearly defined ranking system, based not so much on wealth as on heredity, age, and accomplishment. Symbols of rank included tattoos, special names or titles, prominent seating in the council house. In the colonial period, leaders of these quasi-states apparently did not have the authority of the high chiefs of earlier times, but enough of their power survived to enable Southern chiefdoms to mobilize thousands of men in military assaults against early European invaders.Large towns, with palisaded fort, council house, regular streets, and a central plaza or court for playing the sacred ball game, were still being built well into the colonial period, and a tribe might also have a national ceremonial center located on the site of an ancient ceremonial mound. Related families still occupied traditional quarter-acre compounds, with winter and summer houses and outbuildings for storage of food, peltries and furs, and equipment. The Chickasaw winter house, to give an example, was circular, about twenty-five feet in diameter, thatch-roofed, the walls constructed of wattle and daub, whitewashed inside and out. The summer house was a lighter structure of two rectangular rooms connected by a porch, also thatch-roofed, with walls of latticework designed to let air circulate. The compound also contained a menstrual hut. The women worked small garden plots near the family compound, and also contributed labor to large, communal cornfields, whose produce was stored in the village warehouse. The men also worked in the communal gardens.
In the Northeast, by contrast, villages were truly autonomous, in the sense that no higher political authority could compel different villages to cooperate in anything at all. Within the village, which was usually a cluster of large communal dwellings housing clan-related families, there was a council of mature men who deliberated on matters of concern, often in a town meeting where all the men and women could attend, listen, and voice opinion through designated orators. If a consensus was reached, the council could make recommendations on a variety of matters, such as relations with other villages or tribes, a decision to move the village to a new site when the fertility of the cornfields was exhausted, the route to be taken in the winter hunt, the dispatching of ambassadors, attendance at an intervillage “tribal” conclave, or making peace with a group with whom a blood feud had escalated into chronic war.But these chiefs’ recommendations were more advisory than binding. There was rarely a chief who had paramount authority (despite the European conviction that there must be a “king” with whom to do business). The “tribe” was really no more than a group of villages that shared hunting grounds and spoke a common language different from that of adjacent tribes. The tribe thus was rarely an integrated administrative unit and might have no regular council of its own. Tribes speaking related languages often recognized each other as members of an intertribal confederacy, but given the amorphous nature of the tribe itself, these confederacies usually had more sentimental than political unity.In the Northeast, the pinnacle of political integration appears to have been reached by the Iroquois, whose Five Nations (the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas) had shortly before contact with Europeans consolidated their ethnic confederacy into something approaching a federal union of tribes, with a central council of chiefs nominated by women to represent the constituent clans of each tribe. The initial impetus to this union was the recognition of a need to abort blood feuds among the member tribes by persuading aggrieved parties to accept wergild as compensation for their loss in lieu of taking revenge by retaliatory killing. This theme was celebrated in the central ritual of the League of the Iroquois, the Condolence Ceremony, performed on the occasion of the death of a chief. The movement to institute the revitalization of the confederacy was led by a visionary prophet named Hiawatha (whose name was later misappropriated by Longfellow to denominate a legendary Ojibwa hero). Later, however, the league became a vehicle for coordinating Iroquois dealings, military, diplomatic, and economic, with both neighboring tribes and the encroaching Europeans. As a result of the effort by British colonists to use them to influence nearby tribal groups, the Iroquois, who numbered only about fifteen thousand souls, attracted an enormous amount of official attention, eclipsing the relatively meager colonial annals of the far more numerous Southeastern Indians.
From the earliest meetings between coastal Indians and Europeans, there were exchanges of Native American products—foodstuffs and skins and furs—for European manufactured goods. In time, by the middle of the seventeenth century, this barter grew into an extremely important economic relationship that was then called the “Indian trade” and is now usually referred to as the “fur trade.”The economic importance of the fur trade to the Europeans was immense. The European population was expanding, and skins and furs from America, particularly beaver pelts and deer skins, were highly valued, because local European supplies were running short. Beaver fur was especially prized because it made a superior felt, then in vogue as a material for hats. But furs of other small animals—squirrel, fox, lynx, martin, otter—were also wanted. From the tribes of the Southeast, which did not produce furs of the highest quality, the traders took vast quantities of deer hides. Deerskin in Europe was fashioned into gloves and other articles of leather and was widely used for making the vellum necessary for the bindings of books. The interest of other European manufacturers, however, was equally intense, for merchants who traded with the Indians were a huge new market for iron and steel goods, woolen cloth, clay pipes, glassware, and wampum, and for items of personal decoration, such as glass beads and face paint. For example, the quantities of trade goods imported for sale to the Choctaws in 1750 included more than 5,000 yards of woolen cloth, 1,700 blankets, 2,500 shirts, 150 muskets, 4,000 pounds of gunpowder, 300 pieces of scarlet ribbon, and 43,000 knives. About the same time, the Cherokees were trading some 25,000 deer skins annually.The Native Americans in the East had made no use of metal in pre-Columbian times, except for copper, hammered into ornaments out of nuggets found in the Great Lakes region. Steel knives, hatchets (“tomahawks”), traps, files, scissors, and other hand tools were quickly taken up to replace less durable, tedious-to-make tools of stone, bone, and wood. Copper pots, pans, and kettles, of course, did not break as easily as native pottery. Woven cloth could be easily tailored into native-style garments. And despite the technical advantages of the bow and arrow for hunting and even warfare, until repeating cartridgefiring rifles became available in the second half of the nineteenth century, the men wanted muskets. Loud, slow to reload, and no more accurate than the bow, they nevertheless were a mark of prestige.Up to a point, the effect of incorporating these Europeanmade goods was merely one of substituting one item for another, to be used for traditional purposes in an unchanged pattern of culture. Steel axes did the same jobs as stone axes but more efficiently. But a more subtle warping of cultures was soon happening. In order to get sufficient skins and furs to exchange for the newly necessary trade goods, the Indians had to hunt more. Intensive hunting for skins and furs, far beyond what was needed for food and traditional uses of skin, sinew, and bone, inevitably tended to deplete the game. Hunters were forced to forage farther afield, to stay away longer from the home village, perhaps to trespass on other people’s hunting grounds, thus inviting violent retaliation. Peltries became, in effect, the equivalent of a cash crop with which to buy indispensable hardware and dry goods.Furthermore, in order to lubricate the wheels of commerce, unscrupulous traders often sold or gave whiskey to a Native American population that had no experience with any drug more intoxicating than native tobacco or, in the Southeast, the “black drink,” a ceremonial emetic. Whether Native Americans were genetically more susceptible to alcoholism is doubtful, but there is no question that the behavioral and physical effects of alcohol ravaged native communities. Indian representatives regularly implored colonial (and, later, federal) authorities to stop the whiskey trade, and sympathetic laws and regulations were promulgated again and again. But the black market in whiskey was never effectively suppressed. Victims of intoxication, male and female, were a familiar sight about the trading posts and even in the villages; deaths and injuries from exposure, accidents, and assault among both the inebriated and their victims were lamentably common. The “drunken Indian” became a popular stereotype of Native Americans, even though contemporary accounts of alcohol abuse among poor urban and frontier whites suggest that alcoholism was as much a white as an Indian problem.But in addition to game depletion and alcohol abuse, another apocalyptic motif emerged. In the late seventeenth century and the first half of the eighteenth, open conflicts developed among the colonial powers seeking monopoly of the fur trade in various regions. Competition among the various Indian tribes over access to furs and to markets also led to chronic wars, such as the bloody conflicts in the Southeast among rival tribes and between colonial militias and tribal warriors, and the long struggle between the Iroquois of New York and the Indian clients, like the Hurons, of the French in Canada. The wars in the forest led to the virtual extermination of whole tribes along the Atlantic coast, both North and South. The climax was reached with the French and Indian War, in which the British and their Indian allies defeated the French and their Indian allies in North America (and which sparked the worldwide Seven Years’ War between Great Britain and France over imperial preeminence). After the close of that war in 1763, Britain seized Canada, and Spain, already occupying Florida, took over the trans-Mississippian territory of Louisiana.But the wars continued, now over land instead of furs.
The wars over the fur trade substantially ended with the cessation of hostilities between the British and the French in 1763. Later wars were fought primarily about land. For a hundred years previously, the Native Americans had been able to slow down, if not completely prevent, settlement on their territories beyond the coastal plains, by playing off the British, the French, and the Spanish against one another. Up to the end of the French and Indian War, the threat of a tribe’s tilting to one side or the other, whether in trade agreements or in military alliances, kept settlers off Indian lands west of a line a hundred miles or so inland, from the St. Lawrence River to the Gulf of Mexico.In 1763, as part of the settlement of the French and Indian War, the British crown proclaimed an official boundary for white purchase and settlement within the thirteen colonies. The proclamation was intended to assuage Indian discontent, but it offended many would-be settlers and speculators, and contributed to the resentment that exploded in the American Revolution. The line ran from the Canadian border south through western New England, south across upstate New York through the middle of Iroquois country, and then south along the crest of the Appalachian Mountains through Pennsylvania and the Southern colonies, to Spanish Florida. Most of the province of Georgia (then including what are now the states of Alabama and Mississippi) lay west of the line, preserving intact the lands of the Choctaws and Chickasaws, and taking in only the eastern districts of the Cherokees and Creeks. (A modification of the line in 1768 reserved even more of the Creek and Cherokee lands in Georgia to their Native American owners, but opened up Kentucky and eastern Tennessee to purchase and settlement by whites.) At the same time, British troops were establishing garrisons in some of the old French forts west of the line, and new regulations were imposed on the fur trade, limiting credit to the hunters and reducing the prices paid for furs, and virtually ending the traditional practice of presenting large quantities of goods as “gifts” at every conference.The consequence of garrisoning British troops in the French forts was an uprising of the Northern tribes. Generally known as the “Conspiracy of Pontiac,” it was actually the first effort at a pan-Indian political and military alliance. The inspiration for this movement was a Delaware prophet named Neolin. Neolin had a vision in which he met the Master of Life, who told him that the Indians must drive the British soldiers out of the Indian country and must give up their addiction to alcohol and their dependence on European trade goods. The prophet’s message influenced primarily the tribes of the Great Lakes region and the Ohio Valley. When Pontiac laid siege to Detroit in May of 1763, nearly simultaneous attacks were launched against other British forts from Niagara west to Illinois. More than half a dozen British posts were captured, but Detroit held out and the siege was lifted after five months. Within a year British troops recaptured the other outposts and the war was over.The Southern tribes took no part in the uprising of 1763. The Cherokees had lost thousands of warriors fighting against the British in the French and Indian War, and the other tribes had also suffered from backing the French. Now fearing reprisals, the Cherokees in a series of treaties from 1763 to 1765 ceded most of their lands east of the proclamation line.Although some tribes and factions joined the colonists during the American Revolution (1776-83), many turned against them. To the north, most of the Iroquois joined the British, ravaging frontier settlements in a wide arc from the Mohawk Valley in New York, across central Pennsylvania, to the borders of Maryland. Shawnees and Delawares attacked in the Ohio Valley. And in the South, the Cherokees once again waged war on the frontiers in Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Virginia. Colonial forces in response made punitive, scorched-earth raids into Indian country, North and South, burning Cherokee and Iroquois villages and cornfields, leaving many survivors to die of starvation and disease. A legacy of bitterness over atrocities on both sides remained for generations, Western frontiersmen condemning the Indians as murdering savages and Indians despising the Americans as untrustworthy and brutal.The peace agreement between Great Britain and the colonial confederation in 1783 did not mention the Indians. Between 1784 and 1789, various American authorities (not all of them federal) and various, usually unaccredited, “chiefs” of one tribe after another signed peace treaties that included large land cessions in both the North and the South. Claiming that these were legal cessions of land, particularly in the Northeast, the Congress in 1787 enacted the Northwest Ordinance, which proposed to organize a government for the supposedly ceded area north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi. Short of cash to pay back wages to the soldiers of the Revolution and to meet other financial obligations, the government hoped to pay off the veterans with land grants in Ohio, and to sell off other public lands to hungrily waiting land companies.More war ensued. In the South, the Creeks and the Cherokees took up arms against the United States as early as 1786; a peace settlement was not achieved until 1795. But as usual, from the beginning of the colonial period, most of the new nation’s attention was focused on the Northern tribes, and particularly on the Iroquois and their allies in the Ohio country, exposed as they were to the suspected machinations of the British in Canada. In the Northwest Territory, the tribes condemned the postwar land cessions as fraudulent, and as Joseph Brant, the Iroquois leader, had urged, formed a confederation to resist American encroachment. After desultory border warfare, large-scale military action began. In 1790, an army of militia was crushed by the Indians in the forests of the Maumee Valley in Ohio. In 1791 a confederate Indian force destroyed the major part of the U.S. regular army under the command of General Arthur St. Clair on the upper Wabash River in Indiana; the defeat cost the Americans 630 dead and 300 wounded out of a force of 1,400 men. But in 1794 a better-organized expedition, led by General “Mad Anthony” Wayne, finally defeated the confederate warriors in Ohio at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. At the Treaty of Greenville the next year, the Indian tribes ceded much of Ohio to the United States but retained a large part of the territory that had been lost in the earlier, fraudulent, treaties. And—of great significance for Indian land claims in the twentieth century—the Treaty of Greenville contained language that implied that a guardian-and-ward relationship would henceforth obtain between the government of the United States and the Indian tribes within its territory. In effect, the United States government assumed responsibility for ensuring that Native Americans would be dealt with fairly and honorably in the future, including future treaties to arrange cessions of land.But there was to be one more effort to create a pan-Indian confederation and to drive out the encroaching whites, and this one was embraced by tribes in the South as well as the North. Another religious prophet, Tenskwatawa, the “Shawnee prophet,” and his part-Creek brother Tecumseh preached resistance. The prophet was able to unite the Ohio tribes under his brother’s leadership, and in 1811 Tecumseh himself traveled South, attempting to persuade the Southern tribes to join the union. Tecumseh’s mother was Creek and he was able to convert a large number of Creeks—the “Red Sticks”—to his cause. (“Red Sticks” was the traditional Creek designation for the war chiefs and the red pole they erected in the villages as a signal to mobilize for war.) But he was unable to bring all the Southern tribes into the larger confederacy that he envisaged. While Tecumseh was away, the prophet attacked a camp of American soldiers led by William Henry Harrison, the governor of Indiana Territory. In the subsequent battle of Tippecanoe, the Indians were defeated and the prophet’s village was destroyed.When the War of 1812 between England and the United States began, Tecumseh’s warriors sided with the British. But the British and Indian forces in the Great Lakes area were beaten in battle and Tecumseh was killed. In the South, the Creek nativist faction, the Red Sticks, also sided with the British and attacked and destroyed a fort and settlement, Fort Mims, in what is now Mississippi, and massacred some four hundred whites of all ages and both sexes. In response, in 1814 General Andrew Jackson, commander of the Tennessee militia, marched into the Creek country and eventually in a major battle at the Horseshoe Bend of the Tallapoosa River in Alabama defeated the Red Sticks (with the help of Cherokee warriors), with heavy losses to the Creeks. A few months after the battle, at the treaty of Fort Jackson in August 1814, Jackson forced the Creeks to cede most of their land in Georgia and Alabama. He then went on in 1815 to national fame by successfully defending New Orleans from British attack (again with the help of Indian warriors).With the death of Tecumseh, effective resistance by the Northeastern Indians to white territorial expansion had largely come to an end. But major resistance continued in the South, most of it by peaceful means, with the conspicuous exception of the Seminole Wars in Florida, which began in 1817 and dragged on for twenty-five years. During that period, national attention in Indian affairs would focus on the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles of the Southeast, soon to be known as the Five Civilized Tribes because of their successful adoption of many white customs.Copyright © 1993 by Anthony F. C. Wallace
Meet the Author
Anthony F.C. Wallace is a professor of history and anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of many books, including Rockdale, which won the Bancroft Prize in 1978. He lives in Pennsylvania.
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