Posts Tagged ‘Trail of Tears’

Trail of Tears – a Brief History

February 11, 2013

America needed land, and the Indians were in the way, especially regarding some 5 million acres in the new state of Georgia.  No matter how “civilized” the Native Americans became, state and federal governments used economic, cultural and political pressure to force them out.

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Economically, the Indians were having problems.  In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s the deerskin trade that had previously been so lucrative had begun to fade. One answer was to concede in some degree to becoming civilized and learn farming in hopes of being able to feed their people.  (28-29)

The people of Georgia had problems of their own. Soil tapped out by cotton farming and a growing population brought demands for more land, and the Cherokee had it – about 5 million acres of it.  One tactic of the Americans was to put in a trading post called the US Factory.  The Factory extended credit to Indians, allowing them to develop a taste for consumer goods.  The Indians went into debt and some had to sell their land to pay it off.  (29-30)      Instead of being ruled by materialism as Americans had expected, however, the Indians developed their own businesses, then used the money earned to invest.  The process didn’t make the Cherokee more willing to sell their land.  Instead, it gave them the funds to better protect it. (36)

Culturally, Indians and Caucasians couldn’t have been more different.  Where European Americans bought and sold land as a commodity, Cherokee saw themselves as spiritually attached to the land. (6, 19)  They owned it in common among their tribe.  White Americans may have acknowledged the Cherokee right to the land, but since they weren’t Christian, Anglos considered the Indian claim to be weak.  (12)

The only way to bridge the gap, according to Secretary of War Henry Knox, was to “civilize” the Indians –  to teach them to read, write and speak English, wear white man’s clothes, give up hunting and become farmers, and above all, become Christians.  This was the only way Knox could see the war ending.  In so doing, the Indians wouldn’t need so much land for hunting.  They could sell their hunting grounds and have investment capital for their farms and businesses. (24-25) This goal was seen as the great answer to preventing all out war.  Congress funded missionaries to teach the Indians how to become civilized.  The Cherokee, for their part, weren’t too excited about the blatant attempts at religious conversion.  Many liked the idea of having their children learn to read and write, but they generally rejected Christianity.  (32-33) Since conversion was key to being accepted by white society, once again, the great plan to convince the Indians to willingly give up their land had failed.

By far, the greatest pressure the government used was political. Various treaties had been signed between the British or American governments (whichever happened to be in power at the time) and the Indians were expected to honor them, regardless of whether the whites did or not.  While the Brits promised no settlers would cross the Appalachians, many did anyway. The crown paid for the land, and the settlers got a piece of Indian Territory.  (17)

Several US presidents saw the Indians as impediments to American progress and prosperity.  Thomas Jefferson believed that the future of the republic depended on speedy land acquisition. The importance of obtaining land outweighed the goal of civilizing the Indians. (31)  James Monroe felt that the Indians were sovereign and had the right to refuse to sell their land; but he also thought the Indians would be better off if they moved away.

Since Georgia had been the chief “thorn in their side” so to speak, in 1824 the Cherokee turned the tables and used Georgia’s own argument against them, saying that they (the Cherokee) couldn’t recognize the sovereignty of a state within their territorial boundaries. (54) Then, in a grand step towards the very civilization the whites claimed to want, the Cherokee nation drew up its own constitution in 1827. (57)

This was the final blow that removed the gloves.  Georgia’s legislature was incensed, calling the Cherokee constitution outrageous and their claim to sovereignty unconstitutional.  They blustered and threatened, then revealed their true colors saying, “The lands in question belong to Georgia.  She must and she will have them!”  Georgia then proceeded to pass legislation subjecting the Indians to white laws, but denying them the protection of the same. They also declared the Cherokee government and all its actions null and void.   The road to removal was set. With Andrew Jackson elected president in 1828, the fate of the Indians was fairly sealed.  Jackson was a known loather of Indians and made it his mission to get rid of them as quickly as he could without regard to any so-called rights or sovereignty. He gave them only two options: “emigrate beyond Mississippi” or “submit to the laws of those States.” (58-61)

There were those who fought against Jackson’s policy of removal.  In fact, most of the Republicans in Congress opposed it simply on party lines.  Jeremiah Everts, chief administrative officer of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, was a key opponent of removal.  He published 24 essays in defense of Cherokee rights and condemning removal. Others responded in both camps, and the debate was on.  In April, 1830, a bill for removal was passed.  The Cherokee had lost. (61-63)

While the economic and cultural pressures certainly contributed, the removal became a matter of politics, both in the Cherokees’ attempts to remain sovereign and the US government’s determination to have the land. In the end, only one could win.

 

Source:

Purdue and Green, The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears, Penguin Library of American Indian History, 2008

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