Trail of Tears

“In the inland areas of the South, even more powerful tribal nations existed than in the North. The Southeastern nations could muster 14,000 warriors: 3,000 each among the Cherokees, Choctaws, and Creeks, plus 5,000 hardy Chickasaws. The southern Indians had been subjected to the same encroachments by the colonists that the northern Indians had experienced.

By the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River in March 1775, the Transylvania Company had obtained a title of sorts to much of present day Kentucky and Middle Tennessee. But the Cherokee Chief Dragging Canoe had stalked out of the negotiations, warning that any attempt to settle the area would turn the land dark and bloody.

The British sub-agents Alexander Cameron and Henry Stuart attempted to warn the [colonial] settlers who were encroaching on tribal lands at Watauga and Nolichucky. Their warnings enabled the settlers to prepare themselves against attack and to characterize the British cautions – suitably distorted – as evidence of British instigation of tribal attack. For the most part, the [colonials] refused to heed the warnings to leave.

The colonials, who had appointed commissioners to deal with the tribes as prescribed by the Continental Congress, sought to persuade the tribes that the King’s agents were now superseded by themselves. In April 1776 a conference was held with representatives of the Cherokees, but most of the tribe absented themselves. The colonial representatives urged the Cherokees (and, in a later conference, the Creeks) to remain neutral and not be swayed by British arms or arguments.

The colonial’s case was not persuasive and, in May 1776, a delegation from the north composed of Shawnees, Delawares, and Mohawks, arrived among the Cherokees and convinced them to take up the tomahawk against the encroaching colonists. Devastation soon followed on the frontier.

The response of the Southern colonies was similar to that in the North. Devastating strikes were made by colonial armies against the Cherokees. Like the Iroquois, the Cherokees chose to let their country be ravaged rather than attempt to engage the colonial columns in pitched battles. Instead, they retired further west and watched the colonial soldiers destroy their crops and houses. Like the Iroquois, though to a lesser degree, the Cherokees were riven by factional strife on how best to confront the deteriorating situation.

Although huge amounts of goods were annually provided Britain’s tribal agents for use in keeping her tribal alliances firm (£75,000 sterling in 1778 for the southern tribes alone), few results were evident to an increasingly skeptical Parliament. In March 1779, in considering a money bill, heated comments about the apparently fruitless expenditures of such sums were made. Yet British goods continued to be vital in maintaining tribal support.

On the colonial side, future President Thomas Jefferson’s reaction to the Cherokee attacks on the frontier expressed his sense of the seriousness of the situation:

“I hope that the Cherokees will now be driven beyond the Mississippi and that this in future will be declared to the Indians the invariable consequence of their beginning a war. Our contest with Britain is too serious and too great to permit any possibility of avocation from the Indians.”

This musing would become reality during the administration of Andrew Jackson (1829-37), shortly after Jefferson’s death – on July 4, 1826, the 50th Anniversary of the announcement of the Declaration of Independence. The 2nd President, John Adams, died on the very same day.

The fate of the Cherokees dampened the inclination of the Creeks to seek vengeance against the encroaching settlers at the possible cost of similar retaliation. Nevertheless, an opportunity to strike a coordinated blow occurred when, late in 1778, a British fleet arrived in Georgia. Savannah fell to it, and a force was sent inland to Augusta.

The colonists counterattacked. By virtue of poor communication (one might almost say a total lack of effective communication), John Stuart, the British Indian superintendent in Pensacola, was uninformed of the move and was unable to bring Creek allies and local loyalists to the assistance of the British troops.

In May 1781, the fall of Pensacola to the colonists was soon followed by the fall of Augusta and Savannah. British collapse in the South was imminent and the King’s tribal allies were forced to choose their future course. The Cherokees and Chickasaws sought to negotiate peace with the Colonials. The Creeks continued to stand with the British; the Choctaws wavered.

When the British finally evacuated St. Augustine, Florida in 1783, they were astonished to find that numbers of their tribal allies sought to join them. As one tribal member put it, ‘If the English mean to abandon the Land, we will accompany them – We cannot take a Virginian or Spaniard by the hand – We cannot look them in the face.’ The commandant of the garrison expressed his amazement at the Indian attitude:

‘The minds of these people appear as much agitated as those of the unhappy Loyalists on the eve of a third evacuation; and however chimerical it may appear to us, they have seriously proposed to abandon their country and accompany us, having made all the world their enemies by their attachment to us.’

In the Preliminary Articles of Peace of 1782, no mention was made of the tribes. Despite their important role and visible presence, they had receded into the shadows of European diplomacy. Recognition of their existence and status was easier to ignore or deny in Europe than in America. Brant, the Mohawk, was outraged that the King seemed to be selling out the tribes to the American Congress.

“Daniel Claus, [no relation to Santa] the British agent for the Six Nations in Canada, was astounded that the English negotiator in Paris, Richard Oswald, had ignored, or been ignorant of, the boundaries of the tribal country established by the British and the tribal confederation by means of the Fort Stanwix treaty line of 1768.

‘It might have been easily reserved and inserted that those lands the Crown relinquished to all the Indn. Nations as their Right and property were out of its power to treat for, which would have saved the Honor of Government with respect to that Treaty.’

Other Englishmen were outraged. ‘Our treaties with them were solemn,’ Lord Walsingham noted, ‘and ought to have been binding on our honour.’ Lord Shelburne, on the other hand, vigorously defended the Preliminary Articles, asserting that

‘… in the present treaty with America, the Indian nations were not abandoned to their enemies; they were remitted to the care of neighbours.’

The Spanish representative at the Paris negotiations, the Conde de Aranda, had similarly asserted that the territory west of the Appalachians to the Mississippi, which England grandly delivered to the American colonies, belonged to ‘free and independent nations of Indians and you have no right to it.’ But the American negotiators [properly] rejected the tribal claims and asserted the full authority of the colonies to possess the lands west to the Mississippi [won at war from their joint enemies, the British and the tribes aligned with the British.]

In their succeeding negotiations with the tribes, the Americans attempted to convince them that by choosing the losing side in the struggle they had lost all their rights. They asserted that the tribes were a conquered people. James Duane in 1784 advised the governor of New York not to treat with the Iroquois as equals, saying that

‘I would never suffer the word ‘nation’ or ‘six nations’ or ‘confederates,’ or ‘council fire at Onondago’ or any other form which would revive or seem to confirm their former ideas of independence they should rather be taught that the public opinion of their importance has long since ceased.’”

Neither the Iroquois, nor the tribes of the Old Northwest (present day Ohio), nor those of the South tamely accepted colonial assertions of sovereignty by right of conquest, a time-honored concept in the Western tradition. Although most of the powerful tribal nations, which had hitherto held back the tide of English expansion, had chosen the wrong side in the Revolution, they still possessed land and power only partially diminished by the war.

The British government, embarrassed by the reproaches of their erstwhile allies,  continued to hold the forts of the Old Northwest and to provide trade goods and sympathy to their tribal allies, though refusing military aid for a renewed attack against the Americans.”

But, for all intents and purposes, the tribes had lost their military ally. They had two choices – join the new nation politically and begin to transition to the American-European culture or declare war on America and fight it out for control of the continent. They chose the latter and, after another century of fighting, had paid a terrible price and had been relegated to reservations. It is a long, sad, but predictable, history.

“Attempts by American forces to impose their will on the tribes confirmed the fact that they had not been conquered by the Americans during the Revolution, for these attempts were repeatedly frustrated in what is known today as the Northwest Indian War. In 1790, General James Harmar’s expedition into the Maumee Valley – on the western shore of Lake Erie near present day Toledo, Ohio – resulted in an embarrassing failure.

In 1791, General Arthur St. Clair’s army was similarly defeated by tribes near Fort Wayne, Indiana. In 1794, Revolutionary War hero General “Mad” Anthony Wayne finally did manage to defeat the Northwest tribes at Fallen Timbers, near the mouth of the Maumee River. [He then went on to build Fort Wayne – the site of the present day city in Indiana.]

But the resistance and strength of the tribes had refuted the notion that conquest could be asserted rather than won. In the South, McGillivray of the Creeks played off Spanish and American authorities, finally negotiating a treaty with the United States in New York in 1790.

With the formation of the Constitution and the establishment of a new government, Secretary of War Henry Knox, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and President George Washington formulated a policy of honor and good will toward the tribal Americans. As expressed in the Northwest Ordinance, the policy asserted that:

‘The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their land and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity shall from time to time be made, for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them.’

Yet the passions engendered by the American Revolution [and the 150+ years of wars and sporadic violence and depredation by tribes against colonists – most certainly beginning with the massacre and/or enslavement of the Roanoke settlement in 1587], despite the good will expressed in the formal policy enunciated by the government, was to lead to bitter and violent confrontations on the frontier.

The bloody ground of the Northwest Territory was to be repeated in region after region as the undisciplined and unregulated expansion of the American people [newly freed from the British yolk] got underway. In the end, the aboriginal was the loser. That they would have been a loser even if the King had repressed the rebellion is probable; but his decline would not have been so swift or so bitter.”

The tribes had made at least one mortal enemy during the Revolution. He was born in the Carolina wilderness to a widowed mother in 1767. He served as a Colonial Army courier in the Carolinas at the age of thirteen. He was hunted by tribes, captured and tortured by the British. One brother was killed, one died of disease in captivity, as did his mother. Thus orphaned at the age of fourteen, he blamed the British and their aboriginal allies for the loss of his family. He would take his retribution from both. His name was Andrew Jackson.

“Prior to 1830, the tribes, especially in the South, had been living in identifiable tribal lands acknowledged by the British and outside of the original thirteen Colonies – now States. The process of cultural transformation (proposed by George and Henry Knox) was gaining momentum, especially among the Cherokee and Choctaw, but as the years went by, new settlers from Europe moved west to find new lands to develop [and thus denying tribal peoples time to acculturate and assimilate.]

The fixed boundaries of these autonomous tribal nations, comprising large areas of the States – especially Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia which had asserted their western boundaries at the Mississippi River after the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War – were subject to continual cession and annexation prior to 1830, in part due to pressure from squatters and the threat of military force in the newly declared U.S. territories – federally administered regions whose boundaries supervened upon the tribal treaty claims.

[These territories eventually became Kentucky, in the case of Virginia; Tennessee, in the case of North Carolina and Alabama and Mississippi, in the case of Georgia. As people moved westward across the Alleghenies for instance, new counties were simply added to the states’ inventories.]

As these territories became U.S. states (Tennessee for example in 1796 being comprised of the western counties of North Carolina), new State governments sought to dissolve the boundaries of the Indian nations within their borders, which were actually independent of State jurisdiction, and to expropriate the land for their new citizens. These pressures were magnified by U.S. population growth and the expansion of slavery in the South with the rapid development of cotton cultivation in the uplands due to the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 – which allowed mechanical [rather than the tedious hand] separation of cotton seeds from the flax.

The statutory argument for Tribal-American sovereignty persisted until the Supreme Court ruled in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), that (e.g.) the Cherokee were not a[n] [externally] sovereign and independent nation, and therefore not entitled to a hearing before the court.

However, in Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the Court re-established limited internal sovereignty under the sole jurisdiction of the Federal government – the Court ruling that Georgia could not impose laws in Cherokee territory, since only the national government – not State governments – had authority in tribal affairs – in a ruling that both opposed the subsequent forced relocation and set the basis for modern U.S. case law, while this latter ruling was famously defied by [now] President Andrew Jackson in 1832.”

Andrew Jackson was elected the 7th President of the United States in November 1828. The first six Presidents had been members of the American “founding aristocracy” – for lack of a better word – landed, learned and lauded for their roles in the founding, creating and governing the nation for its first four decades.

Jackson however, was a backwoodsman, a common man, [America’s first Democrat politician] and a leader determined to return the republic to the People who had truly given it birth, of which he was one – the soldiers of the Revolution and other patriots who persevered through the fight for freedom and who, as “everyman”, had demanded the Bill of Rights to protect themselves from a government of elites as a condition for ratifying the Constitution.

“He did so in many ways but most prominently by ending the charter of the Second Bank of the United States, which held all of the revenue of the Federal government and thereby permitted the elites to hold – and benefit from – all of the People’s money. It was in this role – as a champion of the People – that he presided over the enforcement of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, declaring in response to Worcester v. Georgia :

“John Marshall (Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) has made his decision; now let him enforce it! … Build a fire under them. When it gets hot enough, they’ll go.”

The actions of the Jackson administration were not isolated because State and federal officials had [repeatedly] violated treaties without consequence, often attributed to military exigency, as the members of individual tribal nations were not automatically United States citizens and were rarely given standing in any U.S. court.”

The final great migration of the Epoch of Conquest was the forced displacement of the aboriginal people in the Southeastern United States – who had, we must remember, been conquering each other for centuries – to territories west of the Mississippi River. “The ‘Trail of Tears’ is the name given to the forced relocation of aboriginal nations from southeastern parts of the United States following the passage and signing of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The removal included many members of the following tribes, who did not wish to assimilate: Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations, among others, from their homelands to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River.

The tribal members who chose to stay and assimilate were allowed to become citizens in their States and of the U.S. The phrase ‘Trail of Tears’ originated from a description of the removal of the Choctaw Nation in 1831 but is ascribed by them to the people they passed along the way while the Choctaw remained stoic.

Many of the tribal members suffered from exposure, disease and starvation on the route to their destinations. Many died, including 2,000 – 6,000 of 16,542 relocated Cherokee. European-Americans and African-American freedmen and slaves also participated in the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, Creek and Seminole forced relocations.”

“Jackson’s crucial involvement in what became known as the Trail of Tears cannot be ignored. In a speech regarding the removal of Native Americans, Jackson said,

“It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.”

According to Jackson, the move would be nothing but beneficial for all parties. His point of view garnered support from many Americans, many of whom would benefit economically from the removal.

Jackson specifically however, had no desire to use the power of the national government to protect the Cherokees from Georgia, since he was already entangled with Southern “states’ rights” issues in what became known as the Nullification Crisis.

The Nullification Crisis was a sectional crisis during the Jackson presidency created by South Carolina’s 1832 “Ordinance of Nullification”. This ordinance declared by the power of the State that the federal Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were unconstitutional and therefore null and void within the sovereign boundaries of South Carolina. The controversial and highly protective Tariff of 1828 [known to its detractors as the “Tariff of Abominations”] was enacted into law late in the presidency of Massachusetts’ John Quincy Adams. The tariff was opposed in the South and parts of New England. Its opponents expected that the election of Jackson as President would result in the tariff being significantly reduced.

Military preparations to resist anticipated federal enforcement were initiated by the South Carolina. In late February both a Force Bill, authorizing the willing President to use military forces against South Carolina, and a new negotiated tariff, the Compromise Tariff of 1833, satisfactory to South Carolina, were passed by Congress. The South Carolina convention reconvened and repealed its Nullification Ordinance on March 11, 1833.

With the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the U.S. Congress had given Jackson authority to negotiate removal treaties, exchanging tribal land in the East for land west of the Mississippi River. Jackson used the dispute with South Carolina and Georgia to put pressure on the Cherokees to sign a removal treaty. The treaty, passed in Congress by a single vote, and signed into law by President Jackson, was imposed by his successor, Democrat President Martin Van Buren of New York, who allowed Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama an armed force of 7,000 – made up of militia, regular army, and volunteers under General Winfield Scott – to round up about 13,000 Cherokees into concentration camps at the U.S. Indian Agency near Cleveland, Tennessee before being sent to the West.

Their homes were burned and their property destroyed and plundered. Farmlands, [used by] the Cherokees for generations, were won by white settlers in a lottery. Most of the deaths occurred from disease, starvation and cold in these camps. After the initial roundup, the U.S. military still oversaw the emigration until they met the forced destination. [Army] Private John G. Burnett later wrote,

“Future generations will read and condemn the act and I do hope posterity will remember that private soldiers like myself, and like the four Cherokees who were forced by General Scott to shoot an Indian Chief and his children, had to execute the orders of our superiors. We had no choice in the matter.”

By 1840, 46,000 Native Americans from these southeastern States had been removed from their homelands, thereby opening 25 million acres for predominantly white settlement. Some did remain and assimilated. Alexis de Tocqueville, the French philosopher, witnessed the Choctaw removals while in Memphis, Tennessee in 1831, and wrote in his famous treatise Democracy in America;

“In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn’t watch without feeling one’s heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but sombre and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas were leaving their country. “To be free,” he answered, … could never get any other reason out of him. We … watch the expulsion … of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples.”

The military actions and subsequent treaties enacted by the Jackson and Van Buren administrations pursuant to the 1830 law [which, incidently, famed backwoodsman and later hero at the Alamo, Tennessee Congressman David Crockett had voted against] are widely considered to have directly caused the expulsion or death of a substantial part of the tribes then living in the southeastern United States. [Andrew Jackson had finally attained his measure of retribution on his sworn enemies. He had gotten even with the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1814.]”

Next time: Plains Indian Wars.

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