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The Trail Of Tears

By Edited Apr 8, 2016 1 0

Native Race Relations & Genocide in Early America

History overflows with atrocities.  It is also full of justifications, revisionist dogma, and outright lies.
 
“Justification” is the culprit in removing Native Americans from their homelands as part of newly-arrived Old World settlers’ firm belief in “manifest destiny”, the belief that American westward expansion was pre-ordained by Providence.  To take advantage of what they believed was rightfully theirs these immigrants pushed the indigenous people off their ancestral lands. 
 
The forced march of the Cherokee, known as “The Trail of Tears” (while not the only large-scale movement of Indians by the US Government) is probably the best known.
Trail of Tears
The Forked Tongue
Lies are easily found in politics.
 
In the early 1990s’ Operation Desert Storm, for example, only the most naïve citizen would believe US troops engaged in Kuwait for any reason other than preserving US oil interests. 
 
This makes perfect sense; fighting for resources is common throughout history.  Yet, rather than give the true reason for sending American troops to oust Iraq from Kuwait, President George Herbert Walker Bush had the audacity to say America needed “to protect the Kuwaiti people’s democratic freedoms”.
 
That was a lie, open and bald-faced; it could not be true for the simple reason the Kuwaiti people did not have then, nor ever had, “democratic freedoms”.  They lived under an oligarchy (a governing élite).  There was no democracy to protect, never had been.
 
Bush simply should have stated the truth: “We need to protect our oil interests”.  He appeared foolish by not doing so.  [Bush’s son, George W. Bush as President, would later force the US into an invasion of Iraq based on similar rhetoric, alleging that terrorists who were responsible for the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11 had been sanctioned and trained in Iraq.  Iraq allegedly had “weapons of mass destruction”—a stupid term as any object, in the right hands, could be a “weapon of mass destruction”.   This led to a nearly trillion-dollar war expenditure that came to naught as none of the terrorists responsible for 9/11 were Iraqi or trained in Iraq.  Bush, Jr., just wanted to assume the mantle of machismo associated with starting a war.  His idiotic rhetoric during those dark times was just as stupid sounding as his dad’s had been a decade earlier.]

Truth, though, is sometimes unaccepted, especially if it flies in the face of one’s more immediate desires.  The American Revolution, sparked by an unpopular, though humane decision by George III to restrict Colonial expansion, is such an event whose “reasons” over time have been conflated into something more noble than what actually caused it.

The American Revolution also led to a direct, systematic program of genocide.

The history of America does not begin with the British.  But for a unique set of circumstance the New World we know as America might very well be named “The United States of Spain”.  The Spanish were the first to establish footholds on North American soil, in the West.

But for the conquest and subjugation of the Aztecs, the Spaniards grudgingly co-existed with the Native Americans.  Spain’s last holding in the New World was Florida, occupied by a mongrel group of natives collectively known as Seminoles.  The Spaniards fought with Indians on an “as needed” basis, but did not attempt to excise them from the world.

The first English land grants established in the Eastern part of the country were literally, at least on paper, “from sea to sea”.  The Massachusetts Bay Colony land grant, for example, included all the lands between its northern and southern parallel boundaries all the way to the Pacific Ocean.  No one really had an idea of just how large this country was then, and as settlement increased, the land grants’ boundaries changed. 

George III

King George III recognized the undiscovered nature of the nascent New World.  In what today would be considered a very cautious, restrained, and admirably moderate policy he limited settlement of British Colonials to the lands east of the Allegheny Mountains.  His reasoning was surprisingly prescient.  He felt the indigenous people deserved rights to resources and lands as well.

The Colonists, however, did not see eye-to-eye with their king on this policy.  Rather, they began to agitate for new lands.  The rumbling of the English colonists’ struggle with England wasn’t primarily about taxation; it was George III’s prohibition against moving west of the Allegheny Mountains

Any subsequent legislative action by the Crown was perceived as tyrannical, regardless of how picayune that action.  All legislation by Britain, in sum, fueled the Revolutionary fervor that centered on being land-locked.

From Noble to Ignoble
After the Revolution the Colonials’ attitude toward the indigenous people shifted.  Before, they had tended to co-exist indifferently, at least without much hostility.  The Revolution changed that, however, and the “manifest destiny” concept, pursued by Europeans, meant death and disenfranchisement for the Native Americans.

The Indians in America at the time of European encroachment originally believed that with some concessions (on both parts) the Indians and the White man could peacefully coexist.  The Natives conceded much territory and hunting lands’ rights to keep this peace.  Despite the occasional raid on a “white” settlement (most often called “massacres” by the Whites) the Indians tried to continue living as they had done for millennia.  They had no concept of land ownership.  Land was something for using, not taking.  Hunting grounds were communal; nobody owned them. 

A good example of the Indians’ beliefs about land involved the “purchase” of Manhattan by Peter Minuit in the early 1600s.  The Canarsies who “sold” it to the Dutch for roughly $24 (60 guilders) worth of trinkets, for starters, weren’t the “holders” of the property.  [And that recompense, even considering inflation, was a paltry sum, barely approaching the equivalent of $500 US today.] 

These Natives, though, “sold” the land of a rival tribe, perhaps as a prank or out of enmity for the true land users.  Secondly, when the tribes came back to those lands to hunt seasonally as they always did they could not understand why they were shot at and chased off.  The concept of “owning” the land for exclusive personal use was not known—they felt they were only “selling” rights to the Dutch to share the land.  The distinction is relevant.

The history of meetings between Indians and Europeans is fraught with fraud and rampant exploitation, attempted subjugation, and assimilation.  The earliest contacts saw Natives assisting the newcomers in survival.  Later, the tables turned when the New World arrivals began treating the Natives as second-class citizens within their own country.  Attempts to enslave them failed largely because the Indians were too familiar with their home territory (could easily run away and survive), too wild in spirit, and too willing to die rather than be slaves. 

Displacement efforts continued over time, leading to one of the most horrific episodes of forced mass migration in history, the move of 15,000 Cherokees from their native lands in Georgia to a dismal area of Oklahoma set aside for them as “The Indian Territory”.  Because of the sorrow, diseases, broken spirits, and death resulting from this march, the event and the path followed were dubbed “The Trail of Tears”.

Leaving
In sociology mass migrations are explained by several theories, one of which contains a “push/pull” dynamic.  In this scenario circumstances in the homeland serve to push a native from his home (Irish migrants during the potato famine are probably the best example) and are concurrently pulled toward another locale (in the Irish case, America because it attracted migrants for jobs). 

This dynamic did not apply to the Native Americans forced off their ancestral lands.  They were pushed, alright, by military force, but they were not concurrently lured by the image of a better life in the Indian Territory.  Rather, the Western Indian Territory was not generally suited for their lifestyles.  The land was poor, the weather dodgy, and (simply put) it was not the home of Eastern Natives.  As many of their hunting lands were subsumed by Europeans and turned into farms and towns some Eastern Indians voluntarily moved westward (to Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri, et al) in hopes of finding a place to live free and unmolested.

The Cherokee, after defeat by the Iroquois and Delaware in the Great Lakes area, migrated to, and established a homeland in, northwest Georgia (also encompassing lands in South Carolina and Tennessee),which they named "New Echota" by the early 1800s.  New Echota had  a Constitution and its own sovereign government.  In 1829 gold was discovered on these lands.

The state of Georgia began to agitate, wanting this fertile land for its own settlers, and attempted to annex it, first through the law, then by force.

The Long Walk
Up until the presidency of Andrew Jackson these natives lived in their sovereign territory peace peaceably.
Andrew Jackson
 
The Cherokee brought complaints of Georgian trespass to the courts, but because they were technically not US citizens (in a bizarre twist, the Native people were not considered citizens of their own country!) these motions were not heard.
 
Ultimately, once the agitation to subsume the lands became violent, the Cherokee took their case to the US Supreme Court to stop Georgia from annexing.  And in a surprisingly enlightened move, pursuant to existing treaties, the Supreme Court found in favor of the Cherokee Nation.
 
However, this did not stop Georgians moving onto the lands, defying the ruling.  President Jackson, likewise, refused to support the Court’s order and sided with the State of Georgia’s claim, in contemptuous disregard of his own Court’s findings (only an exhaustive reading of Jackson’s history can adequately explain his outright hatred of these people; his motives are best left for another discussion).  
 
Martin Van Buren
Although it was Andrew Jackson who signed the Indian Removal Act into law it was his successor, Martin Van Buren, who marshaled the troops.  In 1838 things came to a head when 7,000 US troops forced 15,000 Cherokee off their sovereign lands.  Many of their homes were burned, their possessions confiscated.  Some of their homes were given to Whites in a lottery program.  The Cherokee were corralled in internment camps in Tennessee.  Then, with few belongings, they embarked on the thousand-mile march to the western Indian lands set aside by the US Government. 

This, for many, was a march of death.  Rather than wait for better weather the troops forced the march in the colder months of 1838, and many Indians suffered and died on the trail from exposure, diseases, starvation, and murder. 

Trouble began at the outset.  The tribe was given thin blankets used in a Tennessee small pox hospital.  The disease ranged through the group, and because of their contagion they were not allowed into towns or villages and had to walk extra miles to circumnavigate settled areas.

Abuses were heaped upon them,  In crossing the Ohio River to continue through Southern Illinois, the ferry operator charged the Indians almost nine times the going rate each (a dollar, equal to almost $22 today) to ride the ferry.  Furthermore, the operator only shuttled natives after other paying white passengers were processed.  Meanwhile, the Natives waited on the Kentucky shore—several were murdered by locals.

Once across, they continued through Illinois in one of the coldest winters reported on record, most on foot, with only threadbare clothing, some with moccasins (most were shoeless). 

The Promised Land?
The arrival in early 1839 in the Oklahoma Indian Territory signaled the end of this ordeal. About 4,000 Cherokee had died, although most of the deaths occurred early in the march due to disease.  The Cherokee population made a come-back, though; today it is the largest Native American group.
Map of Indian Removal Routes
This is an abbreviated account of The Trail of Tears forced removal.   The politics and backroom machinations leading up to it are very complex.  Other Native American tribes were similarly dislocated, some by force (as in the Seminole, embattled for decades and eventually scattered) or voluntarily (such as the Creek and Choctaw who departed for other lands by selling their homelands or ceding them by treaty). 

The Native Americans had many disadvantages then, facing superior numbers, superior technologies, and succumbing to diseases not affecting Europeans.  They had no recourse, and the ones who could peaceably resettle did so.

Although many would argue this is peculiar to that historic age, it is doubtful this wouldn’t or couldn’t happen today.  After all, Columbus himself, when he first came into contact with Caribbean natives, described them thus in a letter to the Spanish throne:

“So peaceful are these people that I swear there is not in the world a better nation.  They love their neighbors as themselves, and their words are always gentle and accompanied with a smile; and though it is true that they are naked, their manners are praiseworthy.”

Within a short time, however, he learned gold was present in the West Indies, and he enslaved the Natives as miners.  By then his opinion had changed; they had gone from being “peaceful” and “praiseworthy” to indolent savages.  This is pure racism at its worst. 

If, today, there were some Undiscovered Country it is almost certain the indigenous people there would either be assimilated or eradicated by their discoverers.  History would repeat itself: it is a sad state of the human condition that the conquering group imposes its presumed superiority on the conquered.  Humanity loses something in the end.

***

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Bibliography

  1. "Trail of Tears." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  2. "Indian Removal Act; Trail of Tears." Britannica Ready Reference 2003. 2002.

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