The following are the first 2 chapters from the book “The Trail of Tears: Explore the Takeover of Nations from Beginning to End”
Accommodations & Strife: 1607-1829
It is impossible to condense the entire history of Native American interactions with Anglo-American settlers into a single book, let alone a single chapter. But it is vital to know the context of the Trail of Tears in order to understand why and how it happened, so the attempt will be made anyway.
The Spanish and Portuguese had been actively colonizing the Americas since the end of the fifteenth century. They were later joined by Dutch, British, French, and even Russian or Swedish settlers in the following centuries. Every colonial power left its mark, but this buildup of events focuses mainly on British and later American relationships with Native Americans.
Anglo-Native relations began with the founding of small, unsuccessful settlements or trading posts at around the turn of the seventeenth century. The mysterious case of Roanoke in 1586 was among them, as was the 1602 fort at Cuttyhunk Island. These settlements were soon after abandoned, which makes the establishment of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, the starting point for permanent, uninterrupted English settlement of North America.
Algonquian-speaking tribes were the first indigenous groups to meet English settlers. Early contact between the tribes and settlers was tinged with uncertainty, but often cordial and friendly. Local tribes often taught the settlers some of their expertise in order to survive in such unfamiliar territory.
The Powhatan of modern Virginia would give the people of Jamestown food in exchange for trade goods such as metal tools and weapons. The Wampanoag of Massachusetts helped the Pilgrims of Plymouth survive their first winters in America, and in doing so, helped create—or at least mythologize—one of the first Thanksgivings in American history.
But relations could turn cold or even violent just as quickly. By 1609, the governor of Jamestown was ordering raiding parties to threaten the Powhatan and demand more food from them in order to fuel their expanding tobacco industry. Tobacco farming, in turn, led the settlers to convert more and more Powhatan land into plantations.
These intrusions soon sparked the Anglo-Powhatan Wars and the infamous Jamestown Massacre of 1622, which saw about a quarter of the colony’s population killed in a surprise attack. These events left a permanent stain on Anglo-Native relations, causing future colonists to fear any and all Native American groups as potential enemies. Treaties between natives and colonists often lasted only while they served the colony’s interest. Within the decade, Powhatan lands were almost entirely seized, and the tribe was displaced or assimilated into the colony.
These early conflicts set a trend for the next century-and-a-half of interaction between Native Americans and English colonists: agreements and accommodations were made early on, often involving mutually beneficial trade; English presence in the area would increase, and their industry or expansion would intensify until they transgressed earlier agreements with the Natives; Natives would either concede or rebuke the colonists, sometimes violently; and finally an armed conflict would unfold that saw the Natives bereft of even more of their land, often while dying of infectious European diseases.
These “American Indian Wars” were rarely more than little conflicts and skirmishes individually, but over the course of the next three hundred years, they would see Native Americans dispossessed of much of their land, as far west as California.
Thanks to the first few decades of this slow but inexorable push against indigenous peoples, English and later British settlers founded the Thirteen Colonies by 1732. These colonies stretched across a huge section of the Atlantic coast and as far west as the Appalachian Mountains
Native American tribes had their own complex relationships with one another, meanwhile. Many had longstanding alliances with one another or were part of confederations, while others were ancestral enemies. Rival tribes and nations were often played off of one another by French, Spanish, and British colonists in North America so that they would be easier to deal with individually.
This is why in the French and Indian War, the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War of 1756-63, both New France and British America called upon Native allies who had hedged their bets with one superpower or the other. Often this was done in the hopes that the colonial ally was less expansionist than their enemy. Alliances didn’t usually involve every band in a tribe, though—it was common for many factions to disagree or conflict with one another in a single tribe.
The same kind of splits happened during the American War of Independence, in which over a dozen American Indian tribes fought on behalf of the British Empire or the nascent United States from 1775 to 1783. But Native American tribes lost out both times because French defeat and American victory allowed westward settlement of North America to continue unchecked in the end.
Of the tribes who fight in the American Revolutionary War, four are of great importance for their later roles in the Trail of Tears; the Choctaw and Chickasaw, who fought for the colonists, and the Cherokee and Creek who fought for the British. The tribes generally fought with caution, however. They were protecting their own national sovereignty first and foremost, not getting played like pawns by Europeans.
When the United States secured its independence in 1783, British power was hedged out of North America south of its territories in Canada. Indian policies reoriented accordingly to deal with the expansionist power now growing in the east.
Native & New Americans
Many tribes were dismayed by the defeat of the British. The elimination of British power in the south of North America meant that all of the treaties, alliances, and agreements between Native Americans and the Crown were effectively null and void. At best, the tribes would have to renegotiate terms with the powerful and unchallenged colonists. At worst, as the case often was, they were at the mercy of those newly United States of America.
Talks began as tribes of the American North—and Southeast considered forming a single huge confederation to resist land seizure by the United States. These ideas never turned in to anything concrete; however, and smaller confederations or individual tribes were left to make allies or deal with the U.S. by themselves.
Spain, the only other European power with a strong presence left in North America, was an attractive potential ally to the Creek. These negotiations were also fruitless for the most part because every European empire, including Britain and Spain, agreed to recognize the United States as a legitimate nation.
Many Native Americans refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the U.S. at first. They were aware of its political coordination and military might, without a doubt. But it was precisely that alien threat posed to Native American sovereignty by this new nation that kept the tribes from acknowledging their new neighbor as properly “American.”
The lack of recognition was often mutual over the next thirty years or so. Though U.S. political and military policy toward Native Americans rarely had the express goal of extermination in mind, they were always acting in the interests of the U.S. government or citizens. These interests rarely aligned with those of Natives, so new conflict was inevitable.
The Great Lakes Wars
The American Indian Wars continued to rage periodically with the U.S. at the forefront. The new republic pushed as far west as it could now that it was exempt from old British decrees that kept them out of formerly French land. By 1785, this brought them into conflict with the Native Americans of the Great Lakes Region and the Ohio River, then known as the Northwest Territory.
The Natives of the Great Lakes Region, forming a large Western Confederacy, opposed U.S. encroachment into the area with military force. The Western Confederacy included large Native nations as well as many smaller confederations, totally over thirty different tribes fielding over ten thousand warriors. The confederation was also supplied with firearms by agents in British Canada who wanted to create a Native American bulwark state against the U.S. Handfuls of Natives, mostly Chickasaw and Choctaw, sided with the Euro-American settlers against their old enemies.
The Great Lakes tribes won a series of battles against the inexperienced U.S. militias sent to pacify the region, killing over a thousand of the four thousand-strong force. For most of the war, the Natives were winning. But then in 1792, President George Washington sent the Revolutionary War hero Anthony Wayne to lead a newly reorganized national army and crush the confederation. By 1795, the war was over, and the Ohio Territory was under U.S. occupation.
But the U.S. realized that Britain was supplying arms to the local tribes and agitating them against settlers. This, plus international policies tangled up in the Napoleonic Wars, led the U.S. government to declare war on British holdings in Canada in 1812. The War of 1812 raged until 1815, and once again, both sides called upon their Native allies to help with manpower.
Native Americans from Tecumseh’s Confederacy and other groups made up a huge part of Britain’s forces early on in the war, and also make up a disproportionately large percentage of the war’s death toll. Over ten thousand Native soldiers and civilians were killed by the conflict, and all of the tribes in the Northwest region would lose out on the trade partnerships and support of Britain after the Treaty of Ghent.
Meanwhile, the U.S. was able to continue settling the southern coasts of the Great Lakes with impunity. Local tribes either made concessions to the incoming Euro-Americans or migrated north and west to avoid them. Once again, it seemed that regardless of who won in the wars of European rivalry, Native Americans lost.
The Northwest Territory might have been the extent of U.S. expansion in the early nineteenth century, had its government not made a bid for a very big stretch of land in 1803. The Louisiana Territory was North American territory formerly occupied by the French. It was ceded to Spain at the conclusion of the French and Indian War, but then in 1800, Spain sold the land back to France.
Napoleon, a consul of the Republic of France at the time, wanted to use Louisiana to recreate a French colonial empire in the Americas. But these dreams were crushed by a renewal of hostilities between France and Britain, as well as the successful Haitian Revolution. With his empire-to-be bleeding money, Napoleon considered selling the land to the United States.
President Thomas Jefferson had wanted to claim the territory for years, so the Louisiana Purchase was soon agreed upon. The territory of the United States practically doubled in size overnight, stretching from the Great Lakes to Louisiana and from Georgia to Montana. For the first time ever, the U.S. had access to the land west of the Mississippi River.
The land was lightly populated, with about 60,000 European and enslaved African inhabitants mostly concentrated in cities and in the south. The Native American population was larger but just as spread out, meaning there were large tracts of “empty” land to develop and use.
And after the conclusion of the War of 1812, the U.S. turned its eyes south toward the Spanish territory of Florida. Florida was the homeland of the Seminole tribe, and so the war that was fought between the U.S. and Spain with its Seminole allies became known as the—First—Seminole War. At its conclusion in the Adams–Onís Treaty of 1819, Spain ceded all of Florida to the United States, opening up more land that would have made for perfect living space, if not for the people already living there.
And the U.S. government knew just what to do about that.
The “Five Civilized Tribes”
Relations between the U.S. and Native tribes weren’t exclusively hostile after the former achieved independence. There was still trade and communication between people, and occasionally a new treaty was made that lasted more than a few years before the United States military inevitably broke it or pursued aggressive re-negotiations.
There was also a surprising amount of cultural diffusion between settlers and indigenous people, going both ways. It is a natural part of different cultures living next to one another. But this cultural exchange was also fostered by what could be called the “humanitarian” elements of Euro-American society. Many citizens of the U.S. abhorred the treatment of Native Americans, just as they abhorred slavery and other practices of their day.
It was their hope that peace, stability, and a common culture could join their societies together. This “cultural transformation” was a belief espoused by famous historical figures like George Washington and Secretary of War Henry Knox. And by the beginning of the nineteenth century, it felt like a very real possibility.
Unfortunately for Natives, even this well-meaning goal made some steep demands of their tribes. It wasn’t a policy of equality, cultural diversity, or making a hybrid culture. It was a policy of acculturating and then fully assimilating Native Americans into white American society, which those white Americans generally saw as superior.
Amazingly, this was still a fairly progressive idea for the time, because it still held that Natives were equally human to Europeans—an idea that was not at all universal in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Such ideas as Christianity, industrialization, centralized governments, literacy, participation in the free capitalist market, and even the practice of plantation farming using African slaves were exported by the U.S. to the larger tribes of the American Southeast. There was also a tacit approval of intermarriage between whites and Native Americans. In essence, the goal was to “whiten the Indian” until they became U.S. citizens, at which point the land wars would end.
Most Native American tribes weren’t very keen to lose the ways of life they had literally been fighting and dying to protect for centuries. But that didn’t mean that some tribes didn’t decide to pick and choose. Pragmatic, adaptive people took on some or all of these elements of Euro-American culture in order to meet the needs of their changing world, while also protecting the rest of their societies.
This led to the recognition of some Native tribes as being more “civilized”—read: more like Europeans—in the eyes of the United States. The hybridized tribes in the American Southeast became known as the “Five Civilized Tribes”, and the federal government often recognized their sovereignty even as state borders expanded to surround their lands. These tribes were the Cherokee, the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, the Seminole, and the Muscogee, who are more commonly called the Creek.
Of course, the Five Tribes were already civilized, even before coming in to contact with European settlers. Civilization is a highly subjective term.
The Five Tribes were descendants of, or were at least very influenced by, the old Mississippian Culture that thrived in the South between the ninth and sixteenth centuries. This culture farmed maize intensively, built earthen pyramids, worked metals like copper, had complex political and religious systems, and developed cities that covered hundreds of acres and contained thousands of people.
Their culture declined for several reasons and didn’t survive contact with the first Europeans explorers. They left no written accounts, but their archaeological record is rich. What many people mistake for hills along the Mississippi River today are, in fact, the remains of their ancient pyramids.
The Mississippian peoples didn’t just die out when their society ended, though. They divided and joined or became different cultural groups over time, eventually giving rise to the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole nations. These four tribes spoke related languages from the area. The Cherokee migrated down from the Appalachians around the sixteenth century and spoke an Iroquoian language, but they still spent enough time in the cultural area to be influenced by it.
These tribes inherited many complex traditions from the old Mississippians, and had their own unique innovations, long before they began to accept and adapt European customs. But the new ideas did have their uses. By taking English names, converting to Christianity—or at least mixing it with their indigenous beliefs—and sometimes sharing in the slave trade, the Five Tribes ingratiated themselves to their European neighbors.
As a result, the relations between the U.S. and the Five Tribes became much more developed than those the U.S. had with other “savage” tribes. Up until the 1820s, they were allowed to operate as autonomous nations within U.S. borders. They were ultimately beholden to the federal government, but had full internal control of their nations. And for a time, this was enough.
Tribe vs State Rights
But the population was booming in American cities along the east coast, and slavery was expanding in the South. Cotton cultivation was approaching its zenith, and the recently invented cotton gin made farming huge tracts of the crop even easier. Euro-Americans needed more land to keep up with their rapid growth, and Native American land was often the target.
While the relationship between the tribes and the U.S. federal government could be amicable, the relationships between tribes and state governments often were not. This was an era of U.S. history where the battle between state rights and central government authority was still raging—and it would only grow worse until the outbreak of the American Civil War later that century.
State governments often allowed their citizens to squat on tribal territory, building unofficial settlements on land they didn’t own. Sometimes this was state policy, sometimes the government just turned a blind eye when its citizens did it on their own. When tribal governments took issue with this, the matter was brought to state courts, where Native Americans rarely received equal representation.
Natives were not considered U.S. citizens, except in cases where their land had just been officially annexed and they had the “option” to assimilate. Therefore, state courts rarely ruled in their favor, and tribal lands were slowly chipped away at from all sides over the decades.
They tried appealing to the Supreme Court on occasion, but the result was usually that the federal government was unwilling to infringe upon state business, for fear of stepping on too many toes. It would also be especially unpopular for the government to meddle in support of a group that was seen as an outsider.
Eventually, a firmer decision was handed down in the 1823 case of Johnson v. McIntosh. This ruling stated that while Native Americans could occupy and control lands inside the United States, they couldn’t hold actual titles to those lands. This made it even harder for tribes to assert their land rights, allowing squatting and de facto annexation to continue.
After the Louisiana and Florida Purchases, some U.S. statesmen began to talk of removing all of the southeastern Native tribes—including the Five Tribes—and sending them west of the Mississippi River to populate the empty, less desirable land there. This would open their old land up to white settlers for good, and allow the U.S. to establish stronger control over the tribes. This “Indian Territory” would be a designated homeland—one of the first reservations—for tens of thousands of Native Americans.
The next decade would be spent formulating exactly how to do that, while also trying to convince the country that it was a good idea.
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