During the first part of the nineteenth century, the United States followed policies which viewed American Indians as impediments to the economic growth of the country. At the beginning of the century, President Thomas Jefferson had expressed the idea that the future of the United States depended on acquisition of land for the rapidly growing population. Thus, the future of the country depended on dispossessing the Indians of their land. Under this Jeffersonian view, American Indians were not seen as being welcome in the United States and it was felt that they should be removed from their ancient homelands and moved to lands west of the Mississippi River.
By 1823, the United States was pursuing a policy of manifest destiny to spread out between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. Thus, believing themselves to be special people, empowered by their god to rule, to exploit, and to dominate, they moved west coming into conflict with more tribes.
In their book The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears, Theda Perdue and Michael Green write:
“In one sense, removal was a continuation of the policies created by Europeans when they first came to America, took a piece of land, and pushed the Indians off it so they could use it for themselves.”
In Georgia, United States government commissioners began talks with the Cherokees in an attempt to persuade them to move to territories west of the Mississippi. The Cherokees recognized that no amount of land cessions would satisfy the insatiable land greed of the Americans. In his book Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America’s Road to Empire Through Indian Territory, Paul VanDevelder reports:
“Tales of horrific atrocities were already filtering back from their friends who had left for the western territories beyond the Mississippi. It was well known to them that whites, who became enraged when the government allowed Indians to select the best lands in Missouri and Arkansas, formed vigilante posses and went on a rampage.”
While the enraged Americans burned Indian towns, murdered men, women, and children, and slaughtered Indian livestock, the government did nothing. There was no attempt to stop the attacks nor to bring the attackers to justice.
West of the Mississippi
Indian removal from the United States to lands west of the Mississippi River actually began shortly after the United States was created in the late eighteenth century: several groups of Indians, responding to the aggressive American greed for their land, had voluntarily moved west. By 1823, however, it was clear that Manifest Destiny was driving land-hungry Americans west of the Mississippi and creating conflicts with the Indians in the region.
In 1823, some Choctaws were living in Arkansas and having conflicts with invading Americans. The Secretary of War convinced President James Monroe and Congress that the boundary for the new Choctaw lands in Arkansas must be renegotiated to avoid hardships for both the Indians and the non-Indians in the area. Congress appropriated funds for negotiations to alter the boundaries. While the Choctaws suggested that they meet in Washington with President James Monroe, the Secretary of War denied the request.
The American negotiators also attempted to meet with the Choctaw leaders in Mississippi to talk with them about moving west but were unsuccessful in arranging a meeting.
In 1823, a group of about 60 Cherokees under the leadership of Takatoka established a new village in Oklahoma. Takatoka was unhappy with the intrusion of non-Indians into Cherokee lands in Arkansas.
In Arkansas, Shawnee leader Captain Lewis met with the Cherokees and persuaded them to invite the Ohio Shawnees to join them west of the Mississippi.
During the first part of the nineteenth century there were a number of formal American expeditions to explore Indian country—a country which was very familiar to Indians, but unknown to most Americans. These expeditions and the reports which they generated were often part-marketing surveys in which they evaluated the economic potential of newly acquired lands, part-boosterism for the expansion of American territory, and part- justification for “taming the wilderness.”
In 1823, the United States sent an expedition led by Stephen Long to the Pembina region of North Dakota to gain information on the status of regional and international relations and Indian affairs. They found a settlement of about 350 people. In an article in North Dakota History, Lauren Ritterbush reports:
“Most of the inhabitants of Pembina were freemen and Métis who participated in large biannual bison hunts on the prairies and plains. The bison products were used directly or traded for merchandise from the fur traders and settlers at Pembina and the Forks.”
The expedition found that the boundary between the United States and Canada lay to the north of the settlement.
In North Dakota, the Yanktonai under the leadership of Waneta held a feast for the American explorer Stephen Long. The meal featured both buffalo and dog meat.
American explorers were never travelling through a wilderness, but followed well-used Indian trails. While the American explorers were ignorant of their surroundings and sometimes lost, Indians were not. In Minnesota, the Italian traveler Beltrami was impressed by the fact that the Sioux made maps on tree bark. He reported:
“These maps want only the degrees of latitude and longitude to be more correct than those of some of our visionary geographers.”
He also observed that the maps showed the number of days required to travel between points.
While the U.S. Constitution states that relationships with Indian nations are to be federal, the various states have preferred to ignore the Constitution and deal with Indians under state laws.
In 1823, the New York Court of Errors in a case involving an Oneida man, Chancellor James Kent insisted that Indians could not be United States citizens because of their tribal allegiance. The Court agreed.
In Virginia, the state legislature enacted a bill which allowed the Nottoway to sell their individual shares of their tribe’s reservation.
The State of Maine granted the Penobscot and the Passamaquoddy representation in the state legislature. The Indian representatives were allowed a voice in matters concerning Indians.
Reservations and Indian Lands
The United States followed the English colonial practice of apartheid in which Indians were to be segregated by establishing reservations for them. The United States also appointed non-Indians to administer the reservations.
In 1823, former Tennessee governor Joseph McMinn was appointed as Indian agent for the Cherokee in Georgia. From a Cherokee perspective it would have been difficult to find a worse choice. His first act was to ask for a tract of land so that a non-Indian tavern owner could build a home. The request was refused, but McMinn inviteed the tavern owner to build anyway.
In 1823, President James Monroe recognized the rights of the Oneida and other New York Indians to occupy the lands in Wisconsin which they purchased from the Menominee and Winnebago. The Menominee claimed that the land purchase was fraudulent as it had not been signed by a supreme chief and only a supreme chief had the right to sell their land. On the other hand, President James Monroe was under pressure from the Ogden Land Company which wanted the New York Indians to migrate so that the company could develop their New York lands.
More American Indian histories
Indians 201: Smallpox on the Upper Missouri in 1837
Indians 101: America's Christian General confronts the Nez Perce
Indians 201: The Indian Removal Act
Indians 101: A very short overview of Indian removal
Indians 101: American Indian battles and skirmishes 200 years ago, 1823
Indians 101: Indians nations and American governments 200 years ago, 1822
Indians 101: The Lame Cow War
Indians 201: Utah's Black Hawk War