Savages we call them, because their Manners differ from ours, which we think the Perfection of Civility; they think the same of theirs.—Benjamin Franklin, 17841

No state can achieve proper culture, civilization, and progress . . . as long as Indians are permitted to remain.

—Martin Van Buren, 18372

In the game of cultural change the winners usually discount or deny the wisdom they have stolen from the losers.

—William Appleman Williams, 19803

ANYONE GLANCING AT A MAP of the Thirteen Colonies that became the United States will be struck by how small the white presence still was in the mid-eighteenth century, a generation before their independence4. Halfway in time between the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the departure of George W. Bush, British America was merely a seaboard strip about a thousand miles long and one or two hundred miles deep. Its claims were much grander—but the area under effective control was not much bigger than the British Isles.

With the Dutch conquered and the Puritans tamed in the mid-1670s, Britain’s only European rivals in America were the French immediately to the north and the Spaniards to the south. Spain was too weak to be much of a headache, but France—England’s perennial foe—had the garrison towns of Montreal and Quebec plus a loose string of trading forts along the Great Lakes and down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The European powers’ jockeying for advantage (exacerbated by their endless wars in Europe) relied on alliances with the indigenous American peoples of the interior, especially those whose territories adjoined the settler fringe. As the action slowly shifted westward, a sporadic three-way conflict—known as the French and Indian War—burned up and down the Appalachian foothills from the Great Lakes to Georgia for a century. The ultimate winner would be a new nation—the United States—leaving France expelled, the Indians shattered, and Britain with the consolation prize of Canada.

The heart of this struggle was what is now upstate New York, where the “famous Confederation of the Iroquois,” as Tocqueville wrote, “held the balance of power between the two greatest European nations.”5 Like their cousins visited by Jacques Cartier in the 1530s, the Iroquois, often called the League of Five Nations, were farming people with large fortified towns. One pre-Columbian building unearthed near their ancient capital at Onondaga was more than 300 feet long, and there were many such longhouses in each important settlement. 6 Metaphorically, the League was itself a great Longhouse stretching from the Hudson to Lake Erie, with five families under one roof: the Mohawk Nation at the “eastern door” near Albany, the Seneca at the “western door” near Niagara and the Onondaga in the middle, with the small Oneida and Cayuga nations in between.7Internally, the League was a democracy governed by a federal council with fifty seats. Externally, it behaved like a small empire, manipulating allies and vassals from Quebec to Kentucky and from New England to Ohio.8

The Iroquois could not halt the settler invasion forever, but they slowed it down in their part of America for a hundred years. The outcome could have been foretold from numbers alone. The white population of the Thirteen Colonies grew, by birth and inflow, from a quarter million in 1700 to more than 5 million in 1800, a twentyfold rise in one century.9 The indigenous population east of the Mississippi plummeted from perhaps half a million in 1760 to nearly nothing in one lifetime-from disease, warfare, some assimilation, and finally the ethnic cleansing known as the Indian Removal of the 1830s.10 The “winning” of America took place on this one-way demographic seesaw.

Before Old World pandemics reached the Great Lakes in the sixteenth century, the Iroquois alone may have numbered several hundred thousand.11 They had fallen below seventy-five thousand by the 1630s, when smallpox struck again. “The Indians,” wrote a Dutch lawyer who settled near Albany in 1641, “affirm that before the arrival of the Christians . . . they were ten times as numerous as they now are.”12 The Iroquois Confederacy tried to keep its numbers up by assimilating both friend and foe. In the 1640s it conquered its Huron cousins and brought most of them into the Longhouse.13 Some eighty years later, the Tuscarora joined voluntarily, making the Five Nations into Six. And quite a few Europeans, whether captives, traders or refugees, were also adopted into Iroquois families. Such whites were apt to go native; as Benjamin Franklin remarked, “in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and . . . there is no reclaiming them.”14

Throughout the eighteenth century, the old and new Americans profoundly influenced each other at all social levels. In his groundbreaking historical essay of 1893, the young Frederick Jackson Turner argued: “The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West.” By the West, Turner meant the frontier, burning slowly across the continent from the Appalachians in the eighteenth century to the Rockies in the next. In this “crucible,” he wrote, “the immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race, English in neither nationality nor characteristics.”15

Much of that liberation came by example. Anyone who had dealings with native people could see their political and social liberties in action: open debate, the rule of consensus and even—when agreement could not be reached on a serious matter—the right to secede, though many of these American freedoms had grown up, like the woods, after the scythe of smallpox.16

The Five (later Six) Nations Confederacy may well have been the oldest and most structured democracy in North America. Certainly, this polity was better understood by white Americans than any other, and its influence on their development was considerable. In later years its workings would make a deep impression on Marx, Engels and Victorian feminists.17

At an important conference held at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, between several colonies and native nations in 1744, the Iroquois statesman Canasatego—a tall, brawny man of sixty with a winning smile and crafty wit, a veteran of wrangles with the Quaker State—came face to face with Benjamin Franklin, then thirty-eight, later to become famous as an inventor and founding statesman of the American republic.18 Like many Bostonians of drive and ability, Franklin had fled the Puritan backwater for Philadelphia, at that time the biggest city in North America. There he became a newspaperman and government printer, work that took him to treaty meetings, where “linguisters” translated the imposing Indian speeches on the spot. It was Franklin’s job to make and publish the official transcriptions.19

Speaking for the Five Nations, Canasatego became exasperated by the bickering among the various colonies. He suggested, a little condescendingly, that the English might do well to emulate his people:

We heartily recommend Union and a good agreement between you. . . . Our wise forefathers established union and amity between the Five Nations; this has made us formidable; this has given us great weight and authority with our neighbouring nations. We are a powerful Confederacy; and, by your observing the same methods our wise forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh strength and power.20

Franklin took Canasatego’s remarks to heart and began studying native political culture. Eventually he promoted the Iroquois model at the Albany Congress of 1754, when the French and Indian War was coming to a head. “It would be a very strange thing,” he wrote, “if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union, and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages . . . and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies.”21

Although the Albany delegates agreed to form a union, the scheme was thrown out by their assemblies and the British government. Federation would not take root until late in Franklin’s life, when he helped draw up both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. By the time the latter was written in 1787, the Six Nations had been broken and overrun. Their influence was never formally acknowledged, and the new Americans did not follow the Iroquois model as closely as Franklin had wished.22

Yet one memorial to the Iroquois can be seen wherever the United States does business under its Great Seal. The symbol of the Five Nations’ combined strength was an eagle clasping five arrows in its talons. The United States raised the number of arrows to thirteen and put Latin in the bird’s mouth: E PLURIBUS UNUM. Along with these Roman words and a Masonic pyramid stamped on each dollar bill, the filched eagle became a fitting emblem for the settlers’ hybrid empire.23

The Albany Congress went awry in several ways, and the war with the French fared no better. As commander-in-chief, London sent out General Braddock, a military man of a familiar kind: arrogant, none too bright, impervious to good advice. George Washington, for one, tried to impress on him the importance of native troops, worth more “than twice their number of white men.”24

Braddock took no notice. His contempt for both Indians and colonials cost him his life within a year, when the French routed him at Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh). The Iroquois were blunt about the cause of the defeat: “It was the pride and ignorance of that great general that came from England. . . . He looked upon us as dogs and would never hear anything that was said to him.”25

For a while, the British took heed, setting up a commission of Indian Affairs to liaise with the two centres of native power: the Six Nations in the North and the Cherokee Nation in the South. The northern commissioner was Sir William Johnson, who had lived in the Mohawk Valley near Albany since arriving from Ireland as a young trader in the 1730s. Johnson was a chameleon, a Catholic turned Protestant, a cultured man who paid bounty for French scalps. He soon learned Mohawk, mastered indigenous protocol—which took some doing among the ceremonious Iroquois—and found time for “Pleasures with the brown Ladies,” which made for good politics among the matrilineal Iroquois. Johnson owed much of his success to his Mohawk wife, Molly Brant.26

After their unhappy experience with General Braddock, most of the Six Nations did their best to stay neutral. But the Great Longhouse was starting to show structural cracks, especially at the Mohawk end, where British influence was strongest. Leading families such as the Brants lived in English-style houses, attended church and sent their children to boarding school. Molly’s young brother Joseph, who would fight the American rebels and later take half the Confederacy to Canada, spent his quieter hours translating the Bible into Mohawk from the Greek.27 With Molly’s connections, Johnson managed to draw the Mohawks and some Senecas back into England’s war against the French. Helped by these Iroquois at Niagara and on the St. Lawrence, British forces took Quebec City in 1759. With the capitulation of Montreal in 1760, New France came to an end.

With only one foreign power left standing in America, the native nations’ leverage as buffer-states was also at an end. They began to fear that the English would now turn on them, to make room for settlers. Unease turned to alarm when Braddock’s successor, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, broke every commitment that had been made to Indian allies during the recent war. On Amherst’s orders—and to Johnson’s dismay—debts were not paid, supplies were not delivered, and squatters were not controlled.

Many Indians had lost farms and homes in the fighting. Starving, desperate and angry, they became susceptible to an apocalyptic message. A Delaware prophet called Neolin, the Enlightened, received warnings from the Master of Life: the Creator had made America for the Indians, but they would soon lose it unless they returned to traditional ways and beliefs. They had to give up European goods, especially alcohol, stop killing animals for foreign exchange, and unite against the invader:

The land on which you are, I have made for you, not for others. . . . Do not sell to [the whites] that which I have placed on the earth as food. . . . Put off entirely from yourselves the customs which you have adopted since the white people came among us; you are to return to that former happy state, in which we lived in peace and plenty, before these strangers came.28

This message was a classic crisis-cult, a call for holy war in desperate times—an American equivalent of the Jewish uprisings against Rome, the Puritan revolt in England or today’s jihads against the west. The Ottawa chief Pontiac and others, including some Iroquois, held talks on a united stand to reconquer North America—a feat that still seemed possible. Those who had been to Europe on diplomatic missions knew better: the number of whites in England, some Cherokees reported, “far exceeded what we thought possibly could be.”29 These cooler heads might have prevailed if the full extent of British betrayal hadn’t come to light in the spring of 1763, when London signed a peace treaty with Paris in which native interests were ignored.

Pontiac’s War began in May—and the native forces initially prevailed. By summer’s end, four hundred white soldiers and two thousand settlers were dead. Nine forts fell, leaving only Pitt and Detroit in British hands.30

The Indians’ “treachery” soon cleared away white scruples about conquest and extermination. In language echoing Samuel Purchas, Colonel Henry Bouquet wrote to Amherst that he planned to “extirpate that Vermine from a Country they have forfeited, and with it all claim to the Rights of Humanity.” He suggested infecting the Indians with smallpox. Amherst liked the idea, immediately ordering Bouquet to “innoculate [infect] the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race.”

Indian leaders besieging Fort Pitt were invited to talk beneath a flag of truce and there bestowed with a deadly gift—bedding taken from smallpox victims. Biological warfare was not new—diseased corpses had been lobbed over castle walls throughout the Middle Ages. But by the 1760s, the epidemiology of smallpox was well understood: Jeffrey Amherst and Henry Bouquet must take the blame for the first modern use of germs in war. There can be no doubt that Amherst’s objective was genocide. He followed up with a letter to Sir William Johnson, threatening the “Whole Race of Indians” with a “Stop to their very Being.”31

The disease did its usual work, undermining the native war effort. It also helped Johnson, with his wife Molly’s help, to talk most of the Six Nations into staying neutral. In return, he engineered the removal of Amherst and persuaded George III to address native concerns in the Royal Proclamation of October 7, 1763. This key document set a borderline between white and Indian America along the crest of the Appalachian chain.32 From that day forth, King George decreed, there would be no more squatter invasions and no land cessions, except at the international level between native leaders and the Crown.

The Royal Proclamation would eventually become the legal basis for most of the treaties, reservations and indigenous rights in the United States and Canada. Its immediate effect, however, was to heighten settler unrest. In several of the original charters, written when Europeans had no notion of North America’s great breadth, the Crown had granted colonies the right to grow westward to the Pacific. The Proclamation now withdrew this right and confined white America within bounds that only the Crown and the Indians could change. This time it was white Americans who felt the sting of British betrayal.

Just three months after the Proclamation was issued, a white vigilante mob known as the Paxton Boys vented their rage by burning and scalping twenty Conestoga Indians—the entire population of a peaceful mission village near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Some died in a dawn firebombing on December 14; others were sheltered in the local workhouse by friendly whites, mainly Quakers. Two days after Christmas, the Paxton Boys broke in and killed them, including children. The mob then went on to Philadelphia, intent on ridding the city of Indians. Franklin himself helped calm the riot; later, in a courageous essay, he denounced the killers as “Christian White Savages.”33

New land was America’s safety valve, the last great hope for those outflanked by quicker, luckier and wealthier citizens.34 Today America’s poor are consoled—some say deluded—by the notion that the economic pie, however unfairly sliced, is always growing, that one day it will be their turn to win the lottery, that they are not an exploited proletariat but, as John Steinbeck put it, “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”35

Many a frontier family lived in a state of fitful but perpetual motion, homesteading for only a few years before pulling up their shallow roots and moving on, choosing Indians over law-men, and leaving creditors behind. “Settlers” is hardly the right word for them: rather, they were the true nomads, foot soldiers of the conquest machine first let loose at Jamestown.36 “Marching before the immense European family of whom he forms as it were the advance guard,” Tocqueville noted, “the pioneer . . . builds his rustic hut and waits till the first chance of war opens his way to new wilds.”37

It was not only the backwoodsmen who stood to lose by an end to “free” land. Big survey and holding companies were usually ahead of the small fry. One of the richest prizes on the frontier was the Ohio Country to the west of Pennsylvania and Virginia, the site of many ancient temple mounds.38 As far back as 1747, the Washington family and other wealthy Virginians had formed the Ohio Land Company to penetrate the region, deal in furs and speculate in any Indian property they could alienate.39 The young George Washington, who had trained as a surveyor, joined this and other ventures beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains—land unceded by its native owners and all on the wrong side of what became the Royal Proclamation line. To complicate matters, there were also overlapping claims among the Indian nations: both the Six Nations and the Cherokees claimed sway over most of Kentucky.

Shortly before the American Revolution, Washington confided to a colleague: “I can never look upon that proclamation in any other light (but I say this between ourselves) than as a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians.”40 Indeed, once the Revolutionary War had ended, the hardest currency available to pension off veterans and pay the rebels’ debt was Indian land.

The Revolution claimed not only the land of America and some of its native political ideas but also the very word American. Around this time, American ceased to mean the indigenous people of the continent (like Asian or African) and was taken up self-consciously by the invaders. English settlers became Americans in the same way that Dutch Boers in South Africa became Afrikaners.

In his well-known essay “What Is an American?” a self-styled but not entirely honest “American Farmer” spread the new meaning:

What then is the American, this new man? He is either an European, or the descendant of an European . . . who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced. . . . Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east. . . . The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles. . . . Here the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labour; his labour is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest.41

Here are the key ingredients of the American Dream: love of the new and dismissal of the old; invaders presented as “pilgrims”; hard work both rewarded and required; and selfishness as natural law—social Darwinism avant la lettre.42

The author, who went by the alias Hector Saint John, told his readers that he was a man of little education born to English pioneers in Pennsylvania, a simple tiller of the earth. He had no regrets, he claimed, for never setting eyes on Europe, for he was more than satisfied with America, where “everything is modern, peaceful, and benign.”43 In truth, he was a French aristocrat from Normandy, like his later compatriot Alexis de Tocqueville. Hector Saint John was really Michel-Guillaume Saint-Jean de Crèvecoeur, and he had moved from New France to New York in shadowy circumstances after the French and Indian War.44 Ten years later he married well and bought a farm in lower New York state. It was not Pennsylvania nor a clearing in the wilds, but a going concern. One also wonders how much personal sweat flowed from a man who, while railing against Southern slavery, let slip: “My negroes are tolerably faithful and healthy.”45

Crèvecoeur was no worse in this hypocrisy than the writers of the Declaration of Independence, many of whom owned Africans. America’s wealth and freedom would be built on the slaughter of one race and the enslavement of another. It isn’t hard to see how Crèvecoeur could insulate his soul from the chilly underdraught of moral inconsistencies when writing such a banner page in the settler mythology. But his American dream was written a year before the American Revolution. How could he have been so unaware—as he later claimed—of the unrest in the society he idealized?

History would later regard the 1776 Revolution as a bold uprising against tyranny, but to many at the time—including Crèvecoeur in his afterthoughts—it seemed a bloody and squalid civil war.46 As in America’s next civil war (then eighty-five years in the future), brothers ran to rival flags and made each other traitors; farms and towns were set ablaze; white men scalped one another.47

Like George H. Bush (“I don’t care what the facts are”), Crèvecoeur had a gift for self-deception. But soon he could no longer find perfection, peace or even safety among his fellow whites. In his last essay, “Distresses of a Frontier Man,” he transfers his vision of an earthly paradise from the new Americans to the old, switching horses at full gallop from the noble settler to the Noble Savage. He will take his wife and young ones to a quiet Indian town far from “the accursed neighbourhood of Europeans,” where the original Americans “live with more ease, decency, and peace, than you imagine.”48

What Crèvecoeur actually did was leave his wife and children on the farm and flee to Manhattan, where he was flung in jail by British authorities certain that the odd fish they had caught must be a spy. After a few months behind bars, he managed to make his way to London, where he sold his essays to a publisher. From there he went home to France, kept his head down (and on) during the Terror, and later became an admirer of Napoleon.

Crèvecoeur was no Tocqueville. Yet from a hodge-podge of anecdote, wishful thinking and outright boosterism, he made a kind of mythic truth: not what America really was, but what America wanted and still wants to be—“the most perfect society in the world.”49

While some white Americans of the day saw independence as the making of an ideal republic, the more pragmatic knew it was the takeover of British imperialism in North America by local management, unshackled from London’s restraints: in George Washington’s words, “a rising empire.”50

Most Indians saw the faraway Crown as their main hope against the unruly settlers. The Iroquois Confederacy tried to stay neutral, but its government was crippled when smallpox struck its capital at Onondaga.51 Thereafter, four of the Six Nations sided with the British, two with the new Americans.

In the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War, Britain yet again abandoned her native allies. “We are . . . as it were between two Hells,” wrote Joseph Brant, who had led the Mohawks and others on the losing side. His only recourse was to take his followers to Canada, where their descendants live to this day.52

The Iroquois who took the rebel side fared no better. At the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784, the Americans (from here on I will use the word in its modern sense) refused to observe native protocol, avoiding the terms brothernation or “any other form which would revive or seem to confirm their former ideas of independence.”53 The United States took the view that it had conquered all Indians, allies or not, and that native title in America was void. Moreover, like the Pequot in the past and the Apache in the future, the Indian was cast as the bestial aggressor: “The savage,” George Washington wrote, was like the wolf, “both being animals of prey though they differ in shape.”54

The settlers took most of the lands of the Great Longhouse. The former owners were left on a small archipelago of grim reservations, where poverty, hopelessness, alcoholism and suicide became endemic. By the 1790s the once-mighty Confederacy had fallen to a tenth of its strength only a century before.55

With the Iroquois down (though not quite out), the burden of defence fell on the peoples of the Old Northwest—the Ohio Country—who, a generation earlier, had been the backbone of Pontiac’s army. These united and challenged the white republic’s claim to have conquered America. In 1791 they destroyed two-thirds of the United States’ regular army; more than six hundred American troops died, while the Indians lost only twenty-one.56

Even before this disaster, Washington’s secretary of war, Henry Knox, a clever man experienced in Indian matters, had realized that native military power could not be crushed without a huge expenditure of lives and treasure.57 He accepted that the nations on the frontier and beyond were still sovereign, and he understood that the main cause of warfare was encroachment by white settlers. He also believed that the United States had a moral duty not to exterminate its indigenous neighbours, if only to protect its own good name: “If our modes of population and War destroy the tribes . . . mankind and posterity will be apt to class the effects of our Conduct [with] that of the Spaniards in Mexico and Peru.”58

Knox did not mean that the United States should cease to expand. Rather, the federal government should press the Indians to cede land by peaceful means, offering them “civilization” and assimilation in return. This approach was in the Enlightenment school of Jefferson, who had written optimistically in 1786, “Not a foot of land will ever be taken from the Indians without their own consent.”59 It also reflected a realpolitik that today seems astonishing: a handful of small native polities between the Proclamation line and the Mississippi had been able to check the military expansion of several million whites.60

The checkmate would not stand for many years, but it was enough to force a change in national policy.61 In the early 1790s, Congress passed the Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts—its own version of the Royal Proclamation, recognizing the sovereignty of Indian nations and ruling that land could be acquired only by treaties with the federal government. At the same time, Jefferson’s idea of civilizing the Indians became official policy. The goal was now “expansion with honor.”62

Civilization meant acculturation on the Euro-American model, with private property, single-family houses, commercial agriculture, the English language and, not least, the Christian religion. Native Americans had little objection to adopting some of these things. Their cultures were far from static or isolated: they had long been expert with firearms and steel; they had supplemented their own agriculture with orchards and hogs; they were also skilled in trade.63 Some whites lived amicably with the Indians; some Indians lived and worked in white cities. Native leaders were far from rustic: many had visited New York, Montreal, Philadelphia, London and Paris on diplomatic business. 64 Others, like Squanto long before, had made less pleasant but no less instructive journeys as prisoners and slaves.65 In short, the old Americans were well informed on the new Americans’ way of life and open to cultural change on their own terms.

Key discussions took place at Philadelphia in 1792, where the Iroquois were addressed by the new nation’s president, George Washington himself, now chastened enough to follow native protocol. Presenting a white wampum belt, symbolic of peace, the president began:

Sachems and Warriors of the Five [sic] Nations: I assure you that I am desirous that a firm peace should exist, not only between the United States and the Five Nations, but also between the United States and all the nations of this land—and that this peace should be founded upon the principles of justice and humanity . . . [and] that you may partake of all the comforts of this earth, which can be derived from civilized life, enriched by the possession of industry, virtue and knowledge.66

Washington was answered by the Seneca traditionalist Red Jacket (Sagoyewatha), a stern, thin-lipped man renowned in his day as “a statesman of sagacity, and an orator of even surpassing eloquence.”67 He began by underscoring Washington’s renewed recognition of native sovereignty, then gave a wary welcome to the civilizing scheme:

The president, in effect, observed to us that we of the Five Nations were our own proprietors—were freemen, and might speak with freedom. This has gladdened our hearts. . . .

The president further observed to us that by our continuing to walk in the path of peace, and hearkening to his counsel, we might share with you the blessings of civilized life. . . . To you, therefore, we look to make provision that the same may be enjoyed by our children. This wish comes from our heart, but we add that our happiness cannot be great if in the introduction of your ways we are put under too much constraint.68

Red Jacket did not object to ploughs and oxen, but he was unimpressed by white beliefs. When, some years later, a preacher from the Massachusetts Evangelical Missionary Society told the Senecas that he had come to “enlighten their minds” about the one true religion, Red Jacket gave a withering reply: “If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it?”69

The best welcome for the civilizing program came from five ancient peoples at the southern end of the Appalachian chain—the Creeks, Seminoles, Chickasaws, Choctaws and above all the Cherokees. Known to history as the Five Civilized Tribes, these are not to be confused with the Iroquois Five Nations (though the Cherokees were distantly related to them). The Philadelphian naturalist William Bartram, who travelled extensively among the Creeks and Cherokees in the 1770s, was ahead of his time in recognizing that they already had “the refinements of true civilization, which cannot, in the least degree, be attributed to the good examples of the white people.”70 He also noted the Indians’ genial character, orderly towns, lack of domestic violence and strict laws against alcohol.71

The leap to civilization was therefore not nearly as fundamental a change as most whites imagined: it was more like adding a new storey in European style to an existing structure.72 As early as 1806, Thomas Jefferson (who was then president) had told an English diplomat that he thought “the Cherokees would in a very short time be civilized enough to be allowed a representative in Congress.”73

Despite many misfortunes since Hernando de Soto had made his unwelcome visit to their forebears, these Southern peoples occupied broadly the same territories as they had in the 1540s—often building their town halls atop ancestral mounds.74 They still spoke the same languages, built the same houses, played the same sports and kept many of the same ethnic and place names. Soto’s Chalaque were the Cherokee, his Chicaza the Chickasaw and so forth.75 Although the kingdom of Cofitachiqui with its Lady and pearls had disappeared, the Creek Nation may have been a direct descendant.

The economic and political pattern that had worked, more or less, for most of the eighteenth century was beginning to unravel. Like the Iroquois, the Southern nations had lost land and numbers in the endless wars, especially the Revolution. Most of their leaders therefore resolved to take the United States at its word: to win peace, security and survival by adopting the civilization of the newcomers.

President Jefferson held out a seductive vision of a mestizo North America: “The day will soon come,” he told a gathering of Indians in 1808, “when you will unite yourselves with us, join in our great councils, and form a people with us, and we shall all be Americans; you will mix with us by marriage; your blood will run in our veins and will spread with us over this great continent.”76 Some may have regarded this invitation as patronizing (Why should they stir themselves into the invaders’ melting pot to “spread across” a continent that had always been theirs?), but at least it wasn’t racist, exclusionary or genocidal except by absorption. Indeed, a mixed society was already burgeoning on the frontier. Some Indian families had white blood; some backwoodsmen had native wives.77 In material culture, the two peoples were becoming much alike, even in dress—young ladies were said to be distracted by the sight of sinewy white lads wearing buckskin breechclouts and little else to church.78 Both races lived in “the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois,” ate American foods and hunted and fought in the same way, including the lightweight form of headhunting known as scalping.79

These were violent times, not only in America. Enraged Indians sometimes took terrible revenge on innocents; white Americans did so too. The difference, as always, was that the Europeans were the invaders and most often the instigators. The Duc de La Rochefoucauld, a French social reformer who toured the Southern frontier in the 1790s, concluded that the whites “are in the wrong four times out of five.”80

Where the two cultures differed sharply was in ideology. Whites were Christians; most Indians were not. The settlers held, or claimed to hold, their land as private property; the Indians owned all land in common, though buildings and other improvements belonged to those who made them. And while Indians had deep spiritual and ethnic ties to the land, whites were always alive to greener grass and the main chance.

Notwithstanding his talk of an inclusive and just nation, President Jefferson (who, for all his enlightenment, was a slaveholder and often argued both sides of a case with equal eloquence) privately admitted to less lofty motives behind the civilizing scheme. Once Indians had become livestock owners on private plots, he wrote in 1803, they wouldn’t need their hunting grounds and could be ensnared in the tender trap of debt:

To promote this disposition to exchange lands which they have to spare and we want . . . we shall push our trading houses, and be glad to see the good and influential individuals among them run in debt, because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands.81

When debt alone was insufficient, bribery and corruption often did the job. Failing that, individual ownership would eventually be imposed by federal law in 1887, when the nations driven to the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) were, in violation of all the Removal treaties, dismantled into private holdings by the Dawes Allotment Act—frankly described by Theodore Roosevelt as “a mighty pulverising engine to break up the tribal mass.”82

Jefferson’s words of two hundred years ago also help explain modern America’s deep hostility to all forms of ownership and law that try to withstand the alkahest of commerce. When the conflict arose inside western civilization—with labour’s challenge to capital—no nation would show a greater dread of socialism than the United States. Today, some on the American right still denounce mainstream social democracies, including those of Canada and Europe, as “communistic”—a laughable charge beyond the overheated air of neoconservative think tanks. Collectivity was savagery: like the red man himself, it was the red menace of its day. The Indians, wrote Senator Dawes of his Allotment Act, lacked “selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization.”83

Just as the two World Wars between 1914 and 1945 can be seen as a single great war with a long intermission, so the American Revolution had its second and decisive act a generation later.84 Often seen as a fight between Britain and the United States, the War of 1812 was also the final showdown between militant Eastern Indians, led by Tecumseh, and white Americans for mastery of the continent’s future. The progressive Indians—those who had opted to take the United States at its word—regarded Tecumseh as a dangerous agitator who would bring ruin upon all. The militants, mainly traditionalists and young men eager to fight encroachment, saw him as a deliverer.

But it wasn’t only the Indian nations who had split into factions. American militants—mainly Southerners and backwoods Westerners known as War Hawks—were fighting government efforts to restrain settler invasions of native land. There was even talk among them of exterminating the Indians and setting up a second white republic beyond the reach of the federal government with its irksome humanitarian concerns.85 The United States was splitting into the two cultures that still contend within it: educated, establishment Easterners and illiterate, isolated, hard men of the hinterland, many of whom fit Franklin’s epithet, White Savages. The Hawks also wanted to finish the job of evicting their former overlord from North America. “On to Canada!” became their war cry.86

Ever since President Jefferson had bought Louisiana (much larger than the modern state) from a cash-strapped Napoleon in 1803, the stakes had begun to rise. By extinguishing French claims to the unconquered Mississippi watershed, the Louisiana Purchase aroused appetites for expansion—especially the westward spread of slavery.87 It was also a potential dumping ground to which all Indians who rejected integration could be “removed.” This last idea had been one of Jefferson’s own reasons for the purchase. He may have been sincere in proposing it only as a voluntary option; others were not.

By 1813, when Tecumseh was killed near the Canadian border, the South had already become the main theatre of the war. The Creek Nation, which held most of what is now the state of Alabama, had split in two.88 Militant Creeks had allied themselves with Tecumseh and opened a Southern front against the Americans. In August 1813, near Mobile, where their ancestors had fought Soto long before, they burned Fort Mims and slaughtered several hundred whites.89

Reckoning that the United States would win against Britain once more, and fearing their own militants, the Creek establishment, their neighbours the Cherokees and the other Southern nations sent regiments to support the United States. Their leaders were commissioned as officers under the command of Andrew Jackson, “a tall, lank, uncouth-looking personage . . . [an] impetuous, self-willed Scotch-Irish leader of men.” At the time Jackson was barely fit to travel—let alone make war—because he was nursing a gunshot wound from one of his habitual duels, this with his own brother Jesse in a Nashville tavern.90

The decisive battle came at Horseshoe Bend in March 1814.91 It would be the last great engagement between Indians and the United States east of the Mississippi.92 With an overwhelming force, including Sam Houston and Davy Crockett (both to become famous in Texas years later), Jackson took the Creeks’ stronghold and paid them back for Fort Mims at double rate.93 Nine hundred Indians died, including women and children. 94 Jackson took an accurate count by having his men snip the noses off the dead, many of whom were also skinned by the whites to make trophy belts and bridles.

At a vindictive peace treaty, Jackson forced the whole Creek Nation, including his allies, to cede 23 million acres—half the future state of Alabama.95 For good measure he took 2 million acres from his other allies, the Cherokees.96

The Creek War and his defeat of the British at New Orleans would launch Andrew Jackson’s political career. In 1829 he became the first Westerner in the White House, elected on a platform to remove all Indians from the United States. A land speculator, lawyer, cotton planter, slave owner and fighter, Jackson had spent most of his life in the state of Tennessee, itself wrested from the Cherokee Nation only a dozen years before he settled there.97

Jackson’s defenders see him as a rugged democrat—a champion of the small man, especially the frontiersman, against the Eastern establishment. For his detractors, not least Tocqueville, who toured America during his term in office, Jackson was a shallow and unscrupulous demagogue—the first of a presidential line that leads to Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Jackson’s legacy includes the “spoils” system—the giving of top government posts to unelected cronies, known in his day as the “Kitchen Cabinet.” As a Bostonian wryly told Tocqueville in 1831, “It took long and patient work to put it into the head of the public that General Jackson was a great man.”98

After the war, both the whites and the Five Civilized Tribes had carried on building their nations. People of goodwill on both sides still hoped that the old and new Americans could find a way to coexist. There still seemed room and time. In the two centuries that had passed since Jamestown, the Europeans had moved inland only a few hundred miles. Had they continued to move west at the same rate for the next two centuries, the United States might barely occupy the Mississippi Valley today.

But everything was about to change. The precious metals and crops of the Americas had been transforming the world. They were about to yield the biggest payoff in history: industrialization, steam-powered imperialism and a population boom almost everywhere except among indigenous Americans. During the half-century before 1830, the Cherokee Nation managed to rebuild its numbers from ten thousand to sixteen thousand people. In just twenty years before 1830, however, the settler population of Mississippi and Alabama rose from forty thousand to more than four hundred thousand. During the 1820s nearly three hundred steamboats were launched on the Mississippi and its tributaries. Meanwhile, the Americans were digging great canals to make an inland waterway from the Hudson to the Gulf of Mexico.99

The progressives in the Five Civilized Tribes saw progress itself as their only chance of survival. Yet even though some were of mixed blood, they did not intend to disappear by assimilation. The leaders wanted to modernize in a way that would keep their nations intact—as small sovereign countries, as self-governing protectorates (like those within Europe and the British Empire) or as native states within the American union. I shall focus on the case of the Cherokees, the last of the five peoples to be uprooted and driven west in a death march that became known as the Trail of Tears.

By the early 1800s, the Cherokees in particular were beginning to beat the Americans at their own game. Chief Vann, their wealthiest citizen, owned a foundry, several river ferries, 1,100 peach trees, more than 50 black slaves, 6 barns and one of the best brick houses in what is now Georgia.100He never became a Christian, and the land he farmed belonged to the Cherokee Nation, but his life in other respects resembled that of a thriving Southern planter.101

Vann and his like led the transition from traditional societies to nationhood on a Euro-American model, with legislatures, police forces, schools and, in the Cherokee case, a bilingual newspaper. By 1810 the Cherokees had their first written constitution and a Light Horse Guard to settle disputes and evict white squatters. By the mid-1820s they had built a modern capital, New Echota, with an assembly, a supreme court and a printing press.102 They had codified their laws, adopted a constitution and invented a script for their language. In wealth, education and good order, they had surpassed the frontier society around them. The rate of adult literacy was higher in the Cherokee Nation than in the United States.103

On an Eastern speaking tour in 1826, Elias Boudinot (Kuhleganah Watie), a fastidious, brilliant and devout young man who ran the Cherokee newspaper, outlined his people’s success: “At this time [we have] 22,000 cattle; 7,600 horses; 46,000 swine; 2,500 sheep; 2,488 spinning wheels; 172 waggons; 2,943 ploughs [and] 18 schools.” Yes, he concluded hopefully, “I can view my native country . . . taking her seat with the nations of the earth.”104

The Enlightenment era, personified in America by Franklin and Jefferson, had regarded all men as created equal, at least in theory.105 In 1785 Jefferson had written, “I believe the Indian to be in body and mind equal to the white man.”106 Francisco de Miranda, a Venzuelan who travelled the seaboard in the 1780s, wrote of Indians and blacks that they “were as apt for anything as anyone else . . . the rational being is the same in whatever form.”107 Sam Houston, who had been adopted by the Cherokees in his youth, said: “These Indians are not inferior to white men. John Ridge [Boudinot’s cousin] was not inferior in point of genius to John Randolph.”108

Such views were falling out of fashion in the early nineteenth century, as the logic of slavery and imperialism wrought a change in white attitudes to other races.109 Under attack from abolitionists, slaveholders justified their “peculiar institution” on the grounds that black people were not fully human. From there it was a short step to conclude that anyone with a dark skin was genetically inferior. Many Americans came to believe that their Promised Land was “a white man’s country,” that both Indians and Africans should be expelled.110 When Boudinot married a white woman in Connecticut, the townsfolk called her a “squaw” and burned the couple in effigy.

The pressure on the Civilized Tribes became openly racist. In a congressional debate on Jackson’s 1830 Removal Bill, Senator Forsyth of Georgia argued that Indians could be “treated somewhat like human beings, but not admitted to be freemen.”111 A Vermont lawyer—echoing the victors at Mystic, whether he knew it or not—wrote that “Indians’ bones must enrich the soil before the plough of civilized man can open it.”112 President Jackson told Congress that Indians “have neither the intelligence . . . the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement.”113

To justify its policy of ethnic cleansing, America had to deny the fact of Indian achievement and even destroy the evidence. As if to prove that Indians were “not made for civilization,” the Georgia Guard wrecked the Cherokee printing press.114 The real problem, of course, was that the more the Civilized Tribes progressed on white terms, the more they competed with the white republic.115 And as the Indians filled their territory with thriving farms and good houses, they aroused ever more white greed. Why conquer a wilderness when one could take over a ready-made estate? While the politicians schemed, Georgians began to sing:

All I want in this Creation 

Is a pretty little wife and a big plantation 

Way up north in the Cherokee Nation.116

The U.S. Constitution had made Indian affairs an exclusively federal jurisdiction. The central government also adopted a policy of adding new states to the Union as white settlement moved west, rather than letting old states grow westward indefinitely, as some founding charters from the British Crown had implied. To get Georgia to give up her “right” of endless growth, the Union had paid the state more than a million dollars in 1802.117 The federal government had also pledged that it would acquire Indian lands within the state’s new boundaries when and if this could be done “peaceably [and] on reasonable terms.”118 In 1802 there had seemed plenty of time to fulfill this promise, to achieve “expansion with honour.”

Because the United States recognized Indian nations as independent jurisdictions, state boundaries were imaginary lines where they crossed native territory. The Cherokee Nation was not, and never had been, Georgia, but Georgia refused to see it that way. Emboldened by the outcome of the Creek War and aroused by the agricultural boom that followed the invention of the cotton gin, the state grew impatient of the federal government’s “failure” to oust the Cherokees and part of the neighbouring Creek Nation.119

Indian expulsion became one of the bitterest disputes between centre and periphery, the Union and the South. Others were the future of slavery and “nullification,” the supposed right of a state to opt out of any federal law or tax with which it didn’t agree. Was the Union a single nation with indivisible sovereignty or was it merely a loose alliance of sovereign states? These questions would be settled a generation later on the battlefields of the Civil War.

Historians have debated who was the more to blame for what happened to the Five Civilized Tribes: Jackson or the Southern states? James Mooney, the great ethnographer who studied the question when events were still in living memory, described Andrew Jackson as “an Indian hater” and thought “there is good ground for believing that the action at once taken by Georgia [after his election] was at his own suggestion.”120

Jackson himself called the final expulsion of Indians “the leading measure” of his administration.121 Within months of his taking office in January 1829, the Southern states unleashed an avalanche of anti-Indian legislation. None of it had a sound basis in American law, but it was an effective harassment technique, enabling the states to arrest native leaders and sympathetic whites at will.122 In 1829 Alabama subjected the Creek Nation to its laws; in 1830 Mississippi banned any Indian from even calling himself a chief. At the same time, Georgia enacted laws to dissolve the Cherokee Nation, prevent its parliament from meeting and bar Indians from testifying in state courts, even in their own defence.123 “Tyrannical measures,” Tocqueville wrote, “have been adopted by the legislatures of the Southern States. . . . it is intended to force [the Indians] to recede by reducing them to despair.”124

The hunger of poor whites for land was only a part of the pressure. Perhaps more important were speculation (in which Jackson himself had been a player for years) and the concentration of ownership into big plantations, which ensured there was never enough for all. One opponent of Removal pointed out that the Cherokees had long before ceded their best land and that Georgia, which had only “six or seven souls to a square mile,” could easily support a hundred.125 There were also the heavy demands of “king cotton,” a crop that exhausted the earth as it ate its way across the South, leaving sandy wastes in which little would grow except peanuts.

The Cherokees knew they were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. Any resistance by force was exactly what their enemies were waiting for. So they did what they could: they set about strengthening their small nation-state; they appealed to the American public; and they got ready to fight in Washington before Congress and the Supreme Court. The first article in the Cherokee Constitution defined their nation’s boundaries, stating that they “shall forever hereafter remain unalterably the same.” It also confirmed the ancient law that all land was “the common property of the Nation.”126

Jackson’s sympathies were with states’ rights, but once in the White House he drank heavily of presidential power.127 He decided to have it both ways: if need be, he would use federal force to quell South Carolina’s bid for nullification; but to satisfy other Southern demands and fulfill his own agenda, he would sacrifice the Cherokee Nation on Georgia’s behalf—even if that meant violating the Constitution. In effect, the Indians of the South became the first casualties in America’s looming Civil War.

In May 1830 Congress narrowly passed the Indian Removal Act, despite fierce opposition from federalists, some church groups, and defectors from Jackson’s own party—notably another Tennessee frontiersman, Davy Crockett, who denounced it as “a wicked, unjust measure.”128 Those who write about past atrocities are sometimes accused of “presentism”—projecting current values onto history. But Davy Crockett was by no means the only leading American of the day to denounce Jackson’s policy on moral grounds. William Wirt, who represented the Cherokees at the Supreme Court, had this to say: “We may gather laurels on the field of battle, and trophies upon the ocean, but they will never hide this foul blot on our escutcheon. Remember the Cherokee Nation will be answer enough to the proudest boasts that we can ever make.”129 Writers, missionary groups and women’s organizations also took up the Indians’ cause.130 Frances Trollope (mother of the Victorian novelist), who was living on the Ohio frontier at the time, called the Removal “a base, cruel, and most oppressive act.”131 When Jackson died and the nation went into mourning, Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, denounced the late president as “a jobber in human flesh.”132

Jackson’s State of the Union address for 1830 is worth quoting at some length. Particularly interesting is the way in which the Indians’ agricultural way of life is ignored—they are yet again called “wandering savages”—and how greed is dressed as philanthropy. It is also notable that Jackson uses evidence of ancient civilization in North America as a weapon against its heirs, suggesting that the Indians were themselves exterminators. Such arguments are still being made in the United States today.133 What they reveal is a moral insecurity about the basis of white tenure—“qui s’excuse s’accuse”—as with South African claims in the apartheid era that the Bantu were themselves immigrants and therefore fair game for displacement by the Dutch.

It gives me great pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government [for] the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation . . .

True philanthropy reconciles the mind to these vicissitudes as it does to the extinction of one generation to make room for another. In the monuments and fortresses of an unknown people, spread over the extensive regions of the West, we behold the memorials of a once powerful race, which was exterminated or has disappeared to make room for the existing savage tribes . . .

Philanthropy could not wish to see this continent restored to the condition in which it was found by our forefathers. What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms . . . occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion? . . .

Is it supposed that the wandering savage has a stronger attachment to his home than the settled, civilized Christian? . . . Rightly considered, the policy of the General [Federal] Government toward the red man is not only liberal, but generous. He is unwilling to submit to the laws of the states and mingle with their population. To save him from this alternative, or perhaps utter annihilation, the Government kindly offers him a new home.134

In private, Jackson was more forthright. “Build a fire under them,” he told some Georgia politicians. “When it gets hot enough, they’ll move.”135 The president did his part by cutting off the Cherokees’ annuity for earlier land cessions, money the Nation relied on for funding its schools and newspaper. 136 Georgia’s governor, George Gilmer, had already dismissed any need for legality or good faith where Indian treaties were concerned: “Treaties were expedients by which ignorant, intractable, and savage people were induced . . . to yield up what civilized people had a right to possess by virtue of that command of the Creator—be fruitful, multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it.”137

Armed with this Puritan theology, the state continued its barrage of legislation. One law, aimed at Indian-loving missionaries, forbade whites from working in the Cherokee Nation without Georgia’s consent.138 Another banned Cherokees from digging their own minerals, while the Georgia Guard went in to protect white prospectors ransacking the nation for gold. The state also set off a real-estate stampede by surveying the Cherokee Nation into parcels of land and offering them by lottery.

The Cherokees went to the Supreme Court. In two related cases—Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832)—Chief Justice John Marshall set precedents that have become basic to the political standing of American Indians in the United States today. In the first case, Marshall defined Indian nations as “domestic dependent nations,” an ambigous phrase that implied protectorate status.139 In the second, having reviewed international law concerning treaties and protectorates, Marshall explicitly recognized Indian “title to self-government”:

The Cherokee Nation, then, is a distinct community, occupying its own territory, with boundaries accurately described, in which the laws of Georgia can have no force, and which the citizens of Georgia can have no right to enter. . . . The acts of Georgia are repugnant to the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States.140

“It is glorious news!” Elias Boudinot, the Cherokee newspaperman, wrote home to his brother from Washington. Jackson was heard to say, “Marshall has rendered his decision; now let him enforce it.”141 It became clear that nothing would stop the president—that he would ignore the Supreme Court and the Constitution.

Whether or not Jackson’s Removal policy was genocidal by intent—as some scholars believe—it certainly was in execution. 142 About one-fourth of the Cherokee Nation would die when the Removal was carried out by United States and Georgian forces in 1838.143 By that time, a similar number of Choctaws, Creeks and others had already died when removed, so Jackson and his supporters well knew the true effects of their final solution. During the Creeks’ Removal in 1836, the sky above their death march had been filled with vultures.144

Once the other Civilized Tribes had gone, the Cherokees found themselves surrounded by whites. In the words of their principal chief, John Ross (Kooweskoowee), the nation was like “a solitary tree in an open space, where all the forest trees around have been prostrated by a furious tornado.”145 After Jackson won a second term, in 1832, the Cherokee leadership split, one faction believing that further resistance was hopeless. Chief Ross stood firm, though, and the overwhelming majority of Cherokees backed him.

In December 1835, while Ross and other Cherokee leaders were being harassed and jailed by Georgia, Jackson’s agents drew up a fraudulent treaty with the pessimists, a small group that now included a bitterly disillusioned Elias Boudinot.146 In May 1836 this Treaty of New Echota passed in the U.S. Senate by a margin of one vote. John Quincy Adams (the president before Jackson) denounced it as an “eternal disgrace upon the country.”

The Cherokees were given two years to get out—years during which they were invaded more than ever by those hungry for the carcass of the nation they had built. General John Wool, sent to enforce the exodus, reported: “The whole scene . . . has been nothing but a heartrending one. . . . The white men . . . like vultures, are watching, ready to pounce upon their prey and strip them of everything they have.” Wool also found that the Indians were “almost universally opposed to the treaty” and would not accept rations or clothing from the United States “lest they might compromise themselves.”147

Major Ridge, the Cherokee officer who had signed the treaty and served under Jackson in the Creek War, wrote to his old commander: “We are not safe in our houses—our people are assailed by day and night by the rabble. . . . This barbarous treatment is not confined to men, but the women are stripped also and whipped without law or mercy. . . . We shall carry off nothing but the scars of the lash.”148

During the hardest fighting at Horseshoe Bend in 1814, Andrew Jackson’s life had been saved by a Cherokee chief named Junaluska.149 This man now went to Washington and made a personal appeal. Jackson barely listened, answering, “Sir your audience is ended, there is nothing I can do for you.”150

In the spring of 1837, Andrew Jackson left the White House. But if the Cherokees were hoping for a reprieve from his successor, Martin Van Buren, they were soon disillusioned. The new president affirmed his backing of the other’s pogrom: “No State can achieve proper culture, civilization, and progress,” he said, “as long as Indians are permitted to remain.”151

A few months later, the young poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to Van Buren from Harvard in an open letter, expressing the outrage felt by many:

A crime is projected that confounds our understandings by its magnitude, a crime that really deprives us as well as the Cherokees of a country, for how could we call the conspiracy that should crush these poor Indians our government, or . . . our country any more? . . . The name of this nation, hitherto the sweet omen of religion and liberty, will stink to the world.152

In June 1838 the U.S. Army began rounding up the Cherokees and confining them in what may fairly be described as concentration camps.153 The stockades were not designed for extermination, but they might as well have been. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, died within from hunger, overcrowding and disease. Thousands more died that winter on the Trail of Tears to what is now Oklahoma—among them Chief Ross’s wife.

Years later the Confederate colonel Z.A. Zele recalled his service with the Georgia Volunteers in 1838: “I fought through the Civil War and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.”154

In all, some hundred thousand Eastern Indians were expelled in the 1830s—about one in four removed from life in the process, the rest driven beyond the Mississippi.155 Only a handful of the first Americans managed to stay behind on their old lands: refugees in hills and swamps, and other remnants too small to be a threat.156 Black Hoof, an elderly Shawnee who had seen a century of frontier fighting for himself, foresaw that the process would never stop: “Wherever we may go, your people, the American Farmers, will follow; and we will be forced to be removed again and again and finally arrive at the Pacific ocean and then be compelled to jump off.”157

As Emerson and many others understood, the Indian Removal was a test of their new country’s character. With the betrayal of the Cherokee Nation, the United States betrayed itself. Sinister elements present in British America since the earliest colonies had surfaced in the republic and taken charge.

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