The 19th century was marked by European Americans’ unremitting forced displacement and ethnic cleansing of Indigenous people
By Herbert Rothschild
Two years ago, during a trip along the Atlantic Coast of the U.S., Deborah and I visited the American Revolution Museum in Yorktown, Virginia. A docent invited us to his scheduled presentation and we accepted, in part because at that moment, just after the museum had opened, we represented his only chance for an audience.
Like the museum itself, his presentation was well done and informative. He focused on events leading up to the colonists’ decision to secede from England. One of the reasons, which we had not known before, was that King George III, after his 1763 victory in what we call the French and Indian War, issued a royal proclamation setting a boundary line from Nova Scotia to Florida following the Appalachians. This boundary was meant to separate the Indians from the colonists. The proclamation curtailed colonial charters at the boundary, and European colonists were forbidden to buy land west of the boundary line. The colonists didn’t like that.
Among those who had his sights set on western lands was George Washington, who had fought for the British in the war and perhaps felt entitled to some fruits of his service. He bought as much land as possible beyond the demarcation line. To one correspondent Washington wrote, “Any person therefore who neglects the present opportunity of hunting out good Lands and in some measure marking and distinguishing them for their own . . . will regret it.”
It’s only fair to Washington to mention that, as president, he tried to uphold Native American claims and restrain the states from authorizing seizures of their land. In his fourth annual message to Congress he said, “I cannot dismiss the subject of Indian affairs without again recommending to your consideration the expediency of more adequate provision for giving energy to the laws throughout our interior frontier, and for restraining the commission of outrages upon the Indians; without which all pacific plans must prove nugatory.”
The European-American pressure along the frontier was inexorable, however, and it didn’t take long for national policy to abet rather than restrain it. The key figure is President Andrew Jackson, who pressed Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act in 1830. (It’s worth noting that there was considerable resistance — the bill passed the Senate 28-19 and the House 102-97.) It empowered Jackson to negotiate treaties transferring Native American tribes living east of the Mississippi to lands west of the river.
The most notorious result was the Trail of Tears. In the Wikipedia article about it, the forced displacement of the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations is termed “ethnic cleansing.” Of the perhaps 100,000 people forcibly displaced, thousands died en route to their newly designated reservation.
During the remainder of the 19th century, until the end of the so-called Indian Wars (the U.S. Army designates the Pine Ridge Campaign, which ended in 1891, as the last campaign), forced displacement and ethnic cleansing were unremitting and usually carried out by government forces in support of white settlers.
How were such actions and the official policies that authorized them justified? To the extent that they were, several supposed justifications were available. One went that the native people didn’t deserve the land because they didn’t make productive use of it whereas the white farmers and ranchers did. Another was that they weren’t Christian. The Spanish had used this as their primary rationale as they raped and pillaged and finally settled lands south of what became the United States.
In the U.S., God’s alleged commission took more than one form. One was Manifest Destiny, specific to western expansion. Another, which had its roots in the Calvinist mythology of the New England settlers, was that we were chosen to bring light to the world. That second myth still has enormous currency.
A corollary of these justifications was the, at the time, widely supposed inferiority of the native peoples. They were superstitious, people said, lazy and, especially, they were savage. Twenty-seventh among the grievances against King George III listed in the Declaration of Independence is, “He has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.”
As white settlers moved into Native American territory, inevitably there were clashes. It’s impossible to know how many of the settlers who were harmed by these acts of resistance acknowledged, much less sympathized with, the motives of the Indians. What we do know is that the attacks prompted fear and often intense hatred and desire for revenge, particularly when the attacks were especially brutal.
Many Americans living now can view the centuries-long westward movement of white settlement in its entirety and name it rightly: settler colonialism. And we can also acknowledge the grievous injustice to the Indigenous peoples, who in that process were partially exterminated and otherwise confined to unwanted lands. But we can take little credit for having this perspective. It’s hindsight from the safe distance of the victorious. Were we in the midst of that process, we probably could not have attained the objectivity that is a precondition of intellectual and moral achievement.
But that would not have excused us from making the effort.
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Opinions expressed in his columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Ashland.news. Email Rothschild at email@example.com.