Reflections: “As Long As the Grass Grows or Water Runs”

            Not many historians consider the part the native people played in the Revolutionary War. I was surprised to learn that almost every major Indian nation fought with the British in the Revolutionary War. We, the soon to be United States, were a tide they couldn’t seem to stop. After the war, the British left but the Indians remained to continue the defense of their home on the frontier. Washington wanted a policy of conciliation. “His Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, said in 1791 that where Indians lived within state boundaries they should not be interfered with, and that the government should remove white settlers who tried to encroach on them.” (pg. 124-125) Unfortunately, such an attitude would not last very long. Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory from France twelve years later, doubling the size of the United States and proposing that Congress have Indians move there to farm small tracts of land.

            This set-up Andrew Jackson nicely, who was a massive land speculator and, amongst other things, a terrible person when it came to the native people.  A national hero for the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, he became famous for having a few casualties while killing 800 of the 1000 Creeks; what people didn’t realize is his attack at the front failed and Cherokee, “promised governmental friendship if they joined the war, swam the river, came up behind the Creeks, and won the battle for Jackson.” (pg. 126-127) After taking land from both those who fought against him and with him, Jackson gave a speech that told the Creeks that the US is basically justified in doing whatever they want and taking whatever they want. Jackson was the shadiest of salesmen, describing how he obtained the treaties that captured land all across the Eastern US: “…we addressed ourselves feelingly to the predominant and governing passion of all Indian tribes, i.e. their avarice or fear.” (pg. 127) That Jackson admits to this type of manipulation is perhaps surprising; the evidence of it is all over his speeches to the various peoples. He offers fear in their current home and hope in the west. In Jackson’s instructions for the Cherokees and Choctaw he worded it, “There, beyond the limits of any State, in possession of land of their own, which they shall possess as long as Grass grows or water runs. I am and will protect them and be their friend and father.” (pg. 132)

            That is, unless you don’t do what he wants you to do, then he might burn your village down. This would the story of the Seminole in Florida, who would take in black slave refugees. They also owned slaves, but their slavery was a kinder slavery than that of the United States; it was more akin to African slavery. “The slaves often lived in their own villages, their children often became free, there was much intermarriage between Indians and blacks, and soon there were mixed Indian-black villages…” (pg. 128) This was seen as very dangerous to the more oppressive slave owners in the south.  So of course, Jackson started a war, the Seminole War of 1818. Now called the Florida Purchase of 1819, Jackson burnt villages and seized forts in “self-defense” until Spain sold Florida to him. Then all of the settlers began flowing into the region. The Seminole’s would continue to fight for quite a while before eventually fading away.

            Seventy thousand Indians east of the Mississippi were forced westward under Jackson or his successor, Martin Van Buren. Chief Black Hawk’s surrender speech captures the sentiment that was felt in the hearts of those many people, and the many that suffered and died prior to being forced west: “…He is now a prisoner to the white man…He has done nothing for which an Indian ought to be ashamed. He has fought for his countrymen, the squaws and papooses, against white men, who came year after year, to cheat them and take away their lands… Indians are not deceitful. The white men speak bad of the Indian and look at him spitefully. But the Indian does not tell lies. Indians do not steal…” (pg. 129) Black Hawk had raised the white flag in surrender; he was with women and children of his tribe who were starving. That surrender didn’t stop the US military from firing their guns at everyone anyways.

            Exile was very serious to the Eastern Indian, perhaps hard to understand in our transient culture today. This wasn’t about being shorted land, or being given land that was of poor quality in exchange for their high quality land, although that was all true.  It ran much deeper than that. Dale Van Every describes it, “The Indian was peculiarly susceptible to every sensory attribute of every natural feature of his surroundings. He lived in the open. He knew every marsh, glade, hill top, rock, spring, creek, as only a hunter can know them… he loved the land with a deeper emotion than could any proprietor. He felt himself as much a part of it… His homeland was his holy ground…” (pg. 134) This was a deeply spiritual issue and the Cherokee exerted a lot of effort towards acculturation as a means to gain power and influence in order to remain on the land of their ancestors. But Van Buren and most of America didn’t care.

            Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of a handful of people who plead on behalf of the native people; he wrote that the religion, liberty, and other things for which this nation stands will sink if we act with such injustice. But Van Buren, thirteen days before Emerson’s letter, sent military, militia and volunteers into Cherokee territory to use whatever force was necessary to facilitate removal. Seventeen thousand Cherokee were betrayed by Congress and a handful of Cherokee through the Removal Treaty, and now they were sent to the stockades. Wave after wave were sent on the Trail of Tears. “Grant Foreman, the leading authority on Indian removal, estimates that during confinement in the stockade or on the march westward four thousand Cherokee died.” (pg. 146) That’s 23.5% of the Cherokee people who were rounded up. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. What is particularly sickening is the way that President Van Buren spoke to Congress about it in 1838: “It affords sincere pleasure to apprise the Congress of the entire removal of the Cherokee Nation of Indians to their new homes west of the Mississippi. The measures authorized by Congress at its last session have had the happiest effects.” (pg. 146)

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