The Cherokees' tragic saga commenced ironically on a note of progress. The new national government in 1789 that George Washington presided over was determined to reframe the nation's relationship with native peoples. The federal government, Washington insisted, would no longer treat Indians as conquered enemies without any legal rights to their ancestral lands. Washington's secretary of war, Henry Knox, could not have been clearer: "The Indians being the prior occupants, possess the right to soil. It cannot be taken from them unless by their free consent.... To dispossess them ... would be a gross violation of the fundamental laws of nature, and of that ... justice which is the glory of a nation." Having just concluded a difficult and costly war for independence, Washington and Knox believed that the nation could ill afford a belligerent approach to the Native Americans on its frontiers. The Revolutionary War had also dislocated many Indian nations. The Cherokees were left reeling from the devastations of war, with more than fifty towns destroyed, fields decimated, livestock slaughtered, and population loss due to exposure and starvation from military incursions. The war had depleted more than twenty thousand square miles of valuable hunting grounds for their deerskin trade.
Empowered by the newly ratified Constitution, the United States government determined to redefine its relationship with its Indian neighbors. Guided by federal policy, Indian tribes were to be viewed as sovereign, independent nations entitled to respectful treatment by the new American government. Aggressive encroachment upon Indian lands that had often sparked bloody frontier warfare was to end because the national government promised protection against troublesome white intruders — or so the nation's first president expected. Not only did Washington foster peace with Indians; his federal government would protect Native Americans from extinction, though most thought it inevitable, when "uncivilized" people confronted "civilized" ones.
There was a catch: upon taking office, President George Washington made it clear that Americans wanted peace with their Indian neighbors once they were remade as "red citizens" of a white republic. The first condition was that hunting and trading in furs — the principal livelihood of most tribes, especially those in the Southeast — would be replaced by the more "civilized" occupation of raising crops and livestock. Abandonment of huge Indian hunting grounds for small farming plots guaranteed whites the strategic advantage of freeing up enormous tracts of Indian land — land that whites (from President Washington down to the smallest subsistent farmers on the frontier) coveted. Washington and Knox drew on the prevailing Enlightenment notion that all people can learn and have the ability to reason. They and other Americans also subscribed to the white belief that ultimately Indians would have to surrender their lands to the expanding white population. For reasons never articulated, the founding fathers expected this could happen without conflict or harm to the Indian population. After all, Washington and Knox contended, Indians led "uncivilized" lives not because of some inherent inferiority but because they had not yet been able to imagine a better future for themselves and their children. Ignorance, not race, then, had made them "uncivilized" heathens. But with the right education and proper training they could become respectable citizens, in a fully assimilated (excluding black slaves) American society. Thus one of the early treaties of the Washington administration with the Cherokees, the 1791 Treaty of Holston, called for precisely this sort of give and take between the "civilized" and the "uncivilized": "That the Cherokee Nation may be led to a greater degree of civilization, and to become herdsmen and cultivators, instead of remaining in a state of hunters, the United States will, from time to time, furnish gratuitously the said nation with useful implements of husbandry." Americans would trade draft animals, plows, and spinning wheels for Indian willingness to abandon the hunt and chase after white civility.
To carry out the new national Indian policy, federal agents were sent out as middlemen between the chiefs and the policy makers in the federal government. The agents were deployed to protect Indian boundaries and set up trading posts where Indians would exchange their furs and skins for seed and hoes, horses and plows.
Just as significantly, missionaries in the late 1790s began arriving as well, armed with the religious values and domestic tools for remaking Native Americans. Beginning in 1799, evangelical Protestants — Moravians, Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians — fanned out into Indian country, setting up schools and missions where Indian boys were taught to become farmers and artisans and Indian girls learned to sew, weave, and cook. And most important, missionaries hoped to introduce Christianity — the telltale mark, whites believed, of a "civilized" people. The Federalists' Indian policy under Washington and Knox imagined a prosperous world where whites and enlightened Indians would guide their people according to "civilized" principles and eventually produce a nation that included assimilated Indians as full citizens.
If Washington and Knox believed they could transform Native Americans with federal Indian agents and Protestant missionaries, Thomas Jefferson, by the time he became president in 1801, pointed to scientific grounds for the prospects of such hopeful assimilation. Since a backward life in the forest was responsible for the Indians' ignorance, a more "civilized" environment would significantly improve them. And once that happened, Jefferson argued, "we shall probably find that they are formed in mind as well as in body, on the same module with the 'Homo sapiens Europaeus.'"
Jefferson viewed Africans as inferior to whites, but as early as 1785 he observed, "I believe the Indian ... to be in body and mind equal to the whiteman." Indians' "vivacity and activity" of mind, he believed, was the equal of whites, and physically Indians were brave, active, and affectionate — the full equal to whites. The orations of Demosthenes and Cicero, he observed, did not surpass the speech he quoted from Iroquois chief Logan. Once they exchanged the hunter state for agriculture, once they gave up the wandering life of the chase for the stable existence rooted in industry and thrift, Indians, he argued, would make fully acceptable American citizens. The steps were simple: "1st, to raise cattle, etc., and thereby acquire a knowledge of the value of property; 2d, arithmetic, to calculate that value; 3d, writing, to keep accounts, and here they begin to enclose farms, and the men to labor, the women to spin and weave; 4th, to read 'Aesop's Fables' and 'Robinson Crusoe' are their first delight."
This more positive, "enlightened" approach to Indian-white relations may have offered hope to Cherokees — but it was meant to feel like their last hope. It could not have been lost on the Cherokees — or any other tribe subject to the civilization program — that becoming "civilized" was their only alternative to destruction. Becoming "civilized" was not, of course, a two-way street; for whites, "civilized" Indians were those willingly submerged into white culture. Early on Jefferson made this point: "Incorporating themselves with us as citizens of the United States, this is what the natural progress of things will, of course, bring on, and it will be better to promote than to retard it. Surely it will be better for them to be identified with us, and preserved in the occupation of their lands, than be exposed to the many casualties which may endanger them while a separate people."
Thinly disguised behind Jefferson's enlightened rhetoric about the malleability of native peoples stood the bedrock determination to acquire their lands. As he noted in 1803 in a letter to an Indian agent: "In keeping agents among the Indians, two objects are principally in view: 1. The preservation of peace; 2. The obtaining lands." For Jefferson, like most white leaders, civilizing the Indians became simply a means for gaining access to their lands. Hence the emphasis he placed on converting Indians from hunters to small-scale farmers. "The Indians," Jefferson wrote, "being once closed in between strong settled countries on the Mississippi & Atlantic, will, for want of game, be forced to agriculture, will find that small portions of land well improved, will be worth more to them than extensive forests unemployed, and will be continually parting with portions of them, for money to buy stock, utensils & necessities for their farms & families." Hunting, Jefferson believed, had already become inadequate for the Indians' self-sufficiency. So he was intent on promoting agriculture and household manufacturing among the Indians — and he was "disposed to aid and encourage it liberally." As Indians learned "to do better on less land," Jefferson predicted, the expanding population of white settlers all around them would soon take over Indian lands.
And Jefferson made good on his plan: during his presidency, he obtained some two hundred thousand square miles of Indian territory in nine states — mostly in Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Missouri — an acquisition of territory that far exceeded the needs of white settlers or interest of Indians willing to surrender hunting grounds as a step toward becoming "civilized." Jefferson's policy was in part a military strategy aimed at clearing out Indians from the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys, compressing them into an ever-shrinking region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River.
At its heart, Jefferson's Indian policy viewed as hopeless all Indians who clung to their "savage" ways as nomadic hunters: their game was becoming extinct, and their peoples were demoralized and depopulated by war, liquor, and disease. Their only hope, he insisted, came from selling their lands, accepting white values, intermarrying with whites, and becoming respectable yeoman farmers and U.S. citizens.
White political leaders from Washington to Jefferson may have had hope for the civilization program, but out West it was a different matter. Most frontiersmen thought Indians could never become the equal of whites. In fact, some westerners feared that once Indians became farmers they would never get rid of them. To most frontier settlers, Indians were simple, backward, ignorant, and lazy, prone to lying, begging, and stealing. The two races were never meant to live together. And some Cherokees felt the same way. As one federal agent to the Cherokees, Return J. Meigs, observed, "Many of the Cherokees think that they are not derived from the same stock as whites, that they are favorites of the Great Spirit, and that he never intended they should live the laborious lives of whites."
Those who implemented the civilization program out West often spoke just as bluntly about the challenge they were facing. Lewis Cass, who lived with the Indians on the Northwest frontier as governor of the Michigan Territory, 1813–31, looked on Indians as primitive savages driven by passions, self-interests, and fears. They lacked all proper sense of enterprise, industry, and thrift that had informed Cass's Puritan background. "Like the bear, and deer, and buffalo of his own forests," Cass wrote in 1827, "an Indian lives as his father lived, and dies as his father died. He never attempts to imitate the arts of his civilized neighbors. His life passes away in a succession of listless indolence, and of vigorous exertion to provide for his animal wants, or to gratify his baleful passions. He never looks around him, with a spirit of emulation, to compare his situation and that of others, and to resolve on improving it." And the only hope for the "improvement" of Indians, Cass believed, lay with their youth. The adults and tribal elders simply could not change enough to meet white needs. But perhaps the missionary effort, he speculated, would bear fruit with the rising generation.
Excerpted from An American Betrayal: Cherokee Patriots and the Trail of Tears by Daniel Blake Smith, published by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright 2011 by Daniel Blake Smith. All rights reserved.