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Native Americans in Antebellum America

 

The antebellum period is known as the period of western expansion and Manifest Destiny, in which Americans boldly marched forth into the unknown and forged a great nation out of the wilderness. In reality, the acquiring and settling of the West took place over a great deal of corpses -- Native American and Mexican, mostly, although many Eastern settlers died in the battles. As Americans from the Northeast and Southeast gazed longingly at the land and potential riches available in the West, the rights of Native Americans were roughly trampled. While the situation was a complex one, it seems that greed and prejudice played major roles in determining US policies toward Indians.

The policy of the early antebellum period was assimilation or removal, usually both. Indians had to either conform to European-American culture or move West. Native Americans were urged to adopt European customs, dress, religion, and farming culture. Some complied with these suggestions, none more successfully than the Cherokee. In only a few years, the Cherokee developed written symbols for their language and published a Cherokee-English newspaper. Many emulated European-Americans by dressing like them, converting to Christianity, owning and running prosperous plantations and even owning African American slaves.

Despite these efforts, the Cherokee were not allowed to live in peace. The nation was pressured to vacate their ancestral land, so that settlers could take it. Before long, the farce of an assimilation or removal policy was changed to a simple removal policy, made formal in 1825 by President James Monroe. President Andrew Jackson, who favored settlers rights to push Indians off their own land, supported the Indian Removal Bill. As Congress debated the voluntary removal policy, some stated that the policy was unfair to Indians. As New Jersey Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen exclaimed, Do the obligations of justice change with the color of the skin? Is it one of the prerogatives of the white man, that he may disregard the dictates of moral principles, when an Indian shall be concerned? Nevertheless, such people were in the minority in Congress, and the bill passed in 1830.

Some Native Americans sadly accepted the removal policy and began to move West when put under pressure. Others resisted. Beginning in 1835, the Seminoles of Florida, under Osceola, defied government attempts to force them off their land. They had previously resisted settlers in 1818, but Andrew Jackson had led troops to squash the resistance. Osceolas struggle to maintain the Seminole land ended in the mid-1840s, when the Seminoles could no longer sustain resistance against the US armed forces. In 1832, Sac and Fox Indians, under Black Hawk, also resisted removal attempts, but were defeated in that same year.

The Cherokee Nation chose to fight back with legal battles. When their protests were brought before the US Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Marshall, the Court ruled in their favor: The Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia (1831) and Worcester vs. Georgia (1832). Despite these legal victories, the Cherokee were still forced out of their land. The federal government failed to enforce the Courts rulings, and President Jackson is said to have declared, John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it.

Thus Marshalls rulings had no impact on Jacksons Indian policies, besides branding them unconstitutional. Furthermore, Marshalls description of the relationship between Indian nations and the United States, in the Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia decision, became a harmful legacy to the future of Native Americans. Marshall described Native Americans as domestic dependent nations which had to depend on the United States for protection; rely upon its kindness and its power; appeal to it for relief for their wants. He reiterated this view in his Worcester vs. Georgia decision. Thus, Native American tribes were no longer legally viewed as independent nations, but were more like wards of the state. This patronizing view of Native Americans strongly influenced the United States post-Civil War Indian policies.

Jacksons government searched for a way to force the Cherokee off their well-cultivated land and into the Western wilderness. The US government worked with a small group of renegade Cherokees, who falsely claimed to represent the entire Cherokee Nation. Together, they signed the Treaty of New Echota, in which they agreed to move. With the treaty as justification, the US Army collected any Cherokees remaining, kicked them out of their homes and off their land, and forced them to move West. This western journey is known as the Trail of Tears, so named because of the cruel conditions the Cherokee underwent. They had insufficient clothing or transportation for the journey, much of their food was stolen, the weather was terribly cold, and many developed and spread serious diseases. Almost four thousand of the eighteen thousand Cherokees on the journey died on the way.

By the time of the Civil War, almost all the Native Americans of the North, South and close West had been either killed or pushed out West. Those in favor of removal justified their policies with the rational that separating Native Americans and White settlers was the best way to keep peace. The land out West, beyond the Missouri River, seemed to be endless. Many settlers desire for land compelled them to continue pushing westward. When, in 1854, Kansas and Nebraska were admitted as territories, the understanding that the land west of the Missouri was basically reserved for Native Americans broke down. After the Mexican War and the United States acquisition and settlement of California and other far-western territories, the US Indian policy of westward removal lost much of its validity. In the years following the Civil War, the US government had to rethink its Indian policies, since there was no longer a further West to which Native Americans could be exiled, except the Pacific Ocean.

This war was marked by a series of bloodless skirmishes on the border between Maine and Canada. This border had never been clearly defined and thus was disputed by both sides. President Van Buren sent General Winfield Scott to negotiate a deal. Scott was able to arrange a truce.