(part 3 of 7)
Bankhead National Forest, Alabama
"Their environments shaped their senses of identity."
These five tribes of the southeast were village dwellers. They clustered around streams and rivers, which generally defined territorial hunting ranges. They raised numerous varieties of corn, beans, and squashes, but their primary supply of meat came from hunting. Deer, bear, and woodland buffalo were their prey.
Their environments shaped their senses of identity. The tribes of the southeast maintained a delicate balance with the forces of the environment around them. The woods were full of spiritual forces who could harm someone who wandered alone into their domain. Violent storms, sudden floods in the river valleys, lightning-set fires in the woods, all were reminders of the power of the world. The Green Corn ceremony, variations of which occurred in the Cherokee, Creek, and Chickasaw communities, renewed the world in the spring for the upcoming year.
During the late eighteenth century, major changes began to affect the lifestyles of the southeastern native people. The introduction of domesticated livestock among the Choctaws in the 1790s provided a new source of food that began to replace deer meat in the diet. Hunting deer for skins to trade with French and English agents had depleted deer populations throughout the southeast. Although domesticated cattle roamed free in the forests and prairies, they could be easily captured. Other introductions to the Choctaw diet included domesticated pigs and potatoes, and some families cultivated fields of cotton. By the early 1800s a missionary could report that Choctaw women had spinning wheels, cards, and were weaving yards of cloth.
Although Indian removal is generally associated with the 1830 act of Congress, the process was already beginning by the late 1700s. Pressure of white settlement led small parties of Choctaws, Cherokees, and Chickasaws to move west of the Mississippi, and by 1807 they were settling in Arkansas, Indian Territory, and east Texas. There they could hunt and raise their crops. This voluntary removal to escape conflict with white settlers and government agents thus preceded forced removals.
Federal policy toward Indians was ambivalent. Thomas Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Territory in part to find a place for Indian communities who would not assimilate into white society and who wished to pursue their traditional hunting ways of life, but he also promoted government-run trading posts in Indian country so that Indians would build up such great debts that they would be willing to give up some of their land in payment. Indians might choose to move, but Jefferson also found ways to force them to make the choice.
Despite the integration of domesticated cattle and the technology of weaving into their lifestyles, Americans still considered the southeastern tribes savages. The increasing American population led to pressure to develop new western lands. The War of 1812, a definitive victory over the English, gave Americans a sense of national identity, but it also created a need for Indian land. The United States paid its soldiers from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 not with money but with warrants that they could exchange for western land.
|"In going up the stream there were houses and farms on both banks of the River. The houses were decently furnished, and their farms were well fenced and stocked with cattle. They had everything they needed: food, clothes, water and good land."
Nuttall, Journal, 1819, on a Cherokee band in the Arkansas Territory
The pressure for the development of western lands required the removal of Indians from those lands. Even while government agents were holding out promises of western lands that would be theirs forever, Americans were exploring those lands. In 1819, Thomas Nuttall, an English botanist, traveled to the Arkansas territory. His account painted a picture of a fertile and productive environment for agriculture, a description seemingly designed to inspire interest in the minds of land speculators. The Choctaw leader Pushmataha, however, when pressed to sign a treaty ceding his tribe's land in central Mississippi in exchange for others in the west, protested: "We wish to remain here, where we have grown up as the herbs of the woods; and do not wish to be transplanted into another soil."
|"Indeed most of the streams on this side of the Arkansas are said to afford springs of salt water which might be wrought with profit."|
Thomas Nuttall, A Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory during the Year 1819
In the period between 1817 and 1825, however, the tribes signed treaties agreeing to exchange eastern lands for western ones. These early treaties did not require the tribes to move west, and most remained in their homes, but small vanguards crossed the Mississippi to take up residence in the new territory, some joining relatives already settled there. Some Choctaw families moved after the Treaty of Doaks Stand, signed in 1820. Some Creek and Cherokee groups moved west after treaties they signed in 1818.
The pressures on the tribes culminated in 1829 and 1830 when the legislatures of Mississippi and Georgia passed laws to extend their jurisdiction over the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Cherokee Nations. The actions brought into sharp relief the dilemma that faced the tribes. Were they to submit to the laws of a foreign government to remain in the lands that they considered their homeland, or were they to move to the west to retain their autonomy?
Congress followed the actions of the states with the 1830 Indian Removal Act that directed the federal government to negotiate with Indian tribes to exchange their lands east of the Mississippi River for lands to the west. Under the provisions of the act, the Choctaws, the Chickasaws, Cherokees, Creeks, and ultimately the Seminoles, who had fled to Florida in the early nineteenth century, moved to Indian Territory (what is now the state of Oklahoma) in the period from 1831 through the 1840s.
"it is (with sorrow) that we are forced by the authority of the white man to quit the scenes of our childhood, but stern necessity says we must go, and we bid a final farewell to it and all we hold dear East of the Father of Waters . . ."|
George Hicks, Cherokee, on the "Trail of Tears," November 1838 full text