Between 1790 and 1830, the population of the United States tripled. As a result, the population expanded past the Mississippi Valley and the Appalachian Mountains. This population expansion occurred at the expense of American Indians.
In this chapter, Zinn will discuss the U.S.’s long history of deception and cruelty to Native Americans. One of his most important points is that the expansion and “glorification” of the United States wouldn’t have been possible without the marginalization and terrorization of the Native American population.
After the Revolutionary War, Indian tribes—most of which had fought on the side of the British—continued to war with American colonists. In the early 1800s, Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of the country by buying the Louisiana Territory from France; Jefferson’s decision necessitated the removal of Indians to clear way for farmers and industrialists. As white settlers encroached on their homes, many Indian tribes fought back, while some other tribes believed that they could coexist with settlers. One of the most famous figures to emerge from the fights with Indians in the new Louisiana Territory was Andrew Jackson. In 1814, he became a national hero by killing eight hundred Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.
At the time (and even today, in history textbooks), the growth of the United States was seen as a glorious event, whereby Americans would be able to explore empty, pristine lands. The truth, as Zinn makes clear here, is that these lands already belonged to Native Americans. Many of the greatest “heroes” in U.S. history, such as Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, cemented their legacies by marginalizing, or even killing, Native Americans in order to clear the way for settlers’ farms and factories.
In the 1810s, American settlers in the Louisiana Territory reached an uneasy truce with the Indians. Under the terms of the treaty Andrew Jackson signed with the Creek Indians, for example, individual Indians were allowed to own property. However, Jackson used bribery and intimidation to force Indians off their land, and he encouraged working-class whites to “squat” on Indian land in the hopes that the Indians would leave. Amazingly, the vast majority of history textbooks on Andrew Jackson, and even some serious biographies, do not talk about his legacy as a briber, bully, and killer of Indians.
Andrew Jackson remains one of the most celebrated figures in American history (although, partly because of the scholarship of Howard Zinn, and other revisionist historians, Jackson has become much less popular than he was—his likeness was recently taken off the twenty-dollar bill). Jackson bullied and intimidated the Native Americans into leaving their land and going west.
After Andrew Jackson was elected president, the Southern states passed laws strengthening their control over Indians and encouraging whites to settle on Indian land. Many of these settlers harassed Indians—in effect, pressuring them to leave their lands and go west. Jackson deployed an army major to tell the Choctaw and Cherokee Indians to leave their territory, promising them that they’d be allowed to stay in their new territory, “as long as the grass grows or water runs.” For generations of American Indians, the phrase has become a symbol for American duplicity.
Jackson’s presidency is often described as a time of great populism and social progress in America. Instead, Zinn characterizes it as a time of terrorization and abject cruelty to the Native Americans in the Southern states. Jackson, like many other American politicians, made agreements with the Native Americans, and then proceeded to violate these agreements.
Throughout the 1810s and 20s, certain white frontier figures, such as Davy Crockett, became lifelong friends with Indian tribes. Furthermore, in Georgia, some Cherokee Indians tried to adapt to the U.S., and many of them became farmers. The Cherokee chief Sequoyah developed a written language for his people, and other leaders developed a “formal government.” Despite their attempts to integrate with America, Zinn notes, “none of this made them more desirable than the land they lived on.”
One of Jackson’s arguments to support evicting the Native Americans was that they could never be integrated into American society. But plainly, Native Americans were actively trying to integrate into “the white man’s world” by developing a written language, imitating the structures of American society, etc. The problem wasn’t that Native Americans wouldn’t integrate—the problem was that they wouldn’t surrender their valuable land.
In 1830, Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, formally ordering all Indians to abandon their land in the U.S. and go west. The military seized the Cherokees’ lands and abolished their government. A missionary named Samuel Worcester was imprisoned for refusing to take a loyalty oath to the state of Georgia—an oath that would have forced him to say that he supported the Indian removal. Worcester took his case to the Supreme Court, and the Court found that the Georgia’s laws violated the state’s treaty with the Cherokee tribe. Jackson refused to honor the Court’s decision.
This passage is a good example of how Zinn shows that “America” isn’t a monolithic concept: during the 1830s, different Americans reacted to the Indian Removal Act in wildly different ways. Some supported the act, while others refused to comply with it, recognizing it as immoral. While some components of the federal government, such as the Supreme Court, challenged Jackson’s authority to evict Native Americans from their land, Jackson ignored the Court’s ruling, suggesting that the U.S. government is, first and foremost, an aggressive, expansionist entity.
At the same time that Jackson supported the removal of Indians, he remained hugely popular. Bolstered by reelection, he hurried the process of Indian removal. White settlers invaded the land of the Creek Indians, and the federal government did nothing to protect the tribe. The Creek tribe refused to leave its land and, in response, Jackson deployed the army to evict the Creek and march them westward. The military also evicted other Indian tribes, such as the Choctaws and the Chickasaws.
Zinn doesn't ignore the fact that the vast majority of Americans approved of Andrew Jackson’s racist, even genocidal, policies of Native American removal. Although Zinn will often praise the working-class people of the United States, he acknowledges that, at times, they’ve supported some violent and profoundly bigoted policies.
The Seminole tribe, based mostly in Florida, refused to cooperate with the military’s eviction policy. In 1835, Seminole Indians attacked a group of 110 American soldiers, killing almost all of them. Andrew Jackson sent in the army to restore “order” in Florida, and the war with the Seminole dragged on for years. At the same time, some Cherokee Indians refused to abandon their land, practicing a policy of nonviolent resistance. In 1838, under the Presidency of Martin Van Buren, federal troops marched onto the Cherokee territory, rounded up Cherokee Indians, and forced them to march west on what would later be known as the Trail of Tears. On the march, as many as four thousand Cherokees died of sickness and starvation. At the end of that year, Van Buren told Congress that the Cherokee eviction had had “the happiest effects.”
In this moving passage, Zinn contrasts the corny patriotism and idealism of American leadership of the 1830s with the harsh realities of Native American removal. Even while the American military used physical force to march Cherokee women and children westward, resulting in mass starvation and death, the country’s leadership claimed that Native American removal had been a great success. The passage is a stark reminder that history is often written by the winners—from Van Buren’s perspective, the Indian Removal Act was, indeed, a “happy” success. Zinn’s duty as a historian is to balance out Van Buren’s naiveté and obliviousness with the truth about the Native Americans.