Parts I, II, and III
Part IV: 'People Die Very Much'
Although life in Mesoamerica was not exactly idyllic, given its warring and rituals that included human sacrifice, it is clear that most of the pre-contact Amerindians were relatively healthy societies. This same good health, however, was precisely what made them so vulnerable to conquest.
Though disease almost certainly was present in Mesoamerica, there is no evidence in the surviving records (which admittedly are scant) that plagues or "contact epidemics" were ever common in these societies -- although there are some hints that such an epidemic played a role in the still-mysterious abandonment of the Mayan city of Tikal in the 9th century. There, scientists speculate, an epidemic may have driven the surviving Mayans back to a milpa-based existence built around small villages in which such diseases could have been more readily contained. Still, within generations, even these Mayans were back to building large cities in newer regions.
Europe, in stark contrast, had been convulsed with devastating plagues and epidemics for centuries -- cholera, the bubonic plague, smallpox, tuberculosis all had ravaged the populations of Europe for ages, and by the 16th century were common facets of life. The extant surviving populations had built up some immunity to these diseases, but never wholly so. And so even as ships were departing for the New World, Europe itself was being ravaged by fresh outbreaks of smallpox and bubonic plague, which in some locales (40,000 died in Lisbon alone) produced mortality rates as high as 60 percent.
But these rates paled in comparison to the effect these plagues had as they spread to the New World. As David E. Stannard explains in American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World [p. 93], an illustrative case involves the plagues' arrival in Brazil in 1563 aboard a ship anchored off the coast:
- The resulting carnage beggared all description. The plague was first. It seemed as though everyonewas infected. At least everyone who was a native. As is common when a contagion invades a people with no previous exposure to it, the first generation of symptoms are like nothing anyone, even anyone with long experience with the infection, has ever seen: "The disease began with serious pains inside the intestines," wrote Simao de Vasconcellos, "which made the liver and the lungs rot. It then turned into pox that were so rotten and poisonous that the flesh fell off them in pieces full of evil-smelling beasties." Thousands died in a matter of days, at least 30,000 within three months. Then, among the plague's survivors, the smallpox was discovered. Wrote Leonardo do Vale:
- When this tribulation was past and they wanted to raised their heads a little, another illness engulfed them, far worse than the other. This was a form of smallpox or pox so loathsome and evil-smelling that none could stand the great stench that emerged from them. For this reason many died untended, consumed by the workms that grew in the wounds of the pox and were engendered in their bodies in such abundance and of such great size that they caused horror and shock to anyone who saw them.
As had been the case in the Caribbean and Mexico and Central America and Peru before, the secondary consequences of the epidemic were as bad or worse than the monstrous diseases themselves. With no one healthy enough to prepare food or to draw water or even to comfort the others, multitudes starved to death, died of dehydration, or of outright despair, even before the affliction could run its deadly course. Children were the worst afflicted. "In the end," recalled Valle, "the thing grew so bad that there was no one to make graves and some were burried in dunghills and around the huts, but so badly that the pigs routed them up."
This pattern repeated itself endlessly throughout the New World as the plagues, particularly smallpox, spread widely, first through Mexico, Central America, and South America, then through the rest of North America. Many times the epidemics raged ahead of actual contact with Europeans; English explorers along the Atlantic Coast described coming upon villages wiped out by disease, with skeletons so thick on the ground they crunched under the white men's feet.
As Jared Diamond explained it in a 1992 piece for Discover titled "The Arrow of Disease":
- When we in the United States think of the most populous New World societies existing in 1492, societies existing in 1492, only the Aztecs and Incas come to mind. We forget that North America also supported populous Indian societies in the Mississippi Valley. Sadly, these societies too would disappear. But in the case conquistadores contributed nothing directly to the societies' destruction; the conquistadores' germs, spreading in advance, did everything. When De Soto marched through the Southeast in 1540, he came across Indian towns abandoned two years previously because nearly all the inhabitants had died in epidemics. However, he was still able to see some of the densely populated towns lining the lower Mississippi. By a century and a half later, though, when French settlers returned to the lower Mississippi, almost all those towns had vanished. Their relics are the great mound sites of the Mississippi valley. Only recently have we come to realize that the mound-building societies were largely intact when Columbus arrived, and that they collapsed between 1492 and the systematic European exploration of the Mississippi.
When I was a child in school, we were taught that North America had originally been occupied by about one million Indians. That low number helped justify the white conquest of what could then be viewed as an almost empty continent. However, archeological excavations and descriptions left by the first European explorers on our coasts now suggests an initial number of around 20 million. In the century or two following Columbus's arrival in the New World, the Indian population is estimated to have declined by about 95 percent.
The main killers were European germs, to which the Indians had never been exposed and against which they therefore had neither immunologic nor genetic resistance. Smallpox, measles, influenza, and typhus competed for top rank among the killers. As if those were not enough, pertussis, plague, tuberculosis, diphtheria, mumps, malaria, and yellow fever came close behind.
In countless cases Europeans were actually there to witness the decimation that occurred when the germs arrived. For example, in 1837 the mandan Indian tribe, with one of the most elaborate cultures in the Great Plains, contracted smallpox thanks to a steamboat traveling up the Missouri River form St. Louis. The population of one Mandan village crashed from 2,000 to less than 40 within a few weeks.
The one-sided exchange of lethal germs between the Old and New Worlds is among the most striking and consequence-laden facts of recent history. Whereas over a dozen major infectious diseases of Old World origins became established in the New World, not a single major killer reached Europe from the Americas. The sole possible exception is syphilis, whose origin still remains controversial.
Stannard describes [pp. 108-109] this spread into the northern Americas, and particularly the explosive effect of smallpox as it struck the native people, literally rotting the flesh off their bodies and turning them into barely walking corpses:
- As usual, earlier visits by Europeans already had spread among the Indians a host of deadly plagues. The Patuxet peoples, for example, were effectively exterminated by some of these diseases, while other tribes disappeared before they were even seen by any white men. Others were more fortunate, suffering death rates of 50 and 60 percent -- a good deal greater than the proportion of Europeans killed by the Black Death pandemic of the fourteenth century, but still far short of total liquidation. These were rates, however, for any given single epidemic, and in New England's sixteenth and seventeenth centuries few epidemics traveled by themselves. The extant descriptions of what life and death were like at times like these are rare, but the accounts we do have of the viral and bacteriological assaults are sobering indeed, reminiscent of the earlier Spanish and Portugese accounts from Mesoamerica and Brazil. Wrote Plymouth Colony's Governor William Bradford, for instance, of a smallpox epidemic from which huge numbers of Indians "died most miserably":
- For want of bed and linen and other helps they fall into a lamentable condition as they lie on their hard mats, the pox breaking and mattering and running one into another, their skin cleaving by reason thereof to the mats they lie on. When they turn them, a whole side will flay off at oncec as it were, and they will be all of a gore blood, most fearful to behold. And then being very sore, what with cold and other distempers, they die like rotten sheep. The condition of this people was so lamentable and they fell down so generally of this disease as they were in the end not able to help one another, no not to make a fire nor to fetch a little water to drink, nor any to bury the dead. But would strive as long as they could, and when they could procure not other means to make fire, they would burn the wooden trays and dishes they ate their meat in, and their very bows and arrows. And some would crawl out on all fours to get a little water, and sometimes die by the way and be able to get in again.
While "very few" of the Indians escaped this scourge, including "the chief sachem ... and almost all his friends and kindred," Bradford reported, "by the marvelous goodness and providence of God, not one of the English was so much as sick or in the least measure tainted with this disease." Time and again Old World epidemics such as this coursed through the veins of the native peoples of the North Atlantic coast, even before the arrival of the first great waves of British settlers, leaving in their wake so many dead that they could not be buried, so many piles of skeletal remains that one early colonist referred to hte land as "a new found Golgotha." But it was a Golgotha the Puritans delighted in discovering, not only because the diseases they brought with them from England left the Puritans themselves virtually unaffected, but because the destruction of the Indians by these plagues was considered an unambiguous sign of divine approval for the colonial endeavor. ...
God, however, was not enough. At some point the settlers would have to take things into their own hands. For, terribly destructive though the Old World diseases were, some Indians remained alive. The danger posed by these straggling few natives was greatly exaggerated by the English (as it remains exaggerated in most history textbooks today), not only because their numbers had been so drastically reduced, but because their attitudes toward the colonists and their very means of warfare were so comparatively benign.
... [T]he native people of this region (as elsewhere) combined in their everyday lives a sense of individual autonomy and communal generosity that the earliest Europeans commented on continuously. This was a great cultural strength, so long as the people they were dealing with shared those values and accepted the array of culturally correct reciprocal responses to them. However, just as their isolation from Old World diseases made the Indians an exceptionally healthy people as long as they were not contacted by disease-bearing outsiders, once Europeans invaded their lands with nothing but disdain for the native regime of mutual respect and reciprocity, the end result was doomed to spell disaster.
In some cases, the English deliberately spread the smallpox. E. R. G. Robertson, in Rotting Face: Smallpox and the American Indian,, writes:
- With the surrender of New France to Great Britain, command of the English North American military forces fell to Lord Jeffrey Amherst. An arrogant aristocrat who despised all Indians, Amherst withheld gunpowder and lead from France's former native allies, stating that England's enemies ought to be punished, not rewarded. When informed that the tribes depended on their muskets for taking game and would starve without ammunition, he remained unswayed, callously informing his aides that they should seed the complaining bands with smallpox so as to lend starvation a speedy hand. [More on Amherst can be found here.]
... In the spring of 1763, during the Indian uprising led by Ottawa Chief Pontiac, a party of Delawares ringed British owned Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), calling for its surrender. Captain Simeon Ecuyer, a Swiss mercenary and the fort's senior officer, saved the garrison by giving the Delawares a gift—two blankets and a handkerchief. The Indians readily accepted the offering, but still demanded that Ecuyer vacate the stockade. They had no inkling that the blankets and kerchief were more deadly than a platoon of English sharpshooters. Ecuyer had ordered the presents deliberately infected with smallpox spores at the post hospital. By mid July, the Delawares were dying as though they had been raked by a grape cannonade. Fort Pitt remained firmly in English hands.
The same year, British General Sir Jeffrey Amherst urged Colonel Henry Bouquet to figure some way of infecting France's Indian allies with smallpox. On July 13, the colonel wrote that he would attempt seeding some blankets with Variola, then send them to the warring tribes. Recognizing the risk of such a tactic, Bouquet expressed the hope that he would not catch the sickness himself. Whether the plan was ever carried out is unknown.
The English callousness about the spread of the disease was a product of the European eliminationist impulse, embodied at the outset by the view of the native Americans as subhuman promoted by such "humanists" as Juan Gines de Sepulveda, whose attitudes not only came to hold sway throughout Europe but were gradually expanded upon. By the time the English began colonizing North America, the belief in the non-humanity of the natives was commingled with a belief, as Stannard notes above, that the plagues were divinely ordained, part of God's design for the New World: Manifest Destiny.
So the British colonists were all too happy to dispense willingly of the straggling remnants of Indians they encountered as they spread throughout the Eastern Seaboard, since these were heathen savages the existence of whose souls was an open question at best and in fact widely denied. After the massacre of the Pequots in Mystic, Conn., in 1637, the commander of the British troops, John Mason, described the outcome -- which included the immolation of scores of women and children -- thus:
- And indeed such a dreadful Terror did the Almighty let fall upon their Spirits, that they would fly from us and run into the very Flames, where many of them perished ... [And] God was above them, who laughed his Enemies and the Enemies of his People to Scorn, making them as a fiery Oven: Thus were the Stout Hearted spoiled, having slept their last Sleep, and none of their Men could find their Hands: Thus did the Lord judge among the Heathen, filling the Place with dead Bodies!
Some years later, Puritan leader Cotton Mather would describe the same massacre: "In a little more than one hour, five or six hundred of these barbarians were dismissed from a world that was burdened with them." He also described a similar massacre, against the Wampanoags in 1676, as a "barbeque." A British reporter of a mop-up campaign against stragglers described the killing of hundreds of Indians and called it "God's will," adding, "which will at last give us cause to say, How Great is his Goodness! and how great is his Beauty!"
Another tendency emerged at this time: Largely in response to various depredations, Indians did resist violently, often at considerable loss of life for the colonists. But invariably, these massacres induced a disproportionate response in which all Indians in the vicinity of such acts, and not only those responsible, were targeted indiscriminately for retribution.
And so it continued, from colony to colony, Indian war to Indian war, from New England to Virginia to the Carolinas and Georgia and Florida, and thence to Ohio and Tennessee and Kentucky, gradually gnawing their way westward. When George Washington waged war on the Iriquois in 1779, it was nothing less than a war of extermination in which, according to Richard Drinnon in Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire Building, the Indians "were hunted like wild beasts." Washington himself approved this approach, later observing that the Indians were little different than wolves, "both being beasts of prey, tho' they differ in shape."
Thus the eliminationist impulse was transmitted almost seamlessly from Europe to the Americas, where it actually grew in a more virulent form that went hand in hand with an expansionist impulse. Indeed, Americans generally displayed a wanton disregard for the humanity of the native peoples that only intensified as they marched farther westward.
The combination of disease and undiluted eliminationism had a predictable effect throughout the New World. By the midpoint of the 17th century, it's estimated that more than 50 million of the indigenous people in the Americas had perished, some 80 percent of the population. In some instances the devastation was nearly complete; between 1770 and 1850, nearly 95 percent of the Pueblo population in the Southwest was eradicated. By the time Old World diseases had spread to the farthest reaches of the continent, striking the Haida and Inuit peoples of northwest Canada in the early 1850s, the population of indigenous peoples in North America had had shrunk by some two-thirds or more. (There is an ongoing debate over the actual numbers, more of which you can read here.)
The only recorded example of a government effort to reduce the effects of disease on the native population came early in the 19th century, when the United States, according to Abraham Bergman's "A Political History of the Indian Health Service," began providing federal health services for Indians in the early 1800's -- but their primary purpose was to protect U.S. soldiers from contamination from nearby tribes. All the first vaccination programs were in the vicinity of military posts.
In the meantime, another Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson -- who at least saw the Indians as "equal to the white man ... in a uncultivated state" -- nevertheless had concluded that the best Indian policy was to remove them from contact with white men. Part of his thinking in prusuing the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 was that the new territory would provide a place for the tribes east of the Mississippi River to resettle, at least until such time as they could reconcile themselves to civilization.
Jefferson took George Washington's idea of creating a "permanent Indian frontier" where the "savages" could live without interference from white men, and vice versa, and began implementing it. In 1803-4, in a series of White House meetings, Jefferson informed the chiefs of the so-called "Five Civilized Tribes" -- the Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, Seminoles, and the largest, the Cherokees -- that he intended to resettle them west of the Mississippi, though the program was to be a "voluntary" one. As it happened, the lands he intended to resettle them upon was then claimed by other tribes, most notably the Osage Nation, a Siouxan nation whose prowess in war was already legendary among native Americans.
Predictably, many of the Cherokees who attempted to resettle on Osage lands wound up dead, and the resettlement of Indians west of the Mississippi continued to stall over the succeeding years. James Monroe's 1817 treaty with the Osage -- brought about by the massacre of 83 Osage encamped on the Arkansas River, mostly women and children, by an Indian war party constituted mostly of Cherokees -- forced the tribe to cede some 1.8 million acres in Missouri and Arkansas, leaving them only a small bit of land in Arkansas and Oklahoma.
As Dennis McAuliffe describes it in his remarkable book on the Osages, The Deaths of Sybil Bolton:
- Half of the remaining Osage land, now northern Oklahoma, would go to the immigrant Cherokees and become the foundation of a designated Indian territory; the other half, southern Kansas, would go to whites; the ousted Osages would be confined to a small reservation in the middle. Under threat of military subjugation, the Osages thumb-marked yet another treaty in 1825. In this one, they ceded more than 45 million acres -- one fourth of modern Kansas, one-fourth of Oklahoma, and their remainder of Missouri -- for $7,000 annually for twenty years, without interest; $10,000 worth of worthless (to the Osages) cows, chickens, and farming equipment; horses valued at $2,600; $6,000 in merchandise; and of course, the usual grass-and-waters promise [i.e., these lands shall remain Osage as long as grass grows and waters run].
Nonetheless, many of the straggling remnant of Indians east of the Mississippi resisted relocation. So eliminationism became official government policy with the passage in 1830 of the Indian Removal Act, which realized the concept of the "permanent Indian frontier". It was Andrew Jackson, an old Indian fighter from the First Seminole War, who made it a reality. The act empowered Jackson to make treaties with all tribes east of the Mississippi to give up their lands in exchange for lands on the other side of that "permanent" frontier:
- The Removal Act was strongly supported in the South, where states were eager to gain access to lands inhabited by the "Five Civilized Tribes". In particular, Georgia, the largest state at that time, was involved in a contentious jurisdictional dispute with the Cherokee nation. President Jackson, who supported Indian removal primarily for reasons of national security, hoped removal would resolve the Georgia crisis. While Indian removal was, in theory, supposed to be voluntary, in practice great pressure was put on American Indian leaders to sign removal treaties. Most observers, whether they were in favor of the Indian removal policy or not, realized that the passage of the act meant the inevitable removal of most Indians from the states. Some American Indian leaders who had previously resisted removal now began to reconsider their positions, especially after Jackson's landslide reelection in 1832.
Most white Americans favored the passage of the Indian Removal Act, though there was significant opposition. Many Christian missionaries, most notably missionary organizer Jeremiah Evarts, agitated against passage of the Act. In Congress, U.S. Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen and Congressman David Crockett of Tennessee spoke out against the legislation. The Removal Act was passed after bitter debate in
This debate became a turning point in Americans' relations with the Indians -- and perhaps more importantly, it was a precursor, in its North-South division and the pitting of human rights against states' rights, to the debate over slavery that eventually precipitated civil war. It also had more than a passing resemblance to the Debate of Valladolid nearly three centuries before. Just as Bartolome de las Casas had argued strenuously against the notion that native Americans were subhuman savages fit only for death, slavery, and utter subjugation, so were there many American who stood up for the humanity of their Indian neighbors. (A decent summary of the debate can be found in this student paper.)
Indeed, there were even some who warned with uncanny accuracy of the travesty that was to follow. Rep. George Evans, a Whig from Maine, described to his fellow congressmen the difficult, often famine-struck conditions of the Plains tribes who occupied the lands where the government now wanted to remove the so-called "Civilized Tribes," and asked:
- What are sixty thousand human beings -- the sick, the aged,the infirm, children, and infants -- to be transported hundreds of miles, over mountains and rivers and forests, by contract! By those who will engage to perform the service for the smallest sum! Are you to hold out such inducements to long and fatiguing marches -- to scanty and cheap provisions? Will you place these hapless, deceived, and abused people at the mercy of contractors, whose only object is gain? Sir, if this is the mode in which the measureis to be executed, I will never yield my sanction to it ... if they [the Indians] must go, let their path be made smooth.
Likewise, William Ellsworth, a Whig from Connecticut, called the measure an "abominable doctrine" and observed:
- The committee of this House has openly declared that the Indians are mere tenants at will, strictly having no rights to territory or self-government. This report goesfurther than I had supposed intelligent men could go. It really leaves nothing to the Indian. The very soil on which he lives, and where his ancestors lived before him, is none of his, but belongs to the white man.
Ellsworth's view of the Indians was one that insisted on their basic humanity, and he observed that as far as their interest lay, "They have the deepest interest in it, and they are sufficiently intelligent to discover what is best for themselves." But as it happened, this was distinctly a minority view.
This was, in fact, the case nearly every time eliminationism reared its head throughout American history: just as there had been in Europe, there were in fact many decent people in America with a conscience who stood up to the crass inhumanity at work in these events. But in the end, their efforts remained, until midway through the 20th century, largely ineffectual. The final measure of history is always what actually came to pass -- and as it ever was, the crude reality of multiple deaths and the extinction of native populations that followed make clear that regardless what objections were raised, the eliminationist mindset was the victor.
Some of this has to do with the violence and mayhem it engendered; once the eliminationists had successfully murdered or effectively rendered dead many thousands of Indians, the hand-wringing objections of the "moralists" was irrelevant, since it would not bring back the dead. Some of it had to do with the middling position assumed by many of the natives' defenders; just as las Casas had 280 years before, many of the Indians' defenders were quick to acknowledge the superiority of white culture and the desirability of eventually "civilizing" the natives, or more to the point, converting them to Christianity. Others viewed them through a romanticized "Noble Savage" stereotype that ascribed a mystical quality to their cultural purity and thence their survival -- leading even some of their defenders to favor the Indian relocation programs.
Richard Slotkin describes this in Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 [p. 355]:
- Indian removal revealed a number of contradictory elements in the American attitude toward the native Americans. Westerners like James Hall, who were relatively sympathetic to the Indians and portrayed them in a reasonably attractive light in stories of the West, regarded Indian removal as a desirable necessity. Racial hostility between whites and Indians, they felt, would always make close relations impracticable. Moreover, by living close to the whites, Indians would lose their native, pristine culture and acquire debased forms of white religion -- and white vices. This argument was drawn directly from the pro-Indian literature of the 1780s and 1790s, which asserted that the Indians were innocent children of nature, natural democrats who degenerated on prolonged contact with the whites. Hall's argument also reconciled this argument to the contradictory assertion of that period -- that the Indian was a latent Christian, requiring only the healing touch of refinement to "whiten" and civilize him. ... According to Hall, the Indian's virtures were his only while he remained pure; they perished when he mingled with the whites. Left to their own devices, the Indians would naturally evolve toward Christianity and cultivation; white interference, whether persecution or attempts to hurry them along the road, were unnatural and hence doomed to harm more than help.
The majority view, on the other hand, doubted the humanity of the "savages" -- as well, predictably, as the motives of the Indians' defenders. John Forsyth, a Georgia Democrat arguing in favor of the Act, loudly inferred that its opponents were soft on terrorists, er, savages:
- While I entertain no fears that the gentleman's hopes will be realized, I consider it a matter of conscience, before entering upon the discussion of the general subject of the bill, to relieve the Senator from any apprehension that it may become necessary to cut white throats in Georgia to preserve inviolate the national faith, and to perform our treaty engagements to the Indians. It is true, the gentleman displays no morbid sensibility at the idea of shedding the blood of white men in this crusade in favor of Indian rights.
As for the people he called "this hapless race," Forsyth remarked:
- The condition of the remnants of the once formidable tribes of Indians is known to be deplorable: all admit that there is something due to the remaining individuals of the race; all desire to grant more than is justly due for their preservation and civilization. Recently great efforts have been made to excite the public mind into a state of unreasonable and jealous apprehension in their behalf.
As for the effect of the Indian removal policy on the Indians, Forsyth suffered no illusions, since the "savages" were scarcely differentiated from beasts:
- I do not believe that this removal will accelerate the civilization of the tribes. You might as reasonably expect that wild animals, incapable of being tamed in a park, would be domesticated by turning them loose in the forest.
But, Forsyth added, that doesn't mean he wouldn't favor the measure. Rather the contrary, since it achieved the bottom line they sought:
- Yet, doubting, as I do, the effect of this measure as a means of civilization, I shall vote for it, with a hope of relieving the States from a population useless and burthensome, and from a conviction that the physical condition of the Indians will be greatly improved by the change: a change not intended to be forced upon them, but to be the result of their own judgment, under the persuasions of those who are quite as anxious for their prosperity and tranquility, as the self-constituted guardians of their rights, who have filled this Hall with essays and pamphlets in their favor.
Meanwhile, another Georgia Democrat named Wilson Lumpkin even went so far as to admitting that in individual cases, Indians could be rescued from their "native savage habits" -- but the state of Georgia, nonetheless, could "hesitate no longer indetermining whether the Indians are susceptible of civilization." Lumpkin added that "a large portion of full-blooded Cherokees still remain a poor, degraded race of human beings."
The Georgia Democrats were unanimous on this count. Rep. Richard Wilde not only denied that the Indians held original title to the land, but claimed that the law of the "heathen Indian population" was superseded by the Law of England and the Law of Nature. James Wayne attested that "sovereignty over soil is the attribute of states; and it can never be affirmed of tribes living in savage conditions."
So with the bill's passage in 1830, and Jackson's landslide reelection in 1832, Indian removal began to be gradually effected. The result, rather predictably, was the effective extinction of numerous tribes, as well as hundreds and even thousands of deaths in nearly every relocation effort.
The culmination of these was the notorious Trail of Tears in 1838, in which the Cherokee Nation was forcibly relocated to those former Osage lands in Oklahoma:
- Many white Americans were also outraged by the dubious legality of the treaty and called on the government not to force the Cherokees to move. For example, on April 23, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a letter to Jackson's successor, President Martin Van Buren, urging him not to inflict "so vast an outrage upon the Cherokee Nation."
Nevertheless, as the May 23, 1838, deadline for voluntary removal approached, President Van Buren assigned General Winfield Scott to head the forcible removal operation. He arrived at New Echota on May 17, 1838, in command of about 7,000 soldiers. They began rounding up Cherokees in Georgia on May 26, 1838; ten days later, operations began in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama. About 17,000 Cherokees -- along with approximately 2,000 black slaves owned by wealthy Cherokees-- were removed at gunpoint from their homes over three weeks and gathered together in camps, often with only the clothes on their backs.
The oral histories describe the ordeal that followed:
- Families were separated -- the elderly and ill forced out at gunpoint - people given only moments to collect cherished possessions. White looters followed, ransacking homesteads as Cherokees were led away.
Three groups left in the summer, traveling from present-day Chattanooga by rail, boat, and wagon, primarily on the Water Route. But river levels were too low for navigation; one group, traveling overland in Arkansas, suffered three to five deaths each day due to illness and drought.
Fifteen thousand captives still awaited removal. Crowding, poor sanitation, and drought made them miserable. Many died. The Cherokees asked to postpone removal until the fall, and to voluntarily remove themselves. The delay was granted, provided they remain in internment camps until travel resumed.
By November, 12 groups of 1,000 each were trudging 800 miles overland to the west. The last party, including Chief Ross, went by water. Now, heavy autumn rains and hundreds of wagons on the muddy route made roads impassable; little grazing and game could be found to supplement meager rations.
Two-thirds of the ill-equipped Cherokees were trapped between the ice-bound Ohio and Mississippi Rivers during January. Although suffering from a cold, Quatie Ross, the Chiefs wife, gave her only blanket to a child.
- "Long time we travel on way to new land. People feel bad when they leave Old Nation. Womens cry and make sad wails. Children cry and many men cry ... but they say nothing and just put heads down and keep on go towards West. Many days pass and people die very much." [Recollections of a survivor]
She died of pneumonia at Little Rock. Some drank stagnant water and succumbed to disease. One survivor told how his father got sick and died; then, his mother; then, one by one, his five brothers and sisters. "One each day. Then all are gone."
The Wikipedia entry notes:
- The number of people who died as a result of the Trail of Tears has been variously estimated. American doctor and missionary Elizur Butler, who made the journey with one party, estimated 2,000 deaths in the camps and 2,000 on the trail; his total of 4,000 deaths remains the most cited figure. A scholarly demographic study in 1973 estimated 2,000 total deaths; another, in 1984, concluded that a total of 8,000 people died.
During the journey, it is said that the people would sing "Amazing Grace", using its inspiration to improve morale. The traditional Christian hymn had previously been translated into Cherokee by the missionary Samuel Worcester with Cherokee assistance. The song has since become a sort of anthem for the Cherokee people.
The entire program of Indian relocation, including not just the relocatees but also such displaced tribes as the Osages, was fraught with bad faith throughout, as had been the history of most white dealings with native Americans. The Americans, however, elevated the deceptiveness to a form of murderous high art: They would encourage the Indians to believe they were dealing with them in good faith, and then would proceed to unilaterally abrogate the terms of whatever treaties they signed, and they did so with remarkable impunity. In many cases, the very authors of the treaties encouraged other whites to break them. In their view, the Indians had no rights worth respecting. And the government, at every turn, accommodated them -- turning a blind eye to their depredations, and facilitating their ability to grab land and resources at every turn.
The Osages' government agent in 1870, a man named Isaac T. Gibson, delivered a report to his superiors in Washington that laid out the problem:
- It is almost without precedent, yet strictly true, one great cause of their decline has been fidelity to their pledges. More than sixty years [ago] they pledged themselves by treaty to perpetuate peace with the white man. That promise has been nobly kept -- kept in spite of great and continual provocation. Individual white men have committed upon them almost every form of outrage and wrong, unchecked by the Government, and unpunished. Every aggressive movement of the whites tending to the absorptioon of their territory has ultimately been legalized. Thus, a kind of premium has been offered by the Government to enterprising scoundrels to ply their vocation at the expense of the Osages. The Government itself has been careless of its obligations, indifferent, it would seem, alike to its own honor and the security of the Indians. It has failed or neglected to afford them protection, and yet has allowed the Osages' persistent fidelity to truth to tie their arms and render them powerless to protect themselves.
... The process of grinding them to powder might almost be inferred a meritorious work from the indifference and apathy of many, and the exultation of some, who thik themselves living in the light of Christian civilization.
Gibson in fact was describing the outline of both official and unofficial U.S. government policy regarding the Indians for the duration of the 19th century: Any act that benefited whites was found to be legal, and the rights of Indians were purely illusory and did not exist -- though the illusion of offering them to Indians was maintained as a way to manipulate them to the benefits of whites.
Luther Standing Bear, a Sioux chief, was later to remark: "They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it."
Next: 'Nits Make Lice'