American Indian Heritage and History


By now it is a cliche to say that the "New World" was anything but new when Columbus arrived, but less well known is the sheer breadth of the pre-Columbian civilizations. Millions of people inhabited the Americas in 1492, most densely along the coasts and major rivers, and these indigenous peoples, or American Indians, were the original discoverers, explorers, and settlers of the New World. They spoke over 600 distinct languages. Indian economies varied from farming, to maritime, to hunters and gatherers, and Indian artisans were adept at weaving, carving, sculpting, and painting. The pre-Columbian Americas were a teeming world of life — a rich tapestry of cultures with diverse economies, complex religious cosmologies, and sophisticated arts and crafts (Josephy 1994).

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    Though the date that humans first trod upon the North American continent is unknown, contemporary scientific and archeological data suggests that the earliest American Indians migrated eastward across Asia and apparently began crossing from present-day Siberia to Alaska via an ancient land bridge, sometime between 10,000 to 70,000 years ago. Rising ocean waters, precipitated by melting glaciers, eventually submerged the land bridge, but subsequent generations continued the migration by navigating the narrow Bering Strait. Many of the migrants gradually spread southward "....across the American landmass, exploring the ten thousand miles from the Arctic to Cape Horn,…adjust(ing) and adapt(ing) to regional extremes of temperature and climate, to the mountains, the deserts, the woodlands, and the prairies" (Thomas 1993).

    Mississippian is the term with which archeologists label the diverse pre-European contact societies of Indians who eventually inhabited the fertile river valleys of the Tennessee, Cumberland, and Mississippi Rivers in what is now the southeastern United States, extending as far west and north as present-day Oklahoma and Wisconsin, respectively. From approximately A.D. 700 to the arrival of the first European explorers during the 16th century, the mound building Mississippians thrived, sustained primarily by the hand-farming of both native plant crops and, beginning sometime between approximately A.D. 800—1100, the nonindigenous maize, or corn, which was first domesticated by Indians in the semiarid lands of present-day Mexico (Thomas 1993). Farming corn enabled the Mississippians to produce food surpluses, which gradually transformed their lifeways, yielding more complex social, political, and economic relationships:

    An image of the Mississippian culture Shiloh Indian Mounds Site on the grounds of Shiloh National Military Park, with two mounds around a plaza.
    An image of the Mississippian culture Shiloh Indian Mounds Site on the grounds of Shiloh National Military Park, with two mounds around a plaza.

    As (the Mississippian Indians) became more agricultural, they came to rely more heavily on centralized authority and economic redistribution. At the same time, as economic and social controls became more concentrated, larger agricultural surpluses were needed to support the infrastructure. Mississippian society entered a positive feedback cycle. Change required more change...(and). (t)he Mississip-pian people responded to the challenge. They reorganized their settlements into ranked hierarchies, reflecting in their spatial arrangements the increasing social distance between nobles and commoners…. Atop huge, flat-topped mounds, eastern native American aristocrats presided over the ceremonies and rituals that codified the Mississippian lifeway. Townspeople supported their royalty, setting them apart from commoners both socially and politically. Although Mississippian communities remained largely autonomous, their extensive economic and kin ties created far-flung alliances, which, in turn, created rivalries. But (unlike European forms of conquest) when rivalry broke out into open conflict, Mississippian warlords exacted tribute and allegiance, allowing the vanquished to remain on their land.... As political and social ranking proliferated, the Mississippian mindset was increasingly reinforced by ceremony and sacrament. These beliefs expressed ancestral obligations, celebrated successful harvests, hunts, and warfare, and reinforced esteem for social leaders through elaborate mortuary ritual (Thomas 1993).

    At the time the Spaniard Hernando de Soto and his expeditionary army landed on the west coast of present-day Florida in 1539, many of the leading Mississippian centers, e.g., Etowah (Georgia), Spiro (Oklahoma), Moundville (Alabama), and Cahokia (Illinois), were already in decline. Yet, as de Soto’s army slogged overland through the Southeast to the Mississippi River, bloody encounters between the Mississippians and the Spanish expedition presaged the Indians eventual loss of their lands and lifeways, as Europeans increasingly penetrated the continent over the succeeding centuries. Even more devastating was the onslaught of the microbe. European contact, beginning with de Soto’s expedition, introduced virulent diseases among the Mississippian Indians, for which they had no immunity. Ravaged by epidemics of smallpox and malaria and infections such as typhoid fever, measles, syphilis, and tuberculosis, the Mississippian population plummeted (Thomas, Josephy, and Miller 1993). As a result of depopulation, the surviving Mississippians, who were refugees in their own land, began uniting into new communities, or what the British and Americans would term "tribes."

    In Georgia and Alabama, a confederation of many refugee groups came to be dominated by the Creeks (as the English called them). Other descendants of the mound-building Mississippians became the Chickasaws, the Seminoles, and the Choctaws. Still other refugees, the Cherokees, came to occupy the hill and mountain country of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee... (becomng)... the largest tribe in the Southeast… (Thomas 1993; Miller 1993). By the 18th century, the French, for whom Sieur de LaSalle had claimed the whole of the Mississippi Valley to the Gulf of Mexico in 1682, perceived the role and purpose of the New World as a source of great enrichment for the Crown and aristocrats at home. The lands and the Indians who occupied them existed merely for rapid exploitation. One of the most ruthless examples of such exploitation was the French treatment of the Natchez Indians, "…the closest of any eighteenth-century Indian nation in the Southeast to the Mississippian cultures encountered by the first Spanish explorers." In 1716, the French established a colonial settlement on the bluffs of present-day Natchez, Mississippi, safe from flooding, easily defensible, near fertile lands, and overlooking an extensive waterway for transportation and trade. The early settlement included a palisade, Fort Rosalie. In response to French attempts to seize their lands, the Natchez Indians massacred the settlers and burned the fort in 1729. French retaliation was swift and final, exemplifying the "...cycle of European aggression, Indian retaliation, and war that would become all too familiar between whites and Indians later in the century." By 1732 the Natchez Indians had been all but eliminated from the area that today bears their name, either killed, sold into slavery, or assimilated into other regional tribal groups, such as the Chickasaws ( White 1993).

    The ongoing rivalry between Great Britain and France throughout the 18th century posed increasing perils for all Indians east of the Mississippi River, as the British and French intermittently engaged in warfare for empire wherever they met. As Great Britain and France increasingly vied for territory and trade in the New World, North America became a battleground for two countries already at odds. The British and French clashed first over the allegiance of the Indian tribes between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River, then over the lands in the vast drainage basins of the Mississippi, and ultimately over the whole of North America. A series of four world wars, which began in Europe in 1689 and culminated in the what was known as the French and Indian War in America and the Seven Years’ War in Europe (1756-1763), finally decided the future of North America in favor of the British and the Americans. By the Treaty of Paris, concluded in February 1763, Great Britain acquired from France all of Canada and the interior east of the Mississippi except for the port of New Orleans. Spain, which was induced by France to enter the war against the British, yielded the Florida territory to Great Britain in return for the restoration of Cuba, which the British overran the year before. France compensated its ally by ceding all French territories west of the Mississippi to Spain (White 1993; Joesphy 1994).

    A modern reproduction of a Natchez dwelling at the Grand Village of the Natchez in Adams County, Mississippi.
    A modern reproduction of a Natchez dwelling at the Grand Village of the Natchez in Adams County, Mississippi.

    As Great Britain struggled to address the disposition of its newly acquired western frontier and the Indians who inhabited the lands, the British government issued the Proclamation of 1763 in October, intended as a temporary measure until a permanent policy could be worked out. The Proclamation established boundaries for three new crown colonies: Quebec, East Florida, and West Florida. All other western territory, from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi River and from Florida to 500 north latitude, was reserved for the Indians, to the chagrin of fur traders, settlers, and land speculators alike. The restrictive frontier policy was especially galling to the planters of the South. By concentrating on their one money-making crop, the Virginia tobacco planters in particular had so depleted the soil that cheap lands farther west seemed their only salvation (White 1993; Josephy 1994).

    A proclamation issued an ocean away, however, could not be enforced by the small British presence in America. Many colonial Americans agreed with George Washington’s declaration that the proclamation be ignored: "I can never look upon that proclamation in any other light... than as a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians…. Any person, therefore, who neglects the present opportunity of hunting out good lands…will never regain it" (Harwell 1968). The settlers who edged ever westward regarded the Indians as little more than an encumbrance to be removed, and by the turn-of-the century, an Indian war was imminent in the American territory north of the Floridas.

    Throughout the 18th and into the early 19th centuries, Indian tribes along the frontier were deceived into making land concessions through treaties they little understood, yielding tens of millions of acres in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys by the l8l0s. As the force of American arms gradually "quieted" Indian title to the land, the uprooted Creeks, Cherokees, Kaskaskias, Shawnecs, and others migrated westward to an inhospitable welcome on the lands of the Sioux and Chippewas, who resented their presence. When war broke out between the United States and Great Britain in 1812, an aggressive Tennessee militia commander named Andrew Jackson warred against the Indians in the southeast while waiting to check any British campaign in the region. After routing the Creeks in March 1814 at the battle of Horseshoe Bend in central Alabama, Jackson seized millions of acres of their land and erected Fort Jackson on Hickory Ground, a sacred spot of the Creek Nation. The fervor with which Jackson fought Indians and his army’s defeat of the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 transformed him into the most popular national hero since George Washington (White, Joesphy, and Nash 1992).

    Jackson’s Indian-fighting days, however, were far from over. In 1817 the now General Jackson and an army of militia invaded Spanish Florida, a haven for the Creeks and Seminoles who threatened the security of American settlers in Georgia. After burning Indian villages and hanging several Indian chiefs, Jackson took it upon himself to march on Pensacola, oust the Spanish territorial governor, and claimed the territory for the United States. The outraged Spanish government, hamstrung by unrest at home and rebellion in Latin America, could muster only a weak diplomatic response and soon after agreed to cede Florida to the United States through the Adams-Onis Treaty, which also established the boundary between the United States and Mexico all the way to the Pacific (Josephy and Nabokov 1993).

    Though the nation’s northern and southern boundaries were established by treaties with Great Britain and Spain, respectively, and by the acquisition of Florida, the lands could not be widely settled until the Indians who still occupied them were either subjugated or expelled. In the southeast, the federal government, which had little sympathy for the Indian culture, offered Indian tribes the choice of assimilation, of adopting the ways of white society and changing from a hunting and farming economy to one of settled agriculture, or of moving west. To the consternation of land hungry settlers, many of the Indians preferred acculturation to abandoning their ancestral lands (White 1993 and Josephy 1993).

    The most acculturated of the southeastern Indians were the Cherokee. At the outset of the 19th century, the Cherokee occupied vast tracts of land in Georgia, Tennessee, and the western Carolinas. As their land base shrunk, however, Cherokee elders decided that accommodation rather than resistance offered the best hope for their people’s survival. In 1808 the Cherokee conceived a written legal code exhibiting elements of common and Indian law, and in 1816 missionaries opened a boarding school for Cherokee youth near present-day Chattanooga and began baptizing students into the Christian faith. By 1827 the Cherokee nation had adopted a written constitution similar to those of nearby states, with executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, and were publishing a tribal newspaper. Increasingly Cherokees abandoned community settlements to establish individual farmsteads, and many of those who undertook the cultivation of cotton became slaveholders. Though the Cherokee, and to a lesser extent the other Indians of the so-called five "civilized tribes" (the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Creek), embraced many of the ways of the white America, the Indians, who were bound to the land by centuries of discovery and settlement, were soon to be ousted from their lands with the ascendancy of Andrew Jackson to the presidency in 1828 (White 1993 and Josephy 1994).

    During his first annual message to Congress in 1829, the newly elected President Jackson advocated the removal of Indians from their lands in the southeast and endorsed the preeminence of states’ rights to either Indian or federal laws. Later that year the Georgia legislature declared the Cherokee constitution invalid and after Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in May 1830 (Indians would "voluntarily" exchange their lands in the East for protected and forever guaranteed lands west of the Mississippi), prepared to distribute the Cherokees’ land by lottery. Cherokee Chief John Ross sought an injunction in the United States Supreme Court, to halt both the extension of Georgia law over the Cherokees and the state’s seizure of Indian lands. In 1831 Chief Justice John Marshall, in the case of Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, denied the injunction, because Indian tribes were dependent nations who could not sue in United States courts, but declared that only the federal government had sovereignty over the Indians and the disposition of their lands. A year later, in the case of Worcester v. Georgia, the Chief Justice ruled that the Cherokee nation was an autonomous political entity over which the state of Georgia had no claim without Cherokee consent by law or treaty. Upon learning of the chief justice’s latest ruling, however, Jackson privately uttered his famous dictum, "John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it," and the president and the Jacksonian-controlled Congress looked the other way as Georgia defied the court’s ruling (White, Josephy, Nabokov, and Nash 1992). When the states of Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee soon after extended the sovereignty of their laws over the Indian nations within their borders,

    Cherokee walking the Trail of Tears today
    Cherokee walking the Trail of Tears today

    …(t)he federal government held out removal as the only realistic hope for renewed security and sovereignty, and in desperation and anguish southern Indians were left to "choose." The large majority of Indians in the south had no desire to remove, but after 1832 they had no effective way to resist. In each nation there came to be those who saw removal as inevitable. Some viewed it as a way of escaping whites; some saw personal or factional gain in cooperation; some simply resigned themselves to obtaining the best price they could. And.. . federal negotiators, employing various degrees of coercion and fraud, obtained their removal treaties. The most blatantly fraudulent of all was the New Echota Treaty of 1835 with the Cherokees. Negotiated with the Ridge group, who represented only a small fraction of the nation, it was, as the Cherokee national council said, "a fraud upon the Cherokee people" (White 1993).

    Many of the Cherokees refused to leave their eastern lands, however, and in 1837 and 1838 the United States Army simply rounded-up the vast majority of Cherokees and herded them west to "Indian Territory" of present-day Oklahoma (Eyewitness accounts later melded into one narrative told both of the suddenness with which the Indians were seized and the resigned dignity with which many accepted their fate:

    Families at dinner were startled by the sudden gleam of bayonets in the doorway and rose up to be driven with blows amid oaths along the trail that led to the stockade. Men were seized in their fields or going along the road, women were taken from their [spinning] wheels and children from their play…. To prevent escape the soldiers had been ordered to approach and surround each house, as far as possible, so as to come upon the occupants without warning. One old patriarch when thus surprised calmly called his children and grandchildren around him, and kneeling down bid them pray with him in their own language, while the astonished soldiers looked on in silence. Then rising he led the way into exile. A woman, on finding the house surrounded, went to the door and called up the chickens to be fed for the last time, after which taking her infant on her back and her other children by the hand, she followed her husband with the soldiers (White 1993).

    Remembered by the Cherokees as the Trail of Tears (the road they traveled was the "road they cried"), the forced resettlement brought death to an estimated one-quarter of the approximately 16,000 who began the trek westward, due primarily to rampant disease and the scarcity of food and water. In addition, looters plundered the homes and graves they left behind, officials and soldiers overseeing the trek robbed many Cherokees of their personal property along the way, and the cost of the resettlement, which totaled nearly $6 million, was deducted from the $9 million allotted the Cherokee for their lands east of the Mississippi (White, Josephy, and Nash 1992).

    Though the Cherokees endured perhaps the most tragic of the Indian resettlements, from the 1820—l840s the majority of Indians east of the Mississippi River were relocated to the West. Only remnants of the fragmented tribes endured in the Southeast, e.g., the Choctaw and Hooma in Mississippi, the Cherokee in North Carolina, and the Seminoles in Florida. Millions of acres of former Indian land throughout the Southeast was opened to white occupation, which helped fuel the coming economic expansion of the nation. In the Indian Territory the relocated Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Seminoles, and Creeks began to rebuild their societies amidst the challenges of the new world. The Indian Appropriation Act of 1851 recognized as reservations the lands upon which the southeastern tribes were forcibly resettled; yet, the promises of inviolable western lands would, like the promises before, be broken (White 1993, Josephy 1994, and Nabokov 1993).

    Inspired in part by the impulse of humanitarian reform, such as the popular writings of Helen Hunt Jackson, who depicted the injustices and cruelties inflicted upon Indians in A Century of Dishonor (1881) and Ramona (1884), but more so by the pressing need to satisfy the land hunger of Western settlers, Congress in 1887 passed the Dawes Severalty, or General Allotment, Act. This Act would guide the federal government’s Indian policy until 1934. To assimilate Indians into mainstream American society, the Dawes Act provided each family head who agreed to abandon their tribal culture 160 acres of reservation land to cultivate and the prospect of full citizenship in the United States after a probationary period of 25 years. Surplus acres, of which there were millions, would be bought from the Indians by the United States and opened to settlement (the land rush of 1889 into the Indian Territory resulted in the formation of the state of Oklahoma). The land allotted the Indians, however, was often the least fertile and their unfamiliarity with the legal concept of holding land in severalty, possessing individual allotments of land in fee simple title, left many vulnerable to the chicanery of land hungry settlers. At the time the state of Oklahoma was admitted to the Union in 1907, which the federal government originally promised would be the Indians alone for "…as long as the grass grows and the rivers run…," Indians nationwide had lost nearly 60% of their reservation lands (Nabokov 1993, Josephy 1994, Nash 1992, and Deloria 1993).

    U.S. President Calvin Coolidge with four Osage Indians after Coolidge signed the bill granting Indians full citizenship.
    U.S. President Calvin Coolidge with four Osage Indians after Coolidge signed the bill granting Indians full citizenship.

    In 1924 the Indian Citizenship Act conferred full citizenship upon the nearly onethird of the nation’s Indians who had not yet accepted land allotments or complied with the provisions of any of the various 19th century "…treaties and statutes…baited with the promise of citizenship…." (Nabokov 1993). But not until the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 did the nearly half-century of coerced assimilation end. The Indian Reorganization Act, the first formulated policy that solicited the input of Indians, reversed the practice of land allotment, recognized the principle of tribal ownership of reservation lands, and established the tribes as "dependent domestic nations" that exist on a government-to-government basis with both the states and the federal government, the foundation of Indian sovereignty today. Nearly two decades later federal Indian policy briefly reversed course and once again endorsed assimilation, as Congress in 1953 implemented a "termination" policy to end tribal autonomy and offered subsidies to those Indian families that left the reservations and relocated in cites. The political activism of the National Congress of American Indians, organized in 1944, compelled the Eisenhower administration to suspend the policy in 1958 and reaffirm for Indians the principles of self-government and self-determination, but it was not until 1970 that President Richard Nixon officially repudiated the termination policy (Deloria 1993).

    Today, over 500 years after Columbus’s landing, the intrinsic values of different cultures are widely recognized. Yet, the identity of perhaps the least-known Americans, the Indians, still resonates with the reality of how the Americans who were here first were displaced and subjugated by the those who came later to penetrate the wilderness and link the continent.

    Last updated: November 8, 2017