American Indians: Old Southwest

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American Indians: Old Southwest

The native peoples of the Old Southwest resided in an area that included western Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and parts of Florida and Louisiana. Between 1754 and 1829 they underwent profound changes.

In 1754 most Indians in the region lived by small-scale farming, hunting game, and fishing. They lived in villages with headmen who used powers of persuasion rather than coercion to get people to follow them. Private property was unknown, and criminal matters were avenged by the victim, or in the case of murder, the victim's kin. By 1829 the major tribes of the Old Southwest possessed formal governments with written constitutions; court systems; large-scale agriculture, including plantations and African American slaves; and powerful chiefs who governed by force of law backed by organized police forces. In many cases the wealthiest Native Americans possessed more goods and lived in better style than many of their European American neighbors. Despite their adoption of European technology and political practices, the United States failed to protect these people from local settlers and state officials who coveted the Indians' land and envied their successes. At the close of the era, the federal government under the Jackson administration (1829–1837) forcibly removed most of the Native Americans east of the Mississippi to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. Despite those challenges, these victimized Indian peoples had created social institutions at the dawn of the nineteenth century that have allowed them to thrive into the twenty-first century.

tribes of the region

The most prominent nations in the region were the Choctaws, the Chickasaws, the Creeks, the Seminoles, and the Cherokees. In the first two decades of the 1800s, these Indians became known as the Five Civilized Nations because they took up commercial farming and other European ways. A number of smaller nations lived among the five: the Yamasees, Houmas, Chitimachas, Tunicas, Catawbas, and Yuchis. Some of these groups united with one of the Five Tribes for protection. The Shawnees also traveled through the region during the late eighteenth century, some of them settling among the Creeks. Though all of these peoples played a role in the history of the Old Southwest, the Five Civilized Tribes dominated it.

All of the five except the Cherokees spoke Muskogean languages. The Choctaw and Chickasaw cultures were so similar that both people told stories that they had descended from two brothers. The two, it was said, lost each other during a hunting trip; when they met up again, they had been apart so long that they no longer understood each other's speech. They decided to settle at some distance from the other and from them came the Chickasaw and Choctaw people. The Creeks and many of the Seminoles spoke a similar language. Some Seminoles spoke Mikasuka, a distant relative of Creek. The Cherokees, on the other hand, spoke an Iroquoian language that developed during two thousand years of separation from their northern kinsmen.

The Choctaws lived along the upper reaches of the Tombigbee River in eastern Mississippi and western Alabama. To the north, in western Tennessee, lived the Chickasaws. The Creeks inhabited eastern Alabama and western Georgia. Florida was home for the Seminoles, many of whom had relatives among the Creeks. The Cherokees resided in the mountainous regions where the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee meet. Farmers, hunters, and traders from France, Spain, England, Scotland, and Germany also lived and worked in small settlements scattered throughout the region.

During the early part of the 1700s, most of the native people of the Old Southwest grew accustomed to the labor-saving tools and efficient firearms delivered by French and English traders who gradually tied Native Americans to the markets of the Atlantic world. They paid for these weapons with deerskins. Tens of thousands of hides traveled along the roads and rivers for eventual shipment from New Orleans, Mobile, or Charles Town (later known as Charleston). By the middle of the eighteenth century, life in Indian country depended on a steady supply of European tools, cloth, and ammunition.

british dominance

The French and Indian War (1754–1763) had little initial impact on the region. The Choctaws, traditional allies of France, formed a barrier between the pro-British Cherokees and Creeks. The Chickasaws, badly weakened by a quarter century of warfare with Louisianans and Choctaws, could do little for their English-speaking patrons. As the war progressed, British traders and agents strengthened their ties with the Creeks. The English also made inroads with the Choctaws, starved of powder and textiles by the Royal Navy's blockade of the French. By the war's end, most of the Native American nations in the region considered themselves allies of King George.

Cessation of hostilities in Europe did not mean peace for the peoples of the inland regions of the Old Southwest. Trouble came from several sources. The British government stopped giving gifts to groups like the Cherokees. Officials from London declared that Native Americans were subjects of the king, not allies, and therefore ineligible for such donations. Another problem carried over from the early 1700s: tensions between the European Americans and Indians over land flared as settlers moved west. Moreover, the Indians had fewer European powers to play against each other. With the French gone, the Choctaws and Creeks could still turn to the Spanish for supplies and support when British demands became too burdensome. However, Spain no longer had the resources nor the inclination to offer a consistent alternative to the English. The Cherokees and Chickasaws, who lived inland far from Florida and Mexico, had even fewer options.

The Cherokees took arms in protest against these changes that began in the late 1750s and continued through the 1760s. As a consequence, they suffered terribly at the hands of the combined might of the British army and colonial militias. When the two sides made peace, the Cherokees lost much of their land east of the Appalachians. Some Cherokees, led by Dragging Canoe, bitterly resisted Euro-American expansion. He established a stronghold along the banks of the Chickamauga River and continued to fight the colonists, and later the Americans, into the 1790s. The Chickasaws lacked the strength to resist the shifting policies of Great Britain. The Choctaws and Creeks, however, managed to convince the British to amend their ways. In January 1762 the British appointed John Stuart as the royal superintendent for Indian affairs in the southern colonies. Rather than dealing with competing provincial governments, Native Americans would be able to parley with a single responsible individual.

However, Stuart's desire to regulate trade and mediate conflicts between the colonists and the Indians did not work. South Carolinians, Virginians, and others resented British protection of their recent enemies. This resentment played a role in the decision of Americans to revolt against Britain in the mid-1770s. White juries would not convict European Americans for crimes committed against Indians. Unlicensed traders brought liquor and shoddy merchandise into the backcountry and often cheated their customers.

land cessions and dependency

The United States's victory in the War of Independence (1775–1783) had momentous consequences for Native Americans. The Treaty of Paris (1783) awarded control over all the land between the Mississippi and the Atlantic Ocean to the new nation. Indian nations experienced different outcomes from the Revolution. The Cherokees once again suffered terribly during this conflict. Virginia militiamen devastated Cherokee settlements in 1776 in retaliation for alleged Cherokee raids in the state's western mountains. Dragging Canoe and his Cherokee faction kept the United States at bay until the late 1780s. On the other hand, many other Cherokee leaders saw a fearsome enemy in the Americans and eventually ceded territory to the new Republic in the Treaty of Hope-well (1785) and in the Treaty of Holston (1791). The Creeks faced similar pressure after the war, as did the Choctaws. Fortunately for the latter two nations, they were far enough away from the Americans to avoid heavy involvement in the Revolution. Also, they had the option of trading with the Spanish in Pensacola and Mobile, where English merchants maintained well-stocked warehouses.

The Old Southwest took its final shape during the years around the ratification of the Constitution. The defining policy came in the form of the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act (1790). This legislation limited commercial contact with Native Americans to licensed traders who operated in official "factories," or stores. Many in the federal government hoped that by providing a flood of consumer goods and tools, they would ensnare Native American leaders in debt. They then would have to sell their land to pay their creditors. Another provision of the law sent farm tools and teachers to Native American tribes in order that they assimilate into European American society. It also placed Indian agents in each of the major nations as representatives of the federal government. Though many of the agents engaged in graft, several of them worked hard to protect their charges from the settlers and state governments. One the most successful of these men was Benjamin Hawkins, agent for the Creek Nation from the 1780s to the 1810s, who helped the Creeks adapt to the pressures exerted by the expanding Republic.

During the years following the American Revolution, one Creek began the process of transformation without waiting for cues from the United States. Alexander McGillivray, the wealthy son of a Scottish merchant and a Creek woman, negotiated an alliance with Spain in 1784 for protection against the infant United States. After fighting several battles against the Americans throughout the 1780s, he traveled to New York, where in 1790 he signed a treaty with the United States. He then received an appointment as a brigadier general with a yearly salary of twelve hundred dollars a year. After returning home, he repudiated that treaty and in 1792 reinstated the old alliance with Spain, this time for a Spanish salary of two thousand dollars yearly.

McGillivray's career exemplified the changing nature of Native American leadership styles in the Old Southwest. The old model of a chief who relied upon his powers of persuasion gave way to men who controlled access to European manufactured goods and markets. This caused a major shift in the way Native Americans organized themselves. Private property became the norm in the region. Many men turned to farming, traditionally women's work, and animal husbandry to make a living. Others still harvested deerskins in the forests, but they often did so with tools and weapons purchased on credit from wealthy Indian headmen rather than European American merchants. As Indians acquired private property, they created institutions to protect it. They also recognized the need to organize themselves to meet the threats posed by their American neighbors. The skills introduced by Indian agents like Hawkins helped them develop an economic base upon which they built a political structure.

accommodation, resistance, and removal

In the first decades of the 1800s, the Cherokees created a court system and a mounted police force called the Cherokee Light Horse and in 1827 adopted a constitution modeled on the U.S. Constitution. Sequoyah facilitated the last innovation by creating the Cherokee syllabary (alphabet), completed by him in 1821 and still in use 185 years later. The Cherokees also saw the wisdom of cooperating with the United States. Chief John Ross (1790–1866) led Cherokee warriors against the Red Sticks, a Creek faction, during the Creek War (1813–1814), fighting alongside the forces of Andrew Jackson at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (1814).

Not all Native Americans in the Old Southwest wanted these changes. The Red Sticks, from the Upper Towns, located in northern Alabama and northwestern Georgia, rejected the adoption of Western culture and technology taking hold of the Lower Towns. The latter communities were on the coastal plain in southeastern Alabama and western Georgia. The Creek War started as a civil war between the two factions. The Red Sticks wished to return to the old spiritual practices and abandon the corrupting influences of alcohol and dependence on manufactured goods. They sought protection from traditional talismans and rituals. These hopes were soon dashed when the United States entered into the conflict to prevent Great Britain from gaining inroads into the region during the War of 1812.

The defeat of the Red Sticks spelled the end of armed resistance against the United States. The Treaty of Fort Jackson (1814) forced the Creeks to cede a large portion of their tribal lands. Ironically, much of the territory belonged to the Lower Towns, which supported Jackson in his fight against the Red Sticks. Some survivors of the Creek War made their way into Spanish Florida to join with the Seminoles, a multiethnic group of Native American refugees of earlier conflicts, Creeks, and escaped African American slaves, where they held out for decades.

Throughout the 1820s, some of the Indians of the Old Southwest, particularly families with leadership roles, prospered as they continued to use more Euro-American technology. Many of the wealthier Native Americans acquired African American slaves whom they treated as a form of property. The head-men of the major tribes built plantations and began to raise cotton, others became successful merchants. Nonetheless, a good number of the Indian peoples remained poor, eking out a living on small backcountry farms. This situation changed during the War of 1812.

The conflict between the United States and Great Britain placed the Native Americans of the Old Southwest between two fires. Some of them supported the United States while others resisted. American troops from the East overran Creek country. Their commander, General Andrew Jackson, imposed harsh terms in the Treaty of Fort Jackson (1814) that deprived Creeks of more than half of their land. Jackson later invaded Florida and closed the British supply stations in Spanish Pensacola. Thus, the Indians of the region lost the ability to play the Americans against their Spanish and English rivals. This lack of foreign support eroded Native Americans' power to negotiate with Washington and the state governments.

Soon after the war, the Mississippi and Alabama Territories gained admission to the Union as states in 1817 and 1819, respectively. The new governments resented having Indian nations claiming sovereignty in their midst. Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi passed legislation outlawing Native American courts and political entities within their borders. Andrew Jackson's election in 1828 paved the way for the annihilation of Indian rights in the Old Southwest. The president pushed successfully for passage of the Indian Removal Act (1830), which called for the seizure of Native American lands in the East and the exile of the Indians west of the Mississippi.

See alsoCreek War; French and Indian War, Consequences of; Horseshoe Bend, Battle of .


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George Edward Milne

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American Indians: Old Southwest

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American Indians: Old Southwest