They Were Just in the Way | Indian Removal
Well, it’s that time of year again, the kids are back in school and are learning about Columbus, the Pilgrims, and the founding of our nation. Growing up in the United States and then becoming a high school history teacher, I’ve both learned and taught that story at least a dozen times over the course of three decades. A few months ago I started calling it the Standard American History Myth and I’ve been slowly dismantling that story ever since. While researching my previous video on Neoslavery, I realized that I had been fed a false narrative growing up, which I then unknowingly passed on to the next generation of students. I had a very different experience working on this video. When it comes to Native Americans, I wasn’t fed a false story, I just… wasn’t fed at all.
The Standard American History Myth throws a few breadcrumbs at you and then quickly moves on. And pretty much anytime Indigenous people are mentioned, they’re regarded as an obstacle or environmental hazard. These were people living in isolated cabins at the edge of the frontier with all sorts of threats to them. You had Native Americans, buffalo in the late part of the 18th century. You had panthers there still.
Black bear were everywhere. Wolves were everywhere. A few weeks back I was reading a book in my backyard and my elderly neighbor asked me what I was up to. After explaining Youtube to an 86 year old, I told him I was working on a video about American Indians… And his response unintentionally became the focus of this video.
Oh yeah, It’s a shame what happened to them… but you know… they were just in the way. As cringey as that sounds, it’s not all that surprising to hear from someone who was born in 1936. But what really stood out to me was… that’s still how it’s basically taught in school and even when you become an adult, the culture at large continuously reinforces that message. It was this huge real speculative real estate event and in order to make the land available you had to push people out who were there, the Native Americans.
I think it’s fair to say that most Americans share the same sentiment as my neighbor – that what happened to the Indians was just part of the inevitable march of progress. [Intro music] This video was brought to you by CuriosityStream and Nebula. I suppose I should start by clarifying what this video is and what it is not. Doing a comprehensive history of Native peoples would be impossible; there are hundreds of nations spread out across thousands of miles, all with their own unique histories and cultures. Imagine trying to make a video covering the entire history of every country in Europe. So instead of doing that,
we’re just going to be focusing on the centuries-long process of geographically, politically, and culturally erasing an entire group of people from the continent. We’re, of course, going to talk about the breadcrumbs you know, like the Trail of Tears and Wounded Knee. But I’ll also be filling in the story in between those events.
We tend to talk about these things as if they were completely separate and unrelated, but as you’ve probably guessed, they’re all connected. I’ll also explain how reservations, treaty rights, and Indian casinos work, along with a take on team mascots you might not have heard before. Perhaps most importantly, I hope to dispel several misconceptions – both positive and negative – that books, movies, and even the government have convinced us of.
In short, we’re going to be learning about the many forms of Indian Removal in the United States. From the beginning to the present day. Our long journey begins when Columbus landed on Hispaniola on October 12, 1492 believing he had found an island off the coast of Japan. He named the native people he encountered Indios. Later explorers would use words like Indien, Indianer, and even peaux-rouges meaning “skin red.”
Thus began the long debate over what to call these people - Indians, Natives, Indigenous peoples, Native Americans, American Indians, it’s all so confusing, right? I’ve made a short companion video explaining the difference, and I’ll specifically address American Indian versus Native American later on here. But for now, I’m going to be using all of these terms somewhat interchangeably, mostly so that I don’t sound like a broken record. Just know that none of them are considered to be disrespectful and you’d probably be fine using any of them… Except for maybe peaux-rouges, you should probably leave that one alone.
Shortly after Columbus’ arrival, European diseases were introduced to the New World. Between 1492 and 1600, it’s estimated that 90% of the native population of the Americas was wiped out through accidental transmission between nations. This was well before smallpox blankets, most of the people who died had never even seen a white person. This is probably the only part of the story that I’d be willing to describe as inevitable, since any prolonged contact between the two hemispheres was going to result in the unintentional spread of disease. But that in no way forgives everything that happens next. Now, given what I just said about this time of year, you’re probably expecting me to begin this story by talking about the Pilgrims and a harvest feast involving corn and turkey.
We’ll come back to that in a bit, but that’s actually not how America started. In the spring of 1607, Jamestown was founded by the Virginia Company of London. That’s right, this is another video about Jamestown.
Actually it’s the video about Jamestown. Finally! This was the second attempt by the British to set up a colony in North America, the first being Roanoke, which disappeared over a decade earlier. And for the first few years, it looked like Jamestown would suffer the same fate. They established themselves on land that had been deemed worthless for agriculture by the local Powhatan tribe and this just happened to be in the middle of the worst drought to hit the area in almost a thousand years. Two-thirds of the colonists died before the first resupply ships arrived a year later. John Smith was one of those original colonists, he was set to be executed for mutiny upon arrival, but sealed orders from the Virginia Company named him as a leader and quite literally saved his neck. Despite the famine,
Smith kept the colony running by declaring that anyone who does not work, shall not eat. Then Smith was burned by an accidental gunpowder explosion and was shipped back to England in October 1609, never to return. What? Were you expecting me to say more? That’s literally the end of his involvement here.
The following winter was referred to as “The Starving Time,” since the colony was left practically leaderless and the population dropped from 500 to just sixty. The new governor arrived in 1610 and almost immediately began a war against the Powhatan. This is also when John Rolfe showed up in town with a shipment of tobacco seeds he smuggled from the Caribbean.
He exported his first successful crop in 1612. Having failed to find gold or anything else of value in the area, almost every other colonist began growing it too. As the First Anglo-Powhatan War raged on, the English captured Pocahontas, the daughter of the chief, and held her captive for over a year, which eventually forced a ceasefire.
She converted to Christianity and in March 1614, she helped broker a peace between the colonists and the Powhatan. Then she sealed the deal by marrying John Rolfe a month later. He was 29 years old and she was 18, both of them had been previously married. What? Does that not line up with the story you remember? A few years later, John Rolfe and Pocahontas went on a public relations tour of England to drum up support for the colony and show off how easy it is to Christianize the Natives. Just before their return journey, Pocahontas died of an unknown illness. She was buried in England,
where she remains to this day. John Rolfe died in Virginia in March 1622, and shortly afterwards, the Powhatans launched a surprise attack in the hopes of kicking the English out of their lands, killing about 350 colonists and beginning the Second Anglo-Powhatan war. John Smith didn't start telling that story about Pocahontas saving his life until 1624, his previous written accounts never mentioned it. It’s very unlikely it actually happened. Jamestown survived and became the first permanent British colony in North America.
It was founded as a company town and tobacco plantation, which began 250 years of slavery and 400 years of conflict with native peoples. If this isn’t a perfect microcosm of America, I don’t know what is. The true history of Jamestown really sets the tone for the future United States much more accurately than that fairy tale we tell ourselves about Plymouth Rock. But it isn’t as nice of a story, so we simply don’t teach it in school.
As a result, most of what white Americans know about the Indians comes from movies and TV. I’m willing to bet that the only version of the Jamestown story you were familiar with before clicking on this video came from that terrible Disney movie. In the movie, they seemed to have bought John Smith’s version of events at face value and even managed to turn it into a love story. If this were to happen in reality, Pocahontas would have been 9 years old. So I suppose it’s a good thing Disney decided to age her up. We’ll get into this more later on, but this movie is incredibly problematic, not only because it tells a false version of history, but it reinforces the native princess and noble savage tropes.
I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but the direct to video sequel is actually much more historically accurate, telling the story of John Rolfe and Pocahontas’ trip to England. Even small details like Chief Powhatan telling one of his men to carve a notch into a stick for every white person he saw actually happened. How do they build their huts so tall, can this be all one tribe? Though, this movie heavily relies on the fish out of water trope. And,
spoiler alert, in the Disney timeline, Pocahontas doesn’t die at the end. The Mayflower didn’t land at Plymouth Rock until 1620, almost a decade after Jamestown. I actually have a video explaining this… [TV Static] What the… It was working just a second ago! [Static] Well that’s a bummer…. I guess the Pilgrims will still be a story for another time. Hopefully I’m able to get that working soon… like… by next month. The future-United States didn't get involved in Indian Removal until the French and Indian War.
It’s called the French and Indian War because it was fought by the British colonists in America against the French and Indians… almost all of the Indians. Compared to the British, the French were much friendlier neighbors and trading partners, so nearly every nation sided with the French. The French had actually been in America for a few years longer than the British, their first permanent colony at St.
Croix had been established in 1604. They were more inclined to view the native people as equals and form military and trade alliances. The war began because the British colonists wanted to expand westward into the Ohio Valley, which was technically French territory and was occupied by tens of thousands of Native Americans… which will be a recurring theme going forward. This was the spark that ignited the Seven Years’ War in Europe a few years later. If you remember back to your elementary school history class, this is also why the British imposed taxes on the American colonists for things like tea... To pay for the war they started.
The Last of the Mohicans, both the book and the movie, takes place during this war. While it’s historical fiction and the characters are made up, the Siege of Fort William Henry is pretty accurately depicted and– wait a second! So, Hollywood movies are fine, but videos I made myself are just too much to ask for? Do you want to get copyright claimed? Because that’s how you get copy– [Beep] Glad to see my TV still has an attitude, ha ha… The British eventually won the French and Indian War, which is why Canada still has the Queen on their money, at least… well, you know.. I’m primarily going to focus on the United States in this video, but a lot of what I’m going to talk about is also applicable up north and I’ll occasionally draw parallels. After only a few months under British rule, an alliance of Great Lakes nations which included the Ojibwe and Shawnee decided to attack a series of forts in the Northwest Territory.
This is known as Pontiac’s War and is rather infamous for its use of subversive and shady tactics. Nearly 500 Ojibwe gathered outside of Fort Michilimackinac to watch a lacrosse game. The ball “accidentally” flew over the wall and when they ran in after it, they proceeded to slaughter every British soldier they could find.
On the British side of things, this was the first documented example of smallpox blankets being used. During the Siege of Fort Pitt, the fort commander wrote numerous letters back and forth with the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in North America regarding their predicament. Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected Tribes of Indians? We must, on this occasion, use every stratagem in our power to reduce them. I will try to inoculate the Indians by means of Blankets that may fall in their hands, taking care however not to get the disease myself. You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race. The materials needed to pull off that extirpation were transferred to the fort, we have the literal receipts.
But we don’t know if they were actually used or how effective they were. Smallpox doesn’t survive outside of the body for very long, so it’s unlikely that putting it on a blanket would spread the disease. But they still planned it and procured the means to carry it out.
In any court of law, that is still a crime. The war ended with a British victory, and as a way to appease the Indians, the King issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which restructured trade and social relations to be more similar to the French. It also declared that everything west of the Appalachians was to be considered Indian land and forbade American colonists from entering. It further stated that while all Indian nationals were British subjects, they were also independent and possessed limited sovereignty.
So dealings with them had to be conducted through treaty. This became the basis for how the future American and Canadian governments would regard Indigenous peoples. In December 1773, the Sons of Liberty, dressed as Mohawk warriors, sneaked onto a ship in Boston harbor and threw over 300 crates of tea into the ocean to protest those aforementioned taxes. Beginning a long American tradition of Native cultural appropriation. When the war officially kicked off in 1776, most native nations, including the Shawnee and Cherokee, sided with the British, because compared to the Americans, the British were much friendlier neighbors and trading partners. So… if ranked choice voting were a thing back then, it would go French, British, and then Americans. Let that sink in.
In an attempt to get more Indians to join the American cause, the US signed a treaty which declared the Lenape to be a sovereign nation who are allowed to conduct their own affairs. The Lenape agreed to allow travel across their lands, forts to be built, and to provide soldiers for the army. In return, the United States offered the Lenape and any other friendly Indians who cared to join them statehood at the successful conclusion of the war. This is why Indiana is named Indiana. That’s obviously not how it played out though, and that offer would never be extended during treaty negotiations ever again.
At the end of the Revolutionary War, the British ceded all lands west of the Appalachians to the new American government without regard to the Native peoples who were living there. They weren’t even mentioned in the Treaty of Paris, despite fighting on both sides. After just a few years under American rule, an alliance of Great Lakes nations known as the Northwest Confederacy, led primarily by the Shawnee and supported by the British, decided to fight back against westward expansion… again.
The war ended with the Treaty of Greenville, which forced the Northwest Confederacy to cede most of modern-day Ohio to the United States. Because of their defeat, the Great Lakes nations were left with a two to one ratio of women to men, which made hunting and providing food difficult. Due to these conditions, disease and alcoholism become rampant in their villages. It’s during this time that Tecumseh rose to prominence with the hope of creating a permanent Indian homeland. In 1805, his brother Lalawethika, who often struggled with binge-drinking, had a near-death experience and came out of it a completely reformed individual, urging others to reject alcohol and white influence in general. He changed his name to Tenskwatawa, became a prophet, and helped his brother rebuild the Northwest Confederacy.
At this point, assimilation was still the preferred American strategy for dealing with the Indians. The more Christian and western they were, the better. To quote Thomas Jefferson from a letter he sent to several tribes… You will unite yourselves with us, join in our great Councils and form one people with us and we shall all be Americans. You will mix with us by marriage, your blood will run in our veins, and will spread with us over this great [continent.] Well that sounds nice doesn’t? People throw this quote around all the time like Jefferson was unusually progressive and wanted America to become a multi-racial society. But at the same time, he was writing letters to his white territorial governors saying… Our settlements will gradually circumscribe and approach the Indians, and they will in time either incorporate with us as citizens of the United States, or remove beyond the Mississippi.
The former is certainly the termination of their history most happy for themselves. Basically, assimilation was the good ending to their history, while removal was not. You’ve seen the title of this video so, you already know which one we went with.
Jefferson was also instrumental in beginning the Factory System under the recently established Office of Indian Trade. We shall push our trading houses, and be glad to see the good and influential individuals among them run in debt, because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to [pay them off] by a cession of lands. These were government trading posts that would sell everyday household items like food, clothing, and tools. They didn’t charge outlandish prices, but the Indians would almost always fall into debt and since they didn’t have any money, the only thing they had to trade was their land.
These policies were designed to gradually chip away at tribal territory and native culture. By 1810, Tecumseh and his brother had gathered over a thousand soldiers at their stronghold known as Prophetstown and declared all land to be held in common by the Northwest Confederacy, unable to be sold without unanimous consent. The US had been buying land from individual tribes and families for years using the Factory System and obviously disagreed. They sent the territorial governor and a thousand troops to march on Prophetstown while Tecumseh was away recruiting in the South.
Tenskwatawa decided to launch a preemptive strike and lost. Their stronghold was looted and burned, and their soldiers were scattered to the wind. Tecumseh denounced his brother and never again heeded his prophetic wisdom. In June 1812, the US declared war on Britain over the disputed Northwest Frontier and their ongoing support for the rebelling Great Lakes Indian nations. Growing up, I was always taught that the War of 1812 began because the British were impressing American sailors, forcing them to serve the crown. And while that was happening,
it was a relatively minor issue at the time. This war was fought over westward expansion, which is significantly less righteous. If you’re keeping track, this is the fourth time we’ve fought over this same area.
Tecumseh joined the side of the British, who promised to create an Indian buffer state in the Great Lakes region. The Northwest Confederacy helped to defend the Canadian line, but Tecumseh himself was killed during the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813. The dream of an Indian homeland east of the Mississippi died with him. During his recruiting mission, Tecumseh inspired a Creek faction in the south to join the fight against the United States and they received help from both the British and the Spanish. Andrew Jackson led US troops during this campaign and earned a reputation as a seasoned Indian fighter.
He defeated the Creeks, the British, and the Spanish, which is why Florida is part of the United States today. He then went on to rather famously defend New Orleans. The War of 1812 ended in a technical draw, but the United States survived and got everything it wanted from the Treaty of Ghent so… you decide, I guess.
With the conclusion of the second war of independence, the US had defeated both the British and the Northwest Confederacy and its western border was firmly established at the Mississippi River. Now, I know what you’re going to say, “didn’t the Louisiana Purchase happen in 1803?” And yes, it did, but the United States viewed the Mississippi as a natural defensive barrier against whatever laid beyond. Even after the Lewis and Clark expedition, there weren’t any real plans to settle the area.
Further expeditions only reinforced that unwillingness. A year after Lewis and Clark, Zebulon Pike described the area as the American Sahara, deeming it worthless for agriculture, but perfect for Native peoples since there was plenty of game for hunting. Over a decade later, Steven Long agreed that the area was uninhabitable for farming and created a map titled The Great American Desert. Taking inspiration from the repatriation of freed slaves to Liberia, a former Baptist missionary named Isaac McCoy began to lobby Washington for the creation of a permanent Indian portion of the country. This area would be named Aboriginia and all Native peoples would make up one body politic, with each nation making up its own county or district.
Where would Aboriginia be located? Why, the Great American Desert, of course. An area that was so unmapped it might as well say “here be dragons.” And this lack of geographical knowledge allowed McCoy to convince everyone that it was perfectly fine country – without ever having visited himself.
Army surveyors were sent and again deemed it to be a barren waste, but at that point, the gears were already turning. The southern states in particular wanted the Indians gone and began complaining that their militias were always on high alert and their natural resources were left untapped because they didn’t possess their “vacant territory.” Vacant territory that was inhabited by tens of thousands of Native Americans who held that land since time immemorial and was guaranteed by treaty. The presidential election of 1828 was the first time non-land-owning white men were allowed to vote and they went with the populist war hero Andrew Jackson. During his first State of the Union address, he began advocating for the removal of American Indians beyond the Mississippi River.
The Last of the Mohicans was just published and it was widely assumed by white Americans that Indians were suffering a rapid, inevitable decline. The only way they could survive was if they moved west. Like they’re the elves from Lord of the Rings or something. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions came out against the Indian Removal Act and several benevolent ladies’ associations began the first women’s petition drive in history to prevent its passage.
Congress dismissed these efforts saying they were nothing in comparison to the millions who are silent and satisfied – what they referred to as the “contented majority.” It was voted on in the Senate five months later and passed 28 to 19. It didn’t look like it was going to pass in the House until three representatives from Pennsylvania changed their mind at the last minute, adopting it by a vote of 102 to 97. Every southerner voted unanimously in favor of the act, all they needed was a few northerners with business interests in the South to flip – and that’s exactly what they got. It’s also important to note that with the 3/5ths Compromise still in effect, the South had 21 more seats in the House than they should have since they were representing enslaved people who could not vote. Andrew Jackson signed the act into law on May 28, 1830, giving him the power to grant lands west of the Mississippi to Indian tribes in exchange for their current lands.
This is what their current lands looked like in 1830. The Choctaw and Chickasaw held half of Mississippi, the Creek Nation owned 20% of Alabama, the Creek and Cherokee owned 12% of Georgia, and the Seminole had 10% of Florida. These are the “Five Civilized Tribes” and these territories are basically the same size as states.
The Cherokee even enacted their own written constitution in 1827, with a democratically elected national council, three branches of government, legalized slavery, and most importantly – defined borders. Georgia was not fond of this because the Cherokee held prime cotton growing land and gold was discovered in their territory the very next year. This will be a recurring theme going forward. Within months, over a thousand miners had illegally entered Cherokee lands and the government refused to intervene. After the Indian Removal Act was signed, Georgia nullified all Cherokee laws and customs, making them subject to state law, and eventually forbidding their national council to even meet. Shortly afterwards, they began surveying Cherokee lands for the eventual redistribution to white settlers.
The Cherokee Nation sued the state of Georgia, arguing that state laws cannot apply in their territory and the Supreme Court refused to rule on the merits of the case because the Cherokee had no standing. Do you remember Dred Scott? Because this is exactly like Dred Scott. The Cherokee were not a state or even a foreign country, instead they were described as a “domestic dependent nation,” and as such, they had no right to sue in federal court. This effectively made them wards of the United States rather than citizens or even foreign nationals.
But then Georgia messed up by arresting eleven missionaries living in Cherokee territory for not taking an oath of allegiance to the state and sentenced them to four years of hard labor. Realizing his mistake, the governor offered pardons to the missionaries and all but two accepted. Now, these two white citizens of the United States could sue and make the same argument as the Cherokee, that Georgia law does not apply within their borders. Worcester v. Georgia made it to the Supreme Court and was decided on March 3, 1832. The Indian nations had always been considered as distinct, independent, political communities, retaining their original natural rights, as the undisputed possessors of the soil, from time immemorial. … The Cherokee nation, then, is a distinct community, occupying its own territory, with boundaries accurately described, in which the laws of Georgia can have no force, and which the citizens of Georgia have no right to enter, but with the assent of the Cherokees themselves.
Boom, complete legal victory for the Cherokee Nation… This should be the end of the video, the Supreme Court said they are distinct and independent and state laws have no force in their borders… But Georgia was furious, they saw this as federal overreach and refused to recognize the decision, even beginning to use the word secession. I know I’ve said this a few times already, but this will be a recurring theme for America, not just this video – anytime the South doesn’t get exactly what they want, they threaten to take their ball and go home. You know, like petulant children.
The Cherokee Nation was in a hopeless position, they had used the courts like they were supposed to and won, but Andrew Jackson refused to lift a finger to enforce the ruling. If they wanted to stay in their homeland, their only real option would be to fight – and I really wouldn’t blame them if they did. Now, obviously the Cherokee were not the only nation subject to removal, some of the Choctaws, Seminoles, and several Great Lakes nations had already been relocated and at this point in the story, mostly voluntarily.
They saw the writing on the wall, if they didn’t leave, they would be exterminated. And the assignment of land west of the Mississippi was first come-first served. If you wanted the best pieces of the Great American Desert, it didn’t hurt to get in early. But those first groups suffered losses as high as 20% within their first year, which discouraged others from voluntarily relocating. So the southern states began to use their own violence against Native Americans to justify their forced expulsion – you know, for their own safety. They started to promote removal as a humanitarian effort.
You know how some religions force women to cover up most of their bodies because it’s just too tempting for men to see ankles or hair? This is very similar, the tribes need to move because Americans just can’t restrain themselves from murdering Indians. Think about what that says about us as a country. With the dream of a peaceful, voluntary relocation dead and gone, removal operations were placed under the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA, an agency formed under the command of the military. Forced migrations have taken place all throughout history, but this one was unique. 66,000 people had to be moved over a thousand miles away, the logistics alone were a nightmare. Food and supplies had to arrive at the next fort along the trail before the “deportees.” So the military,
which only had 12,000 servicemembers, kept extremely detailed records of literally everything. Prior to this, mass expulsions were carried out under threat of force at the end of a bayonet. But this one was executed through paperwork and a government bureaucracy.
The fact that it was more civilized doesn’t make it any better, in fact, it makes it more cold and calculated. Now, I need to go off on the first of many tangents that will seem unrelated at first, but I promise there’s a point to this. Nice, it’s like we’re living in the future.
Cholera first arrived in North America in the spring of 1832, likely in Quebec, and quickly spread across the Northeast. Cholera is a bacterial disease which is transmitted through contaminated food and water, with symptoms including watery vomit and “voluminous and distinctive rice-water diarrhea.” Voluminous, there’s a word I don’t use very often. Someone with the disease would puke or poop in the river and then someone else downstream would drink it.
Before the advent of antibiotics, it had a mortality rate of about 50% and some people died within hours of the onset of symptoms. Now in April 1832, the Sauk Nation crossed back over the Mississippi to try and retake the homes they were forced to leave. This began the Black Hawk War and the military was ordered to drive them back into the West with the help of over 4500 Illinois volunteers – including a young Abraham Lincoln. Facing strong resistance,
General Henry Atkinson requested reinforcements in mid-June. Two ships were dispatched from New York to Chicago. The Henry Clay carried 370 troops while the Sheldon Thompson carried 190… and both ships were infected with cholera. The Henry Clay’s detachment was reduced to just 68, while the Thompson lost half.
They threw the bodies overboard into the Great Lakes which then washed up in Chicago, and congratulations, cholera is now in the West and began spreading down the Mississippi. Here’s the kicker… the Black Hawk War ended before those sickly reinforcements arrived in Illinois. With the war over, all of those infected troops and Indian prisoners of war were released to unknowingly carry the disease back home and spread it in their own communities. The second wave of Choctaw removal began in October 1832 as a race against cholera. The 2200 deportees arrived in Memphis, Tennessee just as the disease struck the city causing them to shelter in place for far too long.
They arrived in the West on December 8th, which was way too late in the season to clear fields and plant crops. In the coming spring, the Choctaw ran out of food and resorted to scavenging carrion and eating six-year-old condemned pork which the military had deemed unfit for human consumption. 20% of them died by the end of summer. Washington refused to help, saying that they needed to learn self-reliance rather than dependence on the government.
Those who were not cultivating crops would be left to starve. Where have we heard that one before? In the hopes of convincing more Native nations to voluntarily relocate, Congress passed the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act of 1834, declaring all land west of the Mississippi, but not part of any current state or territory, to be Indian Country with total sovereignty. Too many white settlers had moved into the area before the law could take effect, so the boundary was shifted to the 95th Meridian. For those keeping track, this is the third time the border of “Indian country” has moved since America was founded.
First it was the Appalachians, then the Mississippi, and now it’s an imaginary line on a map. The government likewise funded the construction of a string of forts to form a wall of defense down the Mississippi, to permanently separate whites and Indians. The nations remaining in the East didn’t believe that promise, for good reason, and continued to resist expulsion.
Both the Creek and Seminole began a war to hold onto their lands. The Cherokee on the other hand split into factions, some wanted to stay, while others wanted to secure the best possible terms for their removal. As such, a Treaty Party of twenty Cherokee leaders negotiated the Treaty of New Echota, ceding all their lands in the southeast in exchange for a $5 million payout and funds to relocate west and build schools, churches, and homes. This was a self-appointed group of unelected officials, they had no authority to sign such a treaty. Not that that mattered to the US government.
The treaty signatories thought they were doing what was best for the nation, but also knew that they would be branded as traitors since they had violated their own constitution. So they, along with 2000 others, voluntarily relocated to Indian Territory immediately. The rest of the Cherokee were given two years to relocate themselves peacefully, otherwise the Army would do it by force. Troops were dispatched to Cherokee territory in preparation for that outcome.
The military had just marched 1200 Creek Indians in chains and forced them to sleep on the ground at night. They weren’t playing around anymore. The Cherokee tried to wait out Andrew Jackson’s presidency, in the hope that the next president would be more sympathetic and suspend the removal order, allowing them to stay. Martin Van Buren took office in 1837… he was Andrew Jackson’s vice president. All hope was basically lost at that point. On May 26, 1838, three days after the voluntary removal deadline, 3500 soldiers were ordered to arrest all 16,000 remaining Cherokee and deliver them under guard to the nearest fort for deportation.
No time was given for them to collect their belongings and anything left behind was considered abandoned. White people moved in immediately and were cooking in Cherokee kitchens and sleeping in Cherokee beds before they had even gone cold. Following the arrests, General Winfield Scott declared that “Georgia has been entirely cleared of red population.” A small band of Cherokee managed to escape and hid in the mountains of North Carolina, the Army was unable to apprehend them and they eventually gained recognition as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. A few weeks after the mass arrest, the Army deported 3000 Cherokee by steamboat, resulting in a 10% loss of life. Steamboats were incredibly dangerous back in the day, often exploding without warning.
So the Cherokee Nation negotiated a delay in removal until fall, at which point they’d travel by foot. Until then, they remained in what can only be described as concentration camps. Hundreds died from starvation and exposure. Beginning in October 1838, 11,000 Cherokee and their 1600 slaves began the four month journey west in eleven separate detachments that all took slightly different routes.
This is known as the Trail of Tears, one of the few things taught in school – though usually stripped of all context. Of the total 15,354 Cherokee that were removed over the course of the decade, 986 of them died as a direct result of deportation. I told you the Army kept meticulous records. When you consider starvation, exposure, disease, and all the other causes, the death toll is significantly higher. Almost certainly in the thousands, but also heavily disputed.
Upon the main group’s arrival in Indian Territory, they assassinated the key members of the Treaty Party for selling out the rest of the nation. It would take decades for the various factions to settle their differences. The Cherokee were paid $1.68 million for their land and $416,000 for their stolen property. But at the same time, since they didn’t voluntarily relocate, they were charged $1.35 million for the expenses involved in their own deportation. In the end, each family only received $125 in compensation.
The Chickasaw were likewise billed for their own removal, but were left with nothing. The Second Seminole War lasted until 1842, a few hundred managed to hold their ground in Florida and were eventually recognized as the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida. Over the course of the Indian Removal Act, the native population in the east was reduced from 100,000 to just 15,000.
The United States spent 40% of its federal budget on Indian Removal in the 1830s for a total of $75 million. That’s over a trillion in today’s money. If this were to happen in the present-day, it would cost $12.5 million for each individual Indian shipped to the West.
But they also made $80 million dollars by selling the now-vacant land to white settlers. So in the end, the government made a slight profit expelling Native Americans from their homes. Almost immediately, northern anti-slavery societies recognized the expulsion for what it was – a chance for southern plantation owners to expand slavery and grow their political power. If you remember the Constitution, untaxed Indians were not counted for representation in Congress, but 3/5ths of the African slaves were.
By the time of the civil war hundreds of thousands of white farmers and plantation owners, their workers, and their slaves had moved into the former Indian territories… so when you hear people from the South say things like… The average Confederate soldier wasn’t fighting for slavery, he was just defending his traditional way of life and repelling invaders from his family home. Keep in mind that if they lived in any of these areas, they’d only been there for about 25 years. I don’t know how long it takes for a place to become a “family home”, but I’m pretty sure it’s longer than that. And that idea isn’t true anyway, the Confederacy had territorial ambitions. Secession wasn’t their only goal. The South was actually planning to expand slavery around the entire Caribbean to establish an American version of Slaver’s Bay from Game of Thrones.
Though they called it the Golden Circle, which isn’t any better. This was one of the primary motivations for the Mexican American War - they wanted to take all of it. When the federal government declared that all land west of the Mississippi was Indian Country, the United States looked like this. But after the Mexican American War, it looked like this. I mean, we’re not seriously going to give them half of the country are we? Of course not.
So in 1851, Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act, giving them the power to set aside land, money, and supplies for the establishment of permanent reservations to be managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Which had just been moved from the military to the newly established Department of the Interior, making it a civilian agency. This opened the door to all kinds of corruption issues and marked a shift in federal policy away from removal beyond the Mississippi and towards containment on small parcels. What followed was a spree of treaties as nations wanted to ensure their continued existence on their own land with as much autonomy as possible. Reservations were not gifts or consolation prizes for past mistreatment. The United States did not give Native Americans any land – they gave us land and reserved a small portion for themselves.
Remember, from their perspective, we were the foreign invaders that they were trying to appease. The most notable treaty for our purposes was the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, signed by the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Assiniboine, Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa Nations. It set aside this enormous piece of land as permanent Indian territory in exchange for allowing wagon trains to pass through. The gold rush had just begun in California and tens of thousands of white settlers were crossing the Great Plains, wanting assurances of safe passage.
The United States had deemed the plains useless for agriculture and were more than happy to let the various plains tribes keep it. In order to properly claim all of that land that was ceded by Mexico following the war, the US had to populate it with Americans and the best way to do that was to give away land. So in 1862, the Homestead Act was passed, selling 160-acre plots out west for just $1.25 an acre, which was so cheap it might as well have been free.
But this also meant that white Americans wouldn’t just be passing through Indian territory, they’d be moving in next door. The Homestead Act was the biggest government land settling project in American history. Free land was offered to settlers so that the Plains could be colonized and the Native Americans driven away. The Homestead Act was not free. It’s funny that he said “free land was offered to settlers” while showing broadsheet stating “farms for sale” “a few dollars now means a farm for your old age.” But that’s beside the point.
Even at these prices thousands of people took up the government's offer. So while the US was distracted by the Civil War, the Santee Sioux decided it was time to try and kick the whites out. Chief Little Crow led an attack against several forts and settlements in Minnesota. They looted the agencies on their reservation and took hundreds of white prisoners. The governor of Minnesota declared that the “Indians must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.” They wasted no time, the war ended five weeks later and resulted in the largest mass execution in American history, when 38 Santee Sioux were hanged simultaneously. A few months later,
the remaining Santee who surrendered were deported from Minnesota to Dakota territory. Chief Little Crow actually managed to escape the noose, but was killed by a random deer hunter looking to score the $25 bounty on Indian scalps. His scalp and bones were put on display in the Minnesota state capitol building in St. Paul until 1915. While we don’t usually pay too much attention to it, the Civil War was also fought in the southwest.
Confederate troops from Texas were pushing into New Mexico by 1862. The Navajo had been raiding American settlements for a decade at this point, but quickly split into factions supporting either side. Once General James Carleton and the California Column had successfully repelled the Confederate advance, he declared open season on any hostile Indians in the territory. The US ordered all of the Navajo to return to their reservation by July 20, 1863 – but none of them arrived. Kit Carson and the New Mexico Volunteers were sent into the mountains on a scorched earth campaign; they destroyed crops and killed livestock in the hope of starving them out. It worked, the 3000 Navajo camped in the canyons surrendered in March 1864.
Along with all of the peaceful Navajo, they were forced to march 300 miles from Fort Canby, Arizona to their new reservation near Fort Sumner, New Mexico, an event now known as the Long Walk of the Navajo. This is just as important an event to the Navajo as the Trail of Tears is to the Cherokee. And the path they took is now part of the famous Route 66.
They were only given the bare essentials to eat, like flour and lard, which they used to make fry bread, the quintessential Native American meal which is ubiquitous on every reservation and across every nation. Throw some meat, cheese, and vegetables on there and you’ve got yourself an Indian taco. They’re delicious. Even if their origin story is a little dark and they’re incredibly unhealthy for you.
Several hundred died along the way, but General Carleton declared the removal a success. Even admiring the way the Navajo eventually submitted in the end. They have fought us gallantly for years and years; they have defended their mountains and their stupendous canyons with a heroism which any people might be proud to emulate; but when … they found it was their destiny … as it had been that of their brethren … to give way to the insatiable progress of our race, they threw down their arms.
If you read between the lines there, he’s talking about Manifest Destiny. The sense that God had ordained that the American people should fulfill their boundaries, basically Manifest Destiny, you know, that it was America’s obligation as the shining city on the hill to claim this land. This is a big part of the Standard American History Myth, where Native Americans are presented as an obstacle to westward expansion. When you learn about the Oregon Trail and the American West in school, Indians are nothing more than a hazard to the pioneers, on the same list of worries as rattlesnakes and thunderstorms. In 1858, the Pike’s Peak gold rush began in Colorado and Denver City was founded soon afterwards. The territorial governor signed a treaty with the Utes granting them everything west of the Continental Divide and $20,000 a year in goods and provisions.
The Utes agreed to relinquish the mineral rights to their land and not trouble any of the white miners in their territory. The Cheyenne and Arapaho controlled the eastern half of Colorado until the gold rush, at which point they ceded most of their territory, but were still allowed to roam and hunt on the plains as they pleased. The Dog Soldiers were a militaristic band of Indians from several different nations that weren’t happy about that treaty.
They began raiding settlements and attacking wagon trains and stagecoaches in retaliation and all of these incidents were blamed on the relatively peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho. For their own safety, the governor ordered all Indians onto the reservation near Fort Lyon by the end of the next month or they would be declared hostile. The Cheyenne and Arapaho were scattered across the plains for their summer hunt and two months simply wasn’t enough time for them to receive the order and pack up to move – even if they wanted to. In September, a Cheyenne chief named Black Kettle rode to Denver to secure peace, but the governor wasn’t having any of it.
The US Army was busy with the Civil War, so Colorado had just raised a new regiment of soldiers using federal funds specifically to fight Indians, so they had to be used for that purpose. The men who volunteered to join that unit wanted to fight poorly armed Natives, not well-trained Confederates. It was kind of like joining the Air National Guard to avoid going to Vietnam. Black Kettle and the Cheyenne relented and rode to Fort Lyon, where the commander told them to set up camp outside, stating that they would still be under the fort’s protection.
Once they set up camp at Sand Creek, the fort commander allowed the Cheyenne men to go on a buffalo hunt. He then sent a message to Colonel Chivington informing him that there was a looming Indian threat nearby and he needed reinforcements. The Colorado Regiment arrived shortly afterwards.
In the middle of the night on November 28th, 700 troops surrounded the Cheyenne camp, which hadn’t set up any defenses because they were assured protection. The next morning, Black Kettle raised a US flag over his tent to show that they were peaceful, but that didn’t matter. Chivington ordered his troops to open fire on the 600 Cheyenne, two-thirds of which were women and children since the men were away. To their credit, two companies refused to take part in the battle, calling it a well-planned massacre and “murder in every sense of the word.” The Cheyenne raised a white flag of surrender, they laid down their arms, and refused to fight, but none of that stopped the indiscriminate, brutal killing. 105 women and children were killed compared to only 28 men. The Americans only lost nine.
The American soldiers mutilated and desecrated the corpses of their victims. They decorated their uniforms with scalps and even cut out male and female genitalia to wear them on their hats. This must be part of that “insatiable progress of our race” we’ve been hearing about. This was the Sand Creek Massacre and if you learned about this breadcrumb in school, it was probably framed as if it were a random weather event.
Oh yeah, it was some sort of misunderstanding. The troops misinterpreted something as hostile and, you know, these things happen. It’s unfortunate, but we can’t undo the past. Nothing about the Sand Creek Massacre was accidental or unfortunate.
It was planned weeks in advance. The governor of Colorado created a unit specifically to fight Indians and ordered the Cheyenne onto a reservation. When they arrived, the military told them to wait outside.
That special unit then surrounded and killed them for no other reason than to do it. To quote Colonel Chivington… I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians. Pretty understandably, the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and several other Plains nations were no longer interested in calls for peace by the Americans and began raiding wagon trains, cutting telegraph wires, and scalping settlers. Yes, I just said I understand why they scalped settlers. How could you not? Why is it that when we do it, it’s an honest misunderstanding caused by a few bad apples. But when they do it, they’re uncivilized, bloodthirsty savages.
We were the ones killing women and children and making hats out of their body parts. Wouldn’t you retaliate? The Cheyenne and Arapaho were driven from Colorado that summer and on October 14, 1865, they signed a treaty agreeing to a perpetual peace and relinquishing all claims and rights within the territory. Black Kettle then took his band into Oklahoma and Kansas to join up with the Kiowa and Comanche. A little over a year later,
these nations banded together in a war to save the buffalo, which were being exterminated for their hides… [TV Static] Oh c’mon, that one had a Starship Troopers reference and everything, it would have connected– fine! Another video to look forward to, I guess. In 1877, the governor of Colorado began a propaganda campaign declaring that the “Utes Must Go!” Despite being allowed to mine in their territory, white settlers wanted more and more land, buying the San Juan mountains for a $25,000 annual payment, forever. So the governor manufactured crimes, claiming the Utes were intimidating settlers and starting wildfires in the area. Then there was another staged conflict between Indians and the military known as the Meeker Massacre, where the Utes put up much more of a fight and took several white prisoners. This gave the US justification to confiscate their land and the Utes were forced onto a tiny reservation in the southwest corner of the state.
This is how Manifest Destiny actually played out. Is there still any part of this that still strikes you as inevitable? With the Civil War over, westward migration increased by an order of magnitude. In addition to railroads, the United States began constructing trails and forts along the various routes to make travel easier and started renegotiating treaties to ensure safe passage. Talks with the Sioux and Cheyenne nations of the Black Hills region broke down in 1866. An Oglala chief named Red Cloud accused the Americans of treating in bad faith, as they had already started construction of the Bozeman Trail before negotiations had even begun. A few months later, they attacked Fort Phil Kearny by luring the soldiers out into the open and slaughtering all them.
This was the worst defeat for the US Army during the Indian Wars and only the second time they were left with no survivors, having lost all eighty-one garrisoned troops. This began Red Cloud’s War, which lasted two years and resulted in a Sioux victory. The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie was a concession on the part of the United States. They abandoned the forts they built in the area and declared the western half of South Dakota to be the Great Sioux Reservation.
Surveyors had deemed the Black Hills worthless, so they were given exclusively to the Sioux forever. This actually annoyed surrounding nations like the Cheyenne and Crow, who also viewed the Black Hills as a sacred, ancestral area with deep spiritual significance. It’s kind of like Jerusalem, everyone has some sort of claim to it. So, why were they given to the Sioux, who are actually the newest kids on the block? Tangent Time! Five hundred years before Columbus’ arrival, the Ojibwe were located on the east coast.
They received a religious prophecy which told them to start moving west until they found a land where food grew on water. They found wild rice in the Great Lakes region and settled there just in time to fight against the British during the French and Indian War. Following the various wars and removal acts, they had firmly established themselves as the dominant nation in what would become Wisconsin and Minnesota, having displaced the previous power in the area – the Sioux.
The Ojibwe and the Sioux became longtime rivals, even harboring some resentment to this day. Hopefully that dispels the myth that Native Americans were peaceful before Europeans arrived. They went to war with each other, they invaded each others’ territory, took slaves, all the things that every other nation does. American Indians throughout history are people just like everyone else.
And now that I’ve said Sioux a dozen times, I know I’m going to get a bunch of “well actuallies” if I don’t address this – and I’m willing to bet most of the comments about this have it wrong anyway, so here goes. The Ojibwe called their rivals Nadowessi, which the French pluralized to Nadowessioux, later shortened to just Sioux. This makes Sioux an exonym. They of course have a name for themselves in their own language, but in all of their legal dealings and in everyday conversation, they use Sioux as their name. The Great Sioux Nation share a common culture and language, split into three distinct subgroups. There are the Nakota in the north, the Dakota in the east, and the Lakota in the west.
It’s that first letter that makes each language dialect unique. These terms are not synonymous. The Lakota are to the Sioux what Californians are to America. They’re by far the largest group within the Sioux, but not the only. Within the Lakota nation, there are seven individual tribes, including the Hunkpapa, Miniconjou, Brule, and the one you’re most likely familiar with, the Oglala.
Each of these terms are acceptable identifiers with differing degrees of specificity. Most every Indian tribe in the country has a similar naming structure. If you’re ever confused as to what to call someone, just ask… that’s actually good advice across the board, really.
The Sioux were defeated by the Ojibwe and settled in the Black Hills only a few decades before the United States declared them its sole possessors with that 1868 treaty. And given that known history, the federal government never really took the Sioux’s ancestral claim too seriously. Now, the argument could be made that maybe the Black Hills shouldn’t belong exclusively to the Sioux, but rather all of the plains nations collectively… But there’s really no case where the United States could make a claim. They had relinquished all of their rights to that land under two separate treaties and forbade their citizens from entering the area. Congress signed the Indian Appropriations Act in 1871, which put an end to treaty making with the Indian tribes. Between 1777 and 1868, they had signed 368 different treaties.
You would think that the end of the treaty period would mean that there wouldn’t be any more changes to the map, but… we’re not even halfway through the video. In 1874, the US Army sent General George Armstrong Custer into the Black Hills, in flagrant violation of the treaty, to investigate rumors of gold being discovered in the area. Ore deposits were found, roads were cut, and here we are again! I told you this will be a recurring theme. Within six months, over a thousand miners had illegally entered Cherokee lands and the go– Oh, sorry, got the wrong line here… [Beep] Within months, over a thousand miners had illegally flooded the Black Hills and the government began negotiating for the purchase of those lands. Which, under the 1868 treaty, would require the assent of 3/4ths of all male Sioux. The Oglala under Crazy Horse and the Hunkpapa under Sitting Bull refused to attend the treaty council, causing the deal to collapse.
The American representatives recommended to Congress that