Primary Source: The Brutality of Civilization (The Nation - May 30, 1889)

“The Brutality of Civilization” - The Nation (May 30, 1889). Slightly Edited for Classroom Use.

The disgraceful scenes which have accompanied the opening of that part of the Indian Territory known as Oklahoma to white settlers are putting no check to this legalized trespassing on the lands of the Indians; and a committee of the United States Senate is about to begin negotiations with the Cherokee for the part of their possessions in the Indian Territory known as the “Cherokee Strip.” There is no doubt that the proposition to take this land from its owners comes entirely from the white men, and is with practical unanimity opposed by the Cherokees. But there are indications that there is a determination to make short work of this opposition, and even to treat with scorn those provisions of the Cherokee Constitution under which alone the voice of that people in the matter can be legally obtained. 

A United States Senator is quoted as saying that unless these Indians do what, under their laws, they cannot do – that is, call a council at once to consider the matter – Congress will pass a law opening their lands to settlement without giving them any voice on the subject; and a leading California journal has declared that the Government cannot evict the settlers who have entered these lands in violation of the most solemn agreements, and that there is “practical justice” in what it is not ashamed to call “this crowding-out game.”

If some critic of our Government wanted to bring the most direct proof of the perfidy of the people of the United States towards the original owners of our soil, he would cite our dealings with these Cherokees. When Oglethorpe came over from England in 1733 with his paupers to found a colony, he landed in the Cherokees’ country. He found them ready to welcome him, and eager not only to learn from him the arts of civilization, but to be instructed in Christianity. He encountered implacable enemies in the white Spaniards and Frenchmen, but only allies and defenders in the Indians, whom no bribes could win away from him. 

But the trustees of the colony in time abandoned the enterprise, and a royal government was set up. Then came bad faith with the Indians and resultant wars, and out of these came, in 1763, the inevitable treaty. By this they ceded a large tract of their lands to the whites. The Cherokees remained loyal to the British during the Revolutionary war and were great sufferers by it. White men steadily encroached on their possessions, and when they came to deal with the Government of the United States, one of their first requests was, as it will be now, that trespassers should be removed.  The Government professed its inability to do this in 1785, by which the Indians accepted pay for their lost territory. 

Four years later the Secretary of War reported to the President that “it has been proved that the said treaty has been entirely disregarded by the white people.” Again the treaty swindle was made use of, and a new agreement, in 1791, was made, under which the Cherokees were to receive $1,000 a year for the lands of which they had been robbed, and “new boundaries were established.” This treaty “solemnly guarantees to the Cherokee Nation all their lands not hereby ceded.”

But the boomers of those days continued their encroachments without any cessation. Another treaty was made in 1794, and in 1801 the President sent a commission on an errand exactly like that of the present Senate Committee, “to obtain the consent of the Cherokees” to still newer boundaries. They refused consent, but the pressure on them continued, and in 1805 they made another cession of lands, in 1816 two more cessions, which took away all their possessions in South Carolina, and in 1817 still another; this time the Government solemnly covenanting to give to each head of a family east of the Mississippi 640 acres, “with a reversion in fee simple to their children.” 

These Indians whom the Government was thus steadily robbing, were even then not savages. So long ago as when Oglethorpe made their acquaintance they had said: “We would not be made Christians as the Spaniards make Christians; we would be taught before we are baptized.” They manufactured cotton cloth in 1800, and in 1820 they had schools, a national form of government, and farms under cultivation, and almost every family used the card and spinning-wheel. 

But of what avail was a treaty with Indians when they occupied lands that when men coveted? In 1820 the beginning of the end was reached. In that year Georgia passed a so-called law annulling all laws and ordinances passed by the Cherokees, and providing that no Cherokee or Creek should be a competent witness in any court when a white man was a party to the suit. Then the State demanded that the Federal Government should extinguish all the Indian titles to lands within her boundaries. 

The history of the dispossession of the Cherokees has never been fully written, and it is to be hoped, for the sake of the white men, that it never will be. The bad men among them were bribed; their lands were put up at lottery by the whites; Cherokees were hanged by the verdict of white juries, and so greatly were they persecuted that, beautiful as was their country and strong as was their love of it, they yielded at last, and in 1835, after persistent opposition, they took the final step, and ceded to the Government all their lands east of the Mississippi. What they gave up is thus described in a report made to the War Department in 1825:

“The plains furnish immense pasturage, and numberless herds of cattle are dispersed over them; horses are plenty; numerous flocks of sheep, goats, and swine cover the valleys and hills. The climate is delicious and healthy. In the plains and valleys the soil is generally rich, producing Indian corn, cotton, tobacco, wheat, oats, indigo, and sweet and Irish potatoes. Apple and peach orchards are quite common, and gardens are cultivated. There are many public roads and houses of entertainment kept by natives. Numerous and flourishing villages are seen in every section of the country. Cotton and woollen cloths are manufactured. Different branches in mechanics are pursued.”

Is it any wonder that this people clung to their homes until an army was sent to drive them out? “The full moon of May is already on the wane,” said Gen. Scott in his warning proclamation to them, “and before another shall have passed away every Cherokee, man, woman, and child, in those States (North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama) must be in motion to join, their brethren in the West.” There was even haggling by Gen. Scott over the Indians’ estimate of the cost of their journey; he thought that sixteen cents a day for rations was too high. We will not attempt to picture this journey of young and old half-way across the continent. 

It is the last refuse of these Indians that Congress once more proposes to cut down. Some of this land they have already been coerced into parting with. Is it any wonder that they protest against giving up any more? These Indians, it must be remembered, are not the strolling bands found on the Sioux reservation, dependent on Government rations for food (now that their game is killed off), and still retaining their savage customs. They are a civilized nation, with carefully devised form of government, living in neat houses (see a recent report of the Interior Department), owning sewing machines and pianos, raising their own wool and cotton, maintaining schools at a cost of some $75,000 a year, with stores, mills, and smith-shops, a printed constitution and laws, and a weekly newspaper. 

It is a sad chapter in our history, this story of the Cherokees, and there does not seem to be vitality enough in public sentiment on the subject of Indian wrongs to give any assurance that new chapters will not have to be written, so long as white boomers covet the red man’s land, and members of Congress see a way to strengthening themselves with their constituents by assisting in the theft.

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