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Native Americans During The 19th Century
Early raids, during the 17th century, on Indian villages by white, Jamestown settlers was an ominous sign of what was yet to come. The arrival of the Europeans to the New World started an age of exploration as well as subjugation of the natives who populated the continent. Although this mistreatment continued throughout several hundreds of years, it had its greatest impact on the United States during the 19th century. Fresh from its victory against England along with the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, the United States was ready to settle the lands to the west. In this territory, however, lived the surviving tribes of Native Americans. Their life during this time was one of great suffering and injustice. They were forced off the lands which they had lived in for thousands of years. The reason behind this had to do with the political, economical, and cultural situation of the United State at the time.
There was a brief time after the Revolution in which the government of the United States was actually in favor of respecting the territorial boundaries of the Native Americans. According to Howard Zinn in his book, “A People’s History of the United States”, Secretary of War, Henry Knox, agreed that, “The Indians being the prior occupants, possess the right of the soil” (Zinn 126). As people continued moving west, the government came under pressure to open up new lands. It was then that president Jefferson offered the Native Americans two choices: they would either become part of white society or they would migrate west across the Mississippi. They had to give up their lands one way or another. This was more heavily enforced later on with Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Bill which simply stated that Indians, “…shall be free to go or stay as they please” (White 93). Most of the native tribes didn’t want to move so other measures were taken. Military force was used against many tribes like the Creeks, who ended up losing 22 million acres of land and the Seminoles living in Florida which, according to Jacson, “…was a sanctuary for escaped slaves and for marauding Indians” (Zinn 129). Treaties made with the government fooled the Native Americans into giving up their land in exchange for false hopes. While the government had their reasons for Indian removal, so did the people who were looking for wealth.
The fact that Native Americans lived there didn’t stop the land-hungry whites who were after private property and profit. The removal of the Native Americans was needed for, “…the opening of the vast American lands to agriculture, to commerce, to markets, to money…” (Zinn 126). With the age of industrialization growing rapidly, new land was required for the manufacturing and exporting of goods that would strengthen the country’s economy. Cash crops such as cotton and tobacco produced a lot of money but they also drained the soil of nutrients faster than other crops which meant that new land was needed for planting every few years. The increase in plantations meant an increase in slave labor which at the time was a profitable business. An additional factor to the need for more land was the continued growth of the population which nearly doubled from 5.3 million in 1800 to 9.6 million in 1820. The treatment of the Native Americans during this period of time wasn’t entirely for materialistic reasons but instead had some cultural justification as well.
European settlers always thought of themselves as being racially superior to the “primitive” Native Americans, when in fact they were, in their own way, just as advanced as the Europeans. The Native Americans developed their own form of government, built great civilizations, spoke over 2,000 different dialects, and they considered themselves equal in society; they had practically achieved utopia. Nevertheless, early Puritan settlers still though them to be heathens and savages who needed to be “civilized”. The governor of the Michigan Territory during the 1830s, Lewis Cass, ignorantly claimed that he was an expert on the Indians. In his article in an 1830 edition of “North American Review”, Cass stated that we must not regret “…the progress of civilization and improvement, the triumph of industry and art, by which these regions have been reclaimed, and over which freedom, religion, and science are extending their way” (Zinn 132). Cass wished that it could have been done with a smaller sacrifice when he himself took millions of acres from the Indians. In addition, Andrew Jackson stated that Indian removal would offer advantages to everyone. For white settlers it would disperse the dense population throughout the acquired lands and for Indians it would, “…cause them, gradually, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community” (Zinn 140). White settlers also feared the Native American’s religious ideas which, in the case of the prophet Tenskwatawa spoke “…of the superior virtues of Indian civilization…and the corruption of the white world”.
The treatment of the Native Americans during the 19th century was justified by the actions of the United State government, the growing economy of the nation, and the white people’s opinion about the Indians. As the Native Americans were pushed off their homelands, many put up a resistance. Despite their best efforts they were forced to migrate; the main reason behind it being “human progress”. Over 200 years later, their lands which once consisted of millions of acres have now been reduced to minuscule reservations. One can only wonder if it could have been different, if white settlers and Native Americans could have learned from one another to create a lasting peace between them.