In observing this year’s Thanksgiving Day and last month’s Columbus Day, it’s the perfect time to reexamine the tradition where these two holidays primarily involve our European ancestors and their declared “discovery” of America. 

Alas, students are taught that faulty assertion in classrooms across the U.S.  Expectedly, the general public is conditioned to believe it. That’s not surprising, since U.S. mainstream history relies on the Age of Discovery (1500s-1700s), which in itself is a purely European history era.

The article below briefly summarizes how that colonialism mentality affected indigenous inhabitants of the Southeast and surrounding area. Hopefully, it will help readers realize why the European-centered focus is unjust. 

In truth, nomadic humans crossed over frozen Beringia many thousands of years ago and were first to set foot in America. More importantly, their descendants still live here today. That is, America didn’t need discovering. To say otherwise is wrong.  

Chances are you’ve never heard of Jeremiah F. Evarts (1781-1831). Yet, there’s a very good chance you‘ve heard of his opponent, Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), (Army General and 7th president of the U.S.). Both were fighters in lateral arenas.  

Mr. Evarts fought his entire life advocating for Native American human rights. General Jackson fought the British, vigorously attacked the Seminole and other tribes, and was hostile toward the Spanish in Florida. 

The confrontation was a contest between two committed combatants. Evarts championed social justice. Jackson championed white settlers who wanted Native Americans expelled from their ancestral lands. Worse, Jackson callously claimed that it was for the Native Americans’ own good.  

Their two opposing objectives tell the other side of conventional U.S. history that should be taught in the classroom. However, as other unflattering historical episodes, approved U.S. history books whitewash the story (no pun intended). Thus, few people know about this chapter in our nation’s history; symbolized by the Trail of Tears (The 1830 Indian Removal Act).

Jeremiah Evarts was born in Vermont and graduated from Yale College in 1802. A Christian missionary in every sense of the word, he considered the heartless treatment of Native Americans as immoral. He and his fellow adherents believed that Christianity’s value system prohibited the removal of Native Americans from their homelands.  

As editor of a religious magazine, Mr. Evarts worked ceaselessly to end oppressive policies. Specifically, he wrote several articles defending the Cherokee Nation’s natural right to their land (in today’s Carolinas, Tennessee, and Georgia). Through the magazine, he also hoped to tap into the general public’s inner Christian convictions.  

He knew where U.S. policy decisions were made, so he took his case to Washington, D.C.  There, he planned to sway sympathetic members of Congress.  

Jeremiah Evarts was not alone in his quest. U.S. Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen (1787-1862) was another vocal opponent of the Indian Removal Act. Displaying his passion for justice, Mr. Frelinghuysen once delivered a profound six-hour long speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate outlining the horrid treatment of Native Americans.  

Incidentally, in 1844 he was Henry Clay’s vice-president candidate in the anti-slavery Whig Party’s presidential campaign. Subsequently, the Clay ticket lost to the pro-slavery, pro-Texas annexation candidate, James K. Polk.  

Also, of interest to fans of Texas Revolution history, David Crockett personally disliked Andrew Jackson. Outspoken in his views regarding the forcible removal of Native Americans from their lands, Crockett was defeated in a hotly contested congressional race.  

Reacting to the loss, he left his home state of Tennessee and headed west to Mexico’s province of Texas, far away from Andrew Jackson and his corrosive anti-Native American policies. Unfortunately for Mr. Crockett, shortly after arriving in Texas, he joined armed Anglo immigrants seeking to re-instate slavery in Texas. As a result, he was captured and summarily executed by the legitimate military forces of the sovereign Republic of Mexico in 1836.  

Ultimately, General Jackson satisfied his land-hungry supporters by leading his infamous 1830 Indian Removal Act.    

What was the Act’s impact on the four C’s Americans and Seminoles? Frankly it was as immoral and brutal as it could get. The plight of the Cherokee people typifies the outcome befalling all Southeast Native Americans.  

By way of history, the Spanish are the first Europeans to translate what the Cherokees called themselves, recording it as “Tchalaquei”. It’s believed that the Cherokee had lived in the Southeast for thousands of years.  

By the time of their U.S.-mandated relocation, they had (l) peacefully coexisted with other tribes; (2) practiced good stewardship of their hunting areas; and (3) while suspicious of white encroachment, they actively traded with the Spanish, British, French, and U.S. settlers.  

Notable among many Cherokee leaders is John Ross (1790-1866) who figured prominently during the forced displacement. His mother was Cherokee and his father was Scottish. Although bilingual and bicultural, he identified as Cherokee.  

Early on, Chief Koowisguwi (Ross’s name in Cherokee) actively sought to challenge the first U.S. government attempts to relocate voluntarily. He traveled to Washington, D.C. several times, and while he had some support, his efforts proved in vain. Reluctantly, he led his people to Oklahoma. Over 4,000 Cherokees died during the Trail of Tears journey, including Quatie, his wife.    

The Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek share similar stories as the Cherokee. Their ancestral territory stretched from the Texas-Louisiana border to the east coast. Among the Creek notable people, Alexander McGillivray (1750-1793), stands as a gifted spokesman who tried to assuage the ceding of Creek land. His mother was Creek (Muskogee), and his father was of Scottish descent. 

Chief Osceola is another famous Creek of mixed-ancestry. He was totally against relocation and successfully led the Seminoles in battles against the U.S. military.  In 1837, he was lured to a meeting under a truce flag. He was immediately arrested and died three months after his capture.    

Fighting back, the Seminole people resisted eviction until 1838. Realizing the futility of trying to relocate them, the U.S. finally agreed to allow part of the tribe to remain in Florida. This is thought to be the only time that the U.S. government was forced to sue for peace by a Native American tribe.

In summary, the violent takeover of America has to be one of the most unjust land-grabbing undertakings in world history. Yet, most U.S. citizens are at best ambivalent, because U.S. history is wrapped with an Anglo Saxon Manifest Destiny ribbon.  

Enough to say that even after moving into reservations, Native Americans suffered untold indignities. Adding insult to injury, they lost the more fertile parts of reservations that were subsequently opened to white settlers.  

In closing, it’s important to mention that there were honorable, level-headed white leaders in 1830 who saw the long-term damage of the Indian Removal Act. Senator Frelinghuysen (mentioned earlier) represents their collective views by expressing the following ominous warning: “Let us beware how by oppressive encroachments upon the sacred privileges of our Indian neighbors, we minister to the agonies of future remorse.”  

It’s sage advice that the U.S. government has ignored to this day. While hollow expressions of regret have been issued, national leaders have yet to offer a sincere apology. Present-day Native American people are still waiting.    

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by historian and author José Antonio López. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian with the author’s permission. López can be reached via email at: [email protected]

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows Mississippi Choctaw in traditional clothing, circa 1908. 

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