Noted for Your Afternoon Procrastination for June 15, 2015

Today's Economic History: Nineteenth Century Amerindian Removal

Via Arthur Goldhammer:

Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America: 2.10: (Democracy in America I.2.10): "Nowadays the dispossession of the Indians...

...is often accomplished in a routine and—one might say—perfectly legal manner.

When the European population approaches a part of the wilderness occupied by some savage nation, the United States government ordinarily sends a solemn embassy to the tribe. The Whites assemble the Indians in a great plain, and after eating and drinking with them, they say:

What keeps you in the land of your fathers? Soon you will be obliged to dig up their bones to live here. What makes this part of the country better than any other? Are woods, marshes, and prairies to be found only where you live now? Is there no other sun under which you can thrive? Beyond those mountains you see on the horizon, beyond that lake on the western edge of your territory, lie vast regions where wild animals still abound. Sell us your land and find happiness out there.

Having made this declaration, they lay before the Indians firearms, wool clothing, kegs of whiskey, glass necklaces, pewter bracelets, earrings, and mirrors.[i] If, after glimpsing all these riches, the Indians still hesitate, it is insinuated that the offer that has been made to them is one they cannot refuse and that soon the government itself will be powerless to guarantee the enjoyment of their rights.

What can they do? Half-persuaded, half-coerced, the Indians depart for the new wilderness, where they will be lucky if the Whites leave them in peace for ten years. This is how the Americans acquire for next to nothing entire provinces that the wealthiest sovereigns in Europe could not afford to buy.[ii]

The evils enumerated above are great, and to me they seem irreparable. I believe that the Indian race in North America is doomed, and I cannot help thinking that by the time Europeans have settled the Pacific coast, it will have ceased to exist.[iii]


[i] See in the Legislative Documents of Congress, doc. 117, the account of what happens in these circumstances. This curious passage occurs in the previously cited report by Messrs. Clark and Lewis Cass to Congress on February 4, 1829. Mr. Cass is today Secretary of War.

When the Indians reach the place where the treaty is to have effect

say Messrs. Lewis and Clark:

they are poor and almost naked. There they find a very large number of objects which they consider precious, brought there by American merchants. The women and children, who want their needs met, then begin to importune the men with a thousand demands and use all their influence to see to it that the land is sold. The improvidence of the Indians is habitual and invincible. To gratify immediate needs and present desires is the irresistible passion of the savage: the expectation of future advantages has but a feeble effect on him. He easily forgets the past and does not concern himself with the future. It would be pointless to ask the Indians to cede part of their territory if one were not in a position to satisfy their needs at once. If one considers impartially the situation in which these unfortunate people find themselves, their eagerness to find relief for their woes is not surprising.

(ORIGINAL ENGLISH: The Indians, as has been stated, reach the treaty ground poor, and almost naked. Large quantities of goods are taken there by the traders, and are seen and examined by the Indians. The women and children become importunate to have their wants supplied, and their influence is soon exerted to induce a sale. Their improvidence is habitual and unconquerable. The gratification of his immediate wants and desires is the ruling passion of an Indian. The expectation of future advantages seldom produces much effect. The experience of the past is lost, and the prospect of the future disregarded. This is one of the most striking traits in their character, and is well known to all who have had much intercourse with them. It would be utterly hopeless to demand a cessation of land, unless the means were at hand of gratifying their immediate wants; and when their conditions and circumstances are fairly considered, it ought not to surprise us that they are so anxious to relieve themselves. [House, “On Indians Affairs,” pp. 15-16.])

[ii] On May 19, 1830, Mr. Edward Everett told the House of Representatives that Americans had already acquired by treaty some 230,000,000 acres east and west of the Mississippi.

In 1808, the Osages ceded 48,000,000 acres for a rent of $1,000.

In 1818, the Qapaws ceded 20,000,000 acres for $4,000. They reserved a territory of 1,000,000 acres for hunting. A solemn promise was given to respect this reservation, but soon it, too, was invaded.

On February 24, 1830, Mr. Bell, in his report to the Congressional Committee on Indian Affairs, said that:

in appropriating wilderness land that the Indians claim to own, we have adopted the custom of paying the Indian tribes what their hunting grounds are worth after the game has fled or been destroyed. It is more advantageous, and certainly more in keeping with the forms of justice and more humane, to act in this way than to lay hold of the savages’ territory by means of the sword.

The practice of buying title to the Indians’ land is thus nothing but a new mode of acquisition which humanity and expediency have substituted in place of violence, and which should serve just as well to make us masters of the lands that we claim by virtue of discovery and that is assured us, moreover, by the right of civilized nations to settle territory occupied by savage tribes.

To date, various causes have steadily diminished the price of the ground that the Indians occupy in their eyes. Hence the practice of purchasing the right of occupancy from the savages has never retarded the prosperity of the United States to any perceptible degree.

(ORIGINAL ENGLISH To pay an Indian tribe what their ancient hunting grounds are worth to them after the game is fled or destroyed, as a mode of appropriating wild lands claimed by Indians, has been found more convenient, and certainly more agreeable to the forms of justice, as well as more merciful, than to assert the possession of them by the sword. Thus, the practice of buying Indians titles is but the substitute which humanity and expediency have imposed, in place of the sword, in arriving at the actual enjoyment of property claimed by the rights of discovery and sanctioned by the natural superiority allowed to the claims of civilized communities over those of savage tribes.

Up to the present time, so invariable has been the operation of certain causes, first in distinguishing the value of forest lands to the Indians; and secondly, in disposing them to sell readily; that the plan of buying their right of occupancy has never threatened to retard, in any perceptible degree, the prosperity of any of the States. (Legislative Documents, 21st Congress, no. 227, p. 6.) [House, “Removal of the Indians,” 21st Congress, 1st session, 1830, H. R. 227, serial 200, 6.)

[iii] I believe that this opinion is shared, moreover, by almost all American statesmen.

If we judge of the future by the past [Mr. Cass told Congress], we must anticipate a progressive diminution in the number of Indians, and the eventual extinction of their race. For this not to occur, our borders would have to cease to expand, and the savages would have to settle beyond them, or else there would have to be a complete change in our relations with them, which would be rather unreasonable to expect.

(ORIGINAL ENGLISH: “Judging of the future by the past,” Mr. Cass told Congress, “we cannot err in anticipating a progressive diminution of their numbers, and their eventual extinction, unless our border should become stationary, and they be removed beyond it, or unless some radical change should take place in the principles of our intercourse with them, which it is easier to hope for than to expect.” [House, “On Indian Affairs,” 107])

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