President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab
By Steve Inskeep, 421 pages.
Penguin, 2015. $29.95.
Reviewed by Kevin Baker
Of all the instances in which America cheated and robbed Indians of their lands, the expulsion of the Cherokee Nation has always seemed the most shameful. This is because the Cherokees were most like us, or at least, most like what we said we wanted Indians to be. One of the “Five Civilized Tribes” of the Southeast, Cherokees frequently intermarried with whites, allied themselves with the United States during the War of 1812, and readily adopted European manners of dress, living, and making money. They came up with their own written language, thanks to Sequoyah (George Guess), their own newspaper, and their own constitution and government, based closely on that of the United States. When the rights guaranteed them under treaty were threatened, they took their case to the Supreme Court—and won. It availed them nothing. Evicted from lands they had held for millennia, most were forced on the “Trail of Tears,” a death march that through hunger and disease killed many—perhaps even a majority—of the 15,000 Cherokees forced to Oklahoma.
In his first venture into history, Steve Inskeep, cohost of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition and an award-winning investigative journalist, revisits this decades-long saga, largely through the stories of two of the most able leaders on both sides—Andrew Jackson, the seventh president; and John Ross, the canny, young, first-and-only “principal chief” of the Cherokee.
It is not too much to say that this is a great history. In an understated, straightforward style, Inskeep quickly expands the scope and depth of Jacksonland to the grand tragedy it was—one that presaged the greater tragedy of the Civil War. Even as he deplores Jackson’s ethics and racism, Inskeep acknowledges Jackson’s ingenuity, audacity, and iron will. He led a ragtag band of men south to crush both the Creek Nation in Alabama and the British at New Orleans; established an American Deep South (“Jacksonland”); carved out a personal fortune in land, cotton, and slaves; and held the Union together as president.
Like many Cherokee leaders, Ross owned slaves, and he amassed his own small fortune. He and others in the “Cherokee Regiment” even fought courageously for Jackson against the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend, sending that tribe to a fate the Cherokees would later share. Yet Ross, who was actually three-quarters Scottish, battled brilliantly and always peacefully for his people and followed them into exile. En route, he endured what can only be described as the gestapo tactics of the state of Georgia.
Even after Jackson had refused to enforce Chief Justice John Marshall’s ruling that the Cherokees were indeed a sovereign nation, Ross had pleaded with the president to let the Cherokees become Americans and stay on their lands. But Georgia had already passed laws refusing to let Cherokees bear witness in court and turning their lands over to a lottery for whites. Animated by his desire to see American whites and whites only dominate the fertile lands of the South, Jackson hid behind states’ rights and a pretended concern for the tribe’s welfare and sent the tribe on its way. Inskeep quotes Alexis de Tocqueville, who was touring America about that time: “The Americans of the United States,” he wrote, had managed to remove the Indians “with marvelous ease, quietly, legally, philanthropically…without violating a single one of the great principles of morality in the eyes of the world. To destroy human beings with greater respect for the laws of humanity would be impossible.”
Kevin Baker is a past contributor to MHQ. His most recent book is the historical novel The Big Crowd, about the greatest unsolved murder in mob history.