In discussing the antebellum period of American history, you will be hard-pressed to find a historian who does not emphasise the narrative of slavery, and its ultimate abolition in the mid-1860s. The historiography surrounding slavery in America – particularly in the context of the Civil War – continues to be expanded upon and enriched with lively debate. However, within this narrative, the role of Native Americans within antebellum history has been marginalised, both in terms of historiographical focus and in university lecture halls.
It is difficult to pinpoint the specific reasons that account for this marginalisation over time. Suggested reasons include: historic racial biases in academia, the lack of documented Native American history from the antebellum era, and the lack of Native American voices in current historical research. Perhaps, with one eye on the current primacy of the United States in global affairs, we tend to see the early encroachment of white settlers on to the territories of indigenous populations as a natural process, and the legitimate foundation from which America has inevitably grown and expanded in influence and power. Yet, this approach precludes us from attaining a true understanding of antebellum American life, in which Native Americans and their interactions with white settlers played a key role in shaping culture and society.
The antebellum era was characterised not just by democratic enfranchisement, industrialisation and slavery, but also by the rapid territorial expansion of the United States. It is this territorial expansion in particular which profoundly impacted Native American lives. Disputes between indigenous populations and settlers that had been ongoing since the seventeenth century reached their legislative culmination in 1830, when President Andrew Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act. Different administrations had held different attitudes to Native populations – Thomas Jefferson, for instance, had hoped to ‘civilise’ indigenous groups from supposedly barbarous hunter-gatherers, into Americanised farm agriculturists. However, from 1830 the position of the US government was clear: expansion was to be pursued with no regard for the objections of indigenous groups.
With the Indian Removal Act, American expansionism accelerated, with disastrous consequences for indigenous groups who had resided in their ancestral lands for hundreds of years. In 1830, the Choctaw were the first group to negotiate their westward migration by treaty, those who stayed behind were subject to increasing harassment and persecution as new white settlers arrived with their slaves. In 1835 the Seminole people refused to leave their lands, resulting in armed conflict and hundreds of deaths. In 1838, the forced migration of Cherokee people along the aptly-named ‘Trail of Tears’ – agreed to by just twenty tribal members – led to thousands of deaths.
The destructive effect that American expansionism had on indigenous groups should not be ignored. To do so is to fall victim to dominant narratives of ‘Manifest Destiny’ and ‘American exceptionalism’ once more. The term ‘Manifest Destiny’ was coined at the height of American territorial expansionism in the 1840s and conveyed a sense of inevitability to the events that were taking place: America had a territorial destiny to fulfil, and indigenous populations should not be allowed to stand in the way. In our common ignorance of Native American influence in the early years of the American republic, we reinforce this troubling narrative.
Indigenous groups did not only pose a physical barrier to expansion during the antebellum years, they also played a key role in the development of white American culture amidst the territorial expansion of the early nineteenth century. Historians, such as Bruce Collins in his book, White Society in the Antebellum South, have suggested that shared memories of so-called ‘Indian removal’ by white settlers had a foundational role for white social unity in the early republic. Triumphalist portrayals of white settlers conquering the American landscape and its barbarous, tribal populations – and thus fulfilling their ‘Manifest Destiny’ – helped to sustain many of the dominant cultural attitudes throughout the era, such as white supremacy. These attitudes played a key role in many contemporaneous aspects of antebellum society, such as the institution of slavery.
Native American history needs to be studied on its own terms as, even here, Native American influence has only been discussed in relation to white settlers and the early development of the American republic. Nevertheless, it is evident that Native American history is deeply intertwined with that of the European colonisers throughout the Americas, and that this fact is often undermined by dominant interest in other topics of antebellum American history such as slavery, revolution, and civil war.
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/28/us/native-american-education.html – a contemporary article about how the American education system has failed Native Americans
https://www.history.com/topics/native-american-history/native-american-timeline – useful timeline of Native American interactions with white settlers
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/04/opinion/can-museums-heal-historys-wounds.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FNative%20Americans – article about the need to repatriate the historical artefacts that have been stolen from Native Americans
https://psmag.com/social-justice/u-s-schools-teaching-children-native-americans-history-95324 – article about the teaching of Native American history in US schools and how it has been consigned to the past
Trail of Tears sign on Hwy 71 through Fayetteville, Arkansas. Public Domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?search=trail+of+tears&title=Special%3ASearch&go=Go&ns0=1&ns6=1&ns12=1&ns14=1&ns100=1&ns106=1#/media/File:Trail_of_tears_sign.jpg
John Gast – American Progress. 1872. Public Domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:American_Progress_(John_Gast_painting).jpg