The Rise and Fall and Rise of Civilizations: Indian Intellectual Culture during the Removal Era

Introduction

This Teaching the JAH segment was created by Christina Snyder.

In 1844, Ralph Waldo Emerson captured the spirit of many fellow citizens when he declared, “America is the country of the Future. . . . [I]t is a country of beginnings, of projects, of vast designs, and expectations. It has no past: all has an onward and prospective look.” Over the past two decades, the U.S. population had doubled, and settlers surged westward, aided by an increasing number of canals, steamboats, and railroads. Such growth did not splinter the nation, as some had feared, but rather forged a national pride bolstered by a print culture that Emerson helped craft.

This image is from a Choctaw Academy textbook from 1841 depicting America’s racial hierarchy. Note the Indians retreating westward. Reprinted from Jesse Olney, A Practical System of Modern Geography (New York, 1841), 49. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Emerson could only claim that America had “no past” by ignoring Native Americans. Policy makers did not. After the American Revolution, every additional inch added to the national domain came at the expense of native nations. While previous administrations waged war and pushed strong-arm diplomacy, none went so far as that of Andrew Jackson (1829–1837). He made Indian removal the cornerstone of his presidency, justifying the policy change by citing new “scientific” evidence from phrenology. Indians, he claimed, could never join the country of the future, for they were such a primitive people that they could not survive “in the midst of another and superior race.” This notion—that Indians were a people of the past, never of the future—shaped U.S. Indian policy and became a powerful tool of dispossession.

Used at Choctaw Academy, the geography textbook from which this page is taken offers a less exoticized portrayal of Indians. This same edition also included the image on the previous image, which demonstrates how conflicting depictions of Indians could coexist in the same volume. Reprinted from Jesse Olney, A Practical System of Modern Geography (New York, 1841), 123. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Centering indigenous perspectives, however, can challenge our understanding of American history. In an 1838 essay presented to Congress, a young Choctaw man named Adam Christie offered a history lesson. Likely referring to his own Choctaw ancestors, who had built mound cities and ruled chiefdoms for centuries before European invasion, Christie declared, “Indians once stood like lords over this continent.” According to Christie, it was “the white man,” not some impartial hand of progress, that “brought them low.” Acknowledging American prejudices, Christie wrote, “many are led to believe that [Indians] will never become enlightened or civilized; and in the course of half a century, they will be extirpated.” But Christie declared, “so long as the blood flows and circulates in our hearts and bodies, we will contend, at all times . . . to evince to the world that the Indian race is not obliterated.”

Indigenous intellectuals such as Adam Christie have been marginalized in the historical record. But we can recover indigenous perspectives from the removal era, exploring how American Indians engaged with key issues.

  1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Young American,” in The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. I: Nature, Addresses, and Lectures, ed. Robert E. Spiller (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), 230.
  2. Andrew Jackson, “Fifth Annual Message to Congress,” Dec. 3, 1833, in A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789–1897, ed. James D. Richardson (10 vols., New York, 1897), III, 1238.
  3. Adam Christie, untitled essay, 1838, in Thomas Henderson to Richard Mentor Johnson, April 13, 1838, H. Doc. No. 109, 26 Cong., 2 sess., 1838, p. 123.