The genocidal removal of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands is one of the most shameful episodes in American history. Over and over, A.J. Langguth reports in his unfocused but nonetheless scarifying account, U.S. presidents proclaimed that it would be terribly wrong to force entire tribes to move simply because white settlers wanted their territory — but added that it would be nice if the Indians would voluntarily relocate west of the Mississippi. Once Andrew Jackson became president in 1829, pretense about resettlement being voluntary quickly faded. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 didn’t directly authorize seizing land, but the Southern states hungrily eyeing autonomous Indian nations on their borders took it as license to do just that. Georgia’s Cherokee Code annexed almost all Cherokee lands and declared that any Indian who resisted Jackson’s removal policy would be subject to arrest.
The Cherokees were one of the “Five Civilized Tribes,” so-called because they tried to coexist with white society and adopted some of its practices. Their leaders pursued their cause within the U.S. legal system, winning a Supreme Court decision in 1832 that struck down Georgia’s Cherokee Code. As the subtitle of Langguth’s book notes, conflict between the federal and state governments over Indian policy involved opposing principles whose collision ultimately led to the Civil War. It’s grimly ironic that Jackson, so opposed to Southern states’ assertion of the right to nullify federal laws that he threatened to hang South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun for treason, colluded with their defiance of the Supreme Court in the case of the Cherokees. He was willing to let the states have their way when it suited his purposes.
Despairingly aware that the government had no intention of enforcing court decisions in their favor, some Cherokee leaders concluded it was wisest to accept removal as inevitable and cut the best deal they could. In 1835, a faction signed the Treaty of New Echota, which promised $5 million to the tribe in recompense for their Southern lands, new territory west of the Mississippi and subsidies to make the move. The majority of the tribe, Langguth makes clear, rejected the treaty and resisted to the end. Forcibly removed from Georgia by the Army in 1838, the Cherokees “saw their houses stripped bare and set on fire,” writes Langguth.
Four thousand people, more than one-quarter of the population, died on the trek west, described by a soldier accompanying them as “the blackest chapter in the pages of American history.” After their arrival in the territory that would eventually become Oklahoma, a secret committee passed a death sentence on the leaders of the Treaty Party for violating the ancient blood law that forbade sale of communal land without the consent of the full Cherokee Nation. The men were attacked and killed at three separate locations on the same morning in 1839. The U.S. government used these deaths as justification for refusing to release the money it owed the tribe.
Scattered passages convey the horror of this tragic odyssey, but Langguth fails to do justice to either the social or political issues he tosses nearly at random into his erratic text. The author, a veteran reporter who has published books on topics ranging from ancient Rome to the Vietnam War, can’t decide precisely what he’s doing here. Is he telling the story of the destruction of Native American autonomy and independence? Is he chronicling the run-up to the Civil War? Yes, they’re intertwined, and no, this is not an academic work that requires a narrow, overtly stated thesis. But even popular history needs a coherent narrative thread. Langguth bombards readers with excessive background information on peripheral characters such as actor-playwright John Payne and digressions.
It’s no surprise, then, when the murders of the Treaty Party leaders are followed by a quick dash through the election of 1840 ( Henry Clay’s presidential aspirations get too much coverage throughout) and selective snapshots of incidents on the road to secession, with Langguth occasionally remembering to catch up with the Cherokees and eventually devoting a chapter to the tribe’s divided loyalties during the Civil War. Fast-forward to the 21st century and a half-page on the resolution finally enacted by Congress in 2009, apologizing “for the many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States.” The resolution is as inadequate to its terrible subject as is this well-intentioned but undisciplined book.
Wendy Smith, a contributing editor for the American Scholar, reviews books frequently for the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.