History professor speaks about Native American history

Published 6:07 pm Monday, February 25, 2019

VALLEY — The second speaker in Bradshaw-Chambers County Library’s Making Alabama Lunch N Learn series, Dr. Christopher Haveman, spoke last week about a prominent event in the state’s early history.

Haveman, who is an associate professor of history at the University of West Alabama, discussed the Creek Indian Removal of the 1920s. He’s an expert on the subject and has written two books on it. The first one, “Rivers of Sand: Creek Indian Emigration, Relocation and Ethnic Cleansing in the American South” (2016) won the Alabama Historical Association’s James F. Sulzby Award. His second book, “Bending Their Way Onward” (2018) is based entirely on original documents of the Creek Indian removal.

Haveman is originally from Seattle, Washington and earned a Ph.D. in history from Auburn University in 2009.

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Indian removal in the South is commonly associated with the term Trail of Tears. Haveman said this relates to the removal of the Cherokees to Oklahoma during the presidency of Martin Van Buren in 1837-38. The vast majority of Creeks has been long gone from the region by then.

“Most of the Creeks had been removed by 1827,” he said.

Before the Creek War in Alabama (1813-14), the U.S. policy toward the native peoples of the Southeast was to assimilate them into a new culture. Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins was the best-known proponent of this. The goal was to teach them to become subsistence farmers and to cooperate with white settlers moving into their ancestral lands. The attack on Fort Mims and the resulting Creek War changed all that.

“The goal was then to move them west of the Mississippi River,” Haveman said. “Between 1815 and 1830, the goal was to get them to voluntarily leave their ancestral homeland to Oklahoma.”

Haveman said ethnic cleansing is the systematic forced removal of ethnic or racial groups from a given territory by a more powerful ethnic group, often with the intent of making it ethnically homogeneous. This can be done through forced migration, deportation, population transfer, intimidation or through a final solution — genocide. Haveman said that’s what was going on in the American South in the 1820s and 1830s, and its best-known advocate was President Andrew Jackson. Forced Indian removal, Haveman said, is Jackson’s legacy, but he wasn’t the only U.S. president who tried to do it.

“He had lots of company,” he said.

Indian removal took place through the administrations of James Monroe and John Quincy Adams prior to Jackson becoming president and the Trail of Tears is part of Martin Van Buren’s legacy. What stood out about Jackson though was the totality of his belief.

“Some Creeks were wealthy,” Haveman said. “They owned plantations with hundreds of acres of land. They owned slaves and grew cotton and tobacco. They had adapted to white ways, but Jackson wanted them gone, too.”

A prime example of this was William McIntosh. The son of a Scotsman and an Indian mother, McIntosh had vast land holdings with hundreds of head of cattle and lots of slaves. To many of his fellow Creeks, he signed his own death warrant with the Treaty of Indian Springs in 1825, which ceded much land in present-day Georgia and Alabama to the U.S.

It was an accepted practice among the Creeks that such action had to be done unanimously among a ten-member tribal council. He could not negotiate that alone, and he would later pay for that with his life.

“The Treaty of Indian Springs was a land-swap treaty. The U.S. took land in Georgia and north Alabama and swapped it for land in Oklahoma,” Haveman said. “Through it, the Creeks lost all their remaining land in Georgia and half of it in Alabama. For his role in this, McIntosh was executed in a rage killing.”

Haveman said the Creeks could be capable negotiators.

“The Treaty of Indian Springs was overturned and replaced with the Treaty of Washington,” he said. “This was the only time a treaty was ever nullified. It took place during the administration of John Quincy Adams.”

The Treaty of Washington (a.k.a. Treaty of Cusseta) returned some land in Alabama to the Creeks. Modern-day Chambers County was included in this. They lost their property in Georgia, though. This led to the creation of many new counties including Troup and the founding of the city of Columbus.

“Columbus became a jumping off place to Alabama,” Haveman said.

The new treaty gave lots of land to individual Creeks. They might have 640 acres, but most of them were naive about the ways of the white man and vulnerable to being swindled. Many a Creek would sign something in exchange for a jug of corn whiskey. When he would sober up the next day, he couldn’t understand why he was being forced off of land he’d been given.

The Creek way of life had changed entirely.

“It was a period of transience, starvation and begging,” Haveman said. “Problems happened almost immediately and only got worse with time. The policy was to get Indians to move.”

The first group of Creeks to leave headed to Oklahoma in 1827. There was an estimated 700 people on this first journey, 500 on a second march west the next year and 1,300 on a third one the next year.

“The Creeks had a choice of staying and starving or heading west,” Haveman said. “To complicate this, whites were streaming in to settle illegally on Creek lands. The Creeks pleaded for help from the U.S. government and were ignored. They talked them into signing another treaty (the Treaty of Cusseta, 1832). They were led to believe they could stay on their land forever. They were given paper saying so. The Creeks knew that whites respected things written on paper.”

It wouldn’t take long for the swindlers to get around that. Some Creeks exchanged their land for food and drink. In one notorious incident cited by Haveman, a white man gave a chief $1,000 for his 640 acres of land, hugged him to seal the deal and then reached over his back and into his pocket to retrieve the money he’d just given him.

“The Creeks were gullible,” Haveman said. “They took a man for his word and were taken advantage of.”

Jackson wanted all Creeks to be west of the Mississippi and wanted as many as 3,000 of them to be going on every trip, even though it was highly impractical. Migrations did continue with the last voluntary one taking place in 1835. The next year a second Creek War in Alabama would take place. Some plantations were burned and whites killed.

This conflict didn’t end decisively as the first one did at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. It mostly fizzled out with some of the Creeks going south to join the Seminoles and others surrendering.

There weren’t that many Creeks left in Alabama at this time, but those who did surrender were shackled and sent on a forced march west. A second, smaller party took the wives and children.

“Jackson wanted every single Indian to go, even the Creeks who had fought with the U.S. Army in the Second Creek War, and there were as many as 3,000 of them,” Haveman said. “It didn’t matter to him if you had been an ally to the U.S., you weren’t wanted here.”

The final march had five different embarkment camps, one of which was near the present-day city of LaFayette.

“They went west at the end of a bayonet,” Haveman said. “Every time the Creeks lost a war, the U.S. government came down on them with the hammer. The first time (1814) they lost 23 million acres of land. The next time (1836) they got sent west. It may have been very different had all the tribes joined together to put up a united front.”

Thousands of Native Americans died on the long march to Oklahoma. Things weren’t much better when they got there.

“It’s estimated that between 8,000 to 9,000 people died that first year of resettlement, mostly from disease,” Haveman said.

Haveman said the Creeks today have a vibrant culture in Oklahoma. He said he saw it firsthand when he was invited to attend a Green Corn Celebration several years ago. In the old days in what’s now Alabama, it would last longer than a week. Today it’s a three-day event.

“It’s pretty much what they once did in Alabama,” Haveman said. “But they do it on a long weekend, in late July/early August.

It was a long-held tradition of the Creek people to have a celebration when the first corn of the season ripened.