Cherokee Phoenix


Published July, 16, 1831

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From the Illinois Monthly Magazine.


The relations of our government with the Indian tribes is a subject which is daily increasing in importance; and reflecting men cannot but perceive the ruinous tendency of the policy now pursued and the absolute necessity of a speedy and radical change. The existence, within our territorial limits, of tribes acknowledged to be independent, involves in itself a paradox, while the details of our negotiations with them, and of our legislation with respect to them, are full of the strangest contradictions.- We acknowledge them to be sovereign nations, yet we forbid them from making war with each other; we admit their purely allodial title to their lands, their unlimited power over them while they remain theirs, and their full possession of the rights of self government within them,- yet we restrain them from selling those lands to any but ourselves; we treat with them as with free states, yet we plant our agents and our military posts among them; and make laws which operate within their territory. In our solemn leagues with them, we acknowledge them to be free, both as nations and as individuals, yet we claim the power to punish in our courts, and by our laws, aggressions committed within their boundaries, denying to them even a concurrent jurisdiction, and forbidding them from adjudicating in their tribunals upon the rights of our citizens, and from vindicating the privileges of their own. We make distinctions not merely in effect, but in terms between the white man and the Indian, of the most degrading character; and at the moment when our commissioners are negotiating with their chiefs solemn leagues, involving the most important interests, pledging to them the faith of our government; and accepting from them similar pledges, we reject those same chiefs if offered as witnesses in our courts, as persons destitute of truth-as creatures too ignorant to understand, or too degraded to practice the ordinary rules of rectitude.

This simple exposition of a few of the leading features of our intercourse with the Indians, must satisfy every rational mind, that this state of things cannot be lasting; that any set of relations founded upon such principles, must be unjust, unprofitable and temporary; and that although in the infancy of our government it might have been excusable in us to adopt such a policy towards our savage neighbors as their barbarities, or our weakness might have forced upon us, it becomes us now as a great and enlightened people, to devise a system more consistent with our national dignity, and better adapted to advance the interests of the respective parties.

To persons residing in the Atlantic states, this subject will probably present itself entirely in a speculative point of view; which the inhabitants of the frontier, whose interests are more deeply concerned, may consider it in a more practical light, as involving questions of expediency, rather than of principle. We would with to avoid both these extremes, and to take such a view of the subject, as shall be both practical and just; and while we look at the Indians as rational beings and their tribes as social communities, having inherent and indefeasible rights, to consult also the character, dignity, and advantage of our own people and government.

We do not assume to have made any new discovery, when we assert, that there are more popular errors in existence in respect to the Indians, than in regard to most any other matter which has been so much and so frequently discussed. These have arisen partly out of national antipathies, partly out of the misrepresentations of interested persons, and partly out of the nature of the subject, which is intricate in itself, and delicate in many of its bearings. The usual mode of disposing of the question, or rather getting rid of it, is by asserting that the Indians are savages, not capable of civilization, not to be trusted, nor to be dealt with as rational beings, as unchristian and unphilosophical. We cannot assent to such a conclusion without discarding the light of revelation, the philosophy of the human mind, and the results of a vast deal of experimental knowledge. The activity of body and mind displayed by the Indian in all his enterprises, the propriety and closeness of it seeing in most of their speeches, and the solemnity and pathos of many of them sufficiently establish the claims of this race to a respectable if not to an exalted station in point of intellect; and we have no reason to believe that they have worse hearts, more violent passions, or more obstinate prejudices than any of the rest of the human family.

Why is it than, that they are savages? Why have they not ascended in the great scale of subordination. Why are they ferocious, ignorant, and brutal, while we, their neighbors, are civilized and polished? Why is it that, while our intercourse with every other people is humane, enlightened, just; having its foundations fastened upon the broad basis of reciprocity, we shrink with horror from the Indian, we spurn him from our fire-sides, and alters-the very ermine of the judges is tarnished by his approach. Why is it, that while the whole world seems united, as it were, in one great and concentrated effort, to spread the light of knowledge, to burst the shackles of superstition, to encourage industry, and to cultivate the kind, the gentle, and the domestic virtues,- one little remnant of the human family stand unaffected by the general amelioration, a dark and lonely monument of irretrievable ignorance, incorrigible ferocity?

It is in the hope of answering some of these questions, that this discussion is attempted; and in order to arrive at any successful result, it is necessary to go back, beyond our own times, and to examine events in which we are not immediately concerned.

If we refer to the earliest intercourse of the existing Christian nations with the barbarous tribes, in different quarters of the world, we find that the disposition and conduct of the latter were generally timid and peaceable, and that the first breaches of harmony arose out of the aggressions committed by the former. When therefore, we speak of our present relations with them as growing out of necessity, and as resulting naturally from the faithlessness and ferocity of the savage character, we assume a position which is not supported by the facts. That a great allowance is to be made for the disparity between civilized and savage nations, is true; and that equally true, that the same degree of confidence and cordiality cannot exist between them, as between nations who acknowledge a common religious, moral, and international circle, which operates equally upon both the parties. But this does not preclude all confidence; nor prove the Indian destitute of moral virtue. On the contrary it must be admitted, that the Indians in their primitive state, possessed a higher moral character that now belongs to them, and that they have been degraded by their intercourse with civilized men; and we ought in all our dealings with them, to endeavour, as well as to atone for the injury done to them and to human nature by our departure from Christian principles, as to bring them back to the same state of moral dignity in which we found them. It may be well to establish some of the positions we have taken, before we proceed any further, and in so doing we do not design to cast any imputation on our own government. The great mistakes on policy and the monstrous crimes committed against the savage races, to which we propose to allude, have been perpetrated by almost all civilized nations, and our own government has been in this respect less criminally than any other.- Indeed we know of no deliberate act of cruelty or justification towards the tribes, with which we are chargeable as a people. On the contrary, our policy has been moderate and just, and distinguished as we shall show, by a spirit of benevolence. We only complain that this spirit has been misdirected, and that with the very best intentions, we have done great wrong to the aborigines.

Let us see how other nations have acted towards savages, and what have been the examples set us.

The first discovers were the Portuguese. Under Don Henry, a prince who in point of knowledge and liberal feeling was a century in advance of the age in which he lived, this people pushed their discoveries into the Canary Islands, the continent of Africa, and the East Indies. They were received with uniform kindness by the natives, who regarded them as superior race of beings and were willing to submit implicitly to their authority. Had the Europeans of that day, and their descendants, cultivated an amicable understanding with those simple heathens, and rigidly adhered to a system of good faith and Christian forbearance, there is not calculating the advantages that might have ensued; not is it to be doubted that these ignorant, helpless and confiding tribes, would have yielded themselves with hardly a struggle, to the teaching of their more intelligent and powerful neighbors. It was not destined however, that such should be the course of human events. So far from making the slightest efforts to establish friendly relations with the savages, the earliest discoverers exhibited a propensity for wanton mischief towards them, more characteristic of demons than of men, and which rendered them and the religion they professed, so odious, that the benevolent exertions of statesmen and Christians since that time, have failed to eradicated the deeply rooted prejudices which had been so injudiciously and so wickedly excited. Among a simple race, who viewed their visitors with superstitious reverence as creatures more than human, there must have been a mortifying revulsion of feeling, when they discovered in those admired strangers, all the vices and wantonness which disgraced the worst barbarians, joined to powers which they imagined gods only possess. 'Their dread and amazement was raised,' says Latitan, 'to the highest pitch when the Europeans fired their cannons and muskets among them, and they saw their companions fall dead at their feet without any enemy at hand or any visible cause of their destruction'.

Alluding to these transactions Dr. Johnson remarks.--'On what occasion, or for what purpose muskets were discharged among a people harmless and secure, by strangers, who without any right visited their coast, it is thought not necessary to inform us.- The Portuguese could fear nothing from them, and had therefore no adequate provocations; nor is there any reason to believe but they murdered the negroes in wanton merriment, perhaps to try how many a volley would destroy, or what would be the consternation of those that should escape. We are openly told that they had the less scruple concerning their treatment of the savage people, cause they scarcely considered them distinct from beasts; and indeed, the practice of all European nations and among others of the English barbarians that cultivate the southern islands of America, proves that this opinion, however absurd and foolish, however wicked and injurious still continued to prevail!'

By these practices the first discoverers alienated the natives from them, and whenever a ship appeared every one that could fly betook himself to the mountains and the woods, so that nothing was to be got more than they could steal; they sometimes surprised a few fishers, made them slaves, and did what they could to offend the natives, and enrich themselves.' (Introduction to the World Displayed.)

In 1492 Columbus gave a new world to European curiosity, avarice and despotism. It would be vain to attempt to follow the Spanish conquerors in their desolating progress through the islands and continent of America. Like the Portuguese, they were kindly received; like them they repaid kindness with cruelty. Their footsteps were dyed with blood-cruelty, violence, and lust, marked their actions. Men seemed to transformed into ministers of darkness, and acted such deeds in real life, as the boldest and darkest imagination has never ventured to suggest, even in poetic phrensy. Bearing the cross in one hand, and the sword in the other, combining bigotry with military rapine, and the thirst for gold with the lust of power, they united in one vast scheme all the most terrible engines, and worst incentives, of crime. We do not know that there is to be found in history, a recital more touching than the account of the conquest of Mexico by Cortes, or than that of Peru by Pizzarro. In each of these instances the conquerors were at first received with hospitality by their confiding victims.They each found a amiable people, possessing many of the social arts, living happily under a government of their own choice, ' practicing fewer of the unnatural rites of superstition, than commonly prevailed among the heathen. Taking them altogether, the Mexicans and Peruvians had many high and estimable traits in their national character; and they probably enjoyed in social life, as much happiness as is usually allotted to man.- Speaking of Tascalteca, a city of Mexico, Cortes says, 'I was surprised at its size and magnificence. It is larger and stronger than Grenada, contains as many and as handsome buildings, and is much more populous than that city at the time of its conquest. It is also much better; supplied with corn, poultry, game, fresh water, fish, pulse, and other excellent vegetables. There are in the market each day, thirty thousand persons, including buyers and sellers, without mentioning the merchants and petty dealers dispersed over the city. In this market may be bought every necessary of life, clothes, shoes, leathers of all kinds, ornaments of gold, and silver as well wrought as in any part of the world; various kinds of earthenware of a superior quality to that of Spain, wood, coal, herbs, and medicinal plants. Here are houses for baths, and places for washing and shearing goats; in short, this city exhibits great regularity and has a god police; the inhabitants are peculiarly neat, and far superior to the most industrious of the Africans.' The city of Cholola is described by Bernal Dias, as 'resembling Valladolid,' and containing 20,000 inhabitants.- Both of these cities were of course vastly inferior to Mexico; but it is not necessary to detain the reader by a further attempt to prove the civilization of the Mexicans. If we except the single article of Christian faith, in which the Spaniards had the advantage of them, we question whether they were not immediately previous to their subjugation, in a higher state of civilization than their oppressors, whether they had not better practical views of civil liberty, more just notions of private right and more of the amiable propensities and softer virtues of lift.

One instance in proof of these assertions, is so affecting and so strongly in point, that I cannot forebear to refer to it. Vasco Nunez one of the most celebrated of the conquerors of New Spain, and who to great intrepidity of character is described as having added a share of magnanimity not usual among the Spanish captains of that day, had been hospitably received by one of the native Princes. With the usual perfidy of his time and country, he made captives of the cacique, his wives, and children, and many of his people.- He also discovered their store of provisions, and returned with his captives and his booty to Darien. When the unfortunate Cacique, beheld his family in chains, and in the hands of strangers, his heart was wrung with despair; 'What have I done to thee,' said he to Vasco Nunez, 'that thou shouldst treat be thus cruelly? None of thy people ever came to my land that were not fed, and sheltered and treated with loving kindness. When thou camest to my dwelling, did I meet thee with a javelin in my hand? Did I not set meat and drink before thee, and welcome thee as a brother? Set me free, therefore, with my family and people, and we will remain they friends. We will supply thee with provisions, and reveal to thee the riches of the land. Dost thou doubt my faith? Behold my daughter, I give her to thee, as a pledge of friendship. Take her for thy wife, and be assured of the fidelity of her family and her people!'

'Vasco Nunez felt the force of these words, and knew the importance of forming a strong alliance among the natives. The captive maid also, as she stood trembling and dejected before him, found great favor in his eyes, for she was young and beautiful. He granted therefore the prayer of the Cacique, and accepted his daughter, engaging moreover, to aid the father against his enemies, on condition of his furnishing provision for the colony.'

'Careta, (the Indian Prince) remained three days at Darien, during which time he was treated with the utmost kindness. Vasco Nunez took him on board his ships and showed him every part of them. He displayed before him also, the war horses with their armor and rich caparisons, and astonished him with the thunder of artillery. Lest he should be too much daunted by these warlike spectacles, he caused the musicians to perform a harmonious concert, on their instruments, at which the Cascique was lost in admiration. Thus having impressed him with a wonderful idea, of the power and endowments of his new allies, he loaded him with presents, and permitted him to depart.'

'Careta returned joyfully to his territories, and his daughter remained with Vasco Nunez, willingly for his SAKE, giving up her family and native home. They were never married, but she considered herself as his wife, as she really was, according to the usages of her own country, and he treated her with fondness, allowing her gradually to acquire a great influence over him.'- (Irving)

I envy not the man who can read this affecting passage, without mingled emotions of admiration and pity. Who is this case displayed the attributes of savage barbarians? Was it the daring marauder, who violated the rules of hospitality. Was it not the generous chief, who opened his heart and his house with confiding hospitality to the military stranger-who, when betrayed, appeals to his treacherous guest, with all the manly simplicity of an honest heart, mingled with the deep emotion of a bereaved parent and an insulted sovereign-and who with the magnanimous patriotism of a Brutus gave up his child, a young and beautiful maiden, to purchase the liberty of his people? Or was it the Indian maid adorned with graces that could win the heart of that ruthless soldier, 'willing for his sake, giving up her family and native home.' discharging with devoted fidelity, the duty of the most sacred relation in life, and achieving by her talents, and feminine attractions, a complete conquest over her country's conqueror?

At a much later period, and when the Christian world was far more enlightened than in the days of Hernando Cortes, the British commenced their conquests in India; yet we do not find that the superior light which they possessed, both religious and political, had any other effect than to make them more refined in their cruelties. They acted over again in the East Indies, all the atrocities which had been perpetrated in New Spain, with this only difference, that they did not pretend to plead the apology of religious fanaticism. The Spaniards attempted to impose on others, and may possibly have succeeded in many instances in imposing upon themselves, the belief that they served God in oppressing the heathen; for their conquests were made in an intolerant age, when such opinions were prevalent. But the English had no such notions; for some of their best patriots and soundest divines had lived previous to the conquest of India, and the intellectual character of the nation was deeply imbued with the principles of civil and religious liberty before that period. The love of money and of dominion, were their only incentives; and they pillaged, tortured, murdered, and enslaved a people as civilized and as gentle as the Mexicans, without the shadow of an excuse. The disclosures made before the British Parliament, at the trial of Warren Hastings justify these assertions, and subsequent events have shown that our kinsmen across the water have improved but little in their conduct towards their wretched dependencies.

The Dutch had at one time several colonies; but our information respecting them is but meager, for that worthy money making people have always had the knack of keeping their own counsel, and have published but few of the records of their iniquities. We know enough, however, to satisfy us that the barbarous nations owe them no obligations.

[To be continued.]