Thursday, March 29, 2012

Creek Indians

In August of 1790, Washington and Secretary of War Henry Knox were negotiating with the Creek Nation to set up what they hoped would be a model treaty for Native American tribes east of the Mississippi. At this point, there was optimism for good relations (which we know, of course, did not work out), but at this time we do see that brief window:
We often assume a certain inevitability in the way we think about American-Indian relations; we assume that relationships between the two peoples were unvaried and that the course of events was more or less fixed. Americans, driven by greed and racism and notions of "manifest destiny," marched inexorably westward towards annihilation of Native Americans. And Indians, decimated by disease and overwhelmed by American power, were forced into unbroken retreat from the day Europeans set foot on their continent.


But the truth of the matter is that in 1790, the course of future events was not fixed; history's path had not been set. In fact, while Native Americans had been largely driven from the eastern seaboard, they still retained firm control over territories in the interior. Moreover, the relationship between Anglo-Americans and American Indians was complex and fluid; US policymakers had not yet established a consensus about how to move forward, and Indians were also debating what strategies to employ in defending their lands.

So we see the two sides trying to work out a compromise:
They [Knox and McGillivray, the Chief of the Creek Nation] approached these events of the 1780s from different angles, but they both recognized that the approach taken by the United States after 1783 was badly flawed. For McGillivray, American policies simply did not square with realties on the ground. In the vast Creek territories, he led a nation of 25,000 people. If it came to war, he could deliver 5000 Creek warriors to the field and an equal number of Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw allies.15 Moreover, he had cultivated a strong relationship with the Spanish, who were willing to provide any Indian alliance with the materials it needed to keep the Americans away from their own holdings to the southwest.

Knox also recognized the strength of the Creeks in the southeast. He was a military man and realized that controlling the southern tribes by force would be costly. He calculated that war against a southeastern Indian alliance would cost close to $15 million.16 But Knox's position was philosophical as well as pragmatic. He believed that the principles of the revolution for which he had fought were being tested. Republics did not impose their will on people through brute force; they respected human rights and followed natural law. American policy, therefore, should be guided by a different set of principles. Indian rights of soil should be acknowledged; their legitimate claims as first occupants should be recognized. Indian lands should be protected from white encroachment, with federal troops if necessary.

The Treaty negotiated by McGillivray and Knox incorporated these principles. The Creek chief tempered his original demand and accepted an eastern border of the Oconee, rather than the Ogeechee River. But in return, Knox acknowledged that vast lands to the west (present day Alabama and parts of Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Florida) belonged to the Creeks and guaranteed that their border would be policed by federal troops. The United States also promised to provide the tools and livestock needed to turn the Creeks from hunters into farmers. In this way, they would advance toward a "greater degree of civilization."17

Implicit within this clause was Knox's belief that as the Creeks progressed, their territorial needs would diminish. Excess lands could then be sold to the federal government for resale to white settlers. With the proceeds, the Creeks would be able to build roads and schools, and progress still further on the path toward "civilized life."

You can also read the letter of Knox to Washington.

As part of this, we see Abigail Adams take on the Creek Nation and their delegation. This is excerpted from First Family by Joseph Ellis and helps us see this era from her unique view:
It so happened that the entire Creek delegation was lodged at an inn adjoining Richmond Hill. For nearly a month, Abigail was fascinated with what she described as “my neighbors the Creeck Savages, who visit us daily.” It was quite a scene: “They are very fond of visiting us as we entertain them kindly and they behave with much civility…Last night they had a great Bond fire, dancing around it like so many spirits, hoping, singing, yelling and expressing their pleasure and Satisfaction in true Savage State. They are first Saves I ever saw.”

…Abigail participated in the short-lived celebratory mood, attending the signing ceremony in Federal Hall, where the Creek chiefs formed themselves into a chorus and sang a song that, as an interpreter explained, was about perpetual peace. That evening she invited a Creek chief to dine at Richard Hill, and he proceeded to make her an honorary member of the Creek Nation: “He took me by the Hand, bowed his Head, and bent his knee, calling me Mammea, Mammea,” presumably her Creek name. All the chiefs, she observed, “are very fine looking Men, placid countenances & fine shape,” almost perfect physical models in the manner of Greek statutes. There were very high points in the tragic story of Indian-white relations in the United States, but Abigail was able to participate in one of them.

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