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Published by EH.Net (August 2023).

Adam J. Pratt. Toward Cherokee Removal: Land, Violence, and the White Man’s Chance. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2022. xii + 221 pp. $32.95 (paperback), ISBN 978-0820362649.

Reviewed for EH.Net by David M. Wishart, Professor of Economics Emeritus, Wittenberg University.

 

Adam J. Pratt’s book Toward Cherokee Removal is a welcome addition to the extensive historiography related to the Cherokee removal from the southeastern United States to parts of Arkansas and Oklahoma. Pratt has collected and organized a wealth of information from unexplored holdings in the Georgia Archives. He was awarded the prize Excellence for Research Using the Holdings of the Archives by the Georgia Historical Records Advisory Council. The prize is richly deserved, as Pratt has broken considerable new ground in early American history.

Pratt’s historical narrative is presented in seven chapters preceded by an introduction and followed by a brief conclusion. A theme that runs throughout is “the white man’s chance,” defined in the introduction as “a promise made to white citizens to create policies that would allow for their economic success” (p. 3). Indeed, chance was central to Indian removal from Georgia as land ceded by the Creeks and Cherokees was distributed via lotteries. Pratt suggests, “The white man’s chance, though, pointed to a way of thinking that saw rights and opportunities as a zero-sum game: in order to increase the opportunities for poor whites, someone had to have their rights and economic potential reduced” (pp. 3-4). Viewed from the Cherokee perspective, the gains for white settlers could not possibly have offset the losses endured by the Cherokees as a result of removal for which they were not fully compensated.

Pratt places his narrative in the context of a burgeoning literature regarding “settler societies” and their various impacts on indigenous communities (p. 9). He maintains, “For the white man’s chance to flourish, the Cherokee Nation had to cease to exist” (p. 10). The chapters that follow detail the dispossession of the Georgia Cherokees through a policy of force and fraud that employed violence verging on genocide.

Chapter 1, titled “Order and Sovereignty,” recounts a group of whites that in 1787 squatted on Cherokee land close to the actual Georgia-Cherokee border claiming ignorance about the location of the boundary line. Known as the Wofford Settlement, tension developed between the Cherokees and settlers, as well as between the state of Georgia and the federal government. The federal government appreciated that settlers (or intruders from the Cherokee perspective) served an important function for the white community by spearheading the westward push consistent with the longer-run policy of removal to the trans-Mississippi west. However, squatting was inconsistent with federal policy that a land transfer must occur through treaty negotiations prior to white settlement. In 1804, the Wofford Settlement dispute was resolved to Georgia’s satisfaction but contrary to federal policy through the federal purchase of a 23-mile by 4-mile strip from the Cherokees where whites had already settled (pp. 12-13).

Pratt places appropriation of Native American land by the United States in the context of recent historical work on European settler societies that justified their claims to land occupied by indigenes because the land had not been “improved.” Therefore, Native Americans held no formal right to the land as their private property. The legal status of indigenous claims to land was set out in Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823) where Chief Justice John Marshall held that the British discovery of America conveyed ownership of the land. Title was transferred to the United States after the revolution; thus, Native Americans were tenants with uncertain leases.

Tension continued to rise along the Cherokee-Georgia border as more white intruders encroached on Cherokee land. Chapter 2, “Disorder in the Disputed Territory” describes white incursions and reveals Cherokee responses to the disorder. Depredations by whites included theft of African slaves owned by Cherokees, theft of livestock, and destruction of houses and stores of crops along the Cherokee-Georgia border. White Georgians claimed that the lack of progress by the Cherokees supported their argument for removal. Whites complained that they felt threatened by the proximity of the Cherokees, adding to the pressure for removal. However, citing evidence, Pratt argues persuasively that white intrusions were the main source of conflict. In fact, the Cherokees were establishing order in their Nation with the emergence of civil society that supported values like those embodied by United States institutions. Cherokee advances included the adoption of a national constitution in 1827 with provisions for a legislative branch (the National Council), a judiciary, and a mounted Lighthorse police force. Even so, according to Pratt, Cherokee adoption of institutions similar to those observed in the white community served only to reinforce the desire for Cherokee removal among many white Georgians. A thriving and successful Cherokee Nation was anathema to proponents of removal. Facts on the ground that reflected Cherokee advances were rendered moot with the discovery of gold within the bounds of the Cherokee Nation in Georgia. Suffice it to say that greater disorder ensued with the flood of gold-seekers onto Cherokee land. A vivid description of the conflict the Georgia gold rush engendered is presented.

Growing disorder in Carroll County, Georgia from 1822 through 1832 is the focus of Chapter 3, “The Slicks and the Pony Club.” The Pony Club was a secretive conglomeration of criminal elements that also included some Georgians serving in governmental positions. All manner of nefarious activities were pursued by the Pony Club along the Georgia-Cherokee border. Opposition emerged with the Slicks and, later, the Regulators, which were vigilante groups, also diverse in membership, meting out rough frontier justice to suppress the Pony Club. The name “Slicks” is derived from a Cherokee form of punishment, especially for thieves, called “slicking” whereby the alleged criminal was stripped, bound, and whipped 50 to 100 lashes, typically with hickory switches. Slicking was employed by the Slicks against captured Pony Club members when deemed appropriate. Reader be warned — this chapter is not for the squeamish.

Indeed, an impartial spectator to the chaos on the Georgia-Cherokee Nation border in the late 1820s might well have asked, “Who is in charge here?” If a functioning state fulfills the requirements of controlling borders and wielding monopoly power over the use of force/violence, then government failure existed at every level — state, federal, and the nascent Cherokee Nation. Pratt’s narrative continues through the remaining four chapters that describe the gradual restoration of order (from the perspective of whites) in the portion of Georgia occupied by the Cherokees. A carefully choreographed dance between Georgia state officials and the federal government resulted in convergence of state and federal policy supporting removal. In essence, Georgia adopted nullification in response to Supreme Court rulings in the cases Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832). These rulings held that the extension laws and supremacy laws passed by the Georgia legislature to extend Georgia law into Cherokee territory were unconstitutional. However, the federal government refused to enforce these rulings that Georgia chose to ignore. The Georgia Guard was created in 1830 to maintain order and effect removal in 1838 according to the terms set in the 1835 Treaty of New Echota. The presence and influence of federal troops faded away.

Curiously, Pratt fails to include findings of economic historians in his narrative and even laments a “dearth of quantitative evidence” (p. x). In fact, quantitative evidence abounds, and its presentation would have strengthened Pratt’s arguments. The Cherokee Census of 1835 shows clear evidence of economic progress that persisted through the chaotic years culminating in removal but is absent in Pratt’s bibliography. Cherokee improvements to land in their possession could only have made it more attractive to whites. By moving onto Cherokee land with improvements, white settlers avoided some of the high costs of farm-making. The white man’s chance manifested in the appropriation of rents generated by decades of Cherokee labor and investment. Also, maps would have been helpful to readers unfamiliar with Georgia geography. Notwithstanding these quibbles, Pratt’s excellent narrative history is a welcome addition to the literature related to the Cherokee removal and United States policy toward Native Americans generally.

 

David M. Wishart is Professor of Economics Emeritus at Wittenberg University. His publications include “Evidence of Surplus Production in the Cherokee Nation Prior to Removal” (Journal of Economic History, 1995) and, with Matthew T. Gregg, “The Price of Cherokee Removal” (Explorations in Economic History, 2012).

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