First off, my goal was a half-Cannonball. So, yay me!
The age of Jackson (roughly 1820-1860) is like a glimpse of movement in an otherwise dark and empty room: poorly understood and full of foreboding. I’m reasonably familiar with the preceding 50 years of US history, and have a more comfortable grasp on the succeeding 70 years, but the 40 years that tie them together isn’t an era I’ve read much about. I know that there were some Indian Wars, and the fervor to push westward was matched only by the rise of Abolitionism and brooding tensions over slavery, but this knowledge is but the ghostly after-image of a memory so fleeting as to be non-existent.
Steve Innskeep kicked in the door that ushered bright, crisp air into this darkened and forgotten corner of my cerebral labyrinth.
(Have I tortured this metaphor enough?)
It’s difficult to write about Andrew Jackson without being hyperbolic. He was an anthropomorphized sword: long, thin, and always waiting to be unsheathed and set upon some detractor. After leaving office, he said his greatest regrets were not hanging John C. Calhoun and not shooting Henry Clay; this after a lifetime of waging war against various tribes of American Indian and fighting duels with a relish seldom seen outside of a movie. Every obstacle for Andrew Jackson was the Gordian Knot, and every solution a sword. He was not a subtle man, nor did he strive for delicacy. Jackson destroyed the Creek Nation and forced them into handing over large parts of present-day Georgia and Alabama to the United States. He also invaded Florida, basically on his own authority, wresting it from Spain. Before becoming president, Jackson was responsible for the addition of roughly 60 million acres of US territory. It’s little surprise, then, that a major drive of his administration was Indian Removal.
Perhaps more than any other president, Andrew Jackson defined the South – both geographically, and culturally. Thomas Jefferson broke the Federalists, but Andrew Jackson cemented many of the issues that would go on to set up the Civil War: the push westward and desire to open up new territories and the economic turmoil that arose following his destruction of the Second Bank of the United States. Along with his proteges Martin van Buren and James K. Polk, the politics of Andrew Jackson dominated antebellum America.
But this is only half the story explored in this book. Principle Chief of the Cherokee Nation, John Ross, is just as prominent a figure in this story. The Cherokee are a matrilineal people, and John Ross was one-eighth Cherokee (from his mother). He used his mixed ancestry to great advantage, being able to physically pass as a white man. John Ross was well educated and fluent in English, and lived his life vacillating between the two worlds, but always striving to preserve a life for his people: the Cherokee.
Interestingly enough, he actually fought alongside Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812. He was groomed from a fairly young age to be a central figure in diplomatic relations between the Cherokee Nation and the United States. As the Cherokee formed their government, Ross was the natural leader to whom they turned. Leading delegations to Washington, being literate and bilingual, Ross eventually ascended to Principle Chief and President of the National Council. He was implacable in his efforts to main the Cherokee Nation as a cohesive entity, and had an indomitable will with a restless energy. Being perhaps the most recognized of the Five Civilized Tribes of the American South, the Cherokee occupied prominent territory lusted after by the expansionist state and federal governments. John Ross – even with opposition among his own people – withstood numerous threats, overtures, and demands that they give up their land.
So often when we think of Indian resistance to US encroachment, we think of the wars fought on the Great Plains and American Southwest by the Sioux, Apache and many others. Maybe they’re depicted as valiant warriors fighting an existential but ultimately fruitless war, or maybe they’re depicted as fearsome bands of marauding savages burning homesteads and scalping their victims. Both are simplistic stereotypes with kernels of truth. The story we don’t often get, however, is peaceful resistance against overwhelming odds. That’s the story of John Ross and what would become the Trail of Tears.
Towards the end of the Cherokee Nation, when any hope of salvation had dissipated and even the iron will of John Ross had started to crack, Cherokee planters continued to work their fields in a show of defiance against their inevitable forced relocation. It was a clear sign that this was their land, and that they would not be forced out. We know that they were, but in that moment – as their world was dissolving around them – they refused to cede to the demands of the inevitable.
120 years later, the Civil Rights movement under Martin Luther King fought a similar battle against the US government, and did so in the same part of the country, with similar tactics. While still on-going, African Americans would achieve some success. That stands as a testament to the righteousness of their cause, and the fortitude of their effort, but it also shows how far we’ve come as a nation; for the Cherokee were no less intractable, and their cause no less just.
This is ultimately a tragic story. Approximately six thousand American Indians died on their forced march to what would become Oklahoma – a full third of those who made the journey. For decades, John Ross fought to make sure their removal would not happen. And, for decades, Andrew Jackson demanded that it must.
We know how this story ends, Jacksonland shows how the end was, perhaps, inevitable. Where I think Steve Innskeep truly succeeds is in the illumination of these events as an integral part of what we are as a nation. How we got to be the United States is a story that’s often ugly, and sometimes difficult to contemplate, but those moments are important. And events that took place are doubly important because they are foundational. In many ways, we’ve moved on. We’ve put this behind us. For many of the Cherokee (and other tribes who underwent forced migration), his is a story of survival. For the US, it’s an historical event we tell third graders. But it’s still part of our cultural fabric. We may not talk about it, but it’s still part of who we are.
Most of us, I think, know something about Andrew Jackson. He may not have been a great person, and his greatness as a president is worthy of debate, but he was certainly an important figure in American history. This book shows that. But it also shows that John Ross may have been just as important, in his own way. That he, Ross, may have been giving us a chance to redeem ourselves. Our failure to take that chance is one we should all remember.