Protecting the Native Americans

by Charles King Bird
Secretary of War John Calhoun. By: Charles Bird King.

President John Quincy Adams and his administration faced a serious challenge in dealing with the Native Americans.

Partially, this challenge was inherited from President James Monroe’s administration. Secretary of War under President Monroe, John Calhoun was responsible for Native American policy, and he had encouraged “gradual resettlement of the southern tribes across the Mississippi, while simultaneously promoting the assimilation of some of their members into white society.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 255.

Calhoun’s policy led to a conflict with Governor George M. Troup of Georgia. In 1802, “Georgia had relinquished her claim to what is now Alabama and Mississippi in return” for the federal government seeking removal of the Native Americans in the territory. Id. at 256. Georgians were eager to take the land from the Creek and Cherokee tribes and complained that Calhoun was treating Native Americans too racially equal. Id. citing Lynn Parsons, “John Quincy Adams and the American Indian,” New England Quarterly 46 (Sept. 1973): 352.

Late in Monroe’s presidency, leaders of the Creek tribe “signed a treaty at Indian Springs agreeing to sell their Georgia lands and move west of the Mississippi” River. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 256. After it came to light that there was bribery to get the treaty, the Creeks refused to ratify it, and President Adams “concluded that the Treaty of Indian Springs was a nullity and that the Creeks remained the rightful possessors of their lands.” Id.

The stage seemed set for a dispute arising between the states’ righters and federal government, with Andrew Jackson backing the Georgians, who wished to enforce the treaty and begin surveying the Creeks’ lands. Id.

However, then the Creeks agreed to a more favorable treaty. White southerners felt that Jackson was going to see that their wishes be fulfilled to effectuate the removal of the Native Americans and allow settlement of their lands. Id. citing Michael Green, The Politics of Indian Removal (Lincoln, Neb., 1982), 125.

President Adams’ refusal to enforce the first Treaty of Indian Springs was a rare example in American history of the government protecting the interests of Native Americans, ensuring that fairness and justice won the day.

For these actions, President Adams deserves praise. At a time when public opinion was almost entirely against him, President Adams took the brave position that regardless of the temptation to settle on Native American lands, it must happen in a lawful, orderly way. President Adams was setting an example that others should have followed, even if most did not.

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