Christopher D. Haveman. Rivers of Sand: Creek Indian Emigration, Relocation, and Ethnic Cleansing in the American South. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. 438 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-7392-4.
Reviewed by Bryan Rindfleisch (Marquette University)
Published on H-AmIndian (April, 2016)
Commissioned by F. Evan Nooe
Creek Indians and Ethnic Cleansing in the American South
Contrary to standard narratives of “Indian removal” that revolve around the Cherokee Nation and “Trail of Tears,” Christopher Haveman provides an account of removal from the perspective and experiences of the Creek Nation. As Haveman suggests, his work is “the most comprehensive account available of a native population transfer to the West,” which details “the disintegration of the eastern Creek Nation, the relocation of its people across the Mississippi River, and the reestablishment of a new nation in the Indian territory” (p. 3). In particular, Haveman focuses on the Creek Nation’s “long struggle to remain on their ancestral homeland,” and thereby privileges indigenous agency, voice, and resistance to the removal process (p. 234). Further, Haveman argues that Creek removal was part of a much larger, systematic campaign of “ethnic cleansing”—or “the purging of any culture, religion, government, or race from a territory in order to secure that land for another group”—by both the federal government and the white settler populations of Alabama and Georgia (p. 3). As Haveman demonstrates, “ethnic cleansing” manifested in a variety of ways, such as land fraud and dispossession, settler violence and land expropriation, fraudulent treaties, and the abrogation of sovereignty, as well as warfare and coercive relocation. Creek removal, then, “was a demographic disaster that killed untold numbers of people,” but through it all the Creeks “fought to preserve their way of life” and ultimately renewed their communities and cultures in the West (pp. 5-6). As Haveman concludes, “the larger narrative [should] not [be] one of death, but of life” (p. 300).
The first chapters focus on Creek resistance to the Treaty of Indian Springs (1825), an agreement between the federal government and a minority of Creek leaders—led by William McIntosh—that ceded lands in modern-day Georgia and Alabama. As part of the treaty, the “McIntosh party” promised to voluntarily relocate to Indian territory in the West. As one could imagine, the Creek majority objected in a variety of ways. For instance, Creek warriors took matters into their own hands by assassinating McIntosh, whereas Creek diplomats appealed directly to President John Quincy Adams. In the end, the Creek Nation succeeded in nullifying the 1825 agreement by negotiating the separate Treaty of Washington (1826). Although this settlement allowed the Creeks to reclaim a portion of their ceded lands, it also provided the precedent for Creek removal by establishing a “Federal Voluntary Emigration Program” (p. 20). Shortly thereafter, the McIntosh party and their supporters left the Nation and resettled in Indian territory, establishing the foundations of a “western Creek Nation” (p. 42).
In subsequent chapters, Haveman explores the violence that enveloped the Creek Nation in the East between 1828 and 1835. Specifically, he details the startling efforts by Creek leaders to “silence anyone caught aiding or supporting voluntary emigration,” which included personal violence and assault, confiscation of property, and public shaming (p. 61). This is important because Creek governance and authority was historically dictated by consensus and persuasion rather than coercion or force. But under the threat of removal, Creek understandings of political power and influence changed, all in the effort to suppress voluntary emigration. Violence was also precipitated by white settlers who sought to evict Creek peoples from eastern lands. For example, American settlers targeted Lower Creek families and burned their homes and farms to the ground. In other instances, white speculators illegally secured title to Creek lands through a combination of debt, alcohol, and threats of violence. Altogether, the “deteriorating conditions found in the Creek Nation” occasioned the voluntary relocation of 3,500 peoples to the West (p. 80). As Haveman suggests, 1835 was “clearly a turning point for the Creek people,” in which a “general fatalism”—or realization that “removal was inevitable”—pervaded the Nation (pp. 138-139).
Despite such despondency, though, Creek peoples overwhelmingly resisted removal and, when backed into a corner by the federal government and white settlers, pushed back violently. In response to the incessant encroachments on Creek lands and sovereignty, war erupted in the Southeast in 1836, in what became known as the “Second Creek War.” While the Creeks fought to defend their homelands and political authority, the war ultimately “gave Andrew Jackson the excuse he needed to relocate the entire population without a removal treaty” (p. 200). Haveman argues that the Creek War also “justified ethnic cleansing in the minds of administration officials [as] emigration became forced removal” (p. 185). Throughout 1836 and 1837, a retributive US Army forcefully expelled the Creek Nation (which Haveman estimates at around 19,600 peoples), which triggered a “larger demographic disaster” that killed more than 700 Creeks (p. 298). To Haveman’s credit, he painstakingly reconstructs the arduous journeys of the “Creek Detachments” to the West. From the “physical and emotional horrors” like the Monmouth steamboat disaster (that killed hundreds of Creek emigrants), to the spiritual and cultural trauma associated with removal, Haveman captures the full brutality of that event (p. 300).
Despite such violence and chaos, Creek peoples still found ways to resist federal removal. For instance, Creek community leaders extinguished their town fires, carried those cultural traditions with them during the march, and replanted those communities and ceremonies in the West. Meanwhile, some Creek families managed to remain in the East by serving in the US Army during the Seminole Wars, escaping to other indigenous nations like the Cherokee and Chickasaw, hiding in the Alabama swamps and surrounding environs, and otherwise avoiding federal detection (becoming the progenitors of today’s Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama). In addition, Haveman examines how the Creeks “[re]adjusted to life in the Indian territory,” albeit suffering from disease, starvation, poor soil and harsh climates, lack of access to fresh water, and hostility from other removed Native communities (p. 270). Of particular note is how the Creeks reestablished a “diffused town site [pattern] reminiscent of [that] in Alabama and Georgia,” as well as incorporating indigenous peoples like the Cherokee, Shawnee, Delaware, Piankashaw, and Kickapoo into Creek society (p. 276).
Overall, Haveman has provided a definitive account of Creek removal, magisterial in its scope and detail, especially when it comes to the narrative. However, I encourage Haveman to take his analysis of Creek towns (talwas) even further. While he adequately demonstrates that talwas continued to matter during and after removal, there is little sense of the town rivalries and conflicts, or alliances and compromises, which are characteristic of Creek history and culture throughout the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. For instance, how did town loyalties and interests complicate, promote, or undermine voluntary emigration and/or removal? I also suspect that voluntary emigration might best be understood through the migration patterns that have long defined the Muscogee people. Did these Creek families resort to cultural continuities, such as migration, in the face of such violence and peril? Also, what did it mean for Creek peoples to leave their “ancestral homelands” behind; or, what did Creek peoples culturally and spiritually invest in those lands, and how did removal impact those understandings? Lisa Brooks explores similar themes in her 2008 work The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast. Might this also explain why some Creek families took great pains to remain, hide out, or seek ways to hold onto their lands in the East? Finally, Haveman’s emphasis on the ability of Creeks “to maintain their spiritual and ceremonial lives” amid removal is spot-on, but I was left wanting more (p. 185). We get a sense of how they preserved and reasserted these ways of life, but what did it mean for them to do that? Did these cultural and religious practices establish some sense of continuity—or connection—between West and East, or even past and present? Was it a way to ameliorate their colonial contexts and circumstances? I’m not sure if there is a good answer to these questions, or if one can even get at those answers, but there is definitely more going on here than meets the eye.
With all of that said, though, Haveman’s narrative of Creek removal during the early to mid-nineteenth century is a testament to exhaustive research and judicious analysis. Also, the ways in which he brings Creek removal—and resistance—to life is both heartbreaking as well as stirring. Further, his account aptly undermines any and all lingering claims by historians—particularly Jacksonian scholars—that removal was benevolent in nature. And for all of that, Haveman should be commended.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-amindian.
Bryan Rindfleisch. Review of Haveman, Christopher D., Rivers of Sand: Creek Indian Emigration, Relocation, and Ethnic Cleansing in the American South.
H-AmIndian, H-Net Reviews.
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