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JOSHUA DAVID BELLIN Wicked Instruments: William Bartram and the Dispossession of the Southern Indians ? june i, 1773, william Bartram witnessed the Treaty of Augusta, in which Cteek and Cherokee Indians, constrained by trade debts, ceded two million acres of land to the Crown.1 While accompanying govetnment agents and tribal chiefs on the surveying mission, Barttam noted a "remarkable instance of Indian sagacity" which "nearly disconcerted all our plans, and put an end to the business " (58). Batttam wtites: The surveyor having fixed his compass on the staff . . . just as he had detetmined upon the point, the Indian chief came up, and observing the coutse he had fixed upon, spoke, and said it was not tight; but that the coutse to the place was so and so, holding up his hand, and pointing. The surveyor replied, that he himself was certainly fight, adding, that that little insttument (pointing to the compass) told him so, which, he said, could not ert. The Indian answered, he knew better, and that the little wicked instalment was a liar; and he would not acquiesce in its decisions, since it would wrong the Indians out of their land. This mistake (the surveyor proving to be in the wrong) displeased the Indians. . . . (58-59) Arizona Quarterly Volume 52, Number 3, Autumn 1995 Copyright © 1995 by Arizona Board of Regents issN 0004- 1 6 10 Joshua David Bellin Though Batttam strives for levity, it is evident that the disputants ate in dead earnest. Nor can Bartram—though he speaks of the ceded land as "outs"—avoid a subtle, and pethaps unintended, reproof of the surveyor ; he is not merely "wrong," the victim of an inaccutate compass or a bad eye, but "in the wrong." By this, Bartram may mean simply that the surveyor is dishonest, but the tension underlying the episode suggests that the wrong is more pervasive. The "instruments" by which the Indians were dispossessed of their lands—the fictions that sanctioned the white man's claims—may have been, as the sagacious chief charges, liars. This passage from Bartram's Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida (179 1) illustrates an important point: the land Bartram traverses is contested land, its earliest inhabitants fighting to maintain theit hold in the face of white expansion. The petiod of Battram's travels (1773—1778) proved critical for southern tribes; already compromised by land cessions and trade debts, their autonomy was furthet threatened by the advent of the Revolution. Though their territory was "theoretically undiminished" by the wat, as R. S. Cotterill puts it (57), the southern Indians experienced an "epidemic of land cessions" (153) in the next decade, forfeiting possessions in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee.2 Thus Bartram was a witness to the violent exchange of lands, to white America's rise and native Ametica's decline. Bartram's text, then, arises from a period of acute racial conflict, a time in which "America," both as physical entity and as idea, was taking shape through the exaggetation of some—and the suppression of other—relationships to the land which its divetse people exercised. The consttuction of a nation, as Etienne Balibat points out, is neither neat nor linear; the story of an inexorable national telos is a "retrospective illusion" (338) which obscures the "resistances and the extraordinarily violent conflicts that surround . . . nation-building" (325). The Ametica of Bartram's time was, in a sense, unsettled; it was tenanted by both native and European peoples, but the former had not relinquished , and the latter had not gained, control over the meaning and use of the land. If, as Annette Kolodny has written, "frontiers inevitably give tise to hybtidized forms" ("Letting Go" 6), then texts such as Bartram's, situated on the never-fully-articulated border between human populations, can be read as negotiations among the multiple imaginative and literal configurations the land embraces. Further, as those Dispossession of the Southern Indians3 configutations are being pared down, the land deeded into white hands, Batttam's Travels questions the ptimacy of white claims: in his text, native practices of communal wardenship contend with European practices of private ownership. By hosting an alternative—an Indian—relationship to...


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