- Creek Paths and Federal Roads: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves and the Making of the American South
Native Americans, Gulf Coast, Creek Nation, Roads, Andrew Jackson
This book is a reminder of how a simple change in focus can illuminate a given place and time. Over the past ten years, the Gulf Coast region during the decades around 1800 has attracted new attention, especially by historians of slavery. The making of the “deep south” or “cotton kingdom” by enslaved black workers and their white masters now claims center stage in larger narratives of western expansion. Hudson’s book offers a fresh glimpse of that vast and complex region by focusing on the ways its native inhabitants, especially the Creek Indians, moved through it. In other words, the book makes mobility and territoriality—the ways native peoples and their neighbors traveled through the country and understood their rights to do so—the central topics of inquiry. Who could move through “Indian country,” and according to what treaties, customs, or agreements? What did new roads and paths through that territory mean to young braves, opportunist chiefs, and American speculators, soldiers, and settlers? In addressing these questions, Hudson offers a compelling narrative of the Creek Nation from the 1770s to the 1830s as well as a provocative interpretation of U.S. expansionism and regional politics during the early national age.
Hudson’s early chapters explore Creek understandings of the landscape and of the pathways leading through it. By the time of the American Revolution, an intricate network of paths connected the forty Upper Creek towns and twenty Lower Creek towns. Travel through the forests and along the rivers was essential to both the semi-nomadic, mixed economy of the Creeks and to their cultural and spiritual understandings of the land itself. While attempting to forge a more cohesive nation out of their “largely noncoercive society” (63), Creek headmen tolerated American travelers along their paths, if only because they were increasingly reliant upon credit, gifts, and supplies. Single white men were seen as innocent passersby. During the last two decades of the eighteenth century, however, Creeks encountered more and more family groups traveling along their roads, in some cases with slaves and in many cases in wagons that physically expanded the paths themselves. Such persons were obviously coming to settle, not to trade. Their appearance [End Page 528] worsened or created divisions within the Creek population, with some arguing for a negotiated coexistence and others for a more radical break with white ideas, goods, and demands. This latter group noted that no treaty made with the Anglo Americans had yet restrained them from swarming into Creek hunting grounds and that any crime committed by a single Creek—a stolen horse or slave, for example—became the collective responsibility of the entire Nation, while American authorities shrugged off thefts or murders by white settlers as the regrettable actions of a few bad men.
Among the many benefits of Hudson’s approach is the view it offers of the new American state, which managed to infuriate borderlands elites for alleged partiality to Indians and to take a very active role in building roads through Creek country. Especially after 1805, when both the Creek and Cherokee leadership officially agreed to let American citizens freely pass through their nations, U.S. soldiers chopped down the trees and laid down the stones to connect the Tennessee settlements with the Carolinas and New Orleans. Federal post roads cut through the heart of Creek country, facilitating white emigration and reimagining the landscape itself in the lexicon of Euro–American political economy. A devastating drought within the Creek Nation coincided, in 1811, with new federal demands for a great road bisecting the country. At one of the very same meetings when they heard these demands, Creek authorities also listened to the Shawnee revolutionary, Tecumseh, who called for all-out war on the white invaders.
In her later chapters, Hudson describes the Creek Civil...