- Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab by Steve Inskeep
In this well-written narrative, National Public Radio Morning Edition cohost Steve Inskeep weaves together the stories of Andrew Jackson and Cherokee chief John Ross from their first meeting in 1813 through the Cherokee removal in 1838. As a military commander, Jackson negotiated nine major treaties with southeastern tribes between 1814 and 1824. As president, he secured passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, authorizing the negotiation of additional removal treaties. Ross, a twenty-three-year-old mixed-race merchant, served in the Cherokee regiment that fought under Jackson at the battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. Thereafter, Ross rose to political prominence, and by 1828 he was the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and the leading opponent of removal.
Greed drives this story. Inskeep would agree with Edward E. Baptist’s interpretation in The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York, 2014) that lust for land and profit drove America’s expansion into the Old Southwest. Far more than previous historians, Inskeep depicts Jackson as a land speculator who personally enriched himself, his relatives, and his associates at the expense of Native Americans. Jackson exploited the vague wording of one of his own treaties to try and seize control of Native land in the Muscle Shoals area after 1815, land he eventually got. Throughout the Southeast, Jackson used the unrelenting advance of white settlers, whom he refused to expel, to extort land from [End Page 672] tribes at prices he demanded. Jackson, Inskeep contends, “selectively obeyed orders, pushed laws to the limit, trafficked in inside information, and took advantage of his official position and connections” (pp. 103–4).
Previous biographers have paid far less attention to Jackson’s personal land dealings. For example, in Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars (New York, 2001), Robert V. Remini spends less than one page on the subject, contending that there is insufficient evidence. And herein lies the major problem with Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab. It is a narrative written for the general public. While Inskeep provides an extensive bibliography, he has relatively few end-notes, and evidence supporting specific claims is often difficult to delineate. Historians will have to unpack Inskeep’s work before they can build on it.
However, Inskeep does not demonize Jackson, conceding that the federal Indian policy Jackson inherited was nonsensical and that Jackson truly believed removal was necessary to save Native Americans from extinction. From Jackson’s perspective, relocation was more paternalistic rather than genocidal. Nevertheless, he made poor choices. But Inskeep is also clearly sympathetic to John Ross, who emerges as an even more interesting, albeit frustratingly obscure, individual. We learn about Ross the hard-nosed diplomat but far less about Ross the trader, the slaveholder, and the husband. Ross did not follow the example of Tecumseh or Osceola, who both rebelled against the U.S. government. Instead, Ross advocated cultural assimilation and sought to use democratic tools to protect Cherokee land rights within the United States. Hence the Cherokees established a system of government modeled on the United States, lobbied Congress, and sought to mobilize public opinion through the press, churches, and a letter-writing campaign of northern women organized by Catharine Beecher. The Cherokees also fought and won in the U.S. Supreme Court, only to be circumvented by Jackson’s 1833 negotiations with an illegitimate faction of the Cherokees. Ross finally gave in to removal, but only after securing permission from the Martin Van Buren administration to supervise the process. Inskeep invests the Cherokees with agency, writing, “they were skilled political operators who played a bad hand long and well” (p. 7).
Inskeep is a skilled writer and wordsmith. He has made Jackson, Ross, and the complex subject of Indian removal more accessible to the general public and has...