Benevolent Colonization or Subjugation of the Noble Savage? James Fenimore Cooper and William Gilmore Simms Debate Indian Removal in the Literary Age of Jackson
Presented at the Cooper Panel on “James Fenimore Cooper and the Literary Age of Jackson” at the 30ᵗʰ Annual American Literature Association Conference in Boston, Massachusetts, May 23-26, 2019.
Originally published in The James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 31.1 (Whole No. 8, Spring 2020): 5-14.
Copyright © 2019, James Fenimore Cooper Society.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
I have almost given up the Ship as lost. I have gone So far as to declare that if he martin vanburen is elected that I will leave the United States for I never will live under his kingdom. before I will Submit to his Government, I will go to the wildes of Texas. I will consider that government a Paridice to what this will be. In fact, at this time our Republican Government has dwindled almost into insignificancy our [boasted] land of liberty have almost Bowed to the yoke of Bondage. Our happy days of Republican principles are near at an end when a few is to transfer the many.
— Davy Crockett on the Removal of the Cherokees, 1834
By the time Andrew Jackson and Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson’s belief that if Native Americans culturally integrated themselves into mainstream society and embraced Republican government that whites would accept the Five Civilized Tribes as equals had largely failed. As Western European American frontiersmen moved into the lands and territory of the Southeast and Great Plains acquired in the Louisiana Purchase, ethnic and racial tensions increased between white settlers and natives. From Jefferson’s acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 up until the Indian Removal period, Southeastern frontiersmen viewed Native American claims to the land as an obstacle to Manifest Destiny and Westward expansion. According to the settlers in the Southeast, the Civilized Tribes would have to adopt the Republican democratic values of the whites or face inevitable extermination.
While the policy of Indian Removal has commonly been viewed as a violent method to force tribal peoples from their indigenous homelands in the Southeast, supporters of Andrew Jackson’s Indian policy including James Fenimore Cooper initially viewed Removal as the only humane method to prevent the cultural eradication and racial degeneration of tribal peoples. Opponents of Jackson’s Indian Removal policy like the Southeastern Fenimore Cooper William Gilmore Simms believed that Native Americans were incapable of surviving on their own away from the paternalistic cultural influence of whites. Reflecting the ethnocentric and pseudoscientific theories of Buffon from the late eighteenth century, concerning the innate degeneracy of non-whites,  Simms believed that the natural state of tribal peoples within society was to be subjugated to the Western European. In contrast to Simms, Cooper believed that the only way for tribal peoples to culturally survive was to be removed to a territory away from white settlers where natives would gradually adopt democratic values and Republican government which would afford them the time to develop an independent republic allowing them to live and function alongside white settlers. In The Prairie (1827) Cooper views Andrew Jackson’s policy of Indian Removal as a type of “Benevolent Colonization” which will allow Native Americans to develop as citizens of a separate but equal republic therefore avoiding the racial degradation, cultural eradication, and subjugation promoted by William Gilmore Simms in The Yemassee (1835).
Reflecting the continued conflict between Native Americans and Western European settlers during the Jacksonian Indian Wars of the 1830s, the policy of Indian Removal ultimately became a racist and genocidal policy designed to expel members of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole nations who refused to accept enslavement and forced cultural assimilation. However, following Thomas Jefferson’s failed attempt to convince tribal peoples to surrender their lands and abandon nomadic hunting for farming, Indian Removal was viewed by advocates of Native American rights including James Fenimore Cooper and his frontier protagonist the Trapper as a humane method of liberating indigenous peoples from oppression, discrimination and enslavement by white settlers. Unlike Cooper’s protagonists, the Trapper and Hard Heart the Chief of the Pawnees, who both believed in the Native American right to sovereignty and independence, William Gilmore Simms believed that Indians were only valuable as slaves. According to Simms’s eighteenth-century South Carolinian colonists in The Yemassee tribal peoples like the defiant Chief Sauntee who would not conform to Western European society and accept their lower racial status would be eliminated. As a result of the desire of Simms and other supporters of slavery and forced Native American assimilation to oppress indigenous peoples, Removal was initially proposed by Jackson as a way to reduce racial conflict between whites and natives.
Nicholas Guyatt argues in his study “The Outskirts of Our Happiness: Race and the Lure of Colonization in the Early Republic” (2009) that Indian Removal was initially proposed as type of “Benevolent Colonization” to restrict the further oppression and enslavement of Native Americans and decrease the conflicts on the frontier between Indians and white settlers. Guyatt asserts that  advocates of Indian Removal much like the supporters of African Colonization viewed the process of “Benevolent Colonization” which would ultimately become the genocidal process of Removal argued that the “founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had escaped their quarrel with the Stuarts by planning a new colony and the Pioneers of Virginia had discovered economic opportunity in a new land” (Guyatt 986). Much like the resettlement of the oppressed Western European in the New World, developing a separate colony for exploited Native Americans would allow tribal people to “transform themselves into civilized nations” based on the democratic Republican values of the Western European (Guyatt 986). For advocates of Jacksonian Removal like James Fenimore Cooper this theory of “Benevolent Colonization” seemed to be the only way for Native Americans to gain full liberty, equality, and eventual racial acceptance by whites.
For James Fenimore Cooper, Andrew Jackson, and the supporters of Removal and “Benevolent Colonization” resettlement was a necessity because Native Americans could not preserve their nomadic hunting culture residing among white frontiersmen in the Southeast. By the Removal period and the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, indigenous peoples had become so hybridized and culturally degraded through their colonial contact with whites that there seemed to be no other option but to remove them to their own reassigned territory West of the Mississippi. As a result of the continued desire of settlers like the Bushes in The Prairie and Simms’s British Carolinians in The Yemassee who attempt to seize the land and territory of tribes through illegitimate treaties and social exploitation, Cooper like Jackson argued that Native Americans could never maintain their liberty and independence living among white Western Europeans. The Jacksonian theory of “Benevolent Colonization” was proposed by advocates of tribal rights to challenge the belief of white settlers like the Bushes in Manifest Destiny that God had given them the lands secured in the Louisiana Purchase for their own economic benefit. Increasingly during the Jacksonian era white settlers exhibited little concern for the rights of tribal peoples they were dispossessing from their lands. Opponents of Indian Removal and “Benevolent Colonization” believed that they were entitled to the territory of the Great Plains and that Native Americans were an obstacle to continued westward expansion. Unlike Cooper’s Trapper in The Prairie who attempts to advocate for the Indian’s right to use the land as they see fit, Simms argues in The Yemassee that tribal peoples who would not willingly assimilate into mainstream American society were destined  to be destroyed by the continued incursion of white settlers into their territory.
In contrast to Cooper and supporters of Removal who believed in the Native American ability to become full equal citizens of the American Republic, Simms believed that the natural place of Native Americans like African Americans was to be subservient to their white masters. Reflecting the wide held beliefs in the degeneracy of non-whites, Simms maintains in The Yemassee that because of their racial inferiority, Native Americans could only exist within mainstream society as slaves. Published at the height of forced Indian Removal during the Trail of Tears in 1835, in his fictional history of the Yemassee War of 1715, Simms asserts that the only members of the tribe who have any chance of surviving within Western European society are those natives who have surrendered their desire for the Republican liberty and independence associated with hunting and accepted their subservient place as agrarian farmers and slaves within the assigned racial hierarchy. Vincent King asserts in his study “Foolish Talk ‘Bout Freedom: Simms’s Vision of America in The Yemassee“ (2003) that unlike Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales where social order is achieved through racial exclusion of natives, in Simms’s frontier fiction the author finds a place for tribal peoples within civilized society. The Yemassee implies that if America is “to avoid the horrible bloodletting that characterized the displacement of the American Indian (which Cooper, Simms, and Robert Montgomery Bird all record) then blacks must accept their roles as slaves to whites, for it is slavery that secures both their own and the larger community’s welfare” (King 140). For Simms, the Republican desire of tribes to preserve their independent hunting culture is incompatible with the goals of Manifest Destiny and assimilation. While Cooper views Native subjugation and slavery as contributing to racial tensions, Simms views slavery as eliminating racial conflict. The paternalistic natives who are dependent on their white masters do not cause unrest; it is only the Indians who desire Republican liberty who are a threat to white settlers.
According to Simms, the Yemassee tribe must accept their colonized status or face inevitable extermination. As an independent and proud Native American chief of the Yemassee, Sauntee is doomed to destruction because he refuses to accept his enslaved status within Western European culture. Anthony Dyer Hoefer asserts that “The slavery/liberty binary underlies Simms’s attempt; by presenting the Yamasees, via Sauntee, as willing to face extermination rather than submit to bondage and sacrifice their fundamental freedoms. Simms  simultaneously fetishizes the Indian figure, relegates it to a place in national memory ... and affirms the racial inferiority of African slaves” and tribal peoples (116). Therefore, in contrast to the advocates of “Benevolent Colonization” and Removal such as Cooper who believed that eventually an egalitarian pluralistic society could exist between Native Americans and white settlers by removing to the Louisiana Purchase, in Simms’s Southern frontier racial pluralism is impossible. This inability among whites and indigenous peoples to coexist as equals is apparent when Simms describes the Yemassee tribe as existing for the benefit of the whites. While the British colonists in the Carolinas initially viewed the Yamasees as their noble allies in their struggle against the Spaniards, “their aid, finally, had ceased to be necessary to the Carolinians. They were no longer sought or solicited. The presents became fewer, the borderers grew bolder and more incursive ...” (Simms 3). As the whites began to gain more land and territory, the tribe and its members were only useful to the colonists as servants to reinforce the dominant cultural hierarchy of the Western European.
For Simms, the Yamassees exist solely for the benefit of the whites. If the tribe does not accept their subjugated position within society, they will be wiped out. There can be no coexistence between the Natives and whites because for Simms each group is attempting to constantly enslave and subjugate the other. The Yemassee people would rather die than remain living as slaves of the English colonists. This extreme desire to maintain independence and liberty is apparent from Sauntee’s first description of the status of his son who has sold his people out to the English. Sauntee asserts:
Occonestoga is a dog, Matiwan; he hunts the slaves of the English in the swamps for strong drink. He is a slave himself — he has ears for their lies — he believes in their forked tongues, and he has two voices for his own people. Let him not look into the lodge of Sauntee. Is not Sauntee the chief of the Yemassee? (Simms 10)
For Simms, the Chief Sauntee will ultimately face extermination because he refuses to accept the society and culture of the whites. Because Sauntee desires Republican liberty and independence the whites will continue to make war against his people unless and until he accepts his subjugated status. While the novel begins with a sympathetic portrait of the Yemasssee tribe, Simms suggests that ultimately the tribe must accept their natural position of inferiority “the position of a dog to his  master” (King 141). This is the type of racism that Sauntee seeks to avoid by fighting to preserve his territory and way of life.
In Simms’s novel the Yemassee will only survive by submitting to the will of the whites. Therefore, as an advocate for his people’s traditional lifestyle and values, Sauntee will ultimately face extermination. The chief asserts:
Fear — Sauntee has no fear of the English — he fears only the Manneyto. He only fears that his people may go blind with the English poison drink, — that the great chiefs of the Yemassee may sell him for a slave to the English, to plant his maize and to be beaten with a stick. But, let the ears of the chiefs hear the voice of Sauntee — the Yemassee shall not be the slave of the English. (Simms 80)
Through the exploitation of his son, Sauntee has seen the detrimental effects of settler colonialism on his people. The chief knows that if he submits to the desire of the British colonists to purchase their lands and territory the tribe will be left with nothing. However, Simms offers the Yemassee no other option — Sauntee and his tribe must submit to the control of the British or ultimately be destroyed through a genocidal war.
The eighteenth-century British Colonists in the Carolinas portrayed in Simms’s frontier romance exhibit no concern for the plight of the Yemassee tribe or Native Americans. Sir Edmund Bellinger and Granger feel no remorse for their exploitative actions against Sauntee and his people. If the tribe will not enter into the treaties with the Whites and sell them their land they will be exterminated. Sauntee is perceived as a threat by the British Colonists because he will not accept his place as an acculturated Native American. Sauntee sees no use in the paltry trinkets that the British offer his people. The chief believes that the tribe will not be improved by embracing the culture of the Western European. Remaining control of the land is the only way for the Yemassee to retain their Native Identity. Sauntee asserts, “I will not sell the land of my people. The Yemassee loves the old trees and shady waters where he was born, and where the bones of the old warriors lie buried” (Simms 81). While the British colonists view the land as a commodity to be exploited, the Yemassee view the land as their sovereign homeland and they would rather die than have to surrender their territory.
For James Fenimore Cooper and Andrew Jackson, Indian Removal and “Benevolent Colonization” was a way to prevent the further enslavement and oppression of Native Americans promoted by William Gilmore Simms. Published in 1827 and set in 1804 one year after  Thomas Jefferson’s acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase, The Prairie is Cooper’s attempt to advocate for the sovereign rights of Native Americans through the development of a separate tribal territory where Indians can live free and defend themselves from the continued oppression of white settler colonialism. In contrast to Simms who argues that assimilated Native Americans like Occonestoga are the only indigenous peoples who can become civilized, Cooper asserts in The Prairie much like the Yemassee chief Sauntee that natives will be exterminated if they are not allowed to preserve their traditional hunting culture and connection to the land. Setting his novel some twenty years before the violent Indian Wars of the 1820s and 30s, Cooper employs the pre settlement Louisiana Purchase to make the argument that Native Americans cannot continue living among white settlers. Removing into the Western frontier with the tribes, the aging Natty Bumppo or the Trapper like Jefferson views the territory of the purchase “as a dumping ground for incompatible and incongruent members of society” (Pierce 20). The Louisiana Purchase acted as a type of buffer zone to protect whites and natives from continued violent conflict. ¹ Describing the newly acquired territory as a type of cultural refuge for Native Americans, Cooper observes “if ever time or necessity shall require a peaceful division of this vast empire, it assures us a neighbor that will possess our language, our religion, our institutions and it is also to be hoped our political justice” (9). Reflecting on the Jacksonian theory of “Benevolent Colonization” and Removal in the opening to The Prairie Cooper asserts that the only way indigenous peoples will be able to become equal citizens of the Republic is to remove to a territory where they can develop democratic values away from the corruptive influence of whites.
While William Gilmore Simms’s South Carolinian colonists provide no outlet for peaceful native white coexistence in The Yemassee, Cooper’s protagonist the Trapper attempts to prevent the further exploitation of continued western expansion on Native Americans by removing to the Great Plains in order to advocate for the tribal need to preserve their sovereign way of life. As a result of his ability to function as Laura Mielke argues as a type of sentimental intermediary between Native Americans and whites, the trapper is the last hope for the survival of the tribes before their culture is completely destroyed through the continued incursion of the whites. For Hard Heart and Cooper’s Pawnees, the Louisiana Purchase was to be land set aside so that the peaceful tribes could preserve their hunting practices. Lance Schachterle  observes that Prairie Law maintains that the land exists for the cooperative use of the tribe and their settler neighbors. There must be mutual respect for the cooperative land use and one party cannot legally control the land over another. This philosophy of cooperative land use allows the Pawnees to welcome the whites as their guests within the territory. However, the Native American hunting practices come into conflict with the desire of the Bushes to commodify the landscape and protect their property. The Pawnee chief “Hard Heart senses early on (if he does not later act on) the contradictions between Indian law which grant use of the land and what it contains to the tribe that can control it, and the white civic law of property by which one nation can sell another to a third — the Louisiana Purchase” (Schachterle 140). Therefore, for Hard Heart, the greatest threat to Native American survival are the white settlers who would carve up the landscape and interfere with the tribe’s ability to control the land and the natural resources that exist on it.
Throughout The Prairie, Native American survival is constantly threatened by White settlers who interfere with the natural environment on the Great Plains. The introduction of the Bush family early in the novel represents an invasive threat to the Indian refuge of the Louisiana Purchase and the lifestyle of Native Americans. Matthew Wynn Sivils asserts that the Bushes lack the crucial trait “that Cooper throughout his book presents as crucial to American virtue: an environmental consciousness, a respect for the land” (355). After the Trapper leads the squatters to a suitable spot to set up camp, they begin to take their toll on the environment like a plague of invasive locusts. For Cooper, it is the white settlers who destroy the landscape and interfere with the ability of the tribes to survive and develop. Asa and Ishmael Bush’s desire to cultivate the landscape and cut down all the trees contribute to the eradication of the natives. Therefore, Cooper refutes the pseudoscientific argument of Buffon and Simms who believe that the American landscape is not thriving because natives have failed to improve it. ² In part Cooper advocates for “Benevolent Colonization” and Removal because the improvements that whites impose upon the landscape interfere with the hunting practices of tribes.
As a result of the continuing desire of White settlers in the 1830s to force Native Americans off their tribal homelands, Cooper’s Native American protagonists have no other choice to remove to a territory in the West where they will be able to preserve their traditional tribal culture. While the Trapper attempts to advocate for the equal rights of Native Americans, “Natty’s fading vision and communication abilities  indicate that the chance for Indian and white coexistence has come to an end” (Klotz 349). In The Prairie Cooper ultimately comes to the conclusion that the time for Indian White coexistence has to come to an end. Reflecting the views of supporters of “Benevolent Colonization” and Removal, early in The Prairie Cooper describes the land and territory of the Great Plains as a vast ocean and equates the prairie itself with the settlement of the East Coast by Europeans fleeing oppression. Cooper writes:
The earth was not unlike the ocean ... There was the same waving and regular surface, the same absence of foreign objects, and the same boundless extent to the view. Indeed, so very striking was the resemblance between the water and the land, that however much the geologist might sneer at so simple a theory, it would have been difficult for a poet not to have felt, that the formation of the one had been produced by the subsiding dominion of the other. (Cooper 770)
According to Sara Klotz, Cooper much like the proponents of “Benevolent Colonization” that Guyatt discusses compares the Kansas prairie with the settlement of the East Coast by European colonists to argue as a result of continued oppression and subjugation, Indigenous peoples must find a new territory where they can live free and enjoy the promises of liberty. Echoing Cooper’s comparison of Native American migration to the Great Plains to the journey of oppressed Western Europeans crossing the Atlantic, Andrew Jackson would employ this imagery in his 1830 State of the Union Address to argue that the inevitable disappearance of the native from the American landscape could be avoided through the process of “Benevolent Colonization” and Removal. Cooper and Jackson’s imagery of waves crashing over the Great Plains link Removal with voluntary native emigration (Klotz 353).
While Andrew Jackson’s policy of Indian Removal resulted in the Five Civilized Tribes being violently removed from their homelands, supporters of the policy including James Fenimore Cooper viewed it as the only viable means to save Native Americans from mass extermination. For Cooper and the trapper, the genocidal alternative proposed by Simms’s colonists in The Yemassee were not acceptable. For independent natives like Sauntee and Hard Heart giving up their lands and territory for agrarian enslavement was not an option. Removing to the lands and territory in the Far West was the only viable chance for tribal peoples to culturally survive and be recognized as full citizens of the Democratic Republic. “Benevolent Colonization” ultimately failed  as a policy because of the continued white settler desire for more land and territory. However, Removal initially did provide a means for tribal peoples to advocate for their right to preserve their culture and traditional way of life against the cultural exploitation promoted by white settlers.
- Cooper, James Fenimore. The Prairie. 1827. New York: Penguin, 1987.
- Guyatt, Nicholas. “The Outskirts of Our Happiness: Race and the Lure of Colonization in the Early Republic.” The Journal of American History (March 2009): 986-1011.
- Hoefer, Anthony Dyer. “The Slaves That They Are” and the Slaves That They Might Become: Bondage and Liberty in William Gilmore Simms’s The Yemassee.” Multiethnic Literature of the United States 34.3 (2009): 115-32.
- King, Vincent. “Foolish Talk ‘Bout Freedom: Simms’s Vision of America in The Yemassee.” Studies in the Novel 35.2 (2003): 139-48.
- Klotz, Sarah. “The Red Man Has Left No Mark Here: Graves and Land Claim in the Cooperian Tradition.” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 60.3 (2014): 331-369.
- Mielke, Laura L. Moving Encounters: Sympathy and the Indian Question in Antebellum Literature. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008.
- Pierce, Jason E. Making the White Man’s West. University Press of Colorado, 2016.
- Simms, William Gilmore. The Yemassee: A Romance of Carolina. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.
- Schachterle, Lance. “On The Prairie.” In Leather-Stocking Redux: Or Old Tales New Essays. Ed. Jeffrey Walker. Brooklyn, NY: AMS Press 2011.
- Sivils, Matthew Wynn. “Doctor Bat’s Ass: Buffon, American Degeneracy, and Cooper’s The Prairie.” Western American Literature 44.4 (Winter 2010): 342-61.
1. The Louisiana Purchase was originally conceived as a type of dumping ground or refuge for Native Americans who were considered incompatible with civilized white society. Jefferson’s early philosophy of Removal argued that tribes would emigrate West and develop their own democratic republic. This process of resettlement would cause whites to in time come to view natives as their equals.
2. Matthew Wynn Sivils argues in his study of Native American degeneracy in The Prairie that Buffon claimed at the end of the eighteenth century that the American landscape had not developed as a result of neglect by indigenous peoples. Cooper’s view of cooperative land use in the novel refutes this view and challenges these theories of innate native depravity.