Cooper and the Indian Imaginary: The Indian Removal Act of 1830 in Notions of the Americans (1828)
Presented at the 20ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, June, 2015.
Copyright © 2015, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.
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In Notions of the Americans (1828), the fictional travelogue that James Fenimore Cooper published primarily in response to Anglo-European critics and travelers who had a vested agenda in discrediting practically everything in the new Republic, Cooper had to deal with both slavery and the condition of the Native Americans, so, not surprisingly, the chapters on slavery precede one central chapter on the Native Americans. The Afro-American chapters were the more complex and controversial subject while the second was not, essentially because many of the same cultural commonplaces abounded on both sides of the Atlantic, especially in Great Britain, the main target of Cooper’s patriotic anger. In addition, the British had used Native-American tribes against the colonists in the revolutionary war, rewarding them for scalps, so there was not the charge of American racial hypocrisy that had dominated British discourse in the late eighteenth century.
Cooper addresses what came to be called the “Indian problem” in letter 34, supposedly written by an English traveling bachelor whose principal source is an enlightened American gentleman, Cadwallader. While letter 34 deals with a variety of issues, I focus on the forthcoming Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the way Cooper wrestles with the contradictions of American-Indian relations in the early 19ᵗʰ century.
Cooper opens letter 34 referring to “the remnant of the original possessors of these regions” and then focuses on the tribes east of the Mississippi — the Creeks, the Chocktaws, the Chickasaws, the Cherokees, and the Seminoles — living in “the immediate vicinity of the ‘Whites’ and occupying “reservations in Georgia, the Floridas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee.” 1 (483). The reference to “the remnant of the original possessors of these regions” raises a potential postcolonial point that is registered as a fact, not as an issue in the letter, simply an acknowledgment of nineteenth-century reality.
The fundamental purpose of letter 34 is, however, to make the case that although American-Indian relations had a troubled history, the United States government had earnestly tried to protect Native Americans from the abuses of individuals or groups of whites and that what would be the forthcoming Indian Removal Act of 1830 would ensure that the Indians would survive and thrive in reservations west of the Mississippi, protected by the very United States government that would expedite their forced removal.
With regard to what Cooper specifically knew about Native Americans, he had limited contact with them, although he tried to meet with Chiefs or delegations when he could, and had read Heckewelder’s history of the Delawares and Biddle’s account of the expedition of Lewis and Clark for his representation of the Plains Indians, so in Notions he has to make a series of educated guesses and relies primarily on statistics from the newly formed Office of Indian Affairs (1824), a Bureau of the War Department, responsible for negotiating and enforcing treaties between the government and the Native American tribes.
Of course, the five tribes that Cooper focuses on (the Creeks, the Chocktaws, the Chickasaws, the Cherokees, and the Seminoles) were precisely the tribes that would fall two years later under the Indian Removal Act of 1830 — the act enforced by President Andrew Jackson that entailed the removal of the five tribes to what became reservations west of the Mississippi, ostensibly in exchange for Native-American land east of the Mississippi and supposedly voluntarily, although concentrated pressure finally resulted in the infamous “Trail of Tears” — the forced removal of most of the five tribes to reservations west of the Mississippi. Letter 34, then, is historically important because of the significance of the 1830 Act, just in the offing in 1828.
Cooper, thus, refers to what would become the 1830 Indian Removal Act as it was being conceived at the time and hence we have a perspective into what became the original selling points, the justification for the removal: three of the Indian tribes (Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokees) would “sell the present possessions, improvements, houses, fences, stock, &c. And to receive in return acre per acre with the same amount of stock, fences and every other auxiliary of civilization they now possess.” The “inducement” for the Native Americans to do this is “Perpetuity to their establishments, since a pledge is given that no title shall ever be granted, that may raise a pretext for another removal; an organization of a republican, or as it is termed a Territorial Government for them, such as now exists in Florida, Arkansas and Michigan; protection by the presence of troops; and the right to send delegates to Congress, similar to that now enjoyed by the other Territories” (489-90).
Thus, Cooper imagined the voluntary removal of the tribes based on proposals that were being floated in the years leading up to 1830. He implicitly acknowledges that the removal of the tribes would not be entirely voluntary, since there would be a legislative pledge guaranteeing there would never be “a pretext for another removal,” and the idea that the reservations would be “republican,” certainly suggests that the reservations would be organized to have a political structure mirroring the United States government. In addition, that US troops would form a Cordon sanitaire against white encroachment implicitly registers the fact that this had been going on east of the Mississippi and was one of the principal reasons for the forthcoming removal. The right “to send delegates to Congress,” as far as I know, never happened, but even if it did, it is an essentially meaningless “right” since delegates to Congress can observe the proceedings but not vote on any of the legislation. Another selling point is the idea of equivalence: the Indians receiving precisely what they leave behind - the same amount of land, livestock, fences, etc., which in terms of land might have been exceeded, but there was no reciprocal restoration of the other accoutrements of what Cooper calls all the “auxiliary of civilization they now possess” (490). This also never happened. My point, however, is not the modernist strategy of highlighting a historical irony specifying an oppressive US government policy in order to suggest that Cooper was somehow consciously complicit in the ideology that made this possible but rather to highlight how he was engaged in assessing a problematic event of current import. Cooper’s meditation on American-Indian relations was, in my opinion, in good faith, but it also illustrated the discrepancy between benign intention and tragic result.
This is to say that given the scarcity of information about Native Americans that existed at the time, Cooper either imagines Native American communities coalescing west of the Mississippi or relies on statistical information provided by the newly formed Office of Indian Affairs (1824) in order to contend that the government was acting benevolently. Thus, to reiterate, he makes the case that although US-Indian relations had a troubled history, the United States government had earnestly tried to protect Native Americans from the abuses of individual whites and that what would be the forthcoming Indian Removal Act of 1830 would ensure that the Indians would survive and thrive in reservations west of the Mississippi, protected by the very United States government that would expedite their forced removal.
Cooper hence argues that contact with whites invariably leads to Indian degeneration, since they are vulnerable to white chicanery and hence protected reservations out west would preserve their Indian purity and keep their populations from decreasing. Indeed, the Native American degeneration is causally connected to the white population. Thus, the Indians in New York “are rigidly honest ... unless corrupted by much intercourse with the whites,” and out West by “the Great Salt Lake,” the Western tribes “were environed by the whites before they were probably aware of the blighting influence of the communion,” although they gradually became, accustomed to the presence, choosing to remain near “the places where they had first drawn breath” (486, 484). Cooper’s acknowledgment implicitly highlights one of the problematic strategies of the government: the ideological assimilation of Native Americans into the dominant American culture through education and Christianity (Cf. Notions 487, 488) but rationalizing their physical removal as a way of protecting them from Caucasian manipulation. Since Cooper believed that the Native Americans must remain totally isolated from the white population, something only possible in the government sanctioned reservation system, in order to maintain their “Indianness” — something he acknowledged was problematic since they would inevitably be in contact with whites at some point — his only solution, as we will see, was the total assimilation of the Native Americans into the white population — precisely the opposite of what was being proposed in the 1830 legislation. Cooper, like others, wrestled with the cultural contradictions of his time.
But prior to the suggested cultural and racial assimilation, Cooper proposes that one of the benefits of the forthcoming Indian Removal Act would be to stop the declining numbers of Native Americans. For instance, with reference to the Native American population, Cooper could only provide an educated guess since statistical data for Native Americans was just beginning. Thus, he can only imagine things such as population (“It is impossible to say anything of the numbers of the Indians except by conjecture”), estimating that the five Nations consisted of around 20,000 people and that the Indian population in the entire United States did not exceed 120,000, both low estimates that accorded, nevertheless, with the ubiquitous cultural generalization that the Native Americans were in a degenerate state and decreasing in numbers (483). The generalization was, of course, essentially true and the Native American population had been in decline since the 17ᵗʰ century. Thus, Cooper imagines that the forthcoming legislation of 1830 would halt the decline in Indian population “and that a race about whom there is so much that is poetic and fine in recollection will be preserved” (484). That the Indians are part of a collective cultural, American memory, now nostalgic and poetic, certainly registers that, by 1828, Native-American power was perceived to be definitively broken and yet owed a spatial Memorial.
Indeed, Cooper imagines an Indian territory in which the “savages of the west” would be attracted to the Indian space that the recently removed eastern tribes occupy once they are moved west of the Mississippi, at least those “who have any yearnings for a more meliorated state of existence” (490). In other words, the eastern Indians who had more fully encountered white civilization will be able to create an Indian space that preserves their culture guaranteed by the over-arching moral and military authority of the United States government, since they had the advantage of previous contact with the “civilizing” white presence that paradoxically compels them to move. Knowing they had interacted, on a variety of levels, with white civilization, Cooper imagined them absorbing the more savage western tribes into their new socialized space. Although this thesis contradicts his contention that interaction with white settlers was an efficient cause for their decline and degeneration (or good whites versus bad whites), he nevertheless imagines the forthcoming 1830 legislation as providing a momentary solution to the Indian problem.
But his imaginative division of the races and their separation into different spaces caused Cooper, I think, to ultimately doubt that the newly formed western Indian space, their reservations, would remain a protective enclave impervious to encroaching powers, because his final vision of the “Indian problem,” is his prophecy of the racial mixing of Indians and whites (“As there is little reluctance to mingle the white and red blood”), since the racial difference between them is not as pronounced as that of blacks and whites and, additionally, the Indians had never been slaves; thus he thinks that “an amalgamation of the two races will in time occur” — precisely what he made an impossibility two years earlier in imagining racial relations in The Last of the Mohicans (1826). Noting that those “families of America, who are thought to have any of the Indian blood, are rather proud of their descent, and it is a matter of boast among many of the most considerable persons of Virginia that they are descended from the renowned Pocahontas” (490), Cooper’s prediction of racial amalgamation was a radical solution to the “Indian problem,” a kind of dialectical synthesis out of which he imagined the white American thesis and the Native-American antithesis conclusively melting into a new, national reality. Thus, his conception of the consummation of the 1830 Removal Act is passed over in his imagination in the collapsing of space and time into a future racial mixing.
Cooper’s American Indian-American “imaginary” crystallizes the ambivalent and often contradictory racial tensions residing in nineteenth-century America, in which, paradoxically, the segregation historically embodied in the 1830 Settlement Act that would purportedly, Cooper thought, stop the Native Americans’ degradation and decline, becoming the crucial, albeit momentary, stopgap preceding an interracial national marriage that Cooper imagined would be consummated in a future free of the tensions and contradictions residing in the Afro-American experience.
Letter 34, consequently, exists as an important contribution to the 19ᵗʰ century debate over the perplexing “Indian problem,” providing us a window into not only Cooper’s thinking at that time but the way the debate was evolving in context of the forthcoming 1830 legislation. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, as the cliché goes, and while Cooper can be criticized via the superior historical knowledge of what actually happened over the past 180+ years, this would be to miss and undervalue how an exceptional man confronted 19ᵗʰ-century facts through the crucible of his imagination — not in the sense of changing those facts “creatively” but by earnestly thinking them through in a present that was, at the time, potentially wedded to the future.
1 James Fenimore Cooper, Notions of the Americans: Picked up by Traveling Bachelor, ed. Gary Williams (New York: State University of New York Press, 1991), 483. All subsequent references are from this text.