The tak­ing of the Amer­i­can West

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Steve Inskeep Steve Inskeep is co-host of NPR’s Morn­ing Edi­tion and au­thor of “Jack­son­land: Pres­i­dent An­drew Jack­son, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great Amer­i­can Land Grab.”

Last year I drove the length of the U.S.-Mexico bor­der with a few col­leagues. We trav­eled west from the Gulf Coast, up the Rio Gran­dea nd over the Con­ti­nen­tal Di­vide. We ended near the Pa­cific shore, in sight of a stone obelisk from 1851 that marks the bound­ary be­tween Ti­juana and San Diego.

I’ve come to think of the vast ter­rain we crossed, al­most a coun­try in it­self, as part of “Jack­son­land,” af­ter An­drew Jack­son.

Jack­son was, of course, the prime mover who opened much of the South to white set­tle­ment; he played a di­rect role in cre­at­ing part or all of seven states, from the western tip of Ken­tucky to the south­ern tip of Florida. But he was in­di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for much more. His in­flu­ence reached be­yond the Mis­sis­sippi to Dal­las and Phoenix and Los An­ge­les.

What Jack­son did was per­fect how the United States put its stamp on new ter­ri­tory. Although he didn’t live to see the Cal­i­for­nia shore, he passed on his tech­niques, or their spirit, to many of the men who de­cided the fu­ture of the West.

Con­sider his ties to some of the per­son­al­i­ties.

Texas gained in­de­pen­dence from Mexico in 1836 un­der Sam Hous­ton. Cal­i­for­nia and other states were added to the Union thanks to the Mex­i­can War, pro­voked in the 1840s by Pres­i­dent James K. Polk. Be­tween them lay the lands of the Gads­den Pur­chase, parts of south­ern New Mexico and Ari­zona ob­tained in 1854 by the diplo­mat of that name.

Hous­ton had been an of­fi­cer in Jack­son’s army and a po­lit­i­cal pro­tege. Polk was a fel­low Ten­nessean whom Jack­son en­dorsed for the pres­i­dency. James Gads­den served not only in arms un­der Gen­eral Jack­son, but also as a diplo­mat un­der Pres­i­dent Jack­son. Long be­fore ne­go­ti­at­ing to buy land from Mexico, Gads­den was ne­go­ti­at­ing to buy land from the Semi­noles of Florida.

Jack­son — white-haired and stick-thin, sickly but in­domitable — set a pat­tern for these men, start­ing dur­ing the War of 1812 and con­tin­u­ing through his pres­i­dency from1829 to1837.

First, it was nec­es­sary to win at war. As a gen­eral, he crushed an upris­ing of Creek In­di­ans at the Bat­tle of Horse­shoe Bend in mod­ern-day Alabama in1814.

Next, it was nec­es­sary to win at the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble. In a se­ries of treaties with In­dian na­tions be­gin­ning soon af­ter Horse­shoe Bend, Jack­son ob­tained tens of mil­lions of acres, us­ing in­tim­i­da­tion and bribery when straight pay­ment wouldn’t do.

Fi­nally, itwas nec­es­sary to al­ter the facts on the ground. Jack­son was sym­pa­thetic to white set­tlers mov­ing on to In­dian land, even when their move­ment was illegal. He dragged his feet when he had a duty to evict them. Once proper le­gal ti­tle to a re­gion was ob­tained, Jack­son and his friends were some­times among those who col­o­nized the new ter­ri­tory.

Jack­son lib­er­ally in­ter­preted the law. When the Cherokee gov­ern­ment re­fused to agree to his terms, Jack­son as pres­i­dent signed a treaty in 1835 with an unau­tho­rized mi­nor­ity fac­tion, which he con­sid­ered close enough. The Chero­kees’ in­vol­un­tary de­par­ture in 1838 is now known as the Trail of Tears.

When many of Florida’s Semi­noles dis­avowed the treaty that their il­lit­er­ate lead­ers ne­go­ti­ated with James Gads­den, Jack­son tried to re­move them any­way. The Semi­noles re­belled. They mur­dered one of Jack­son’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Florida and went on to fight a bloody seven-year war that out­lasted Jack­son’s pres­i­dency.

In the end, most In­di­ans went where they had to go: new land in present-day Ok­la­homa.

Jack­son’s pro­teges fol­lowed his ex­am­ple as they moved west. They were au­da­cious, in­no­va­tive and brave. They were as will­ing to fight as he was, and some times will­ing to die. Davy Crockett, not a Jack­son acolyte but a for­mer soldier in his army, per­ished at the Alamo dur­ing the Texas revo­lu­tion. The war against Mexico was led by U.S. Army of­fi­cers — Win­field Scott, Zachary Tay­lor, John E. Wool — who had pre­vi­ously helped re­move Chero­kees and Semi­noles.

Jack­son’s Western suc­ces­sors also al­tered the facts on the ground, set­tled land il­le­gally aswell as legally, and did not al­ways have much re­gard for pre-ex­ist­ing lo­cal pop­u­la­tions. Although Mex­i­cans were of­fered U.S. cit­i­zen­ship as their homes changed hands, western In­di­ans even­tu­ally lost most of their land.

Amer­i­cans who led the west­ward move­ment acted from a mix of mo­tives — a sense of na­tional des­tiny, na­tional se­cu­rity and plain eco­nomic cal­cu­la­tion. They had, among other things, a de­sire to find new­land on which to work the era’s grow­ing pop­u­la­tion of slaves.

These mul­ti­ple mo­tives again echoed those of Jack­son. As a gen­eral, he was for­ever think­ing of the dan­ger of hos­tile In­di­ans or colo­nial pow­ers; but he matched his na­tional se­cu­rity con­cerns with his per­sonal in­ter­est in real es­tate.

Af­ter cap­tur­ing most of mod­ern-day Alabama, he wrote a let­ter to James Monroe, who was about to take of­fice as pres­i­dent, ad­vis­ing that he swiftly pop­u­late the ter­ri­tory with “a strong and per­ma­nent set­tle­ment of Amer­i­can cit­i­zens, com­pe­tent to its de­fense.” The set­tlers might well have been po­ten­tial mil­i­tary re­cruits; but open­ing the land to them also cre­ated a mar­ket in which Jack­son and his friends par­tic­i­pated. In­deed, Jack­son, in com­pany with his friends and fam­ily, bought thou­sands of acres of north­ern Alabama land and es­tab­lished lu­cra­tive cot­ton plan­ta­tions just as cot­ton prices peaked.

To­day the pen­du­lum of set­tle­ment is swing­ing another way. Now it is Latin Amer­i­cans and oth­ers who are cross­ing the bor­der, some­times legally and some­times not. Un­like the white set­tlers of gen­er­a­tions past, Mex­i­cans or Hon­durans do not seem to have ar­rived with ter­ri­to­rial am­bi­tions. As Frank de la Teja, a Texas his­to­rian, told me dur­ing my bor­der jour­ney, mi­grants gen­er­ally want to es­cape their home­lands to seize “Amer­i­can op­por­tu­ni­ties,” not to move borders or change the sys­tem.

But the new ar­rivals do add a layer to an al­ways-chang­ing cul­ture. Re­cently I was in the far eastern end of Jack­son­land, in the Ap­palachian moun­tains of North Carolina. It was an area where some Chero­kees re­sisted re­moval in 1838 by fad­ing into the Great Smoky Moun­tains. To­day they can live in the open; stores ad­ver­tise them­selves as “In­dian owned.” In the town of Cherokee, street signs are in two lan­guages: English, which set­tlers brought cen­turies ago from Europe, and Cherokee — rep­re­sent­ing the lan­guage that na­tives spoke even ear­lier.

The Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church fea­tured a sign in a third lan­guage. “Misa en es­pañol,” the sign read — promis­ing a reg­u­lar mass in Span­ish for the new­est mi­grants to that val­ley.

“Jack­son­land” stretches be­yond the Mis­sis­sippi to Phoenix and Los An­ge­les.

As­so­ci­ated Press

AN­DREW JACK­SON, the sev­enth pres­i­dent of the U.S., in­flu­enced how the coun­try put its stamp on new ter­ri­tory.

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