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