Painting of an 1825 battle in the Creek War

The Historic New Orleans Collection


Beyond Dispossession

For generations, depictions of Native Americans have reduced them to either aggressors or victims. But at many public history sites, that is starting to change.
[Editor’s Note: Over the course of 2022 and 2023, New American History Executive Director Ed Ayers is visiting places where significant history happened, and exploring what has happened to that history since. He is focusing on the decades between 1800 and 1860, filing dispatches about the stories being told at sites both famous and forgotten. This is the 23rd installment in the series.]

Native peoples, of course, lived everywhere in the territory that became the United States. Their history is forged in the very names of rivers, cities, and states. Today, that history is explored in a broad and growing array of museums and sites. As a result, our visits to places of Native memory were interwoven throughout our travels. Rather than narrate those visits chronologically, this dispatch will trace the course of American Indian life in the first two-thirds of the 19th century, in the hopes of revealing the patterns of collective memory’s fabric.

We have seen powerful representations of Native history throughout our journey. Our visit to New Echota, Georgia revealed a haunting image of Cherokee life on the cusp of the Trail of Tears, and our stop in Chattanooga offered glimpses of the fragile traces of that trail. Far to the north, in Indiana, the site of Prophetstown reminded us that until the War of 1812 extinguished it, there existed a real possibility of a unified Native resistance to displacement and dispossession. In Missouri, we visited Cahokia, the center of a vast and complex society that spanned the center of the continent centuries before Europeans arrived. The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington covered centuries and enormous expanses to weave the stories of hundreds of peoples together in a compelling way.

In 1814, a year after Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa were defeated along with their British allies near Lake Erie, militia and federal soldiers fought against Muscogee (Creek) warriors in what would become Alabama. The Battle of Horseshoe Bend led to the cession of 21 million acres in a rich territory that would grow into the heart of the cotton kingdom of the slave South.

The National Park Service interprets Horseshoe Bend with admirable sensitivity. The isolated location of the battle has protected it from incursions of industry and development, allowing visitors to comprehend the sacredness of the site as well as the complexities of the situation leading up to the battle. As exhibits explain, “the Creek were not a single tribe, but a shared culture of multiethnic and multilingual groups, the survivors of a long period of epidemics, fighting, and disruption resulting from Europeans’ arrival in the 1500s.” By the early 19th century, about 20,000 Muscogee-speaking people lived in 60 towns along the rivers of Georgia and Alabama.

A new “Federal Road‘’ cut through those towns, connecting Georgia to New Orleans, sending 4,000 travelers through the heart of Creek territories, and dividing what became known as the Upper Towns from the Lower Towns. Some Creeks adopted the changes brought by the presence of the white Americans — turning to the raising of cattle and the spinning of cloth, for example — while others resisted. The adherents to traditional ways called themselves Red Sticks, named after the war clubs they used. They found wisdom and confidence in the prophecies of Tecumseh, who visited them in his campaign to unite Native peoples in opposition to the encroaching United States.

Exhibit at Horseshoe Bend National Military Park [Image: Abby Ayers]

Bloody conflict broke out within the Creeks, with other Indian nations, and with white settlers. In August 1813, a band of Red Sticks retaliated against Mississippi militia by attacking Fort Mims, a fortified settlement, where they killed more than 250 people, including white and enslaved women and children, and captured 100 more. National politicians raged against the bloodshed and called for retribution. Militia from Tennessee, Georgia, and the Mississippi Territory joined with U.S. Army troops and Cherokee and other Creek allies to fight the Red Sticks. They fought under the command of Andrew Jackson, a militia leader, lawyer, planter, and slaveholder from Tennessee. Cherokees — including Sequoyah, who, a few years later, would famously create the Cherokee syllabary — aided Jackson, as did Creeks opposed to the Red Sticks.

The Red Sticks brought their people to a sharp bend in the Tallapoosa River in the winter of 1813–1814, and built a log wall, over a thousand feet long and as tall as a man, angled so that invaders would be caught in crossfire. The U.S. militia assaulted the wall, while Cherokee allies, in the confusion of battle, crossed the river behind the Creek settlement and stole canoes the Creeks had relied upon for escape. Surrounded and overwhelmed, the Creeks were overrun, killed in the river and in their villages. Jackson demanded, and won, concessions of enormous scale. The power of the Red Sticks, and more generally of Native people in the South, was shattered.

Jackson wrote to his wife triumphantly after signing the treaty, as a sign in the exhibit displayed: “I have no doubt but in a few years, the banks of the Alabama will present a beautiful view of elegant mansions, and extensive rich and productive farms and will add greatly to the wealth as well as the security of our southern frontier.” He did not need to tell Rachel that those “elegant mansions” and rich farms would rely on the labor of tens of thousands of enslaved people dragged into the territory from Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina.

Horseshoe Bend National Military Park, Alabama [Image: Abby Ayers]

Today, Horseshoe Bend preserves not only the battlefield but the site of Tohopeka, the town of the Red Sticks where many died. It is a solemn and sacred place, filled with large trees and the silent Tallapoosa nearby. The day before we visited, a group of young Muscogee people from Oklahoma had journeyed to the site. The register at the interpretive center listed their names and appreciative comments. Some wrote “mvto,” or “thank you,” while others wrote, in bold block letters, “land back!”

The interpretation offered by the National Park Service is informed by archaeology and the writing of academic historians. We chatted with the young ranger who has been at the site for seven years and who oversees the interpretation. He shared our admiration for the television series, Reservation Dogs, which tells the story of young Muscogee people in Oklahoma today, showing how they continue to draw from, and wrestle with, the complex legacies of Horseshoe Bend, forced removal, and reconstitution of their nation. The series, made by and starring Native people, reveals that the community, humanity, and humor of the Muscogee was not destroyed at Horseshoe Bend or in removal to Oklahoma.

After winning the treaty with the Creeks in 1814, Jackson marched his troops to New Orleans to confront the powerful British, who took advantage of their overwhelming naval superiority to move and strike quickly. Jackson followed the strategy at New Orleans that his Red Stick enemies had employed at Horseshoe Bend: fortifying a wall to defend against a larger force. Jackson’s men built a rampart, three-fifths of a mile long, behind a canal, piling logs and mud up to twenty feet wide to absorb British cannon and musket shot. The British, through a mixture of bad planning and bad luck, lost the battle and many men to the polyglot Americans.

The rampart at Chalmette Battlefield (Battle of New Orleans) [Image: Ed Ayers]

American Indians, only months after Horseshoe Bend, aided Jackson. Pushmataha, a leader of the Choctaw, fought alongside Jackson in both battles. He dissuaded men of his nation from following Tecumseh and organized a force to instead join the Americans. These leaders calculated that they could best protect their communities from incursions by American settlers by winning the gratitude and loyalty of American leaders. Their calculations were mistaken, for the great hero of the war turned out to be the agent of Native dispossession and suffering. Fifteen years after the war’s end, when Jackson had ridden his military fame to the presidency, he rammed through the Indian Removal Act and handed cronies the lucrative work of driving Native people from their homes.

The battlefield for the Battle of New Orleans bears none of the grace of Horseshoe Bend. The machinery of the petroleum industry looms on the horizon. The polished films in the visitors’ center focus on the logistics and personalities of the battle itself, reflecting little on the consequences of the war for the Native people who helped win the battle, or for the enslaved Black people forced into the Mississippi Valley and beyond.

Chalmette Battlefield [Image: Abby Ayers]

Native peoples tell their story for themselves, of course, especially in Oklahoma, where they were forced to rebuild their nations. The Cherokee National History Museum in Tahlequah, housed in a century-old red-brick building, offers fresh exhibits within. One of those exhibits evokes the creation story of the Cherokee with a striking mural, explaining the matrilineal traditions of their people and displaying beautiful clothing of feathers.

Mural and mobile, Cherokee National History Museum [Image: Abby Ayers]

The traumatic Trail of Tears is invoked through recordings of voices telling of the heartache and loss, leading visitors through a dark copper passageway. But the story continues past that trial to the rebuilding of lives and the nation in Oklahoma. The museum, despite the darkness at its center, speaks of resilience, hope, and community. Outside on the main street of Tahlequah, a newspaper box testifies to the determination of the Cherokee people: the Cherokee Phoenix, established nearly 200 years ago, lives on.

Cherokee Phoenix newspaper box, Tahlequah, OK [Image: Abby Ayers]

In Oklahoma City, a new First Americans Museum weaves together the stories of the 39 nations that now call Oklahoma home. It is a stunning structure, testifying to the determination of the Native people to tell their own story, and of the recognition by state and local officials of that story’s centrality to civic life more generally.

First American Museum, Oklahoma City, OK [Image: Ed Ayers]

Within the First Americans Museum, sophisticated multimedia presentations on wide screens tell of the creation of the nations. Powerful maps document the continent-wide range of Indigenous people forced to move to Oklahoma. Rich artifacts reveal the diverse traditions and innovations of the peoples that now call Oklahoma home. An excellent restaurant serves food from local traditions and sources. Exhibits reach up to the present, celebrating athletes, political leaders, and authors of Native ancestry.

Exhibit at First Americans Museum, Oklahoma City, OK [Image: Ed Ayers]

The First Americans Museum testifies to a new era in the representation of the Native past. Along with the National Museum of the American Indian, it demonstrates that a full, honest, and uncompromising history can not only coexist with an uplifting story, but can also make a story of survival and flourishing more meaningful.

Acknowledgement of the ubiquitous Native presence in American life also appears in more out-of-the-way places. Two historical markers, a few yards apart along the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, testify to the recovery of memory. The first sign, undated but bearing the marks of long exposure, commemorates the origins of Chattanooga as “Ross’s Landing.” It mentions that “Cherokee parties left from the landing for the West in 1838, the same year the growing community took the name Chattanooga.” The evasions are obvious today, for the “parties” of the Cherokee were driven from their ancestral home against their will. The “community” that “took” the Cherokee name for their town also took its land.

Historical marker, Ross’s Landing, Chattanooga, TN [Image: Abby Ayers]

Nearby, a new sign, sponsored by the Alabama-Tennessee Trail of Tears Corridor Committee and funded by proceeds from the Trail of Tears Commemorative Motorcycle Ride, counters the old marker. It pulls no punches: “In May 1838 soldiers, under the command of Gen. Winfield Scott, began rounding up Cherokee Indians in this area who had refused to move to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). About 15,000 Cherokees were placed in stockades in Tennessee and Alabama until their removal.” The forced march “in the fall and winter of 1838–39 resulted in the deaths of about 4,000 Cherokees.” The judgment is clear: “The ‘Trail of Tears,’ which resulted from the Indian Removal Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1830, is one of the darkest chapters in American history. This historical marker will forever mark the beginning of this ‘Trail of Tears.”

Trail of Tears historical marker, Chattanooga, TN [Image: Abby Ayers]

Nearby, a statue of a Cherokee man stands next to an inscription: “May this sculpture serve to honor the countless generations of Native Americans who for 10,000 years lived in this place.”

“Cherokee,” Tennesee Aquarium Plaza, Chattanooga, TN (Artist: Jud Hartmann, 1992)

On the modern support for the bridge crossing the river, Sequoyah’s syllabary enjoys pride of place over the English name of the place.

Bilingual signage on bridge at Ross’s Landing, Chattanooga, TN [Image: Abby Ayers]

In such places, and in such gestures, the light of history is at long last beginning to break through.