How Shady Land Grabs Stole Territory from Native Americans

How Shady Land Grabs Stole Territory from Native Americans

Gregory Gann - August 30, 2017

One of humanity’s less charming qualities is our tendency to fight over just about anything. European Catholics and Protestants, for example, slaughtered each other in a generational religious frenzy. Great Britain fought damn near everyone over trade, e.g. First Anglo-Dutch War, War of Jenkin’s Ear, First and Second Opium Wars, and the ideological war underpinning the Great Beatles/Rolling Stones Conflict appears doomed to perpetuity. Whether it’s trade, religion, or ideology, however, nothing gets humanity’s blood up like territory.

History is a never-ending story of land changing ownership. Occasionally, it’s a peaceful exchange where both parties walk away amicably. Greece, for example, sells island territory legitimately. Other times, two nations bloodily rip a piece of territory away from one another periodically over the course of numerous generations. Cough. Germany. Cough. France. Cough. Alsace-Lorraine. This article, however, is about neither legitimate exchange nor militant acquisition. This is a story of swindling.

Military power played a huge role in dispossessing indigenous peoples of their territory, and those are the stories that dominate the public discourse. Sure, plenty of Americans can cite the famed, and incredibly incorrect, story regarding “Manhattan for beads,” but pop culture tends to get a little iffy on the subject when it doesn’t involve rampant militarism. Over the course of European colonization, indigenous peoples lost their land through a variety of shady approaches, and you can call it manifest destiny, lebensraum, or imperialism; just don’t call any of these methods legit.

The Walking Purchase (1737)

In 1737, Thomas and John Penn, sons of the famed Province of Pennsylvania founder William, decided the Delaware Valley would make a nice addition to their colony. The native Lenape tribe (known as Delaware Indians to the colonists) who lived there presented a bit of a problem, but the Penn’s managed to solve that issue by producing a never-before-seen bill of sale. According to the Penn boys, and their ‘rediscovered’ 1686 land agreement, the Lenape’s resided on tracts of land the tribe ceded to the Pennsylvania Colony over half a century ago.

How Shady Land Grabs Stole Territory from Native Americans
Area of the Walking Purchase. Wikipedia

Thomas and John presented their document to the Lenape’s with an air of “reasonableness.” They asked the natives to honor the sale’s terms, and to turn over only ‘as much land as a man can walk in a day and a half.’ The Penn boy’s father, William, had spent a lifetime learning native diplomacy and had worked to engender trust with the indigenous groups living near the colony, particularly the Lenape. William’s history of legitimate dealings with his neighbors likely played a role in the Lenape’s willingness to abide by the terms of a heretofore unknown sale. Thus, they agreed with Thomas and John’s proposal.

Thomas and John, however, possessed none of their father’s integrity. Lenape observers discovered this on the day of the “walk.” Thomas and John had quietly trained their “walkers” as distance runners and prepared clear paths for their trek. The Lenape were aghast, but a deal, as they say, is a deal.

How Shady Land Grabs Stole Territory from Native Americans
Map of the Indian Treaties, 1736-1763. Greater Philadelphia Encyclopedia

Diplomatic Shenanigans

Many native American tribes employed intricate, ceremonial, forms of diplomacy. Leaders met in forums designed to overcome language barriers, where they used a variety of methods to communicate. Although tribes such as the Mohawk, Lenape, and Tuscarora, for example, shared a root language known as Algonquian, most spoke a unique dialect. Translators (limited to speaking only when interpreting) played a crucial role in these meetings, along with gift-giving, feasts, and backroom deals. It was a complicated, but functional, system designed to eliminate miscommunication.

William Penn learned, and respected, native diplomatic customs, but Europeans like Penn were rare throughout the seventeenth and early to mid-eighteenth centuries. Few colonists spent their days in the “untamed” wilderness, and European society tended to look down on those who did. As the decades passed, however, and European populations exploded, colonial leaders learned to value their social outliers, e.g. traders, scouts, and woodsmen, for their knowledge of tribal culture. Many of these men abused their power and position to a degree that even Machiavelli raised his hands and (probably) cried, “Whoa whoa whoa!”

These “go-betweens” worked as ambassadors/translators for both European and Native American groups. Those with few moral compunctions, however, aided colonial interests despite being retained to represent an indigenous tribe. Maps, for example, play an enormous part of any land deal, and “negotiators” assisted colonial officials in designing charts and atlases with territorial names rearranged or reshaped to fool native delegations about their size or location.

The tradition of gift-giving prior to negotiations opened the door for go-betweens to seek out native leaders susceptible to bribery. In 1754, the Susquehanna Land Company (SLC) negotiated the sale of Wyoming Valley, the northern branch of the Susquehanna River, from the Iroquois. It was a huge triumph for the company, and one that was rife with underhanded tactics. Most Europeans believed the territory belonged to the Iroquois Confederacy (comprised primarily by the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora). The valley’s main inhabitants, however, were Lenape displaced by the Walking Purchase in 1737. The SLC, however, overcame this stumbling block by negotiating the land sale in a secret meeting where they’d rigged all the cards in their favor.

The SLC sounded out several Iroquois tribes regarding the land, and found the Mohawk amenable to the idea. The Mohawk did not consider the valley part of their territory, and several of their leaders favored selling land they did not legitimately possess. This was all the SLC needed to hear. The company sent paid native representatives (promised an annual pension) ahead to promote their cause. They employed a Cayuga headman to serve as an advisor for “one hundred pieces of Spanish.” Mohawk leaders received forty dollars on the day they signed, and “two-hundred pieces of eight” when the treaty closed. The secret conference met in early July of 1754, and numerous representatives from Iroquois tribes attended. The conference was a frenzy of gift-giving, and when it ended, the Lenape, who were not invited, found themselves displaced once again.

They employed a Cayuga headman to serve as an advisor for “one hundred pieces of Spanish.” Mohawk leaders received forty dollars on the day they signed, and “two-hundred pieces of eight” when the treaty closed. The secret conference met in early July of 1754, and numerous representatives from Iroquois tribes attended. The conference was a frenzy of gift-giving, and when it ended, the Lenape, who were not invited, found themselves displaced once again.

How Shady Land Grabs Stole Territory from Native Americans
Artist rendering of the signing of the treaty of New Echota. Savages and Scoundrels

The Treaty of New Echota

No discussion regarding native Americans and land dispossession is complete without Andrew Jackson. The “Trail of Tears” is not an unknown subject in American discourse, but it neither came about overnight nor without an underhanded deal. Throughout the early 19th century, Cherokee territory (defined by the Treaties of Holston in 1791 and Tellico in 1798) lay primarily in northwestern Georgia but extended into Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama. Tensions between the Georgia legislature and the Cherokee Indian nation, however, escalated as the state’s population increased.

Georgian legislators appealed to President John Quincy Adams in 1826, requesting the president to negotiate a removal treaty. Initially, Adams refused but later agreed to open negotiations with the Cherokee following the Georgian’s threat to nullify the existing treaty. Throughout the rest of Adam’s presidency, the status quo remained unchanged, infuriating the Georgia legislature. The presidential election of 1828, however, transformed the political landscape when Jackson defeated Adams.

The Georgians knew Jackson shared their agenda and acted on their nullification threat shortly after the election. The legislature discarded the previous treaties, abolished the Cherokee government, and established state law throughout the territory. The Cherokee protested, but the discovery of gold, and the ensuing Georgia Gold Rush in 1829, devastated their cause. Miners flooded into the mountains throughout the North Georgia Mountains, and the legislature responded forbidding Cherokee from digging for gold, and authorizing a lottery to distribute the land among settlers.

State judges intervened, siding with the Cherokee. Harassment and jurisdictional denials followed. The Supreme Court struck down Georgia’s laws as unconstitutional. The state-enforced them anyway. Factions emerged in the Cherokee community. The “National Party,” represented the legitimate Cherokee government, advocated resistance; the majority opinion.

The “Treaty Party,” advocated the pursuit of a removal treaty with the best possible terms. Jackson’s representative, John F. Schermerhorn, negotiated a deal with members of the Treaty Party; $5,000,000 to be distributed per capita throughout the tribe, $500,000 for educational funds, land in western Indian Territory, and compensation for property left behind. A clause allowing Cherokee to remain on individual allotments of 160 acres and become citizens sealed the deal, and members of the Treaty Party, who had no power or authorization to negotiate on behalf of the nation, signed the document.

The news swept through the Cherokee nation like wildfire. The Cherokee National Council publicly rejected the treaty, and appealed to the US Senate, pointing out the treaties illegitimacy. President Jackson, who had used a similar tactic in the Treaty of 1817 when he reached an agreement with a minority faction, responded by striking out the clause allowing Cherokee to retain land and become citizens. The measure passed by the United States Senate by a single vote.


Sources For Further Reading:

Mental Floss – Was Manhattan Really Bought for $24?

Knowledge Nuts – Native Americans Didn’t Sell Manhattan for $24 Of Beads

Encyclopedia Britannica – Mohawk

Encyclopedia Britannica – Walking Purchase

Wikipedia – Lenape

History Channel – Trail of Tears

University of Tennessee – To the Indian Removal Act, 1814-1830

Khan Academy – The Presidency of John Quincy Adams

Smithsonian American Art & Museum – Manifest Destiny and Indian Removal

Teen Vouge – The Indian Removal Act Was Used by the U.S. Government to Commit Ethnic Cleansing

Office of Historian – Indian Treaties and the Removal Act of 1830

Encyclopedia Britannica – Indian Removal Act

History Collection – The Native American Princess Who Refused to Leave Her Land and Became a Legend