Mapping the Promised Land: A Review of Jacksonland by Steve Inskeep

I find maps fascinating, not so much for their directions, as for what their place names reveal. Take Georgia’s map, for example. First, some patriotic names: Jackson (also Jackson County, Jacksonville), Rossville, Jefferson (-ville and County, too), Madison, Monroe, and Washington (& County). Next, names suggesting  homesickness, longing to travel, or even beauty: Oxford, Rome, Culloden, Egypt, Cairo (pronounced Ka-ro and not located near Egypt), and Rising Fawn.

John Ross's home, c.  late 1700s, Rossville, GA

John Ross’s home, c. late 1700s, Rossville, GA

Then there are older names, Indian names, that somehow rooted themselves into mountains and rivers. Visit Chenocetah’s Weblog to discover the meaning of such words as Yonah, as in Mount Yonah, or Chattahoochee  (“Hooch” in Atlanta) and  Coosawattee (N. Georgia rivers).  Okay, here’s one explanation just for fun: the town of Ball Ground does not denote an early practice field for baseball or football; rather it was a ground for playing Indian ball.

These places are not mere words on a map. They illustrate what Steve Inskeep’s new book of American history, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab, is all about: the tenacious desire jacksonlandfor land by people clinging to their homes and by those striving to uproot them. If you think you know the background of the Trail of Tears, think again.

Most of us recognize Steve Inskeep as the gifted interviewer and genial co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition. But at 348 pages of text, 40 of notes and 10 more of sources, Jacksonland demonstrates he is also a true scholar. Don’t let those numbers scare you off: he knows how to tell a compelling story. He credits Mary Louise Kelly, formerly with NPR, now a thriller writer, with making him “aspire to tug a reader into [his] story as strongly as [he] was drawn into the world of her novels” (352).

Like me, the figures in Jacksonland were obsessed with maps. Look at the 1838 map of the Cherokee Nation, greatly shrunken, to be sure, from the days the Cherokee roamed the South, but still not small enough to suit the white settlers who wanted all the land, wanted all the Indians removed to some distant place where, Georgia Representative Wilson Lumpkin argued with a straight face, they could be protected from the corrupting influence of civilization.

(Cherokee1838.tripod.com_)

(Cherokee1838.tripod.com)

A competing map, one of imaginative genius, was the original conception of Georgia: “The British decreed that the northern and southern borders of the colony consisted of two straight lines, which stretched westward for as far as the mind could conceive…” (114-115). Imagine the mischief this fantasy concocted. The 1795 Yazoo Land Fraud forced Georgia to relinquish its western lands to the federal government, creating what is now Alabama and Mississippi, despite the fact that Indians still controlled much of what was ceded.

The Council House at New Echota. The Council was a bicameral legislature.

The Council House at the former Cherokee capital,  New Echota. The Council was a bicameral legislature.

The central argument used by white people against Native claims was that Indians were not civilized, did not “improve” the land, meaning to farm or build on it. (And here I must ask whether the sodbusters whose plows broke the plains and brought on a decade of the Dust Bowl, or the paper mills and lumber companies that clear cut Southern forests and all but destroyed the mighty longleaf pine were improving the land.) The Cherokee, one of the Five Civilized Tribes, were not civilized, the argument continued, because they were not Christian, were illiterate, were hunters and gatherers who roamed rather than settled. In fact, in 1835, as the winners of the Georgia Land Lottery prepared to take over Cherokee farms and homes, soldiers organizing the removal reported Natives planting their yearly corn crop. For Georgia, “force [became] right” (234).

Inskeep organizes Jacksonland both as a chronology of events and as a comparison of two American giants—Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States, and John Ross, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. In his epigraph, Inskeep quotes Tacitus: “Those who profess inviolable truthfulness must speak of all without partiality and without hatred.” And so he is careful to portray the men as rounded characters in the great drama of their time.

General Andrew Jackson,  one of the most successful land speculators of the era, had a habit of driving Native Americans from their homeland, then picking out the best land to acquire later at auction. In one example, speculators refused to bid, in respect for the National Hero, who then bought choice parcels at $2 an acre. This same national hero, in direct contradiction of his orders, pursued rebellious Creek Red Sticks and Seminoles into Florida, defeated the Spanish, and claimed the entire territory for the United States. Later, President Monroe had to doctor the official record before he could complete the purchase from Spain. But, after all, America really wanted Florida, so what matter a little insubordination?

If Jackson seems presented in less than a flattering light, Inskeep reminds us this was a different time. He says Jackson’s defining principle was the JUST, always capitalized, though his idea of the JUST neatly fit his own needs. As president, Jackson parried the thrusts of the nullifiers, the states’ righters, the sovereign state of Georgia, rather than enforcing existing treaties and protecting the Cherokee from territorial incursions (including the hordes that entered  when gold was discovered in 1828  near present-day Dahlonega). On the other hand, perhaps he put off the inevitable civil war until the federal government was strong enough to fight it.

All I ask in this creation
Is a pretty little wife and a big plantation
Way up yonder in the Cherokee Nation.

(Refrain of a Popular Georgia Tune, 1820s)

An unlikely choice for Principal Chief, John Ross was but one-eighth native, yet considered Cherokee because of his matrilineal descent from the Bird Clan. Diminutive in statue compared to Jackson’s towering six feet, he fought under the general at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, when the Cherokees helped defeat the Creeks to demonstrate their loyalty.  Ross’s true strength, though, was his political acumen. He was the architect of the Cherokee Constitution, modeled on the US Constitution. Its key provision, the one that Ross defended to the end and that earned him a reputation for “epic” stubbornness, stated: “The boundaries of this nation, embracing the lands solemnly guaranteed and reserved forever to the Cherokee nation by the Treaties concluded with the United States, are as follows; and shall forever hereafter remain unalterably the same…” (127-128). (Italics mine.) And to keep this land, the Cherokee were willing to renounce their old ways, such as revenge killing, wear European dress, reduce their warwomen to silent helpmates like white women, settle in towns and on farms, and convert to Christianity.

Perhaps if Ross had been more pliant, if he had given up, as did several of the Cherokee elite, he might have averted the great suffering of the Trail of Tears. Inskeep argues though that the Constitution bound him and the common people backed him.

Volunteer Bill Hussey demonstrates printing techniques used for The Phoenix. Note single sheets drying on rafters.

Volunteer Bill Hussey demonstrates printing techniques used for The Phoenix. Note single sheets drying on rafters.

Lest you think Ross fought the battle alone, Inskeep introduces a cast of lesser known supporters. People like “William Penn” (Jeremiah Evarts) and Catharine Beecher (daughter of Boston preacher Lyman Beecher and older sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe) used the power of the pen to sway public opinion, as did Elias Boudinot, editor of the bi-lingual Cherokee Phoenix.  He printed more than local news—he also included the Cherokee Constitution and letters between Ross and federal officials. Boudinot set up an exchange system with about 100 papers nationwide, thus spreading the Cherokee point of view. (The printing press was the first thing the troops destroyed.) The most famous supporter, John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, instructed lawyer William Wirt how to identify and present a case that would reach his court and block Georgia’s land grab.

The journey of this case, Worcester v. Georgia, from “crime” to ruling, is perhaps the most engrossing story in the book. I wish I could report a happy ending, but you, dear reader, like the original audience of Greek tragedy, already know the outcome.

Note: The photos of the Council House and print shop (both reconstructions) were taken at New Echota State Park. John Ross’s house, in Rossville, is just south of Chattanooga, once known as Ross’s Landing. Click on pictures to enlarge.

 

What books have made history come alive for you?

 

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6 thoughts on “Mapping the Promised Land: A Review of Jacksonland by Steve Inskeep

  1. Christina, thanks for reviving my thinking about history — a subject I briefly considered as a major way back in college. Hmmm, it might not have been such a bad choice. Though I try to sprinkle my reading with a few works in the genre, more often I find I am drawn to a novel with serious biographical or historical content. One of my more recent favorites: Loving Frank by Nancy Horan. An incredibly entertaining way to learn more about Frank Lloyd Wright. I’m queuing up for her next on Robert Louis Stephenson.

    • Thanks for the comment, Rona. I too like to get my history via novels. I suppose by most recent favorite would be The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt, set from the Fin de Siecle and to Post WWI. She was up for the Booker with this novel but lost out to Wolf Hall, another favorite.

  2. Fascinating! I definitely must get and read this book. I am a map-lover too. Some of my ancestors are among the first white settlers in North Georgia. I know this history will bring them to life for me.

    • Thanks for the comment, Janet. If you visit New Echota State Park’s museum, you’ll see a reproduction of the lottery wheel used to draw the winners of the land lots. Interesting to know where the word “lottery” comes from.

  3. Christina, before the kids came along, my husband and I used to peruse old book stores and antiquity map stores. We loved looking through historical documents, and I even found a letter written by a WWI soldier to his girl back home in one of the books we purchased. Great find, and lovely blog that inspires us to read more about the years in our past!

    • Thanks, Crystal. There’s something about touching an old document or looking through a really old book that makes the interval between now and then slip away. That letter you found sounds like an amazing piece of history. How sad, though, that the family lost track of it.

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