As Americans struggle to understand or resist the travel ban, hate crimes, aggressive immigration agents, and government-maintained lists of immigrant crimes—to list but a few of the earthquakes rollicking the American social landscape so far in 2017—it can seem as though we are living through events without precedent in American history. A quick stroll through the archives reveals that this simply isn’t true. Here’s a commonplace example from the late 1830s that resonates with today’s dark mood.
The 1830s were just as seismic as our own time. Andrew Jackson ascended to the Presidency on the one-two punch promise of populist upheaval and Indian removal in 1828. Historians will argue over the extent of the “democratic surge” until we’re all speaking hexadecimal or Martian, but only an insane person could argue with the “success” of Jackson’s Indian policies. Indian hatred laid down a persistent beat beneath the American freestyle throughout the 1830s. Thousands of Indians in the Southeast were marched westward at the point of the bayonet and on the razor’s edge of starvation. Wars in Florida and Alabama tore villages apart, forcing the most intransigent or tragically fortunate Native peoples deep into the South’s swampy fastnesses, while war in Illinois signaled the end of organized Native resistance in the Old Northwest. When it comes to basic human conditions like peace and prosperity, the 1830s—like most decades since the European invasion began more than five hundred years ago—were bad for Native Americans.
American newspapers kept the anti-Indian beat pulsing throughout the Removal era. The image above comes from the February 1, 1838 issue of the Army and Navy Chronicle. It does a lot of work in support of American colonialism. It creates the illusion of certainty and superiority by enumerating and classifying Indians—similar, perhaps, to a list of countries with suspected links to terrorism. It instills fear by associating these thousands of potential enemies with “striking” on the frontier—not too far from, say, a list of crimes committed by immigrants, or claims of 122 “vicious” combatants returned “to the battlefield” from Guantanamo. And it links these numbers to the military by publishing it under the heading of the War Department—a bit like the current “military operation” sweeping fearful immigrant communities throughout the United States.
Most newspapers from the era laid down the same beat. If the rap wasn’t Indian war, Indian fear, or Indian hatred, it was a breathless accounting of the things that were possible when the Indians were gone. Books and newspapers in the South instructed readers to plant cotton beneath the tilled husks of old corn fields, for example, for best results (i.e., profits to buy more human beings, but that’s a different story). These “fever dreams” of cotton wealth and “flush times,” as Joshua Rothman calls them, created spectacular booms and devastating busts. We should keep that in mind as we argue over what it means to “Make American Great Again.”