June 2015

The messy legacy of Andrew Jackson

By Steve Inskeep
Review by
The epic struggle between cultures and strong personalities is at the heart of Steve Inskeep’s fast-paced, extensively researched Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab.
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Andrew Jackson, acting as both a government employee and a private citizen, was more responsible than any other single person for creating the region we call the Deep South. He did the most to establish the land for the states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. As president, his first significant initiative was a proposal to remove all Indians from the area. But, long before, while serving as a major general, he wrote, “The object of the government is to bring into market this land and have it populated.” Native Americans were removed by armies, acts, treaties and laws.

At the same time, private citizen Jackson was also deeply involved in real estate transactions on land that he had captured as a general. While on the military payroll, he bought and operated slave plantations and, in collaboration with friends, relatives and business associates, opened land to white settlers. Many real estate records were lost, but the names of Jackson and others close to him appear on the purchase records for at least 45,000 acres sold in the Tennessee Valley from 1818 onward. The evidence indicates that Jackson was able to align the nation’s national security affairs in a way that matched his interest in land development.

The Cherokee Nation, whose ancestors had lived on the land for many years, saw things differently. Led by the extraordinary John Ross, a politician and diplomat, they used every approach available to remain on their land. Ross’ father was a descendant of Scots-Irish traders going back to British colonial times and his mother was one-fourth Cherokee. He could have passed as white but something drew him closer to his Indian identity. This epic struggle between cultures and strong personalities is at the heart of Steve Inskeep’s fast-paced, extensively researched Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab.

Inskeep is a co-host of NPR’s “Morning Edition” and an award-winning journalist. His lively narrative details the many negotiations and increasingly strained relations between the two sides. Ross, an eloquent speaker and successful entrepreneur, was a keen strategist who used his skills well in an era when sovereignty was more often defended with words than with lethal weapons. By articulating the ways the Cherokees had worked with the U.S. government, including serving in the Army, he was able to establish a moral foundation for his cause. In a letter to the War Department Ross wrote, “We consider ourselves as a part of the great family of the Republic of the U. States,” willing to sacrifice everything in defending the republic.

It is crucial to understand that in the early 1800s there were two different and mutually exclusive maps, the white man’s map and the Indian map. Native Americans in the region had been on the defensive for centuries and in Jackson’s day the Five Civilized Tribes (as they were called because they adapted their cultures to white society) still lived in their heartlands.

Jackson had complex views about Indians. He was a frontier leader who made his own rules and in later years would be known as an “Indian hater.” He believed in being “just,” on his terms. He could show mercy and respect and have empathy for others. Indians served in his troops, and he honored his promise to give them the same pay and benefits as white soldiers, and to assure that their widows received appropriate benefits. After a horrendous battle, an infant orphan Creek (Indian) boy was found in the arms of his dead mother. Jackson decided to keep the baby and raise him in his own home. But these qualities were always governed by his ruthlessness and his will to win. Ross was also fiercely competitive but he had moments when his stubbornness allowed for generosity.

There were many prominent figures, including Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall and former attorney general William Wirt, who were sympathetic to the Cherokee cause but were unable to stop the removal of the Cherokees. Jacksonland also features many other interesting figures such as Elias Boudinot, the founding editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, the first Native-American newspaper; Jeremiah Evarts, whose influential essays promoted the Cherokee cause to a national audience; and Catharine Beecher, who played a key role in the first mass political action by women in the history of the U.S.

Jackson left his two-term presidency in 1837 and died in 1845 but his political influence remained for another generation. His Democratic Party won four of the six presidential elections after he left office. Ross moved to the West with the last group of Cherokees in December 1838. He lived long enough to see the Union prevail in the Civil War, a conflict that saw Cherokees fighting on both sides. At his death in 1866, Cherokees were negotiating another peace treaty with the U.S. that required them to give the government more of the land that was to have been theirs forever.

Inskeep’s superb storytelling skills guide us through a critical period of transition that meant heartbreak for thousands but continued expansion of the country for many others.


A version of this article was originally published in the June 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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By Steve Inskeep
Penguin Press
ISBN 9781594205569

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