- - Monday, July 20, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE TRIUMPH OF THE ECUNNAU-NUXULGEE

By William W. Winn

Mercer University Press, $30, 564 pages

Until my wife put a stop to it, I used to jibe at dinner-table advocates of the “all white people are racists” school of history by recalling that long before the first African slaves were sold in Jamestown in 1619, our Indian brothers were skilled both as slave takers and sellers of tribal captives.

This is a timely book worth reading and pondering. It reminds us that while racism was surely omnipresent from our earliest days of discovery and settlement, it was the voracious appetite for land that drove whites and Indians alike to ill-considered actions that had long-term consequences; some are with us even today.

The Ecunnau-Nuxulgee referred to in the title was not some obscure tribe, rather it was the pungent descriptive slur applied by the Creek tribes of the Georgia-Alabama region to white land speculators, meaning, “those greedily grasping after lands.” Another Creek description for these rapacious speculators was “dirt eaters.”

Is it fair to conclude that first came the universal hunger for this vast continent’s lands and then came the racism that justified the addiction? First consider that pre-colonial Indian slavery was mainly motivated among warring tribes to replenish a clan’s population. Captives were used as laborers, ritual mourning sacrifices and as breeding stock. The offspring of the widows they married were accorded full tribal membership and some rose to power within the councils. It was not racist, it was just business.

Racism, after all, is mankind’s sorry excuse for our injustice to someone else. Because those “others” are inferior we can, indeed we should, wrong them, enslave them or exterminate them.

The focus of the book is events leading up to the infamous expulsion to Oklahoma of the Cherokee and Creek people from the Chattahoochee Valley that marks the borders of Georgia and Alabama during the 1820s and 1830s. Author William Winn, one of the most respected news reporters of the civil rights struggle, knows both the 480-mile watershed and its history and tells the story in an accessible style.

Mr. Winn’s narrative fittingly begins in 1825 with the arrival in Savannah of no less a Revolutionary War hero than the Marquis de Lafayette, whose two-year tour sparked a nationwide frenzy of celebration and adulation for this last surviving aide to George Washington. But the broader tale of land, race and slavery could be said to begin back when President Washington and his immediate successors signed formal pacts by the dozens that treated Indian tribes as de facto sovereign powers within the states where they resided.

Thirty years into the Republic’s existence the marquis was rightly astonished at the changes in both the land and its people. The invention of the cotton gin sparked a rush for new lands suited to that wealth-making crop. Land speculation itself had taken on the role of the new nation’s first capital markets where fortunes could be made, and lost, buying huge tracts for development. It was inevitable that the lands formally allocated by tribal treaties would stand in the way of this pell-mell rush of greed. That greed led to a series of national scandals over gaining clear titles to land, the worst centered in the Chattahoochee watershed.

Two of the main characters in the story were distant cousins. Georgia’s white planter governor, George M. Troup, a vocal advocate of states’ rights, was a staunch defender of African enslavement and viewed expulsion of the Creeks and Cherokees as crucial to his state’s future prosperity.

An equally complex character was William McIntosh, born to a Scots father and Indian mother. McIntosh was a fearsome warrior in the white-Indian skirmishes in the inflamed region and held the rank of general in the U.S. Army. In addition to being a first cousin of Troup and other white power brokers, McIntosh followed the customs of the time and married three wives, one each from the Creek and Cherokee nobility and another mixed white-Indian.

He thus straddled conflicting worlds, nominally living as a Creek senior counselor, but just as easily among the white elite. For good reason, neither side trusted him fully during the years of duplicitous attempts by Troup and U.S. residents from Monroe to Jackson to coax the Creeks from their lands.

The 1830 Removal Bill that forced the Georgia tribes onto the “Trail of Tears” to the west was the sad end to one sad story but the start of another, according to Mr. Winn. This newly vacated land insured both the spread of cotton economy and firmly fixed increasing African enslavement as an essential to the wealth it could produce.

He concludes, “Had Congress the courage and integrity to honor the nation’s treaties with the Creeks and Cherokees and other Indian nations, and to do simple right instead of wrong on the removal issue, then it might also have had the courage to end slavery sooner and thus have changed the course of American history.”

We live daily with the legacy of that betrayal.

James Srodes is a Washington author and journalist.

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