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“The feet of our old people bled, our young children cried, and our horses died by the way:” The Removal of the Muscogee People to Present-day Oklahoma

Christopher D. Haveman is the author of Rivers of Sand: Creek Indian Emigration, Relocation, and Ethnic
Cleansing in the American South, and Bending Their Way Onward: Creek Indian Removal in Documents. He is associate professor of History at the University of West Alabama.

Between 1827 and 1837 approximately 23,000 Muscogees emigrated, or were removed, to the West. Christopher Haveman discusses the theft of the Muscogee’s Alabama and Georgia lands, and the hardships the people faced on the home front and during the journey west.

Thank you, Sue. You flatter me; none of that is true.

When I started researching the removal of Muscogee people, I approached the topic with a simple question: how was the federal government able to move 23,000 people, 99% of whom did not want to leave the land of their ancestors, to present-day Oklahoma? How did that happen? To begin to answer that question, you have to look at treaties. After the War of 1812, the federal government dispatched commissioners all through the eastern United States in an attempt to get these Indian nations to sign land cession treaties. They used a number of tactics; they cajoled them, coerced them, threatened them, and in many cases, bullied them.

In the case of the Creeks, and this happens in other parts of the eastern United States, they found someone who could be bought, someone who could be bribed, and this person was William McIntosh. So, the story of Muscogee removal really begins in 1825 with William McIntosh. McIntosh was from the Coweta town and had ceded land to the federal government on two prior occasions, in 1818 and 1821. After the 1821 cession, the National Council, the Creek governing body, passed a law stating that any land cession without the approval of the entire National Council would result in the death of the person responsible. William McIntosh knew the risks involved, but the federal government was offering him tens of thousands of dollars.

They began negotiating in 1824, sometimes in the woods in the middle of the night to avoid detection. Finally, in February of 1825, they presented the treaty to the rest of the Creek Nation, who really had no idea of the scope of this treaty. The Treaty of Indian Springs was a land cession treaty coupled with an immigration component. It wasn’t unique; many treaties throughout the eastern United States were similar, some being just land cession treaties and others including an immigration component.

William McIntosh wanted to move to present-day Oklahoma and had the immigration component added to the treaty. These treaties were diabolical in their design. The Treaty of Indian Springs ceded all Creek lands in Georgia and a large chunk of their Alabama lands to the federal government. Any Creek who wanted to leave could sign up, and the government would pay for their trip west and provide food for a year until they could establish their crops.

Fast forward, the treaty was illegal, and the Creeks protested. Two months later, they executed William McIntosh and several of his co-conspirators, burned their property, and destroyed their livestock, causing the McIntosh party to scramble to safety in Georgia and places like Montgomery, Alabama. The Muscogees then embarked on an anti-Indian Springs campaign, ultimately getting the treaty overturned. In January 1826, the Treaty of Washington was signed, nullifying the Treaty of Indian Springs.

However, the Treaty of Washington was essentially just a watered-down version of the Treaty of Indian Springs. Georgia still got the land, and the Muscogees lost all their land in Georgia, though some Alabama land was returned to them. But the way the treaty was set up, it didn’t matter how much land was given back to the Muscogees; the treaty would still function as intended. By losing all their Georgia land, the Muscogees were forced out of Georgia in 1826 and into Alabama by January 1, 1827.

Alabama’s land was not overwhelmingly fertile, and the droughts of the late 1820s and early 1830s exacerbated the situation. The Muscogees were left scrambling to find good quality soil, often not finding any. This period marked the beginning of their homelessness and food shortages.

By 1828, the Muscogees began asking for food from Fort Mitchell, accepting rotten flour and decaying animal carcasses. This was exactly how the treaty was designed to work: minimize their domain, cram people into a small space, and put whites on their doorstep to cheat and steal from them. The federal government consistently told the Muscogees to immigrate west as their salvation.

The first McIntosh party left in 1827, followed by another in 1828, and a third in 1829, each larger than the last. The 1829 party, which had no McIntosh members, consisted of 1,300 people, showing the increasing desperation among the Muscogees.

Meanwhile, life in the Creek Nation became increasingly difficult with the influx of white squatters, leading to more food shortages and rampant alcoholism. By 1830, there were 25,000 white families living in the Creek Nation, outnumbering the 21,000 Creek Indians. This situation was ethnic cleansing, not mere removal. The Muscogees’ land and resources were systematically stripped away, forcing them to leave.

The Treaty of Washington in 1832 was a desperate attempt by the Muscogees to salvage their situation. They ceded the rest of their land to the federal government in exchange for 320-acre plots per family, hoping this legal title would protect their land. However, this treaty legalized the presence of white settlers within the Creek territory, further eroding their land base and sovereignty.

In 1834, another voluntary immigration took place, marked by severe hardships due to the government’s poor planning and the harsh winter. The Muscogees faced starvation, disease, and death along the journey and in their new settlements.

The Second Creek War in 1836 was sparked by the continued cheating and land theft. Despite their resistance, the Muscogees were forcibly removed, shackled, and marched to Alabama’s removal camps. They faced brutal conditions, disease, and high mortality rates.

The forced removals continued until the late 1830s, with thousands of Muscogees being relocated to Indian Territory. The ethnic cleansing of the Creek Nation was complete, leaving behind a legacy of suffering and loss.

Thank you very much.

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