Noted author and journalist Steve Inskeep, co-host of Morning Edition on National Public Radio, sat down with Indian Country Today Media Network to dissect his new book, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab, published this summer by Penguin Press. The book, a riveting masterpiece about two influential men who held radically opposing visions for Turtle Island, brings to light lesser-known facts about this time period that the publisher calls a “crossroads of American history.”
What prompted you to write this story?
I just wanted to tell the whole story, and it was interesting to me to realize how little of the story I knew. John Ross was almost an entirely undiscovered character, an interesting character, and I wanted to find out what made him tick.
What was your reaction when you began to discover a clear picture of interwoven greed and power?
It wasn’t a complete surprise. How it worked, and why, was new to me. It’s understood that there were national security motives and patriotic motives to clear Indians out of the Southeast. But I don’t think it’s as well understood that there were also economic motives and a desire for land and a desire to expand slavery that was behind it and that really drove it. And that Andrew Jackson himself was personally involved in developing the land that he obtained as general. I came across a lot of detail that had never been put together in quite this way.
There were so many moments when things could have gone in an entirely different direction, as when the Indian Removal Act won passage in Congress by only one vote. It seems the press was hugely influential then, creating stories out of whole cloth while spreading fear and innuendo about the Indians. Do you think newspapers were more influential then than they are today?
Newspapers then were more influential because they were the principal form of media. There would have been around three dozen newspapers during late colonial times. By the early 1800s they were in the low hundreds, then very quickly it goes up to around 800 by 1828. Everybody read each other’s papers, and people would send them around by mail.
Do you think Sequoyah’s creating of the Cherokee syllabary in 1821, and its usage in Ross’s newspaper, helped spread the word?
Yes and no. The Cherokee Phoenix newspaper had articles in both Cherokee and English. And so, although it was a cultural triumph to have their own written language in a newspaper, it also had propaganda value. But the real political punch was that editors of other papers would read the Cherokee perspective of events that were different from the White perspective of the same events.
How important do you think Ross’s ability to walk on the “whiteside,” as it was called then, contributed to his success as a diplomatic envoy?
I think it was very important that he was able to speak English and present himself in a way that white men could understand and relate to, and that sometimes he could also pass as a white man. I’m not saying that was good or bad. It was just the political reality of the time. That could also be used to undermine him, though. And it was also used to challenge him. Cherokees didn’t challenge his status as an Indian, but whites would undermine his racial credentials and say he wasn’t Indian enough. So sometimes it was a double-edged sword.
The most important thing was that he was literate in English, could write his own letters and make his own demands, and was not dependent on an interpreter to get across all the nuances of what was intended in agreements. Others who signed treaties may not have known what they were signing. Ross understood the terms and the wider political context of what the Indians were being offered.
What do you think was Ross’s greatest success?
I think it was when he blocked Jackson from grabbing two million acres of land, even though later Jackson went around him. At the end I don’t think it’s widely understood that before the Trail of Tears, Ross improved the terms under which the Trail was to be undertaken. He managed to keep the Cherokees together and get more than $6 million for the land. Though that was not what it was worth, it was substantially more than what the government was offering. At the same time Ross managed to keep the Cherokee government together. All along he was innovative in the use of democratic tools in a way that adds to our democratic tradition and foreshadows a lot of things that civil rights leaders did a century or more later.
In the end, if the tribes had held together and not sold their lands, do you think there would have been a larger war?
We have an answer to that. More or less, yes! We saw it happen in Florida. There was a war that lasted for years. Thousands died, U.S. soldiers, civilians and Seminoles. We’re talking about a really awful conflict for its time, and that, I suppose, would have been the alternative. In Alabama there were Creeks who did not want to go away, and there was an insurgency there in the 1830s. You could have had more devastating wars. There can’t be any doubt about what the result probably would have been, because even if they were all united, they were so outnumbered by then. Had they united in some effective way, you could have had a different course of history. But they didn’t, and when there was an attempt to unite them under Tecumseh, it didn’t turn out very well for the Indian side in the end.
During your extensive research, what surprised you most?
I had no idea that the Cherokees had done so much in their own defense. I think that has been overlooked, even by accounts that were sympathetic to the Indian side. I think Indian removal has often been portrayed as an argument among white people, though there were people who were for it and people who were against it. I’m not sure that the Cherokee participation in the emerging democratic life in the United States has been recognized in the way that it should be.
What would you say are the parallels to today’s struggle for civil rights?
I think some of the same techniques John Ross used were those used by civil rights leaders in the 20th century. Cherokees decided they needed their own newspapers, as did African Americans. They also both realized they needed white allies, and both groups reached out to the religious communities to get some of those allies.
Both groups fought in Congress, and both fought and won before the Supreme Court. In the end though, the Cherokee efforts and victories did not do them a lot of good. While by no means perfect, by the 20th century, racial attitudes were changing and improving, and it was becoming less and less acceptable to argue that there were entire racial groups of people not entitled to become full citizens of the United States.
In the recent campaign to put a female icon’s image on American paper currency, would you prefer to see Jackson removed, rather than Hamilton?
I wrote an article for The New York Times recently in which I proposed that John Ross should be on the twenty-dollar bill and Andrew Jackson should be on the flip side. I think there should be two characters on every bill. Each pairing should be people who relate, so that they tell a story about our democracy and about imperfect people fighting it out about our democracy. Abraham Lincoln could be paired with Frederick Douglas. Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill paired with Harriet Beecher Stowe. It would give a greater sense of this grand democratic story that we are all a part of, and the way that different kinds of people participate in that story and have influenced it over time. Jackson and Ross were not perfect people. They were people who fought within the democratic system.