How Savage Were Those Savages? Part 2 of 2.

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Native Americans flee from the allegorical rep...

Native Americans flee from the allegorical representation of Manifest Destiny, Columbia, painted in 1872 by John Gast (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the last post I tried to explain that the two civilizations that confronted each other when the United States cleared its wilderness had very different social and political structures because of the difference in how they viewed and used land.  For the Indians, land was something held in common by everyone but owned by no one.  For Whites, land was property with its value set by the market.  We used the Common Law and the political system based on Common Law to secure and protect property; Indians had no law to protect property, hence, no political system based on anything like our conception of laws.

Added to this different view of land was how it was used.  Indigenous populations used land for subsistence; they took what they needed from the land but what they took was the amount required for survival of the tribe.  For white Americans, what was produced from the land very quickly passed from subsistence of people living on the land to commercial enterprise in faraway markets.  Within one generation after the frontier was opened to settlement, even the settlers were deriving their primary goods from faraway markets, delivered to them by wagons, canals and trains.

This difference in how we used land only intensified the degree to which white settlers and the promoters of settlement (commercial interests, government) viewed the Indians as a less-civilized species whose removal from the frontier was a “natural” consequence of the change from wilderness to settled lands.  And the “proof” that the Indians weren’t civilized was the extent to which all our efforts to provide them with the advantages of our civilization through the development of the reservation system ultimately failed.

What’s so interesting about the Indian-White confrontation in North America is that at the beginning, when fur trappers and traders first went West over the Great Plains and through the Rockies, they had a much different view of the Indian civilization than what later emerged when we later pushed the Indians out of the way.  Not only did the early Western explorers need the Indians to show them the trails, the watering-holes and the game, they also reflected again and again on the civilized manner in which the Indians behaved.  Here’s the description of a Snake chief recorded by a member of the Wyeth expedition that crossed the Rockies in 1834: “The chief is a man about fifty years of age, tall and dignified looking with large, strong aquiline features. His manners were cordial and agreeable.”  And here’s a description of Indians met by another traveler in 1810: “Their manner of speaking is extremely dignified and energetic. They gesticulate with great force, freedom and animation.”

These early descriptions of the ‘uncivilized’ inhabitants of our ‘wilderness’ can be found in many of the journals and letters of Western explorers collected on a remarkable website devoted to the history of the Western fur trade.  Reading these documents, and comparing their contents to the “Manifest Destiny” exhortations of Polk or John Quincy Adams makes clear just how different were the views of Whites and Indians about the land in which both were now having to live.  Did the inability of indigenous peoples to cut canals, railroad tracks and highways through this landscape mark them as savages? You decide.

Based on my book, Hunters in the Wilderness.  Volume II in the series, Guns in America, to be published in December.

How Savage Were Those Savages? Part 1 of 2.

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Hunkpapa Sioux Chief Sitting Bull in 1885

Hunkpapa Sioux Chief Sitting Bull in 1885 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It took the United States only a quarter-century to populate and settle the vast wilderness that we acquired with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.  Over the period from the opening of the Oregon Trail in 1840 until the joining of the intercontinental railroad in 1869, more than 500,000 people who had previously lived east of the Missouri River either settled between the Missouri and the Rockies or journeyed on to the West Coast. Twenty years after the railroad stretches from coast to coast, the US Census in 1890 declared that the frontier was “closed.”

One of the basic themes of this westward migration and settlement was the idea that as white Americans moved west, they turned the wilderness into civilization and, in the process, civilized all those ‘savages’ who otherwise would have continued living in an uncivilized state.  Much of the notion that we were civilized, they were not, grew out of the fact that the Indians weren’t Christians and hence, by definition, couldn’t be considered as equals to whites in any respect.  But the notion of Indians as savages wasn’t so much an extension of the racism that colored (pardon the pun) the white view of all non-white folks.  Rather, it reflected an absence among Indians of the basic societal relations on which our civilization, both then and now still rests.

What I am referring to is the whole notion of property.  It’s not clear exactly when Western civilization “invented” private property.  We see bits and pieces of private ownership in the earliest Western law codes, but when the Romans marched through Gaul, for example, they encountered many indigenous populations for whom all land was held in common and the notions of private ownership didn’t yet exist.  And even when early monarchs began giving out land grants to reward vassals for fighting on their behalf, the ownership of these properties were tied more to family lineage and occupancy than to any modern notion that allowed the land to be bought and sold.

It was only after the Norman conquest of England that a legal system began to emerge which, at its core, was based on defining and protecting property as something whose value was determined when it was bought and sold.  And it was this legal system, known as the common law, that was brought to the New World and established here by the colonists at Plymouth Bay.  And it was this same legal system that underlay the political system adopted first by the colonies, then by the states, and then by the territories that were formed as we moved west.

There was only one problem.  The Indians had no system of private property.  And because they didn’t have private property, they couldn’t develop a political system that in any way, shape or form, was similar to what existed in what was then called the united States.  In 1868 more than 30 Sioux chiefs, including Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, signed a treaty at Fort Laramie which gave the Indians control in perpetuity for an immense territory which today would have covered most of the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming and a piece of Nebraska.  But what we didn’t understand was that the 30-odd chiefs who put their marks on the document were signing only for themselves.  There wasn’t a single brave in the camps of any of those chiefs who were bound to follow what the treaty said.  And many wouldn’t follow it.  And the treaty was a dead letter within 6 months.

We fought and won the Plains Indian Wars after 1868 because we believed the Indians were ‘savages’ and needed to be taught the white man’s ways.  What else could we do when faced with a population that wasn’t ready to behave?

Based on my book, Hunters in the Wilderness.  Volume II in the series, Guns in America, to be published in December.