NPR's Steve Inskeep Sets the Stage for Trail of Tears in 'Jacksonland'

Jun 2, 2015

Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab by Steve Inskeep
Credit Book Cover, thepenguinpress.com

The Trail of Tears cuts through our region, the forced relocation of Native Americans following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The events leading up to this moment are a complex story of Washington insiders, real estate moguls, a Cherokee chieftain, decapitations and mass protests circling around America's 7th president Andrew Jackson told in the new book Jacksonland by NPR News' Steve Inskeep. On Sounds Good, Kate Lochte speaks with Inskeep about how some of the events involve western Kentucky and the prices paid for this land.

NPR News' Steve Inskeep has told the story of his latest book Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross and A Great American Land Grab on Morning Edition and The Diane Rehm Show. In the book, he concludes that Andrew Jackson was a fair person as long as his personal financial interests were not involved. The western tip of Kentucky was taken by the Chickasaw Indians in 1818, Inskeep says, a controversial negotiation at the time. Jackson was a general in charge of military affairs in the South leading the negotiations. He paid a lot of money for the land that is now west Tennessee and west Kentucky, but not necessarily to Native Americans. Instead, he bought the land from a man named George Colbert (a mixed-race, half Chickasaw half Scottish, who represented Chickasaw interests in the region). Inskeep argues that Jackson bought the land at an inflated price, essentially a bribe, to get the real estate. Andrew Jackson's political policies were guided by his interest in real estate or his friend's interests in real estate, he says. He had a way of tying personal interests to national security interests.

As part of his research for the book Jacksonland, Inskeep read Theodore Roosevelt's series The Winning of the West, on the western movement of settlement in the United States. The books contain brutal and honest descriptions of conflicts between settlers and Native Americans, he says, many disturbing to read because of Roosevelt's racial views that would be considered distasteful or offensive today. Roosevelt believed that "civilization" was conquering the wilderness and displacing natives, which was a good thing, Inskeep says. Being honest and frank about history is a quality that he hoped to achieve in Jacksonland.

"I want to be ruthlessly honest about the past and hopefully fair about the past and look at the details of what really happened, how it really happened, what people were really thinking... Because I think that one of the best ways to show you're love of country is to tell the truth about it."

One of his favorite stories in the book is the one of Catharine Beecher and the "Ladies Circular." Inskeep says the western movement of settlement brought white Americans with Native Americans. The Cherokees didn't necessarily resist white settlement, but actually wanted in. They changed their culture, clothing, economy and wrote a constitution modeled on the U.S. Constitution - with ambitions to become a territory or state. However, they found resistance from surrounding Americans, particularly southern white Americans who wanted their land. The Cherokees realized they didn't have the resourced to fight a war but wanted to fight through democracy. They found white allies in the north, including women who didn't have the right to vote but had a voice. Catharine Beecher wrote a circular appealing for public support for southern Native Americans (Cherokees and other tribes). This circular was distributed across the country, followed by mass meetings and petitions sent to Congress. Inskeep says as far as he can tell this is the first mass political action led by women in the United States. The movement failed, but scholars pointed out that many people involved moved to another cause: slavery. In fact, Catharine Beecher's sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe published the influential book Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Another story Inkseep mentions is the seemingly coordinated assassination of Cherokee leaders Major Ridge, his son John Ridge and Elias Boudinot. Cherokee chief John Ross resisted moving to the west (to what is now Oklahoma), but not everyone agreed with this resistance. Some former allies believed that the resistance was lost and signed a treaty with the U.S. government to move west. It had long been a policy in the Cherokee Nation that the penalty for selling land was death, and so these three leaders met an untimely end. However, John Ross was never linked to the killings. Ross survived the move westward and died in 1866.

(Note: Inskeep also tells a funny story about his daughter's contributions to the book, but you'll have to listen to the interview)

President Andrew Jackson's home, The Hermitage is about half an hour northeast of Nashville, exit 221 A off I-40.

More about Jacksonland on the Penguin Press website