Native Americans and Enslaved Africans

The following is an excerpt from The Southern Way of Life: Meanings of Culture and Civilization in the American South by Charles Reagan Wilson, available everywhere books and ebooks are sold.

Native Americans and Enslaved Africans

Southern colonists, including Jefferson’s forebears, had been on the periphery of Western civilization at the beginning of settlement, but they self-consciously came as predominantly English people who carried civilization into the New World, in opposition to the savagery of Indigenous peoples and Africans. To be sure, Indians of the early South sometimes appeared to possess their own virtues, those of ennobled primitives, and were capable of progressing toward civilization. English colonists saw a hierarchy of people of color, with Indigenous people ranking above Africans. Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia emphasized the Native American’s natural virtue and worried over the institution of slavery. Unable to justify the latter, he saw it as incompatible with the new republic’s stress on liberty and equality. The innate inferiority of Africans prevented a vision of his plantation South with freed Blacks as equals to whites. He stressed slavery’s harmful effects on white slave-owning families who experienced tumultuous emotions of interracial wrangling.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the development of the cotton gin, the development of steamboat transportation, and the growth in scale of cotton mills in England and New England promoted large plantations in what became known as the Old Southwest, or later, the Deep South. A rising racism would after the War of 1812 spread into what had been Native American lands. Issues of civilization had been attached to Native Americans in the South since George Washington’s presidential administration outlined a “civilization policy” designed to provide Native Americans the resources to change their culture and adopt white ways in order to become civilized.

American presidents, government agents, and Christian missionaries offered a model of American civilization for Native Americans in the early nineteenth century: written laws, individual property rights, farming for men and the weaving of civilized clothing for women, and education for children that would teach the value of money and the Bible. For the Five Civilized Tribes in the South, models of civilization lay with nearby planters. The model of civilization in the South was plantations, staple crops, and enslaved labor. The Cherokees adopted a constitution in 1827, modeled after the federal Constitution, and their legal code reflected the influence of the state of Georgia. A planter/merchant elite dominated tribal councils. The elite owned stores, saloons, mills, and other features of a diversified economy, but a plantation culture predominated. The log, frame, or brick house was typical among Natives as well as whites, and the gardens, orchards, stables, barns, large outdoor kitchens, and slave cabins of Cherokee farms copied plantation places of their white neighbors. The Cherokees followed their models of American and southern civilization well, as they made much progress in English language literacy, many converted to Christianity, some men became farmers rather than hunters, and they accumulated property—the material evidence of civilization as it had taken root in the American South. Such property included enslaved people. By the mid-1820s, enslaved African Americans represented 10 percent of the Cherokee nation.

Intimidation and violence led most of the tribes to sell their lands in exchange for lands in the West by the 1820s, but the Cherokees fought removal through the legal and political system that expressed contemporary understandings of civilization. Nonetheless, white settlers on the southern frontier coveted remaining Indian lands, and their political hero, Andrew Jackson, implemented the removal policy in the 1830s. He justified it in terms of the economic development of the fertile land of the Deep South and as the only way to prevent total elimination of Natives should they remain in contact with white civilization. Cherokee leaders lamented that whites saw the issue as one of race and not culture, a significant departure from the earlier Enlightenment understanding that Indians could become civilized by adopting white culture. Hardening racial views in the 1830s had led to whites categorizing Natives as racially inferior and impossible to change. As they became a part of white-dominated southern civilization, one Native leader said, “We are not more favored than the poor African.”

Those same white racial sentiments affected attitudes toward African Americans as well. Although descendants of Africans had lived in North America for centuries by the early nineteenth century, whites still saw them often in terms of the savagery they identified with Africa. This view was especially prominent after the Haitian Revolution at the turn of the nineteenth century and, even more fearfully for southern whites, after the slave plots of Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey and the slave insurrection led in 1831 by slave preacher Nat Turner. The proslavery argument that defended the institution as the basis of the best of all possible societies sometimes portrayed the enslaved in savage terms. But the effort to idealize southern society also promoted views of all Black people as “savage children,” with slavery having the potential to advance enslaved people, under benign white influence, toward civilization.

Charles Reagan Wilson is professor emeritus of history and southern studies at the University of Mississippi.