Native Americans: A History of Conflict in the South

In the American South, many Native Americans were forcibly relocated during the early 1800s as part of a ruthless campaign to free up land for settlers.

Dec 17, 2021By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA
People of the Estuary
An image of Native Americans fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, via Pigeon Key and Marine Science Center, Marathon, Florida


In the American South, many Native American tribes had thriving cultures relying on rivers, marshes, and fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. The arrival of Spanish and French explorers introduced the first European influences beginning in the 1500s, and later the birth of the United States of America put Native Americans in direct conflict with a growing number of white settlers. By the early 1800s, the Indian Removal Act gave an agonizing choice to most tribes: assimilate into white culture or relocate westward to an uncertain future. Under US President Andrew Jackson, the infamous Trail of Tears saw thousands of Native Americans forcibly removed from the South to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma.


Native Americans in the Pre-Columbian Era and Mississippian Culture

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An image of the Shiloh Indian Mounds Site of the Mississippian culture, via the National Park Service


Prior to the arrival of European explorers in the early 1500s, continental North America was full of diverse and vibrant Native American cultures. The Mississippian Indians were a group of historic tribes that lived in the Mississippi River Valley of what is now the southern United States. Due to good climate conditions, these tribes were largely agricultural and lived a more settled existence than the tribes of the Midwest. As a result of this permanent, settled existence, elaborate social hierarchies and traditions were established. Corn, having spread north from Mexico, became a major staple.


Similar to feudalism in Europe, more powerful chiefs controlled areas with less powerful chiefs, who paid them tribute. Burial mounds were constructed for those of high social status, and status was also denoted by possession of valuable artifacts, such as copper axes. While the Spanish discovered many Mississippian towns, archaeologists now believe that the decline of the tribes had begun by 1450, likely caused by prolonged drought and resulting crop failures. Tribes that descend from the Mississippian Indians include the Choctaw, Cherokee, and Creek Indians.


Hernando de Soto and the Conquistadors

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A map of the expedition of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, via The Florida Historical Society


The Spanish, after colonizing the Caribbean and conquering the Aztec Empire in southern Mexico, followed by doing the same with the Incan Empire in modern-day Peru, turned their gaze north to continental North America. Hernando de Soto, who had served with Francisco Pizarro in Peru in the early 1530s, was granted permission by Spain to explore and control what is now the American South. At the time, this unexplored land was known as La Florida due to its geographical closeness to the peninsula.

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De Soto landed in modern-day Florida in 1539 and headed west. Eventually, he worked his way through the South as far west as East Texas. Like other conquistadors, de Soto hoped to find gold and other riches, as well as convert Native Americans to Christianity. Unfortunately for de Soto, he found no gold and ended up contracting a fatal fever in 1542. Dispirited, his remaining men returned to the Mississippi River, which they had discovered the previous year, and sailed south back to Mexico.


French Exploration of the South and Trade Networks with Native Americans

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An image of French explorer Jacques Marquette exploring the Mississippi River in 1673, via Wisconsin Public Radio


The Spanish only sparsely settled the southern and southwestern United States, as the climate was far preferable in Mexico. Almost 140 years after de Soto’s failed expedition to find gold and riches, French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet explored the Mississippi River. Traveling south from the Great Lakes, they eventually discovered that the Mississippi River emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. They avoided Spanish-controlled Florida and established trading networks between France and many of the Native American tribes that lived along the Mississippi.


In 1682, Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, also explored the Mississippi and claimed the territory of Louisiana for France, so named after King Louis XIV. Unlike the Spanish or English, the French, similar to the Dutch, treated the Native Americans kindly and focused on trade rather than subjugation or domination. In 1718, the French founded the city of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi River. This city would become the most important in the region and vital for trade.


Native Americans at War in the South 

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The English military installation of Fort Dobbs, North Carolina, during the French and Indian War, via North Carolina Historic Sites


On the east coast of the South, the English colonies of the Carolinas and Georgia saw Native Americans treated more poorly than those in French territory to the west. Instead of fur trapping and trading with Native Americans, the English focused on establishing permanent towns and farming, especially cash crops like tobacco and cotton. By the mid-1700s, the English colonies had expanded west and encroached on French territory in the Ohio River Valley. In 1754, Virginia militia officer George Washington attacked the French forts there, sparking the French and Indian War (1754-63). This war on the North American continent soon became enveloped in the much larger Seven Years’ War (1756-63).


Most Native American tribes sided with the French in their war against England, as France was seen as a far more hospitable European power to live with than the territory-obsessed English. In 1760, the Cherokee attacked Fort Dobbs, North Carolina, having switched their alliance from the English to the French. Further to the south, in Georgia, the English made more of an effort to secure good relations with the Creek Nation, thus preventing them from allying with the French.


Territorial Changes in the South

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A map of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, which transferred land from France to the United States, via the Heritage Museum, Amherst


The French, despite early victories, saw the tide turn against them in 1759. In 1763, the French and Indian War ended with an English victory. However, the French had secretly ceded the giant province of Louisiana to Spain the previous autumn in the Treaty of Fontainebleau. Spain, having been gifted Louisiana as compensation for their late-in-the-war alliance with France, had little motivation to try and further settle the territory. People living in Louisiana, including Native Americans, did not want to see French rule, with which they were familiar, replaced.


Like the French before them, the Spanish did little to settle far north of the Gulf Coast, leaving a “frontier exchange economy” in place throughout the rest of the inland South. The first Spanish colonial governor of Louisiana was unsuccessful, but Irish-born military commander Alejandro O’Reilly quickly restored order. He banned Indian slavery in the territory. In the 1770s, the fur trade collapsed from oversupply, leading to increased Spanish focus on cash crops, weakening ties with Native American tribes. In 1800, France reclaimed the Louisiana territory, only to sell it to the United States three years later for only $15 million. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the young nation and opened it up for tremendous westward expansion, setting up decades of conflict between American settlers and Native Americans.


The Creek War: Conflict Between Settlers and Native Americans 

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An image of a skirmish during the Creek War of 1813-14, via the Encyclopedia of Alabama


As settlement increased in the American South during the early 1800s, conflicts increased between land-hungry settlers and Native Americans. Beginning under US president Thomas Jefferson, there was a campaign to assimilate tribes into a settled, agricultural lifestyle on individual plots of land. When the War of 1812 erupted, many white settlers feared that Native Americans in the South and West would ally with the British. In the South, this resulted in white settlers allying with the Choctaw and Cherokee against the Creek Nation. As in previous wars, both Native Americans and white/European powers sought to create complex alliances to gain an advantage over traditional rivals; the Creek War was no different.


By autumn 1813, white settlers were engaged in full-fledged war against a component of the Creek Nation known as the Red Sticks, so named after having raised the “Red Sticks of war.” Andrew Jackson, later to become US president, commanded one of the American units in the Creek War. By August 1814, the Creek War was over, with the Red Sticks having surrendered. Over 20 million acres were ceded to the United States, and many Native Americans saw the futility of military conflict with the growing nation. During the conflict, the Red Sticks had been unable to ally with either Britain or Spain, demonstrating that it was very unlikely that any foreign ally would protect tribes against the United States government.


The Relocation of Native Americans

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A map showing the Indian Removal Act’s results during the 1830s, via the National Geographic Society


Fifteen years after the end of the War of 1812, which made Andrew Jackson a war hero, Jackson was US president and signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This Act authorized the forced relocation of almost 50,000 Native Americans from their ancestral homes in the South to Indian Territory in modern-day Oklahoma. The United States government, with the implied threat of military force, convinced many tribes to “trade” their land in the South, which was good for farming, for land west of the Mississippi River. Having seen Jackson’s devastating use of force during the Creek War, most tribes did not resist.


By the 1840s, only a small group of Seminoles remained in Florida. The rest of the Native American tribes had either been removed to Oklahoma or further west, or had been deemed thoroughly assimilated into white culture. Most tribes had signed treaties agreeing to the moves under duress, knowing that refusal could result in violence. Sadly, the land that the tribes “traded” for was of considerably lower quality than the land on which they had lived for centuries.


The Trail of Tears

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A famous painting of the Trail of Tears, 1838, made by Robert Lindneux in 1942, via People’s World


In the late 1830s, thousands of Cherokee had resisted leaving their land after being unsatisfied with an 1835 treaty signed by some tribal representatives. These representatives traded all Cherokee land east of the Mississippi River for $5 million, a move that many felt did not represent the tribe. The Cherokee’s principal chief protested the treaty to the US Senate, declaring that it was invalid, but the US government decided to enforce it anyway. In 1838, the US Army was sent in on the orders of President Martin Van Buren. Thousands of Cherokee were forced to walk over 1,200 miles to Indian Territory, with up to 5,000 dying from disease along the way.


Today, the Trail of Tears is considered one of the most infamous instances of American mistreatment of Native Americans. In addition to being forced to leave their homes under threat of arms, many of the Cherokee had their property looted by the soldiers. Some were even forced to walk while shackled. By March 1839, the Cherokee had arrived in Indian Territory, and it remains their tribal headquarters today.


Native American Reservations In the South Today

oklahoma indian reservations
Native American Reservations in Oklahoma today, via the Oklahoma Department of Transportation


Since the 1840s, most Native Americans in the South have been moved west to Oklahoma or been deemed assimilated into the local culture. Small Indian Reservations exist in Florida and other states in the Southeast, and many tribes are federally recognized, located in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Unfortunately, much Indian Reservation land in the United States is economically underdeveloped, and the poverty rate among Native Americans is considerably higher than the US average.


Fortunately, many are working to improve economic conditions and provide greater educational opportunities on reservations, as well as decrease the amount of prejudice and discrimination experienced by Native Americans in society. In addition to tribal resources, the federal government has assistance programs for Native Americans through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Although these programs do not make up for over two centuries of oppression, they are a step towards helping to provide a more equitable future.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.