‘Unworthy Republic’ Takes an Unflinching Look at Indian Removal in the 1830sHistorians in the News
tags: Native American history, Indian Removal, Jacksonian era
The steamboat: For many Americans in the 19th century, it was a symbol of power and progress, a triumph of technology that ferried goods and people upriver with impressive speed.
But for certain passengers, it represented something less glorious and more terrifying. In “Unworthy Republic,” the historian Claudio Saunt describes how the boats functioned as instruments of American expansion and — for the slaves and Indigenous people forced to travel on them — “as floating prisons.” The policy known as Indian Removal was signed into law by President Andrew Jackson in 1830. Transporting so many people up western rivers entailed squeezing them into cramped quarters, where diseases proliferated and a burst boiler could scald hundreds to death in an instant.
Saunt’s book traces the expulsion of 80,000 Native Americans over the course of the 1830s, from their homes in the eastern United States to territories west of the Mississippi River. This was one episode in a long history of colonial conquest that included waging war and spreading disease, but Saunt argues that Indian Removal was truly “unprecedented”; it was a “formal, state-administered process” designed to eliminate every native person to the east of the Mississippi — a systematic expulsion that would later serve as an ignominious model for other regimes around the world. The French in Algeria looked to it as an example, as did the Nazis in Eastern Europe. “The Volga,” Hitler announced in 1941, “must be our Mississippi.”
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