The Intent Was Genocide

Illustration of a massacre of Sauks and Mesquakies crossing the Mississippi River by a cannon on US steamship Warrior, 1857
Library of Congress
‘The Battle of Bad Axe’; illustration by Henry Lewis, 1857. In Surviving Genocide, Jeffrey Ostler writes, ‘Toward the end of the 1832 Black Hawk War, a cannon aboard the US ­steamship Warrior fired on Sauks and Mesquakies trying to escape US troops by crossing the Mississippi River. What the image shows is clearly a massacre, but in an especially ­striking example of colonial evasion, the caption refers to the event as a battle.’

At the close of the introduction to Surviving Genocide, his intense and well-researched overview of American Indian land losses, population declines, and personal miseries from the years leading to the republic’s birth through the wholesale tribal removals of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, the University of Oregon historian Jeffrey Ostler doubts whether the federal government will ever “establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to honestly assess the United States’ impact on Native nations and propose meaningful remedies, including land return, for deep historical injustices.” Yet the most productive way to plow through his catalog of the unrelenting horrors and tragedies visited upon American Indians from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River is to imagine it as an early draft of the first volume of just such a report, a mammoth affidavit that, once completed, will cry out for that overdue reckoning.

Ostler makes an ambitious case that there was a more or less continuous campaign of brutal conquest, diplomatic duplicity, and near genocide, but he does not ground it on a few cherry-picked highlights in the long history of relations between Euro-Americans and Native Americans, as the freelance author Ronald Wright did with his Iroquois and Cherokee examples in Stolen Continents: The “New World” Through Indian Eyes Since 1492 (1992). Instead his magisterial perspective in this volume takes in the vast trans-Appalachian region with all its tribes and subtribes; the continent’s trans-Mississippi West will be similarly covered in volume 2.

Ostler’s swift-paced yet meticulous coverage of the wars and diasporas, great and small, and attendant fluctuations in native populations has been assembled as if he intends it to be his academic generation’s manifesto, one that argues, as expressed in the upbraiding title of a recent anthology, Why You Can’t Teach United States History Without American Indians (2015). That collection of essays offered native-centered investigations into the history of Indian slavery, native literacy, maps in historical textbooks, native women during the colonial period, civil rights activism, the significance of Indians to narratives of modernity, and post–World War II urban migrations. No longer, insist its contributors, can American history books minimize, marginalize, or rest upon entertaining sidebars wherever American Indians—in all their tribal, personal, temporal, and circumstantial diversity—were implicated, which is the case in even such recent works as Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of…

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