Thursday, January 6, 2011

Red State

In Toward the Setting Sun: John Ross, the Cherokees, and the Trail of Tears, Brian Hicks turns a tragic chapter of American history into a powerful family saga

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

The saga of the Cherokee in the first half of the nineteenth century, culminating in the Trail of Tears, is a vaguely familiar one to those with a survey of American history under their belts (or anyone lucky enough to see Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson on Broadway before its closing at the end of the 2010 holiday season). Certainly the behavior of the federal government in this sorry affair is among its very worst failures to follow its own laws. In Toward the Setting Sun, journalist and popular historian Brian Hicks -- who, according to family lore, is descended from key Cherokee figures-- synthesizes this story, gives it a clear narrative arc, and positions it as a literal and figurative family saga.

Though only the chief who presided over the Cherokee migration, John Ross, is named in the title, Toward the Setting Sun has three principal characters spanning three generations. The first is Major Ridge, often referred to as "The Ridge," who rose to influence among the Cherokees on the basis of his firm resistance to land concessions to the United States, even as he fought alongside General Andrew Jackson in the Creek War of 1813-1814 and in the First Seminole War of 1817-18. The second is the Ridge's protégé, Ross, who was more of a financial and political leader. Ross was ultimately elected to leadership of the Cherokees on a platform of implacable opposition to concessions amid growing pressure from the state of Georgia and the federal government. He also presided over the modernization of his people and the implementation of a U.S.-styled Constitution. Ross maintained his hard-line stance toward the U.S. even as The Ridge and the third major figure here, his son John, ultimately concluded that the Cherokees effectively had no choice but to migrate to what is now Oklahoma, John becoming a leader of that faction. Ironically, it was Ross's very opposition to the Ridges and their allies that made him the most credible among die-hard Cherokees to lead that migration in the late 1830s, which he did amid what proved to be a humanitarian disaster, and managed to survive all manner of internal and external challenges until his death in 1866.

In the course of telling this story, Hicks renders relatively familiar portraits of U.S. political figures like Jackson (ruthless but rational), John Calhoun (chilly but candid), John Marshall (helpful but self-interested), and John Quincy Adams (sympathetic but ineffectual). The real interest here is in the secondary characters, among them Cherokee Phoenix publisher Elias Boudinot and his brother, Stand Waitie, who would go on to a career as a Confederate general. We also get glimpses of the surprisingly sympathetic Davy Crockett (though this was probably a function of his antipathy to Jackson), and George Guess, also known as Sequoyah, who, as a western Cherokee for much of the story, is thus peripheral to it, notwithstanding his achievements as a linguist, which are touched on here.

The most obvious lesson of this book is that the mere threat of political and military coercion is usually sufficient to reveal -- or create -- fissures in a community. A divide-and-conquer strategy was a fixture of U.S. policy toward Native Americans since colonial times, usually abetted by bribes to those who would personally benefit at the expense of their fellow Indians. The tragedy here, as rendered by Hicks, is that figures like Ross and the Ridges were deeply principled people who refused to submit to such exploitation. Their growing rift, which ultimately led their supporters to murderous measures, were rooted in sincere differences about how to make the best of an impossible situation. Hicks is less interested in who was right, or in the fact that Ross, like many mixed-blood Cherokees, was a slaveholder.  His story is one of a people responding to a multifaceted imperialism, along with a testimonial to the resilience of a chieftain and his followers who managed to make a new life for themselves despite the oppressions they faced.

As back-cover testimonials from Jon Meacham and Nathaniel Philbrick attest, Toward the Setting Sun is a well-written, well-researched, and highly accessible narrative history. It is an excellent introduction to an important episode in U.S. history, and a gateway to further Native American study.