Teaching Removal with an Expanding Archive

Christina Snyder

Attack of the Seminoles on the block house, 1835. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In my recent historiographical essay “Many Removals: Re-evaluating the Arc of Indigenous Dispossession,” I argue that, with “increased digitization and more focus on Indigenous language training, our Removal archive is expanding and so too should our range of voices and perspectives.”[1] In this companion piece, I focus particularly on primary-source materials (most of which are freely available on the web) for teaching undergraduates or high school students. I’ve drawn from my own teaching experiences, and I also reached out to Native Studies colleagues, who generously offered recommendations.[2]

In history courses that cover Indian Removal, the Cherokee Nation typically commands the lion’s share of attention, and yet, as historians including Constance Owl and Julie Reed explain, there is much more to learn, especially if we foreground Indigenous language sources and documents from non-elite men and women of all backgrounds. Many JER readers are probably already familiar with Theda Perdue’s excellent volume in the Bedford Series, The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents; the most recent edition, in particular, includes a wide range of voices, including petitions from the Cherokee Women’s Council, letters from children, and documents from modern-day Cherokee leaders.[3] A related resource, the first iteration of the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper, has been transcribed and digitized by Western Carolina University, with issues running from a critical period in the Removal era, 1828 to 1834. Still, only the English content is transcribed; as Constance Owl demonstrates, the Cherokee-language columns, few of which have been translated, were often radically different, so much work remains.

Oral histories reveal diverse perspectives on Removal. Alaina Roberts, assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, teaches with the Oklahoma volume of the WPA Federal Writers’ Slave Narrative Project digitized by the Library of Congress. Interviewees included people formerly enslaved in Native nations, including Mary Grayson, who recounted Muscogee Removal, resettlement in Indian Territory, the Civil War, and more. The Indian-Pioneer Papers, a massive oral history project conducted by the Works Progress Administration, contains 80,000 interviews, including those of freedpeople, and was recently digitized by the University of Oklahoma’s Western History Collections. Roberts, in I’ve Been Here All the White: Black Freedom on Native Land, used the Indian-Pioneer Papers, including interviews from her own ancestors.[4] Eli Roberts, for example, described how Indian Territory changed in the mid-nineteenth century. In addition to perspectives of freedpeople, the Indian-Pioneer Papers includes interviews with men and women from a wide range of tribal nations. Among those in the field who use this collection is John Bickers, a Myaamia scholar at Ohio State University who is working on a dissertation entitled “The Miami Nation: A Middle Path of Indigenous Nationhood.” Bickers especially recommends the interview of a Miami women named Elizabeth Palmer, who foregrounds the experiences of her female kin during Removal. Palmer’s story also demonstrates one of the core themes of John Bowes’s Land Too Good for Indians—the protracted nature of Removal, which, for the Miamis and many other nations, was a series of forced removals over the course of several decades.[5] Other useful oral history collections include the Doris Duke Collection and the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program Digital Collection.

For those looking to enhance course content on Northern Removal, John Bickers and John Bowes point to several other digital collections. The Helmke Library at Purdue University Fort Wayne has digitized documents, images, and material culture related to the Removal era with a special focus on Miamis. Several document detail debt negotiation. As Michael Witgen explains, debt was a key element of the “political economy of plunder,” whereby colonizers justified the theft of land, capital, and other resources from Black and Indigenous peoples.[6] The U.S. Serial Set, digitized by the Library of Congress, includes many additional documents from northern Native nations regarding Removal. To illustrate the long chronology and vast geographic sweep of what Julie Reed calls “the Long Removal Era,” John Bowes recommends a petition from Brothertown Indians to Andrew Jackson, in which Native leaders detail several forced relocations dating back to 1774. Another excellent Indigenous source from the serial set (which, in a classroom setting, might be usefully paired with Andrew Jackson’s 1830 State of the Union address) is a 1831 report of an expedition to Indian Territory from Wyandot chiefs, in which they give a frank—and sobering—scouting report. The land and timber were insufficient “for the purposes of a people that wish to pursue agriculture,” and the white settlers nearby were mostly slaveholders. Slaveholders, as the Wyandots observed, were “seldom very friendly to Indians”—“See Georgia.”

Native nations have digitized excellent teaching material. The Miami Tribe of Oklahoma published myaaiaki aancihasaaciki: A Cultural Exploration of the Myaamia Removal Route Focusing on the tribe’s 1846 forced relocation to Kansas, this publication includes primary documents, images, and contextual information from Myaamia scholars. This year (2021) is the 175th anniversary of that Removal. In remembrance, Diane Hunter, the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, is writing daily posts on the Miami Community Blog. The Seminole Tribe of Florida, through its Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, has digitized a teaching guide on Egmont Key, which the federal government used as a concentration camp for imprisoning Seminoles in preparation for Removal during the Third Seminole War. Intended for high school students, the guide also includes many primary documents that might be useful in an undergraduate course. Andrew Frank, who is working on a history entitled Those Who Camp at a Distance: The Seminoles and the Indigenous History of Florida, especially recommends the material regarding Emateloye (or Polly Parker), who was captured, then escaped, and became a central figure in Seminole history.

These are only a few of the many digitized sources that enhance our understanding of the Removal Era. Please feel free to include additional suggestions in the comments.


[1] Christina Snyder, “Many Removals: Re-evaluating the Arc of Indigenous Dispossession,” Journal of the Early Republic 41 (Winter 2021), 623–50, quotation on 650.

[2] I am very grateful to John Bickers, John Bowes, Andrew Frank, and Alaina Roberts for their recommendations.

[3] Theda Perdue, The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents, 3rd ed. (Boston, 2016).

[4] Alaina E. Roberts, I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land (Philadelphia, 2021).

[5] John Bowes, Land Too Good for Indians: Northern Indian Removal (Norman, OK, 2016).

[6] Michael Witgen, “Seeing Red: Race, Citizenship, and Indigeneity in the Old Northwest,” Journal of the Early Republic 38 (Winter 2018), 581–611. Witgen explores this concept at greater length in Seeing Red: Indigenous Land, American Expansion, and the Political Economy of Plunder in North America (Chapel Hill, NC, 2022).

20 December 2021

About the Author

Christina Snyder is McCabe Greer Professor of History at The Pennsylvania State University.

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