A Review of
William W. Winn, The Triumph of the Ecunnau-Nuxulgee: Land Speculators, George M. Troup, State Rights, and the Removal of the Creek Indians from Georgia and Alabama, 1825-38. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2015.
[Note: As an historian of Georgia political party development from the American Revolution to the Civil War, I had a difficult time coming to terms with Georgia’s Indian removal campaigns of the 1820s and 1830s. The volume under review is a perfect example of why that should have been so. Mr. Winn’s hefty tome (475 pages of text and another 80 pages of end notes and index), with its old-fashioned, all-encompassing title, is an almost excruciatingly detailed treatment of Georgia’s and Alabama’s determined, and ultimately successful, drives to evict the Creek Indians.]
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The story of the ouster of the Creeks from Georgia, which Winn presents in the first five chapters, held few surprises for this reviewer. The author correctly emphasizes the importance to that effort of the concept of “state rights,” which had originated in the era of the infamous Yazoo Land Fraud (1795-1796), especially after the cession of the Yazoo lands to the United States government. In that so-called “Compact of 1802,” the national government agreed to remove native American tribes (i.e., Creeks and Cherokees) residing within Georgia’s boundaries when that could be done “peaceably” and on “reasonable terms.” The fulfillment of that promise was a bone of contention between Georgia and Washington for nearly four decades and kept the campaign for “Indian removal” alive.
Moreover, after the Yazoo lands had been transferred to the federal government, disappointed Yazoo purchasers, barred from being reimbursed for what they’d paid to the original Yazoo speculators after Georgia rescinded the sale in 1796, launched a methodical campaign in Congress to secure compensation from the national government. Georgia congressmen, and allies from other southern states, blocked those efforts until 1814. A key figure in that anti-Yazoo coalition was Georgia Congressman George Troup, who opposed settling with the Yazoo purchasers on state rights grounds.
A decade later, Troup, then Governor of Georgia, greased the skids for the corrupt Treaty of Indian Springs (1825), that would have ousted the Creeks from the state, but the newly-elected President, John Quincy Adams, appalled by the stench of corruption in the negotiations, refused to enforce the treaty. Only the signing of two additional, less corrupt treaties (Washington , and Fort Mitchell ) finally pushed the Creeks from Georgia—and, initially, into Alabama.
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I found fresh and interesting the last four chapters in Winn’s book, covering the decade the Creeks in Alabama (including those previously ousted from Georgia) struggled to forestall their seemingly inevitable departure. Another helpful feature of this latter section is a detailed treatment of the debate in Congress over the Jackson Administration’s Indian Removal Bill in 1830, which tends to be obscured in other discussions of this period.
The “Ecunnau-Nuxulgee” (Creek for “those greedily grasping after lands”), who “triumph” in Winn’s title, were the aggressive land speculators who swooped down on the Creeks, secured their Alabama lands, and helped drive them out. Another term the Creeks used to characterize those speculators, translated as “dirt-eaters,” was, according to Winn, “meant to classify such individuals as a particularly unappealing sub-species of the white race.” (xiv) Anyone who reads this book—and has a empathetic bone in his or her body–will find it difficult to quibble with Wynn’s description.
Perhaps the most active group of land speculators during the Alabama phase of what Winn terms the “Great Creek Land Grab” was made up of men I already recognized as “state rights”-spouting Georgians who lived in the relatively new town of Columbus, Georgia. Included among their number were Judge Eli S. Shorter, Alfred Iverson, John W. A. Sandford, and James C. Watson, all of whom made out financially like bandits during the “Great Creek Land Grab,” thanks to the Columbus Land Company, but then lost their financial shirts in the Panic of 1837—yes!!!
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The key event in the Creeks’ exit from Alabama was another Treaty of Washington (this one signed March 24, 1832):
- The Creeks ceded lands east of Mississippi River (approximately five million acres) to the United States, in exchange for a comparable quantity of land west of the Mississippi, plus financial compensation for their improvements on lands within the cession, three million acres of which were “prime cotton land, . . . no small acquisition on the part of the United States.” (303)
- After a survey of the ceded Creek lands east of the Mississippi, each principal Creek chief was to select one section (allotment) of 640 acres, and every other head of household was to receive a half-section of 320 acres.
- Allotments could not be sold for five years. If, at the end of that time, an allotment holder wished to remain in Alabama and become a citizen and subject to its laws, he could do so, and receive a patent from the United States for his land.
- The Creeks could sell their allotments, but sales had to be certified by someone appointed for that purpose by the President, who must also approve each sale before it became final.
- A controversial provision of the treaty was Article V, dealing with white “intruders” who had already settled on Creek lands in Alabama. Intruders were to be removed from those lands until the tracts were surveyed, unless they had made improvements on them and had not expelled Creeks from them, in which case they could remain until their next crops were gathered. Intruders who were removed would be barred from the lands for five years after ratification of the treaty, or until the lands were conveyed to the whites by the Creeks.
- Article Twelve allowed federal recruiting agents “to renew their efforts at enrolling Creeks to remove to the West.” (326) But, speculators were not interested in this aspect of the treaty until they finished hornswoggling the land from the Creeks. Put another way, the Creeks were “damned if they did and damned if they didn’t” want to sell out.
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The real message of the Treaty of Washington turned out to be, “let the games begin!” Speculators did their best to separate Creeks from their allotments; “intruders” protested that they needed to remain on land they’d occupied for longer than provided in Article V (cue the violins); and Creeks who were not principal chiefs soon found themselves fair game to be tricked, made drunk, and swindled out their “allotments,” through a variety of methods, the most popular of which reportedly were developed by the now infamous Columbus (Georgia) Land Company. You’re familiar, I trust, with the old card-player’s expression, “read ‘em and weep”; well, the same phrase seems to apply once the reader has completed the pages Winn devotes to the consequences of the 1832 Washington treaty.
The last phase of Creek removal was the so-called “Second Creek War” (1836), which whites at the time regarded as a “just war,” but Winn does not. The “conflict,” such as it was, ended quickly, and almost 18,000 Creeks were ushered out of Alabama over the Mississippi River to the new Indian Territory. Those evacuees were followed by 4,100 more by the end of 1838. According to one estimate, when the dust of removal had settled, white speculators had swindled the Creeks out of almost 2 million of the 2.1 million acres allotted them in the treaty. (464)
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William Winn has a sharp eye for greed, empty political rhetoric, and hypocrisy. He describes the whites who attended a meeting of the Creek tribal council in September 1832 as “Whiskey jobbers, con men, spies, US emigration agents, Indian countrymen, traders and merchants, land speculators and their agents, and lawyers of indeterminate allegiance.” (329) In summarizing parallels between efforts by Georgia Governor George Troup (1825-1826) and Alabama Governor John Gayle (1833-1834) to defy the national government over Creek removal, Winn asserts that “state rights had won again, the second time in eight years this had been the case in a high-profile confrontation over Indian lands between a southern state and the federal government.” (369)
Winn, a veteran journalist and local historian, admits in his “Acknowledgments” that this book wasn’t his idea. Thomas J. Peddy, a retiree in Columbus who had long been interested in the expulsion of the Creeks from Georgia and Alabama, began researching the topic. When Winn first met Peddy, in 1987, the Columbus man was compiling notes on Creek history from government documents, newspapers, and local records. Peddy tried to interest Winn in taking over the task of writing a history based on this research, but Winn, busy with other projects, put him off. Peddy died in 1990. In 2002, the Historic Chattahoochee Commission asked Winn to take up where Peddy had left off. In the end, Winn dedicated the book to Peddy, honoring his role in compiling much of the evidence Winn used to buttress his own research.
Major drawbacks to this work include sloppy editing and a very confusing system of end notes. Nevertheless, for the “general reader,” who probably doesn’t peruse notes, this won’t be a significant issue. Winn’s style is journalistic in the best sense, direct and engaging, although his pro-Creek, anti-white speculator bias is certainly clear (and will probably be shared by most readers). His character sketches of the “players” in this historical drama are detailed enough that the reader can form his or her own opinion of their strengths and weaknesses.
As Winn admits, this is a long book, and only those truly interested in the subject will want to read it from beginning to end. For those hardy souls who take up Winn’s challenge, the rewards will be many, though disgust at the speculators and their machinations will also be a factor—and should be.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: