Hiking a pine-bedecked ridge—alone with a chorus of song birds and away from city sights, sounds, and odors—it’s easy to feel in-touch with the past. The pioneer spirit blazes within. You are the explorer, the trailblazer, one of the curious few who venture into the unknown. It’s just you and the trail. But the very existence of the trail begs the obvious. Someone has been here before. Some feet, many feet, have patted the soil so that the flora does not overrun the path. Alone, yet, you are not the only—much less the first—to tread this earth.
Road-tripping through eastern Oklahoma, heading toward Ozark National Forest, I was momentarily thrown for a loop by a modest settlement called Muskogee. In the back of my head, I could almost hear my father singing that Merle Haggard song, “We don’t smoke Marijuana in Muskogee…”
The Muscogee Nation was among the Five Civilized Tribes of the American Southeast (Muscogee/Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole). European colonists dubbed these agrarian bands and confederacies “Civilized” because they adopted many colonial customs and technologies, fostered trade, and (for a time) maintained peaceful relations with their colonial neighbors.
Colonists commonly referred to the Muscogee people as the Creek Indians due to the vast web of creeks that cut through their ancestral homelands in what are now Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Florida. So, why is this settlement in the Oklahoma Green Country named after a nation that originated east of the Mississippi?
In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law—as he said to Congress, to end “all possible danger of collision between the authorities of the General and State Governments on account of the Indians.” Jackson did not share the sentiment that the southeastern tribes were “Civilized.” Throughout Jackson’s rhetoric, he delegates blame for generations of widespread violence solely to indigenous peoples whom he calls an “evil” and “unhappy race.” It resembles the opening lines of the Treaty of Fort Jackson—written and signed after the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (in which forces led by Jackson quelled the Red Stick Muscogee uprising). The treaty calls the uprising “an unprovoked, inhuman, and sanguinary war, waged by the hostile Creeks against the United States.”
Not 20 years after the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, the Indian Removal Act (and its supporters) forced the Civilized Tribes to cede their remaining—and long-since dwindling—ancestral lands to the United States Government to be redistributed to European-American pioneers. By 1834, most Muscogee people had left the Southeast on an infamous death-march, the Trail of Tears, to settle in Indian Territory, a slice of which is now called Muskogee County, Oklahoma. In his Eighth Annual Message to Congress, December 1836, Jackson closed the matter:
“Happily for the interests of humanity, the hostilities with the Creeks were brought to a close soon after [the 23rd Congress adjourned], without that effusion of blood which at one time was apprehended as inevitable. The unconditional submission of the hostile party was followed by their speedy removal to the country assigned them West of the Mississippi.”
Today, Jackson receives heavy criticism for how his administration dealt with the Indian Problem. For enacting policies of ethnic cleansing and racial concentration, Jackson has been compared to Adolf Hitler (notably by Carl Byker, producer of Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil and the Presidency). But, like Lincoln with the Dakota and Hayes with the Nez Perce, Jackson endorsed the popular (though divided) will of the people he governed. I would like to note that many of Jackson’s contemporaries vehemently opposed removal policies, including David Crockett.
Muskogee, Oklahoma, seems out of place and, in a sense, it is. Its existence is a testament to the hypocrisy of the popular American narrative—manifest destiny, liberty, the right to property, the pursuit of happiness, and “all men are created equal.”
Discussing the importance of preserving “old places,” Tom Mayes of the National Trust for Historic Preservation notes Pierre Nora’s description of America—“a country of plural memories.” Mayes argues:
“It seems to me to be very American to voice critiques about [an American national] identity and to express diverse viewpoints about what the place means. Our old places of national identity can be the forum for this very American expression of views. What could be more patriotic than that?”
Muskogee, Oklahoma, may not fit NTHP’s criteria for “old places of national identity” that Mr. Mayes hopes to preserve, but it is certainly a forum through which many American identities may be expressed—as are many places (San Antonio, Tuskegee, Lancaster, etc.) whose very names describe wildly different and ever-evolving identities.
History may be the noblest discipline of the Humanities because it hints at who we are—whence we came and whither we go. It forces us to choose: Do we side with the Jacksons of the world or the Crocketts? And on what issues? Perhaps the most important lesson learned by studying history is that it is possible to be both patriotic and critical. We must accept that we are not the first to hike any trail. Remember, honor, and try to understand those who blazed the way.
Some Interesting Stuff:
Andrew Jackson: “Second Annual Message” December 6, 1830
Andrew Jackson: “Eighth Annual Message” December 5, 1836
Andrew Jackson: “Farewell Address” March 4, 1837 .
Carl Byker: “Hero or American Hitler?” December 12, 2007. Los Angeles Times.
Tom Mayes: “Why Do Old Places Matter? Civic, State, National, and Universal Identity” in Preservation Leadership Forum