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11 Jan 2022 11:16 a.m. PST
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doc mcb11 Jan 2022 11:01 a.m. PST

These passages are from deToqueville's DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA. He was deeply sympathetic to the Indians' plight, as anyone of humanity must be. Yet he saw their destruction as inevitable. Read below to see why. (AND DeT says little of the biggest killer, the diseases of the Columbian exchange.)

The Indian, on the contrary, has his imagination inflated with the pretended nobility of his origin, and lives and dies in the midst of these dreams of pride. Far from desiring to conform his habits to ours, he loves his savage life as the distinguishing mark of his race, and he repels every advance to civilization, less perhaps from the hatred which he entertains for it, than from a dread of resembling the Europeans. *a While he has nothing to oppose to our perfection in the arts but the resources of the desert, to our tactics nothing but undisciplined courage; whilst our well-digested plans are met by the spontaneous instincts of savage life, who can wonder if he fails in this unequal contest?

None of the Indian tribes which formerly inhabited the territory of New England—the Naragansetts, the Mohicans, the Pecots—have any existence but in the recollection of man. The Lenapes, who received William Penn, a hundred and fifty years ago, upon the banks of the Delaware, have disappeared; and I myself met with the last of the Iroquois, who were begging alms. The nations I have mentioned formerly covered the country to the sea-coast; but a traveller at the present day must penetrate more than a hundred leagues into the interior of the continent to find an Indian. Not only have these wild tribes receded, but they are destroyed; *b and as they give way or perish, an immense and increasing people fills their place. There is no instance upon record of so prodigious a growth, or so rapid a destruction: the manner in which the latter change takes place is not difficult to describe.

When the Indians were the sole inhabitants of the wilds from whence they have since been expelled, their wants were few. Their arms were of their own manufacture, their only drink was the water of the brook, and their clothes consisted of the skins of animals, whose flesh furnished them with food.

The Europeans introduced amongst the savages of North America fire-arms, ardent spirits, and iron: they taught them to exchange for manufactured stuffs, the rough garments which had previously satisfied their untutored simplicity. Having acquired new tastes, without the arts by which they could be gratified, the Indians were obliged to have recourse to the workmanship of the whites; but in return for their productions the savage had nothing to offer except the rich furs which still abounded in his woods. Hence the chase became necessary, not merely to provide for his subsistence, but in order to procure the only objects of barter which he could furnish to Europe. *c Whilst the wants of the natives were thus increasing, their resources continued to diminish.

From the moment when a European settlement is formed in the neighborhood of the territory occupied by the Indians, the beasts of chase take the alarm. *d Thousands of savages, wandering in the forests and destitute of any fixed dwelling, did not disturb them; but as soon as the continuous sounds of European labor are heard in their neighborhood, they begin to flee away, and retire to the West, where their instinct teaches them that they will find deserts of immeasurable extent. "The buffalo is constantly receding," say Messrs. Clarke and Cass in their Report of the year 1829; "a few years since they approached the base of the Alleghany; and a few years hence they may even be rare upon the immense plains which extend to the base of the Rocky Mountains." I have been assured that this effect of the approach of the whites is often felt at two hundred leagues' distance from their frontier. Their influence is thus exerted over tribes whose name is unknown to them; and who suffer the evils of usurpation long before they are acquainted with the authors of their distress.

Bold adventurers soon penetrate into the country the Indians have deserted, and when they have advanced about fifteen or twenty leagues from the extreme frontiers of the whites, they begin to build habitations for civilized beings in the midst of the wilderness. This is done without difficulty, as the territory of a hunting-nation is ill-defined; it is the common property of the tribe, and belongs to no one in particular, so that individual interests are not concerned in the protection of any part of it.

A few European families, settled in different situations at a considerable distance from each other, soon drive away the wild animals which remain between their places of abode. The Indians, who had previously lived in a sort of abundance, then find it difficult to subsist, and still more difficult to procure the articles of barter which they stand in need of.

To drive away their game is to deprive them of the means of existence, as effectually as if the fields of our agriculturists were stricken with barrenness; and they are reduced, like famished wolves, to prowl through the forsaken woods in quest of prey. Properly speaking, therefore, it is not the Europeans who drive away the native inhabitants of America; it is famine which compels them to recede; a happy distinction which had escaped the casuists of former times, and for which we are indebted to modern discovery!

It is impossible to conceive the extent of the sufferings which attend these forced emigrations. They are undertaken by a people already exhausted and reduced; and the countries to which the newcomers betake themselves are inhabited by other tribes which receive them with jealous hostility. Hunger is in the rear; war awaits them, and misery besets them on all sides. In the hope of escaping from such a host of enemies, they separate, and each individual endeavors to procure the means of supporting his existence in solitude and secrecy, living in the immensity of the desert like an outcast in civilized society. The social tie, which distress had long since weakened, is then dissolved; they have lost their country, and their people soon desert them: their very families are obliterated; the names they bore in common are forgotten, their language perishes, and all traces of their origin disappear. Their nation has ceased to exist, except in the recollection of the antiquaries of America and a few of the learned of Europe.

I should be sorry to have my reader suppose that I am coloring the picture too highly; I saw with my own eyes several of the cases of misery which I have been describing; and I was the witness of sufferings which I have not the power to portray.
At the end of the year 1831, whilst I was on the left bank of the Mississippi at a place named by Europeans, Memphis, there arrived a numerous band of Choctaws (or Chactas, as they are called by the French in Louisiana). These savages had left their country, and were endeavoring to gain the right bank of the Mississippi, where they hoped to find an asylum which had been promised them by the American government. It was then the middle of winter, and the cold was unusually severe; the snow had frozen hard upon the ground, and the river was drifting huge masses of ice. The Indians had their families with them; and they brought in their train the wounded and sick, with children newly born, and old men upon the verge of death. They possessed neither tents nor wagons, but only their arms and some provisions. I saw them embark to pass the mighty river, and never will that solemn spectacle fade from my remembrance. No cry, no sob was heard amongst the assembled crowd; all were silent. Their calamities were of ancient date, and they knew them to be irremediable. The Indians had all stepped into the bark which was to carry them across, but their dogs remained upon the bank. As soon as these animals perceived that their masters were finally leaving the shore, they set up a dismal howl, and, plunging all together into the icy waters of the Mississippi, they swam after the boat.

These are great evils; and it must be added that they appear to me to be irremediable. I believe that the Indian nations of North America are doomed to perish; and that whenever the Europeans shall be established on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, that race of men will be no more. *i The Indians had only the two alternatives of war or civilization; in other words, they must either have destroyed the Europeans or become their equals.

Doc: DeToqueville goes on to explain how difficult it was for the natives to become the equals of the Europeans; they simply had too far to go in developing, in too little time.

doc mcb11 Jan 2022 11:17 a.m. PST

Now, we can all agree that what DeT describes was a horror and indeed, as he says, "a great evil." But . . .

what might have happened instead?

If we put you, me, us, back in time, with some power (a president and his advisors, say) or influence (a great writer like DeT), WHAT COULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY?

Can't avoid the massive loss of life from disease.

Remember that most tribes had no real government, certainly nothing in a position to negotiate with a European-style nation-state. (And where there WAS such, the tribes resisted white encroachment for a long time: see the Iroquois covenant chain.)

Remember that the slightest contact with white culture began a process of disintegration.

Remember that any political settlement must satisfy the white majority or they simply vote in new politicians.

Gonna draw a line on the map and say "all the whites stay on this side and Indians on that side"? Proclamation of 1763?

In short, it is cheap and easy to condemn the treatment of the Indians while benefitting from it. But even more important, COULD ANONE HAVE DONE BETTER? If you think so, tell us how.

"Well, if we had all just been NICER" will not do. Human nature is a limiting factor.

JimSelzer11 Jan 2022 11:41 a.m. PST

political hot potato here i am going to check my opinion at the door

doc mcb11 Jan 2022 11:58 a.m. PST

Of course it is a hot potato, but we are discussing events from one to three centuries ago.

rustymusket Supporting Member of TMP11 Jan 2022 12:51 p.m. PST

I am reading about the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages right now. IMHO, The United States did make some attempts at using Enlightenment thinking when compared with RE & DA, but sooner or later the Native Americans were bound to lose. Perhaps had they just been subsumed into the general population rather than "treaties" which pretended they were viewed as sovereign, they would have been better off.

advocate11 Jan 2022 12:51 p.m. PST

You may be correct, but what is your point? "Expansionist movement is human nature, the weaker society loses, what can you do?" pretty much puts us into Hobbes territory. And could be used to justify anything.

doc mcb11 Jan 2022 2:18 p.m. PST

advocate, yes. But we do not "justify" a hurricane or an earthquake; we understand them to be unavoidable. The natives of NA, in their hundreds of tribes who frequently warred against each other, also interacted with Europeans/whites by the millions, over a period of centuries. Some of those whites were kind, some were cruel, many indifferent: human. There was no POLICY, of genocide nor anything else, until after 1800, and the book analyzing Jefferson's policy (teach them agriculture so they need less land) is aptly titled SEEDS OF EXTINCTION. You cannot describe a humane policy that would have prevented the collapse of native culture; there isn't one. It is entirely appropriate for the historian to remember and to criticize particular policies, but fairness requires it be done in the context of what was possible. what the alternatives were.

doc mcb11 Jan 2022 2:25 p.m. PST

rusty, yes, assimilation or destruction, and the assimilation was exceedingly difficult, in many cases simply impossible.

Happily American culture has (for a long-time, check the iconography of AWI flags etc) accepted great Indian leaders into our pantheon: Pontiac, Pocahontus, Geronimo, Chief Joseph. If we MEANT to destroy them, we wouldn't today want to be one or to name our athletic teams as we do (or did before PC).

doc mcb11 Jan 2022 3:08 p.m. PST

Okay, this is fascinating for all sorts of reasons:


The Campaign to Thwart Paleogenetic Research Into North America's Indigenous Peoples

doc mcb11 Jan 2022 3:20 p.m. PST

from the above:

Humans move around a lot.

And this penchant for moving around didn't end when humans arrived in North America. In the north-eastern part of North America, south of the St. Lawrence River and Gulf, for example, the arrival of mainly Basques and French settlers in the late 16th century set off a scramble among Indigenous groups—not generally to escape oppressive "settler colonization," but rather to gain access to the new arrivals for purposes of trade and the formation of military alliances against existing enemies. This competition set off a series of long and bloody wars, which in turn led to the extermination of whole Indigenous cultures—true genocides, whose human toll was exacerbated by the epidemics brought from Europe.

These wars, in turn, eventually forced swathes of Algonquian-speaking peoples to move westward, pursued by Iroquois enemies in many cases, into what the French called the Pays d'en Haut, a vast area west of Montreal that extends to the Great Lakes, Ohio, and Illinois. Here, whole new cultural identities formed from the refugees (much in the same way that the demographic map of Europe was massively redrawn during the late stages of the Roman empire, with Goths, Gauls, Vandals, and dozens of other groups criss-crossing the continent in a bid to survive). The result is that most federally-recognized tribes in the American east and Midwest are late-colonial-to-recent in origin, and are largely populated by the descendants of widely scattered and, in some cases, vanished communities. The development of a homogenizing Plains Indian Culture resulted from a roughly analogous process. In many cases, paleogenetics is revealing that even those "true" homelands were not as ancient as once believed.

79thPA Supporting Member of TMP12 Jan 2022 11:31 a.m. PST

I read this in grad school. I thought it was a great book.


doc mcb12 Jan 2022 5:02 p.m. PST

Looks interesting.

Murvihill13 Jan 2022 6:21 a.m. PST

More efficient cultures will subsume less efficient cultures. Farmers will overtake hunter-gatherers for the simple reason that they outnumber them. It is sad, unfortunate and inevitable…

doc mcb13 Jan 2022 6:30 a.m. PST

Murvihill, yes, precisely. Particularly when the farmers carry diseases like mumps and chicken pox to which the hunters have no immunity.

The farmers may be kind or cruel, but the hunters are doomed either way.

Gwydion14 Jan 2022 9:16 a.m. PST

Doc: DeToqueville goes on to explain how difficult it was for the natives to become the equals of the Europeans; they simply had too far to go in developing, in too little time.

I can understand de Toqueville writing this, I cannot fathom how any modern historian could buy into the concept of an immutable 'development track' of culture. Native cultures didn't need to become 'equal' to anything – they were their own culture. You might as well say the Europeans failed to learn from the natives to live in harmony with the land. I wouldn't, but the rationale is the same.
You cannot describe a humane policy that would have prevented the collapse of native culture; there isn't one. It is entirely appropriate for the historian to remember and to criticize particular policies, but fairness requires it be done in the context of what was possible. what the alternatives were.

How about not expanding across an already occupied land, albeit not in the manner White European culture believed was appropriate, and letting the occupants get on with living how they wanted?

Sure, some would have come to see how the new arrivals did things, and may have caught diseases from the immigrants, but they would not have lost their land which supported their lifestyles and culture and could have slowly built immunity to the infections brought over.

An enlightened scientific culture could have envisaged a less aggressive and acquisitive approach to interaction with the native population and existing occupiers of the land.

How about that for a start to a humane approach?

There's no historical inevitability in how people have to act, unless we're backing social Darwinism.

doc mcb14 Jan 2022 2:15 p.m. PST

How about not expanding across an already occupied land, albeit not in the manner White European culture believed was appropriate, and letting the occupants get on with living how they wanted?

So, no European colonization of America? When (especially for the English) LAND was the basis for every sort of status, including not starving to death?

Does one group of the people have the right to withhold resources far beyond what they themselves need from other people who need them as badly?

doc mcb14 Jan 2022 2:22 p.m. PST

James Monroe, First Annual Message to Congress, 1817

After describing the progress in acquiring Indian lands:

In this progress, which the rights of nature demand and nothing can prevent, marking a growth rapid and gigantic, it is our duty to make new efforts for the preservation, improvement, and civilization of the native inhabitants. The hunter state can exist only in the vast uncultivated desert. It yields to the more dense and compact form and greater force of civilized population; and of right it ought to yield, for the earth was given to mankind to support the greatest number of which it is capable, and no tribe or people have a right to withhold from the wants of others more than is necessary for their own support and comfort.

Gwydion, how would you answer Monroe's point?

doc mcb14 Jan 2022 2:26 p.m. PST

If aristocrats fenced off vast acreage to provide hunting for themselves, while forbidding and preventing the starving poor from farming that land to feed their families, you would be (correctly) outraged. Why do the native tribes get North America to hunt in while the starving masses of London are kept out?

Gwydion16 Jan 2022 7:31 a.m. PST

Monroe was assuming so much in his statement – 'and of right it ought to yield'. Really? Why? Why was it anyone's 'duty to make new efforts for the preservation [!] improvement and civilization of the native inhabitants.'?

Why is someone in an urban slum starving on a sub-living wage 'improved' over a healthy sustainable native living in a culture which supports all its members?

Monroe had a view of native life of his time. It was blinkered and parti pris and incorrect. Native culture was much more complicated than existing in an uncultivated desert. But suppose for a moment he was correct about that life. Why is there an onus on anyone to change that life from the outside? This is a disguise for greed. The greed you describe with the fencing of land in Britain to deny the starving masses access.

The 'native tribes' get to use the land as they wish and not have acquisitive invaders take it and fence it and attack their way of life in my answer to your question of how destruction of the culture could be avoided.

There was no inevitability about how the two cultures should interact nor any' right' to seize the land 'for their own good'.

Without turning to modern politics at all I presume you must be pretty peeved at nineteenth century US land ownership if you have leanings to Winstanley's Diggers and their view of feeding the urban poor?

doc mcb16 Jan 2022 12:34 p.m. PST

Whatever merit your argument may have abstractly, the policy offered by Monroe, and the justification of it, spanned multiple presidencies, from both parties. No elected American politician could have advocated a policy that went against the interests of his constituents.

The 'native tribes' get to use the land as they wish and not have acquisitive invaders take it and fence it and attack their way of life in my answer to your question of how destruction of the culture could be avoided.

But how would that answer the question? No Columbus? No discovery of the western hemisphere? No Columbian exchange of diseases, killing probably MOST of the natives?

Are you really saying no Europeans in North America? Enforced how, and by whom?

doc mcb17 Jan 2022 6:22 a.m. PST

Gwydion, how did the various native cultures in NA decide who got what land, BEFORE the whites arrived? Did they negotiate it peacefully, or did the strongest tribe get the best land? Were some of the groups "acquisitive" of others' territory? I believe I've read that rival tribes sometimes allied with, say, the French or the English in order to get better weapons to use against each other?

Or is it your contention that all was sweetness and light until the evil whites arrived?

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