Focus on Treaties for Native American Heritage Month
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Indian Removal and Land Speculation

Perhaps no issue has been more central to Native American affairs than land and the resources it contains. Entrepreneurial speculation in indigenous lands played a major role in the expansion of the European-based society from the 17th century until the so-called closing of the frontier with the opening of lands in Oklahoma and Indian Territory in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

By the advent of the removal period, speculation had become commonplace. Whether it was in Essex County, Maine, in the late 17th century; Pennsylvania, Tennessee, or Ohio in the 18th century; Georgia speculation that led to the Georgia Compact (1802); or the Ogden Land Company claim in New York, speculation was backed by the social philosophy that Native peoples were "cumberers" of the earth. All earlier speculation ventures had an indirect bearing on removal policy. For example, the Ogden claim still loomed over the New York tribes in 1830. In Ohio, the Virginia Military District, Symmes Purchase, and the Ohio Associates speculation ventures of the 1780s led to the Indian wars that culminated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers (1794) and forced the Shawnee and other remnant tribes who remained north of the Ohio River onto small landholdings, which removal treaties in the 1830s sought to liquidate. And the Georgia Compact of 1802 became the authority under which the state of Georgia extended its laws over the Creek and Cherokee, setting off the national debate over Indian removal.

Although speculation occurred in Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin during the removal period, the large landholdings of some of the southeastern tribes were prime targets. The land lottery in Georgia blunted speculation in Cherokee lands, and the lingering Second Seminole War (1835–1842) and lack of prime agricultural land provided insufficient incentive for speculators in Florida. In contrast, Choctaw, Creek, and Chickasaw domains held out the promise of rich cotton lands and thus became the focus of speculators on a large scale.

The Choctaw Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek (1830), signed only a few months after the Indian Removal Act (1830), provided for Choctaw removal under terms that attracted land speculators. It created three basic types of land allotments for Choctaw: allotments containing homesteads of individual households, allotments that Choctaw could select elsewhere, and allotments for those who wished to remain in Mississippi. In theory, the allotment system would ensure the Choctaw a home until they removed and would provide a homestead for those who wished to remain under Mississippi law.

Assuming the Choctaw were ready to remove, government officials allowed land transactions to begin immediately. Some Choctaw sold their allotment claims to the United States and left for the West. Others sold their claims to local speculators, primarily local businessmen and government agents. Whites settled promiscuously on Choctaw lands, and the government began to hold public sales of unallotted land, even before all of the Choctaw had made their selections. These sales attracted other speculators. The poorly planned and hurried process of disposing of Choctaw land resulted in conflicting claims to tracts of land and legal battles between speculators that went on for years. Andrew Jackson used his influence to settle the claims of his appointees and friends who were among the speculators.

Speculation continued long after most Choctaw had reached the West. Matters were confused by government actions. The Preemption Law (1838) called for setting aside enough land to provide allotments for the Choctaw who had not selected theirs. However, preemption claims by whites continued and ultimately took precedence over Choctaw claims. In 1842, scrip was introduced. If land surrounding a Choctaw's improvements had been sold and there was not enough adjoining land for an allotment, the Choctaw received scrip, good for a certain number of acres in Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Although scrip helped clear land titles, it was useless to most Choctaw, who had no desire to settle in those states away from their tribe. Speculators bought up scrip claims and set off another round of speculation.

Legal disputes among speculators clouded the titles of thousands of acres for years. Local operators sold their claims to land agents and capitalists such as the New York and Mississippi Land Company, a number of whom were also engaged in speculation in Chickasaw lands in the late 1830s. The years of clouded titles delayed Choctaw removal, forced the Choctaw to go into debt with local traders, and made paupers of those who chose to remain in Mississippi.

Liquidation of the Creek domain, like the sale of Choctaw and Chickasaw land, in the short run benefited primarily land speculators. Allotments were assigned by the beginning of 1834, but speculators had been hard at work since the Washington Treaty was ratified in 1832. Unlike speculation in other tribes, capital came in this case from Georgia and Alabama sources. Although there was a large number of small companies and combinations, two dominated the field: the Columbus Land Company of Georgia and Ware, Dougherty, and Company of Alabama. These companies used ruthless and fraudulent tactics. Their agents assisted Creek in selecting allotments, thereby locating the best lands, and sold goods and whiskey to Creek on credit in return for agreements to sell their allotments. In dealing with Creek men, who were not considered property owners in their society, they used black slaves as interpreters, who followed and harassed allotment holders until they committed suicide or agreed to sell, usually at low prices. They hired Creek to impersonate others and to sell allotments they did not own. By 1835, the Columbus company had control of the Lower Creek allotments, and Alabama speculators had become the advisors of Opothleyohola, the Upper Creek leader who had opposed removal. Ultimately, 87% of Creek land went to speculators.

Government officials not only tolerated the speculators' activities but also aided their work. Extension of Alabama laws over the Creek in 1832 brought an onslaught of intruders onto Creek lands. Instead of removing them as the treaty called for, the government encouraged legal settlement and also encouraged Creek to lease their improvements. When violence erupted between intruders and the Creek, the speculators supported the intruders, and the government turned expulsion of them over to local officials, who took no action. Public sale of land began in 1834 amid rumors of fraud, but members of the speculation companies and their agents were appointed to verify the sales. Agents investigating fraud were ordered to tone down their reports, and members of Congress came to the defense of the companies whenever their actions came into question.

Rather than delay removal as they did in the Choctaw and Chickasaw lands, speculators sped up Creek removal. They disrupted Creek society, and the people became demoralized. In the spring of 1836, some Creek struck back at intruders out of frustration resulting from their displacement and the failure of their crops. The army under Gen. Thomas S. Jesup was sent to end hostilities and to send the Lower Creek to the West. The Upper Creek resigned to removal. Sadly, the civilian company hired to remove the Creek was made up of speculators who had committed fraud upon the Creek.

Chickasaw removal provided the last major opportunity for large-scale land speculation during the removal period. The Treaty of Pontotoc Creek (October 22, 1832) provided for allotments to heads of households and orphans to provide them homes until they left for the West, at which time they could sell their land. As soon as the treaty was signed, local merchants assisted the Chickasaw in selecting allotments; they chose the best land in return for an agreement to sell the land to the merchant when it came up for sale. The thousands of acres garnered in this fashion were sold to capitalist-backed companies such as the New York and Mississippi Land Company, the Chickasaw Company, and the Pontotoc and Holly Springs Land Company. These companies did not engage in the fraud that marked the Creek speculation or the contention and clouded titles of the Choctaw speculation.

Neither did speculation ventures in the Chickasaw country prove as profitable as the speculators had hoped. Because the price of cotton was rapidly rising during the middle years of the 1830s and capital was available, speculators paid the Chickasaw a fair price for their land. However, the Panic of 1837 in the banking industry, the rapid decline of the cotton market after 1837, and the availability of cheaper land in Arkansas and Texas left Mississippi speculators with large holdings that took them years to sell. Companies faltered, and individual speculators went bankrupt.

Whatever the disposition of the land in the wake of the speculation-based boom in any given region, the result was the same: large tracts of Native American land passed into non-Native hands. Without question, U.S. government action or inaction abetted the process. The foremost concerns of the Andrew Jackson administration were to remove the tribes and transfer their lands to American settlers. Jackson himself had long speculated in land before he became president and had many close friends and appointees among the speculators. They were ostensibly vehicles through which the transfer of land could be achieved. However, because of muddled titles, contention and contests between speculators, and the banking crisis of the late 1830s, legal settlement in some areas was delayed for years. The federal government for the most part gave the speculators in the Southeast free rein, for over it all loomed the specter of nullification, which Jackson had hoped to avoid by carrying out the Georgia Compact. When federal officials mustered enough moral fortitude to attempt to expel the speculators' intruder allies from Native lands, the speculators and state officials sided with the intruders in the Choctaw, Creek, and Chickasaw lands, hinting that an attempt to remove them would result in armed rebellion and nullification of federal law.

Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr.


Further Reading
Feight, Andrew Lee. “Land Speculation and Lawlessness.” 2009. (http://lowerscioto.blogspot.com/2009/09/land-speculation-and-lawlessness.html); Paige, Amanda, et al. Chickasaw Removal. Ada, OK: Chickasaw Press, 2010; Silver, James W. “Land Speculation Profits in the Chickasaw Cession.” Journal of Southern History 10 (1944): 84–92; Young, Mary. Redskins, Ruffleshirts and Rednecks: Indian Allotments in Alabama and Mississippi, 1830–1860. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961.
 

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