Becoming “Us” by Getting Rid of “Them”

William Clark, as painted by Peale

William Clark, as painted by Peale

In a time of tumultuous change, as its society was being transformed by new means of transportation, increased access to information, and an avalanche of settlers, on August 10, 1821, Missouri became a state.  Its new status marked the end of the era of multicultural tolerance in the Mississippi valley.

The new settlers considered themselves entitled to settle on whatever “unoccupied” land they wanted, with or without government permission, regardless of whether it was officially off-limits, regardless of whether it had previously been granted to an Indian tribe and was still occupied by members of that tribe.  At the end of the War of 1812, Territorial Governor William Clark, formerly the co-leader of the Lewis and Clark expedition, had convened a massive peace-making conference, with the aim of settling disputes between the Indian nations and keeping white settlers off the lands granted to the Shawnee and Delaware.  The settlers objected, and went on settling.   The Territorial Assembly condemned Clark’s policy, and the ban on settlement was never enforced.

The Delawares and Shawnees, who had been living on the plains above the river in villages indistinguishable from those of the whites, were under constant pressure to move on.  By 1806 they had established new villages in the Ozarks, on less desirable land near the St. Francis, White, Black, and Current rivers.  That land, however, had already been granted to the Osage.

The Osage themselves were under siege from all sides. The increase in the number of skins being traded put heavy pressure on traditional relationships, as young hunters demanded greater leadership roles.  Twice, the tribe split into smaller bands.  Shawnees, Delawares, Cherokees, and others encroached on its land.  In 1808, the Osage ceded to the United States the lands they had already lost, leaving the newly resettled tribes without any legal claim to the land on which they had settled.

Many of the American settlers, coming from areas in which conflict had been recent and deadly, arrived with a ferocious hatred for all Indians, and without any knowledge of the recent times in which Indians and whites had lived together in relative harmony.  Tales of Indian atrocities circulated freely.  Popular voices called for “slaying every Indian from here to the Rocky Mountains,” and Thomas Hart Benton, elected to the U.S. Senate in the year before statehood, denounced the existence of Indian communities within the state as “a palpable evil.”  In the same year, William Clark was voted out of office in the soon-to-be state’s first gubernatorial election, in large part because of his generous policies towards the Indians.

In 1825, the Shawnee and the Osage relinquished the last of their Missouri lands, and the Delaware followed in 1829.  By that time, the large majority of all three tribes had already left the state for still less fertile land, in Kansas and in Indian Territory.  The former neighbors, trading partners, and in-laws of the French, and of the earlier American borderers, were now despised savages.  So complete was the break with the past that some French and American fathers actually severed ties with their métis children.  By 1829 the state of Missouri was officially empty of Indians.  

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