Review: ‘Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory,’ by Claudio Saunt

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“Unworthy Republic” by Claudio Saunt; Norton (396 pages, $26.95)


“Removal” or “relocation” are terms commonly used to describe what happened to more than 100,000 Native Americans in the 1830s, but Claudio Saunt doesn’t think those words cut it. In “Unworthy Republic,” he prefers “deportation,” “expulsion” or, in the case of thousands of people, “extermination.”

Saunt’s book is both thoroughly researched and quietly outraged. He focuses on the 1830s, the years leading up to and including the Trail of Tears. That’s when, with the support of all three branches of government, we forced bands of people in the South on an arduous, disease-filled journey to uncharted lands west of the Mississippi River.

These events have been well documented but Saunt puts them in broader context. He argues that the deportation of Native Americans was tied to slavery — and, specifically, to the fear that Native people might organize an uprising that included African-Americans. But Saunt also connects it to the Holocaust, family memories of which inspired him to write “Unworthy Republic,” as well as to what’s going on in our country today, when politicians still meet in Washington, D.C., dreaming up ways to keep classes of people out.

“George Washington had even spoken of building a ‘Chinese wall’ between the United States and the Cherokee,” Saunt writes. And the father of our country was not alone. Under Andrew Jackson’s notorious watch, plans were drawn up for a “twelve-hundred-mile military cordon [that] would eventually run from present-day Minneapolis to the Gulf Coast.”

The scope of “Unworthy Republic” is enormous, given that the Seminoles of southern Florida had little in common with, for instance, the Chickasaws of northern Louisiana, but Saunt’s well-organized, readable history keeps track of the miscarriages of justice being perpetrated throughout America and its territories (Florida was not yet a state). Vivid portraits of those who supported and opposed “Indian removal” anchor the book, including generals tasked with leading it and Native people and government officials who opposed it. (Twenty years before the start of the Civil War, John Quincy Adams ominously called it “among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring them to judgment.”)

Saunt also has the receipts. While untreated cholera raced through people on death marches to the West, the U.S. government was taking not just their lives, but their property and household goods, with promises of scant repayment often broken. At one point, the pile of stolen property and goods was so enormous that the U.S. had to hire extra clerks to keep up with the paperwork that detailed what it was stealing.

There are indications in “Unworthy Republic” that the Trail of Tears led to the Civil War and Saunt points out that issues of citizenship and statehood were key to both stains on U.S. history. Intriguingly, he rarely uses the term “Trail of Tears.” Although it’s a common way to refer to his subject, it is conspicuous by its absence, perhaps because Saunt so persuasively makes the case that events of the 1830s cost Native Americans a whole lot more than tears.


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