Rivers of Sand: Creek Indian Emigration, Relocation, and Ethnic Cleansing in the American South

Volume 28, No. 3 - Spring 2017
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Rivers of Sand - Creek Indian Emigration Relocation and Ethnic Cleansing in the American SouthBy Christopher D. Haveman
University of Nebraska Press (2016)
414 pages

Review by Robert M. Owens

Christopher Haveman’s Rivers of Sand looks at the story of Creek (Muscogee) Indian removal in an attempt “to provide the most comprehensive account available of a Native population transfer to the West.” The book succeeds admirably because of its exhaustive detail and frank analysis. Haveman makes no bones about Creek removal being a “land grab” based on “ethnic cleansing.” This rich study provides a good example of both the similarities the Creeks share with other tales of removal, as well as the differences.

As with other Indian nations, the Creeks emigrated or were removed in several waves. Initially, waves of migrants reluctantly moved west in 1828 and 1829—in particular, followers of the headman William McIntosh, who had aided the U.S. against the Red Sticks and was later executed by fellow Creeks for his role in the 1825 Treaty of Indian Springs. As with the Cherokees, selling tribal lands without authorization was a capital offense among the Creeks. Aside from seeing removal as unpalatable but inevitable, McIntosh and his successors may have hoped to increase their influence by being the first Creeks to emigrate to the West. Creeks had long given special significance to the first town established in the new territory.

While some in these initial waves would eventually prosper, the early years in the West seemed to confirm Creek fears. Good water was largely unavailable, disease rampant, and local Indigenous people proved hostile to the newcomers. The incompetence of federal agents and contractors who often failed to deliver annuities on time compounded problems. Mortality rates, especially for children, were high. Yet those who remained in the homeland saw far worse.

Perhaps 98% of Creeks adamantly opposed leaving the soil where their ancestors were buried. As pressure from both the State of Georgia and President Andrew Jackson increased, Creeks were caught in a nasty vice. Headmen themselves used extraordinary pressure, including violence and pillage, to keep followers from signing on to remove. When the government switched tactics and made individual allotments of land to Creek families, liquor salesmen and sharking traders swarmed to cheat them out of their money and lands. Haveman ruefully notes, “Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of the frauds was that speculators were successful primarily because they took advantage of the Creeks’ trusting nature.”

Less than one-sixth of the Creek Nation fought in the Second Creek War in 1836, yet for Jackson it proved a convenient pretext for their total removal, even those who volunteered to fight the Seminoles. Inadequate supplies and transportation predictably led to perhaps 5,000 to 6,000 deaths. They were denied proper burial, bringing further distress to the survivors.

Deeply researched and clearly written, Rivers of Sand gives readers a lot to contemplate. The exceptionally detailed discussions of the multiple waves of migration may be useful to Muscogee genealogists as well.

Robert M. Owens, Ph.D., is a professor of history at Wichita State University and author of Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy.

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