IRA Project Update 10/22/13

At the moment, I am expanding the demographic data I have for the 21st Congress (the one that voted on the Indian Removal Act) to include the birthplaces of the members of Congress that voted on the Act.

I have already entered in the data on the towns these congressmen represented.  After I did that, I created color-coded location markers in Google Earth that indicated the town the congressmen represented and whether they voted Yea, Nay, or Abstain.  I was hoping to find geospatial correlations between how the congressmen voted and the location of their constituency in relation to the frontier both then and in earlier decades, as well as in relation to major Indian battles.  I found that those who represented areas located on the frontier during the Seven Years War, American Revolution, and War of 1812 (the three conflicts with the most Indian attacks) were slightly more likely to support the Act than oppose it, suggesting that some congressmen’s constituents may have been urging them to support the bill because they had at one time or another been the victims of Indian attacks along the frontier.

I am adding the birthplaces of the congressmen to the mix because I want to see if their personal memories of Indian violence were a more powerful motivator than the memories of their constituents.  I am only partially done with the process.  It is exceedingly laborious to search for the birthplaces in the Congressional Biographical Database online, add it to the Excel spreadsheet I’ve created containing all of the demographic material I have, and then create markers on Google Earth to then be exported to ArcGIS for further geospatial manipulation and comparison (Google Earth has fewer of the mapping capabilities that I need than ArcGIS, but I like Google’s interface for adding location markers better so a one-step process has become a two-step process).

Even though I’m only partially done, I have noticed some trends.  It would appear that the congressmen’s birthplaces played a larger role in their decision-making process than influences from their constituency, but only slightly.  More frontier ‘natives’ supported the Act than those who represented frontier districts but were born elsewhere.  Even more interesting, almost all of the congressmen that abstained from the vote represented frontier districts but were born farther east, indicating that they may have been pressured to support the Act by their constituency but were personally opposed to it (perhaps because, as ‘natives’ of the eastern areas, they were not influenced by memories of Indian violence because the area in which they had been raised had not been near the frontier or Indian attacks for well over a century).

These ideas are only preliminary, but I’m starting to get a clearer picture of how my argument is going to unfold.  I’ve got the large majority of my primary source material and data and have – with a few exceptions – entered it into the analytical programs I will be using.  At this point, I am primarily focusing upon small details that will slightly expand my project as I discover new avenues of exploration.  The big picture stuff is basically complete (albeit unedited).

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2 thoughts on “IRA Project Update 10/22/13

  1. Using historical memory to find motivation and rational behind the voting patterns for congressmen in the Indian Removal Act, will no doubt provide a staggering abundance of information that will prove useful in future projects. I do have one question though, since I know very little about this time, were there specific Indian groups that the public desired to forcibly relocate or was it a broad sweep that included all Indians? Also, will there be a section on the rhetoric used by the congressmen opposing and favoring the act during the discussions before the act passed? I know that the word savage was not used as widely as it had once been, but it would be interesting to see who used it and in what context, if it was used at all.

    • The Indian Removal Act dealt specifically with the Indian groups still living within the boundaries of the state of Georgia, which were primarily the Cherokee. By 1830 when the Act was passed, the Cherokee were one of the few Indian groups still living east of the Mississippi River. The rest had slowly been pushed out during the period between the Revolution and the Removal Act. So, when the Act was up for debate, most of the public focused their attention on whether or not the Cherokee specifically should be removed just like the rest.

      The sticking point for most was the fact that the Cherokee had adopted ‘civilized’ practices like Western farming, slave-owning, and democratic government. So, the rhetoric mostly centered around whether the Cherokee deserved to remain where they were because they were presumably ‘civilized’ or whether they should be removed because they had proven their ‘savagery’ by attacking the frontier during the Revolution.

      The word ‘savage’ was only infrequently used in political discourse during the period for reasons that are difficult to fully explain other than that politicians from the era liked to think they were too good for that sort of crude language. So, it was used relatively infrequently during the debates over the Act. The times when they were used are significant, however. Specifically, it was used only by supporters of the Act and only when the speaker was addressing the Cherokees’ attacks on the frontier during the Revolution. This would indicate that the concept of Indian ‘savagery’ was directly linked in their minds to memories of Indian violence and that that connection in part motivated their decision-making process and their ultimate support for the Act.

      I mostly didn’t discuss that stuff because that’s not what I’m working on right now. The problem is a lot of this stuff is buried under layers of self-justification so it can be difficult to piece together at times. Everyone involved was very aware of the fact that what they were doing was of historical significance, and that there was a good chance they wouldn’t come out smelling like roses. So they spent most of their time trying to convince everyone they weren’t bad people for one reason or another and very little time clearly explaining their motives. And that’s basically how historical memory gets formed in the first place.

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