Since last night was the State of the Union address, I thought I’d talk about another State of the Union given by an earlier president, and how alternative archaeology found its way into U.S. government policy.
Jackson explained to Congress that the removal of Native peoples was justified because they were not in fact the aboriginal inhabitants of America but were instead the descendants of bloodthirsty usurpers who had murdered a lost white race of prehistoric European colonizers, whose remains were the great earthworks and mounds of the East and Midwest:
Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country; and philanthropy has been long busily employed in devising means to avert it. But its progress has never for a moment been arrested; and, one by one, have many powerful tribes disappeared from the earth. To follow to the tomb the last of his race, and to tread on the graves of extinct nations, excite melancholy reflections. But true philanthropy reconciles the mind to these vicissitudes, as it does to the extinction of one generation to make room for another. In the monuments and fortresses of an unknown people, spread over the extensive regions of the west, we behold the memorials of a once powerful race, which was exterminated, or has disappeared, to make room for the existing savage tribes.
Thomas Jefferson did his best to combat this pernicious idea, recognizing that any attribution of American earthworks to Old World peoples provided a justification for European intervention in American affairs and a challenge to efforts to craft a non-European American identity. In the 1780s he conducted the first archaeological excavation of a burial mound and proved that it was built by Native Americans. He published the account in the Notes on the State of Virginia. (Jefferson also originated the Native American removal policy as part of a corrupt bargain with the state of Georgia.)
Nevertheless, his ideas, while widely read and reported, made no mark upon those who had a competing reason to deny Native Americans their heritage. On the frontier, relations between the Native Americans and the U.S. government were not good, and relations with colonizing settlers were worse. The settlers wanted the Native Americans’ land, and the myth that an earlier white race predated Native peoples served an essential purpose in (a) making claims to white ownership of the land and (b) providing a fictive history to give the settlers “roots” in the land—to make the frontier into a mythical landscape filled with a history that provided deep connection, to make it “home.” The leading candidates for the lost race were (a) the Hebrews, (b) the Phoenicians, and (c) the ancestral Aryans (what we’d now call the proto-Indo-Europeans). Joseph Smith would adopt option (a) in creating his homegrown American religion, Mormonism, which canonized the mound builder myth and officially declared that the Native Americans were cursed by God with red skin for killing off the holy white Americans Jews.
Andrew Jackson himself had spent years fighting the Native Americans in various battles and wars, and he considered them “heathens” and “savages,” and as president called himself the “White Father” of the “red children.” He grew up within sight of several mounds, and members of his wife’s family were active in promoting the myth of white mound builders. At his home, he had a display cabinet where he kept mound builder artifacts, the evidence of a “superior” culture wiped out by the savage red man. (Most were actually Mississippian artifacts.)
The result of Jackson’s policies, justified by the mound builder myth, was the 1830 Indian Removal Act and the deportation of 46,000 Native people over the following decade, of whom many thousands died. Twenty-five million eastern acres opened to white settlement, and the remaining Native peoples were confined to reservations, which continued to shrink in size over time.
Now, obviously, I’m not going to argue that today’s alternative history will lead to similar policies. But it is very important to keep in mind that the intentional warping of history has consequences. Perhaps the biggest irony is that this strand of alternative history, once official government policy, is now considered a “hidden” truth that the same U.S. government is accused of suppressing!