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O. M. McPherson (Orlando M.)
Indians of North Carolina: Letter from the Secretary of the Interior, Transmitting, in Response to a Senate Resolution of June 30, 1914, a Report on the Condition and Tribal Rights of the Indians of Robeson and Adjoining Counties of North Carolina
Washington: [U.S. Government Printing Office], 1915.


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The documents featured in this summary illustrate the complex and troubled history of North Carolina's official policies governing the rights and disposition of its indigenous Native Americans. They address both the widespread removal of native populations from the American South during the 1830s—including the infamous "Trail of Tears"—and the contested claims of one group of North Carolina residents who allegedly descended from indigenous peoples. These documents reveal only glimpses of some often neglected histories; however, they contain intriguing references for future study.

In May 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act, a piece of legislation authored by committees on "Indian Affairs" from the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. The Act granted the President and his emissaries the right "to exchange [districts west of the Mississippi River] with any tribe or nation of Indians now residing within the limits of any of the states or territories" (Perdue and Green, p. 116). In his December 1830 State of the Union address, Jackson extolled the new legislation, asking, "What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms . . . and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?" (Perdue and Green, pp. 119-120). However, the Cherokee nation did not willingly comply with Jackson's plan. The idea of removal had been debated since as early as 1721, and the Cherokees had been subjected to steadily increasing pressure from self-interested settlers as well as the state and federal agents who represented them. Upon first contact with European colonists, the Cherokee nation encompassed over 124,000 square miles, spanning much of modern-day North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama; by 1819 it had been reduced to around 17,000 square miles (Anderson, p. vii; Fleischmann, p. 2). The Cherokees resisted through both violent and non-violent means until 1838-39, when U.S. military troops under the leadership of General Winfield Scott supervised the forced relocation of thousands of Cherokees—the "Trail of Tears," or Nunna daul Tsuny, the "Trail Where They Cried" (Perdue and Green, p.160; "Trail").

The first document reviewed here is an 1834 "Report and Resolution" from the North Carolina General Assembly, addressed to the state's U.S. Senators and Congressmen. The report reminds readers that "at the close of the [R]evolutionary [W]ar, the territory composing the sovereign and independent State of North Carolina was bounded on the east by the Atlantic, and on the west by the Pacific Ocean" (p. 2). It then summarizes a 1789 act, passed by the General Assembly at the behest of the U.S. Congress, which ceded all territories west of the present-day Tennessee state line back to federal control. (The detailed description of North Carolina's western border, using only landmarks as reference points, may be of special interest to students of American history, geography, and cartography.) This introduction leads to the General Assembly's real grievance in 1834: because the state's largely unexplored western territory had been returned to federal control, and because the nearest portion of it had since become the state of Tennessee, North Carolina's legislators had no unsettled lands left to "exchange" with the Native American residents they sought to displace.

The 1834 document is notable in part for its candor; the authors observe that the lands currently held under "Indian title" are "of great extent and value" and conclude that "the removal of this unfortunate race beyond the Mississippi" is vitally important for "the interest of this State" (p. 3). To justify such an action, the authors resort to racist and ethnocentric rhetoric: "The red men are not within the pales of civilization; they are not under the restraints of morality, nor the influence of religion, and they are always disagreeable and dangerous neighbors to a civilized people" (p. 4). The authors also justify the removal of native peoples by noting that similar policies had been pursued by Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama and by expressing their concern that the "entire [Cherokee] population" will be transferred "to our territory" if immediate action is not taken (p. 4). Having made its case for forcible removal, the document ironically touts the state's generosity: "[Shall] the continued liberality of North Carolina to this unfortunate race . . . be thus rewarded"? (p. 4).

More recent history reveals that efforts to rid North Carolina of its Cherokee residents were not entirely successful. Due in part to a dynamic leader named Yonaguska and his close relationship with William Holland Thomas, a white merchant who had been "adopted into the tribe while a boy," some North Carolina Cherokees were spared from the federally endorsed policy of forced removal (Finger, p. 97). In its official website, the town of Cherokee, North Carolina, notes that "Cherokees in Western North Carolina today descend from those who were able to hold on to land they owned, those who hid in the hills, defying removal, and others who returned, many on foot" ("Cherokee").

The second document, a 1914 "Report on the Condition and Tribal Rights of the Indians of Robeson and Adjoining Counties of North Carolina" by Special Indian Agent Orlando M. McPherson, describes the history of a "body of mixed-blood people residing chiefly in Robeson County" (p. 7). This group, referred to variously as "Croatan Indians," "Cherokee Indians of Robeson County," "Hatteras Indians," and "Corees" (p. 7, p. 9, p. 15, p. 16), allegedly descended from the "Lost Colony" at Roanoke Island. This group of English settlers disappeared between 1588, when Governor John White left to seek reinforcements, and 1590, when he returned (Miller 193-200).

Special Agent McPherson's 25-page "Report" carefully examines historical evidence supporting and contradicting the claim that Robeson County's "Croatans" descended from indigenous peoples who intermixed with the lost English settlers, noting that "Croatan was . . . an island and Indian village just north of Cape Hatteras, N.C." (p. 8). He quotes and cites numerous histories of North Carolina's Native Americans, and in so doing provides an invaluable guide to documents dating back to the colonial era. Many of these original sources are attached to McPherson's report as "exhibits."

McPherson devotes special attention to early reports by "John Lederer, a learned German" explorer, whose notes are largely reprinted in "Hawks's History of North Carolina" (Exhibit D), John Lawson's "History of Carolina" (Exhibit E), the "Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology" (Exhibit G), and James Mooney's "Hand Book of Indians" (Exhibits H, J, and K). McPherson's appraisals of these sources are especially useful for the novice reader. He writes for example, that "Lawson's history is regarded as the standard authority for the period it covers; I find it extensively quoted from by all subsequent historians . . . [T]here are many facts and circumstances which confirm Lawson's record" (p. 15). In an editorial comment, McPherson takes issue with Hamilton McMillan and A.W. McLean's opinion that the Croatans are of Cherokee descent: "The history and traditions of the Cherokee Indians of North Carolina . . . do not confirm the claim of the Robeson County Indians to Cherokee origin." McPherson explains that the "Cherokees were the mountaineers of the South. . . . Indeed, interposed between the Cherokees and the coast were three or four powerful tribes with which they were in perpetual warfare" (p. 18).

McPherson concludes that while the Robeson County Indians were probably not Cherokees, they may very well have descended from the English settlers of the Lost Colony who intermixed with a friendly native tribe. As evidence, he cites numerous records describing the fair skin, gray eyes, English literacy, and "quaint old Anglo-Saxon" verbiage of the so-called Croatans (p. 16). He then provides a brief summary of the (successful) efforts to create separate schools for their children, and he reviews the legislation that first acknowledged the "Croatan Indians" before their legal designation changed to "Indians of Robeson County" (p. 29).

"The Croatan Indians of Sampson County, NC," written by George Edwin Butler and composed only a year after McPherson's report, was an appeal to the state of North Carolina to create schools for the Croatans of Sampson County just as it had for the Croatans elsewhere in North Carolina: "since the State of North Carolina has been so just and generous as to provide special and separate school advantages for our brothers and kinsmen, in Robeson County . . . we now appeal to you" for similar benefits (p. 6). Butler, an active member of North Carolina's Republican Party and a trustee of the University of North Carolina who repeatedly ran for state-wide elected offices without success, begins by citing McPherson, and as a foundation for his appeal, he lists and describes (in cursory fashion) McPherson's sources. He goes on to provide brief explanations of the topics McPherson had discussed in detail: "The Croatans," "White's Lost Colony," "Tracing Their Wanderings and Final Location," and "Their Political and Educational History." These sections borrow extensively from McPherson's report, often reproducing long quoted excerpts, but they do not offer much new information. Indeed, for the reader familiar with the McPherson's document, this source may be primarily useful as context for that more detailed report—first, as a succinctly stated version of McPherson's findings, and second, as evidence for the broader relevance of his work beyond the borders of Robeson County.

These documents demonstrate a troubled history of cultural exchange and conflict between North Carolina's native peoples and the European colonists who came to call it home. Despite their ostensible focus on "Indian Affairs," however, these documents reveal as much (or more) about their non-Native (and presumably white) writers as they do about their supposed subjects. In statements about the fitness of certain populations to coexist with European-American neighbors and in sympathetic descriptions of nearly-white "Indians," these reports reveal the racial and cultural sensibilities of white North Carolinians, the persistent tensions between tolerance and self-interest, and the extent of their willingness to accept indigenous "Others" as neighbors.

Works Cited: Anderson, William L., ed., Cherokee Removal: Before and After, Athens: U of Georgia P, 1991; "Cherokee History & Culture," Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, Cherokee, North Carolina, accessed 1 Feb 2010; Finger, John R., "The Impact of Removal on the North Carolina Cherokees," in Cherokee Removal: Before and After, Ed. William L. Anderson, Athens: U of Georgia P, 1991; Fleischmann, Glen, The Cherokee Removal, 1838: An Entire Indian Nation Is Forced Out of Its Homeland, New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1971; "George Edwin Butler Papers, 1922-1939," Collection #04402 Finding Aid, The Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, accessed 12 Feb 2010; Miller, Lee, Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of England's Lost Colony, London: Pimlico, 2001; Perdue, Theda, and Michael D. Green, eds., The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents, New York: Bedford Books of St. Martin's P, 1995; "The Trail of Tears," About North Georgia, accessed 18 March 2010, .

Patrick E. Horn

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