Pratt on Abram, 'Forging a Cherokee-American Alliance in the Creek War: From Creation to Betrayal'

Susan M. Abram
Adam Pratt

Susan M. Abram. Forging a Cherokee-American Alliance in the Creek War: From Creation to Betrayal. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015. 240 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8173-1875-8.

Reviewed by Adam Pratt (University of Scranton) Published on H-AmIndian (March, 2017) Commissioned by F. Evan Nooe

Creating Cherokee Leaders in the Creek War

Standing before the United States Senate in 1836, the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, John Ross, implored the chamber to withdraw its support for the Treaty of New Echota. Signed without the consent of the Cherokee National government the previous year, the treaty agreed to the stipulations of the Indian Removal Bill that promised to remove Natives east of the Mississippi River to Indian Territory to its west. Ross, though, reminded the senators of his people's special contribution to the American cause during the Creek War: "They have stood side by side with the present Chief Magistrate [Andrew Jackson], in the battlefield, and freely shed their blood for the interest, honor and glory of the American people" (p. 99). By drawing on their shared military triumphs, Ross and the other delegates hoped to appeal to the patriotic motives of Americans, but, alas, their efforts fell on deaf ears.

So ends Susan Abram's Forging a Cherokee-American Alliance in the Creek War, a tightly argued monograph that begins in the lead-up to the Creek War with a fascinating discussion of the importance of warfare to Cherokee men and ends with the political fallout from the Creek War. Abram adopts a two-fold approach for her study. First, she desires to understand the motivation of those Cherokees who joined the US campaign and its significance in defining US-Cherokee relations. Second, she examines the ways in which Cherokee leaders showed fidelity to the American civilization or acculturation policy by altering the warrior's role in Cherokee society. To accomplish these tasks, Abram employs a formidable array of methodologies—from ethnography to new social history—to make a case for the Creek War and its importance for the fate of the Cherokee Nation.

Warfare is at the heart of the book, and, as Abram shows, it was likewise at the heart of a male Cherokee's identity. Warfare allowed for a young man's transition to adulthood, and, beyond that, for warriors to acquire honor. When victorious warriors returned home from combat, the entire community came out to bestow the triumphant warriors with laurels. It was in these public venues that the community "validate[d] the manhood achieved through war deeds and acknowledged these 'real' men as the embodiment of masculinity" (p. 10). Moreover, warfare transcended the here and now in the Cherokee cosmology. Scalping enemies, for example, was not an act that glorified violence, but instead wounded the location of the soul in the physical body, preventing enemies from attaining spiritual fulfillment in the afterlife.

Decades of destructive warfare, beginning in the 1770s, ended in the early nineteenth century, leading the Cherokees to search for a workable and lasting peace in the face of American encroachment. Rather than take a blow-by-blow approach of the Cherokee War of 1776 and the Chickamauga Rebellion that lasted until 1794, Abram adopts a more effective strategy of tracing cultural change that occurred as a result of the near-perpetual conflict. Noting that captivity changed from a practice that emphasized the honor of the clan and treatment that generally ended in the death of the captive to one that engendered adoption and prisoner exchange, Abram never explicitly ties these altered practices to population losses and war-weariness, but it seems like these were the root causes. After the Chickamauga Rebellion had been put down, Cherokee leaders looked for other ways to secure their borders. Rather than warfare, they acquiesced to the civilization policy.

Part of the policy shifted Cherokee forms of government away from the clan to a more centralized nation-state that had the responsibility of maintaining social order. Obviously, this was made more difficult by constant white encroachment and the Nation's ambiguous legal standing with regard to the United States. Indispensable in the shift away from the clan system of violent retribution to a defined legal system sat the Cherokee lighthorse as the prescribed peacekeepers. The lighthorse allowed young warriors a means of "demonstrat[ing] their masculine prowess," in a community-sanctioned activity, which allowed them to accrue honors and punish interlopers (pp. 28-29). The lighthorse allowed for a select number of men to continue military actions against white settlers, though in a way that US policymakers found acceptable.

It also allowed for an organizational structure and group of experienced men who could be used to aid American military forces if the need ever arose. Indeed, Abram sees the lighthorse as instrumental to the blossoming of a Cherokee class of leaders and comes out swinging against historian William McLoughlin, who traces the rise of a political class to the renascence of the 1820s. Although this distinction does little to change the fact that a leadership class did emerge, situating the emergence of Cherokee political leaders in the years prior to the War of 1812 makes sense for Abram’s argument. The Ridge, for example, used the authority afforded to him by his time in the lighthorse to defeat the prophetic pronouncements of Tsali. Had he not done so, it was not unforeseeable that the Cherokees would have joined Tecumseh’s pan-Indian alliance or the British in 1812. It also demonstrates the prestige that younger warriors had earned by cooperating with American authorities. Indeed, when the War of 1812 commenced, the skill of the lighthorse regulators encouraged US Indian Agent Return J. Meigs to champion them as natural allies: the “remarkable ease with which they ride & manage their horses” was commendable, he remarked to his superiors (p. 49). When the first Cherokees enlisted en masse, he commended the Americans’ new allies, a veritable “band of brothers” that would defeat the Creeks (p. 60).

Abram’s narrative shies away from a blow-by-blow account of actions between Cherokees and Creeks. Though she eloquently explains their importance at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and other smaller engagements, the thrust of her research is not purely military. Instead, she demonstrates the significant commitment that the Cherokees had to the American war effort, and their hope for fair treatment after victory. The latter, of course, would not come to pass. What's tragic about the acceptance of the civilization policy by Cherokee leaders, and, further, their willingness to serve as military allies, is the lack of reciprocity made by Americans. Indeed, even as Cherokees were mustering into service, the "betrayal" had already commenced. White settlers, who ignored their own military obligations, trespassed onto Cherokee land because they knew the lighthorse was away fighting. Moreover, a more fundamental shift was occurring in American politics. Acculturation, for a new breed of American democratic leaders, was indicative of wasteful government spending that allowed natives to retain land holdings that far outstripped their numbers. Instead, the new politics that were ushered in, first in southern states, and then in Washington with the election of Jackson, lacked the patience to shepherd acculturation into the new age of white male egalitarianism, and instead settled on removal as the only way to salvage what remained of Native culture and life. That elite Cherokees had bought into acculturation while the white body politic was rejecting it is but one of the many ironies of Jacksonian America.

Perhaps her most important contribution here is the vast appendix (over fifty pages!) that lists each member of the Cherokee regiment who served in the War of 1812, their rank, and length of service. Disappointingly, though, this trove is hardly used to offer insight into the motivations of the men who served. No prosopographical data enumerates the text to support her argument. If Abram were serious about her claim that the men who served went on to be political leaders who steered the Cherokee Nation through the contentious removal period, what better way to demonstrate that to readers than by highlighting the high percentage of future political leaders who served? When Ross and other leaders appealed to Jackson in 1834, like they would in 1836, they drew on his sense of military fraternity, yet only two of the five signers of that document appear in Abram's appendix. Although two of five is not an insignificant ratio, it makes me wonder if Abram is not overstating her case.

In spite of that, Abram has written a highly readable and compelling book that draws on a number of methodological approaches to craft a book that, though it can be argued is flawed, makes a bold argument and is a welcome addition to Cherokee studies.

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Citation: Adam Pratt. Review of Abram, Susan M., Forging a Cherokee-American Alliance in the Creek War: From Creation to Betrayal. H-AmIndian, H-Net Reviews. March, 2017. URL:

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