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Eric Hemenway, author and Native American historian from Cross Village.

CRUEL POLICY: Indian Removal of 1830s Led James Birney to Slavery Abolition

March 11, 2016       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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Eric Hemenway, Odawa author and historian from Cross Village, writes authoritatively of the Indian Removal of the 1830s in the latest issue of the Michigan Chronicle of the History Society of Michigan.

Although the reprehensible federal policy of removal was applied mainly to tribes in the South, the writer of the article "A Dark Path: The American Removal Policy of Tribal Nations," also deals with a seldom addressed topic -- removal of Northern tribes.

Hemenway traces the history of removal that began with Thomas Jefferson's opinion that tribes were barbaric and needed to be "civilized." President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 designed to end tribal sovereignty and turn their vast lands over to white settlers.

The part played by Bay City pioneer James G. Birney in representing the Cherokee in Alabama in an attempt to halt removal was successful only in that it led the moralistic reformer to another crusade: abolition of African slavery. Scholars recently have concluded that Birney's legal representation of the Indians energized Northern abolitionists to organize to end slavery.

This little known historic development -- that defense of the Indians led to the more massive movement to end slavery -- is documented in "Apostles of Equality: The Birneys, the Republicans and the Civil War," published by Michigan State University Press.

Birney fled the South and took solace here, making a second futile Presidential run on the Liberty Party ticket in 1844 while living in Bay City. His courage in moving abolition into politics culminated in formation of the Republican Party in 1854 and election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, precipitating the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.

From the Spirit of The Times, Saginaw City, Dec. 1, 1857, on the death of James G. Birney: "Early in life the wrongs inflicted by the whites on the Indians touched his heart, and called out his indignant eloquence both of tongue and pen. Sympathy for one class of suffering human beings naturally led to sympathy for another, and accordingly he was soon greatly interested in the welfare of the negro."

A major contribution to the history of this misguided federal policy provided by the Hemenway article is the removal of the Potawatomi from Michigan and the relocation of the Odawa from Ohio to Northern Michigan.

He also tells of two wars that played important parts in the destruction of native sovereignty, the War of 1812 that eroded armed resistance of eastern tribes and the Black Hawk War of 1832 that stamped it out and brutalized the Sauks under Chief Black Hawk. These wars are addressed in another local history book, "Mysteries of Skull Island and the Alkali," published by Historical Press LLC of Bay City.

Hemenway points out that more than 40 relocated tribes are now in Kansas and Oklahoma. In the "Mysteries" book, this writer tells of interviewing Jack Thorpe, son of Jim Thorpe, reputedly a grandson of Black Hawk, in 1980 in Oklahoma while writing for The Bay City Times.

Hemenway is an Anishnaabe/Odawa and is director of Repatriation, Archives and Records for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians in Northern Michigan.

He has done extensive work in documenting Native participation in the War of 1812 in cooperation with the Harbor Springs Historical Society. (Please see ###

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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
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