I might be the last person you have to convince that history is relevant. The past is what happened, history is what we say happened, what we think happened, and how we understand it and use it to inform our present. That is relevant. What is more relevant is that people’s use of the past (i.e., history) can be used to bring diverse populations together, or it can be used to polarize people.
I’m often reminded how relevant our histories are and how misunderstanding our past, or not being open to other interpretations of that past from different people, hurts us as humans trying to live peaceably with one another. Through my reading, researching, and planning programs for the Creek Indian Interpretive Area for Westville’s reopening, and a consistent stream of news about the Dakota Access Pipeline, refugee crises, and the Black Lives Matter movement, it seems empathy for one another is relatively low, presenting the opportunity to use history as a lens through which to better understand people, or groups of people, we think we have nothing in common with.
Regardless of gender, race, or class, we have more in common with each other than we think, and, as humans, we always have. A bit of self-awareness and hindsight reveals the past is not so far away when you consider your own needs, motivations, how they intersect with those of others, and then add that complexity to today’s economy, society, culture, etc. We usually don’t learn about the past in that way though. The years between us and our subjects create an illusion of detachment that we perform into reality. Sometimes, the past becomes a romantic requiem of sorts, other times, a reservoir of twisted half-truths that play upon extant biases.
Our current guiding principle at Westville is to challenge perceptions of the 19th century South. Many of the features of today’s political, social, and economic landscape have roots in the 19th century but the one-dimensional image of this era that usually prevails in the popular memory leaves large holes that prevent us from fully understanding how we got to where we are today. The chaotic collapse of the region’s frontier, complexity of race relations, tensions regarding class, the long process of Indian Removal, war, Reconstruction, Populism, the origins of Jim Crow, and large segments of the southern population being systematically stripped of the right to vote left a web of legacies with which we all must contend. Misconceptions, assumptions, and stereotypes that stem from all of this do little to help us navigate our present.
The task is daunting, if not lofty but I see no reason to wait until we reopen the museum to begin discussing some of these events that frame our present. For the next several newsletters, I will be writing a series of articles about the Old Southwest, the Second Creek War, the idea of Indian removal, and the city of Columbus’ role in some of it. These topics are relevant, not only because we live, work, and otherwise tread upon the ground on which it all happened, but because they were human events and concepts created by humans to make sense of their world. I challenge you to find relevance in the coming stories about this region’s frontier era. Below is a summary of the content to come.
Since Georgia’s time as a colony, politicians and officials seemed to be in constant negotiation with the Creek people about land cessions and boundaries. Before the turn of the 19th century, Creeks lost several million acres in Georgia, with each new treaty taking more Creek land. In 1802, Georgia’s deal with the United States included the latter to extinguish all Indian claims to land within the state’s borders. The United States’ victory in the War of 1812 and the First Creek War encouraged patriotism and morale among EuroAmericans who believed in the inevitability of their domination over the continent by way of westward expansion whether it came by force or peaceably. In 1817, President Monroe’s administration promoted the “doctrine of removal,” hoping Southeastern Indians would trade their homeland for land in the West.
In 1826, the Treaty of Washington pushed about 7,000 Creeks out of Georgia. This enabled EuroAmericans to settle much of southwest Georgia and establish the city of Columbus, processes facilitated by the labor of enslaved African Americans. Eventually, Georgia passed a law forbidding Creek people from entering the state, meaning Creek people could not even enter Georgia to work. Both federal officials and Creek leaders signed the Treaty of Cusseta (1832) somewhat optimistically, but fraud, states’ rights enthusiasts, and unchecked economic competition among all peoples turned it into the catalyst that sparked the Second Creek War in 1836. This war is often overlooked in the grand scheme of southern history, despite the number of lives it devastated and the larger national and international impact it had.
These are painful topics. Some of it will make readers uncomfortable and ask more questions than it answers. Meaningful consideration of these topics will provide us a few new lenses through which to perceive our past and our current political, social, and economic debacles. We must simultaneously look more closely and step back to take in a broader picture. By looking closely, we see evidence that supports Columbus State University’s John Ellisor’s assertion, “Native, white, and black people liv[ed] together as neighbors with all the complexity and diversity of human motives and emotions that always exist in such situations.” Detaching ourselves from the traditional one-dimensional depictions of “white vs. Indian” and enslaved African Americans as victims, we open ourselves to fuller understandings of all of these people in their pursuit of survival, if not safety and happiness during this period of frontier collapse and violent reaction.
 Michael D. Green, The Politics of Indian Removal: Creek Government and Society in Crisis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), 49, 73, 123-25, 171-73; John T. Ellisor, The Second Creek War: Interethnic Conflict and Collusion on a Collapsing Frontier (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2010), 13-14, 18, 47-49.
 Ellisor, Second Creek War, 4.