Teaching the Intersection of Abolitionism and Indian Rights

Teaching the Intersection of Abolitionism and Indian Rights

Though abolitionists advocated for both the slave’s cause and the Indian’s cause before the Civil War, their concern for Native American rights is not well understood. This is partly due to the fact that while scholars recognize abolitionist opposition to Indian removal, abolitionist support for Indian rights is seen as primarily a postwar phenomenon. In fact, as I argue in my article in the June 2018 special issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era, abolitionists were concerned about Indian rights throughout this period. It was their engagement with the Indian’s cause that led abolitionists to develop several important antislavery arguments.[1]

There are many ways to incorporate abolitionist concern for Indian rights into undergraduate classes. My article focuses on how Indian removal debates in the 1830s informed abolitionist arguments against black colonization and contributed to the emergence of the Slave Power idea in the late 1830s. One or both of these topics could easily be incorporated into a lesson on the antislavery movement. Below are a few ideas that use primary sources referenced in my article, all of which are easily located either in print or online.[2]

To explore abolitionist opposition to Indian removal, you might orient a classroom discussion around the second Liberator masthead, which appeared from April 23, 1831, until February 23, 1838. Students could consider what the artist is arguing by placing Indian treaties in the slave-market scene (see the left bottom of the image, after “the”). Is this image meant to specifically invoke the Indian Removal Act, which became law in May 1830? Or is it a more general critique of U.S. policy with respect to Native Americans? In announcing the new masthead, William Lloyd Garrison wrote, “Down in the dust, our Indian Treaties are seen,” making the latter reading a strong possibility.

The Liberator masthead, as it appeared after April 23, 1831. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Historian Mary Hershberger has posited that the masthead’s appearance in April 1831 was in direct response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia.[4] But nothing in the image specifically references the Cherokee Nation; they are “Indian” treaties, not “Cherokee” treaties. Perhaps the masthead is meant to invoke both the immediate issue of Cherokee removal and the longer history of Indian dispossession. If so, then the Liberator’s black and white readers would have recognized the image’s dual purpose, for abolitionists were broadly concerned with Indian rights in 1831.

That year, black abolitionists used northern opposition to Indian removal to garner support for their fight against African colonization. Black abolitionists referenced Indian removal at anticolonization meetings held in Brooklyn, New York City, and Providence in 1831, summaries of which were reprinted in the Liberator. In his report on a black anticolonization meeting in Baltimore in 1831, Garrison also referenced Cherokee removal.[5] A major source of frustration for abolitionists was that colonization had significant public support, including among many antiremovalists. Students might use these documents to consider the following questions: How did black and white abolitionists use the debate over Indian removal to challenge support for African colonization? Why might abolitionists have hoped that such arguments would be persuasive? How did abolitionists respond to evidence that these arguments did not appear to be successful in changing antiremovalists’ ideas about colonization?

There is also the question of who or what is responsible for Indian removal. In my article I read the placement of the treaties in the Liberator masthead as evidence of an emergent critique of slavery’s role in Indian dispossession. This idea grew more prominent in antislavery rhetoric as the decade progressed. As black abolitionist Maria Stewart said in 1833, “The unfriendly whites first drove the native American from his much loved home. Then they stole our fathers from their peaceful and quiet dwellings, and brought them hither, and made bond-men and bond-women of them and their little ones.”[6]

Given abolitionists’ growing recognition of slavery’s relationship to Indian removal, it is worth considering why Garrison changed the masthead when he did, so it no longer referenced Native Americans after February 23, 1838. Removal was hardly a settled issue at this time. As my article demonstrates, antiremoval activism by the Cherokees and their supporters continued through the spring of 1838. Furthermore, although the Cherokees were unsuccessful in preventing forced removal in 1838 and 1839, they were not the only Native people fighting dispossession in this period, as John Bowes’ recent work on northern Indian removal reveals.[7] The ongoing Second Seminole War, which began in 1835, offered further evidence of Indian resistance to removal. Students may know something about Cherokee removal and the opposition campaign that the Cherokees and their allies waged against it, but this is an excellent opportunity to enlarge their understanding of antiremoval and its connection to antislavery. Garrison’s decision to change the Liberator’s masthead gives the incorrect impression that abolitionists had lost interest in the Indian’s cause by 1838.

In fact, when abolitionists convened in Philadelphia in mid-May 1838, to celebrate the opening of Pennsylvania Hall, both the Second Seminole War and Cherokee removal were very much on their minds. This is another moment worth exploring in the classroom because it is rich in primary sources from multiple perspectives. A number of relevant sources appear in the official record of the Hall’s opening, History of Pennsylvania Hall, Which Was Destroyed by a Mob, On the 17th of May, 1838, which was reprinted many years ago; more recently, it has been digitized by HathiTrust.[8] Among the documents it contains is John Ross’s letter to the Pennsylvania Hall Committee responding to their invitation to speak at the opening ceremonies. Ross, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, declined to attend, but he hoped that the Cherokee cause might still be discussed. He even wrote a second letter expressly for that purpose and sent two Cherokee leaders to Philadelphia with it. For reasons that are not entirely clear, though worth considering with your students, this second letter was not read aloud at Pennsylvania Hall.

Students might compare Ross’s first letter with the second, given that he intended the latter one as his public statement on Cherokee affairs. Students might consider what Ross wanted attendees at Pennsylvania Hall to know about Cherokee removal, compared to what they actually heard.[9] Before Ross’s first letter was read aloud, white abolitionist Charles Burleigh spoke on “Indian wrongs.” This speech raises a number of interesting questions that intersect with those raised by the Liberator masthead. For Burleigh, Indians had been wronged in the past and in the present; he condemned the contemporary policy of Indian removal and the long history of white violence against Native people. Why did Burleigh believe that abolitionists should support Indian rights? What did he imagine they should do to prevent future wrongs and rectify past injustices? How do ideas about Indians inform his appeal? It is worth calling students’ attention to the fact that Burleigh’s speech was given extemporaneously; the transcript in the History of Pennsylvania Hall was reportedly assembled from “scanty notes.”[10]

The day after Burleigh’s speech, with near unanimity, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 attendees approved a short statement and two resolutions condemning Cherokee removal. What did they hope to accomplish by sending these resolutions? How might John Ross, who was sent a copy, have reacted to them? You might also ask students to consider Garrison’s response to Burleigh’s speech, especially in light of his decision to change the masthead just a few months earlier. It was Garrison, not Burleigh, who explicitly linked Cherokee removal to the expansion of black chattel slavery. In fact, Garrison chastised Burleigh for not identifying slavery’s insatiable need for land as the cause of Indian removal.[11] Burleigh’s speech notwithstanding, by 1838 abolitionists regularly insisted that the forcible relocation of Native people served slaveholding interests. Their engagement with the antiremoval cause led abolitionists to a recognition of what they would soon begin to call the Slave Power.

Finally, there is the question of why Pennsylvania abolitionists invited John Ross, a wealthy slaveholder, to speak at their event. As I show in my article, abolitionists knew that some Cherokees participated in the institution of slavery, including through their ownership of enslaved people. According to the Pennsylvania Hall Committee’s invitation, it was important for Ross and other Cherokees to attend so that they could counter popular ideas about Indians’ supposed inability to become “civilized.” How might abolitionists have reconciled the fact that some “civilized” Cherokees, including Ross, owned slaves?

The significance of Indian rights to the development of abolitionism is lost if we teach Indian removal separately from the antislavery movement. Important arguments about black colonization and the Slave Power emerged from abolitionists’ opposition to Indian removal. Equally important was the role that Native people like John Ross played in maintaining abolitionist interest in the antiremoval cause. That relationship was complicated by the fact of Indian slaveholding, but it was nonetheless crucial to abolitionist support for the Indian’s cause.


[1] Natalie Joy, “The Indian’s Cause: Abolitionists and Native American Rights,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 8, no. 2 (June 2018): 215-242. This is available to subscribers of the journal or on Project Muse.

[2] If you need more context to set up this discussion, the debates surrounding Indian removal are readily available, including antiremoval arguments made by the Cherokees and their white allies. For example, see Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green, ed., The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents, 2d ed. (Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2005); Jeremiah Evarts, Cherokee Removal: The “William Penn” Essays and Other Writings, ed. Francis Paul Prucha (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981).

[3] Liberator, April 23, 1831.

[4] Mary Hershberger, “Mobilizing Women, Anticipating Abolition: The Struggle Against Indian Removal in the 1830s,” Journal of American History 86, no. 1 (June 1999): 37.

[5] “Anti-Colonization Meeting,” Liberator, July 2, 1831; “A Voice from New-York!” Liberator, February 12, 1831; “A Voice from Providence!” Liberator, November 5, 1831; “A Voice from Baltimore!” Liberator, April 2, 1831.

[6] Maria W. Stewart, “An Address Delivered at the African Masonic Hall, Boston, February 27, 1833,” reprinted in Maria W. Stewart: America’s First Black Woman Political Writer, Essays and Speeches, ed. Marilyn Richardson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 63.

[7] John Bowes, Land Too Good For Indians: Northern Indian Removal (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016).

[8] History of Pennsylvania Hall, Which Was Destroyed by a Mob, On the 17th of May, 1838 (Philadelphia: Merrihew and Gunn, 1838; repr., New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969). Available on HathiTrust, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/003875260.

[9] For Ross’s first letter, see Ibid., 69. Both letters were reprinted in The Papers of Chief John Ross, 2 vols., ed. Gary E. Moulton (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), I: 635, 636-638.

[10] History of Pennsylvania Hall, 67-69.

[11] For the resolutions, see Ibid., 114. For Garrison’s response, see Ibid., 71.

Natalie Joy

Natalie Joy is an Assistant Professor of History at Northern Illinois University. Her current book project considers the relationship between Native Americans and the antislavery movement from the late 1820s to the early 1860s.

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