If Americans know anything about the deportation of native people in the 1830s, it is usually the story of the Cherokee Trail of Tears, often recounted in maudlin prose in a narrative that is heartbreaking but ultimately of little broader import. The poetic phrase “Trail of Tears” is so familiar that many people conflate Cherokee forced emigration with deportation more generally, even though Cherokees represented a fraction—about 15,000—of the 80,000 thousand children, women, and men who were shipped west by the Federal government.
In May of 1830, Congress authorized the expulsion of indigenous peoples in the East to territories west of the Mississippi River. Over the next decade, Native Americans saw their homelands and possessions stolen through fraud, intimidation, and murder. Thousands lost their lives. In this powerful, gripping book, award-winning historian Claudio Saunt upends the common view that “Indian Removal” was an inevitable chapter in U.S. expansion across the continent.
Instead, Saunt argues that it was a contested political act—resisted by both indigenous peoples and U.S. citizens – that passed by a razor-thin margin in Congress. In telling the full story of this systematic, state-sponsored theft, he reveals how expulsion became national policy, abetted by Southern power brokers and slave owners and financed by northern Wall Street bankers. Moving beyond the Trail of Tears, Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Country is a fast-paced, yet deeply researched, account of unbridled greed, government indifference, and administrative incompetence. The consequences of this vast transfer of land and wealth still resonate today.