menu -- text menu at the bottom of the page Catlin Classroom Home How to Use This Site Campfire Stories For Teachers Speaker Interviews and Transcripts Search the Site
Viewer Prefs small type large type

Interview Transcript
Ancestral Lands
Richard Murray

The "New Eden" Pressed in a Grid

A rather unusual picture, to begin with, is by Thomas Cole. It’s an allegory of the New World, set in a subject of the biblical flood. The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge was painted in 1829 and it depicts the waters of the flood draining away and revealing a new land, cleansed of the past. Cleansed of evil—a new Eden. And that’s exactly what many Europeans thought of as America—the New Eden. And to their mind, it was a new Eden with land for the taking. The moment they landed in the New World, they sought property, because that was what they did not have in Europe. Towns expanded, counties were created, provinces, soon states. And in 1786, after the Constitution was signed, Congress established a land ordinance which divided the land in the entire country into a grid of townships six miles square, containing thirty-six sections of one square mile, or six hundred forty acres. It was a standard adopted for the entire nation. One looks at a grid of the United States now and sees it divided into this very ordered plan. One looks at a map of Indian territories within the East and the West and there’s no such thing as a boundary or a grid. So conceptually, we have two different notions of the land ownership and use.

The "New Eden" in Landscape Paintings

Perhaps one of the best examples of the “new Eden,” with land there for the taking, is a beautiful small landscape by Thomas Doughty, called Landscape with Stream and Mountains. The sky is billowing with wonderful clouds. There are great shadows of the sun falling through the trees. A stream, meandering from a mountainside, down into a lake, which seems to embrace the single little fisherman. He is in Eden. He is protected, and he probably owns most of that land. Another illustration of how land was divided and used is a small painting by Andrew Warren, of a little Long Island homestead [Long Island Homestead, Study from Nature]. It’s a tidy little scene. The entire homestead is divided, bounded by fences, by fields; each aspect of life has its own place. The wheat field; the orchard; the little farm with animals; the cottage in the background; and over all a smiling sky, blessing the scene. Yet another way of looking at landscape and ownership is the painting by Thomas Birch. It’s actually what’s called a “view painting,” or a painting commissioned by an owner of land to depict his homestead, his home and the land that he owns. It’s called View of “Sedgeley Park”, the Country Seat of James Cowles Fisher, Esq. It’s painted in 1819, and it shows in the background the mansion of the Fisher family, the Fisher family itself strolling through the landscape that they owned, and like the Doughty and the Warren, the sky smiles upon the scene of private ownership. This is the ideal of Thomas Jefferson: the yeoman farmer invested in the land and therefore invested in the nation.

Boundless to Bounded

Catlin himself made a map that describes the ancestral lands of the eastern nations. The tribes from north and south seemed to flow through a landscape that’s bounded only by different colors, not by a grid. Catlin is telling us that the land was unbounded; that it had no borders. A map he drew showing the displacement of most of those eastern tribes into Oklahoma shows the land constricted to a small rectangular reservation in Oklahoma. In other words, most of the tribes in the East were displaced by force, by law, or by agreements that were not valid.

"A Horrible Mixing Bowl of Cultures"

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 took most of the tribes and sent them to Oklahoma into what became a grand, horrible mixing bowl of cultures. When Catlin was out there in the 1830s, he saw the remnants of the Delaware, of Oneida, of Seneca, of tribes from the East that had been thrown, time and time again, farther west, and finally, planted in Oklahoma. One of the most horrific stories he recalled, was of the Delaware, the Indians from his own land of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. There he found them on the Mississippi Frontier, with very little recollection of where they came from or even knowledge of how they got there.

Can One Own Land?

Many of the conflicts with land ownership were complicated by misunderstandings. For the American Indian, there was no concept of ownership of land. How could one sell land that one did not own? It was not a new land, it was an old land; and they were merely existing on it. It belonged to God, not to man. How could one sell land belonging to God? When they found out that they did sell land and were presented with legal documents, they had no idea of the consequences of the document.

Using the Land: Two Views

One of the reasons for the conflict in the concept and the reality of land ownership was how the land was to be used; farming, industry, all of the economic development that began to take place in the East were foreign occupations to the American Indians. Two paintings illustrate this point dramatically. Both of them were of rivers. Samuel Colman painted the luminous landscape calledStorm King on the Hudson. In the background, we see the typical rising clouds of that area just up the Hudson across from West Point: the atmospheric color sparkling, reflected in the broad Hudson River. And in the middle of the painting we see a virtual inventory of the kinds of shipping that the Hudson carried. Even then, it was an industrial river. We have steamboats, sailboats, rowboats, skiffs, all kinds of watercraft that carried commerce up and down the river, and you can bet all the land on each side was owned by someone. George Catlin’s painting The Mouth of the Platte River, 900 Miles above St. Louis shows a few American Indians standing on a hillside, looking out at the expanse of the river. It’s not a commercial river. There’s no industry there. It does carry trappers’ boats up and down, but it’s more a source of spirit; a demonstration of Deity, and a reverent view of land owned, not by them, but by God. And in contrast to Andrew Warren’s tidy little Long Island landscape, where the land is worked and divided and carefully tended, it’s owned, bordered, carefully divided. In contrast to Warren’s painting, Catlin’s views of the use of the land in the West show American Indians residing upon the land, but only temporarily. If they are working the land, the women are dressing buffalo robes and drying meat. If they are using the land, they are chasing buffalo for their subsistence. This is not a land that is settled, bordered, and cultivated. It’s a land that seems to be a gift to them for the moment, and they do not disturb it. There are no borders in the West that Catlin knew in the 1830s. Today, however, the Land Ordinance of 1786 and the grid that it established runs completely across the nation. A view of the map now shows counties divided into neat little borders encompassing the inhabitants of the land and the land that they own. In each one of those counties is a county courthouse. And at the county courthouse is recorded the land deeds of every square inch of land.

Parceling Out the Land

Another illustration of the clash of these two concepts of ownership by individuals or of ownership in common as was the custom with American Indians: the map of Rock Island, Illinois, made in 1869, shows the commerce and the river in the Mississippi at the Rock River with a neat grid laid out for the city of Rock Island. Across the bridge, in the lower left, one sees an island. That island was the location of the Sac and Fox villages visited by Catlin and where he painted the great Chief Keokuk. Beyond, to the West, the grid established at Rock Island, would soon overlay the entire Sac and Fox land to be occupied, not by the Sac and Fox, but by immigrants from the East, neatly arranged land ready for the purchase. Much of this came from a concept of Manifest Destiny. There is land out there to be taken — it was the destiny of the American republic to occupy the land from the East Coast to the West. And a most telling illustration of this idea of Manifest Destiny, of immigration constantly moving towards the West, is the mural painting by Emmanuel Leutze, now in the Capitol of the United States, entitled Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way. We see groups of immigrants in their covered wagons, climbing up to the mountain peaks, to the very point where they can look over to a golden West— the land that they will soon occupy by claiming it the grids within the Land Ordinance of 1785.

Indian Country Divided by Laws and Railroad

The Land Ordinance Act of the 1780s was followed by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which moved the Indians west of the Mississippi. That was followed then by the General Allotment Act, known as the Dawes Act, which was an attempt to break up tribes and Americanize Native Americans by dividing their lands into individually owned allotments, not in common, as had been the American Indian custom. As a result of the law, many allotments passed into non-Indian ownership.

The effect of laws breaking up land into small compartments was exacerbated by the railroads, who ran track straight through what was left of Indian land. On each side of the railroad bed, the government allotted land to the railroads for development. So rather than following the buffalo, the Indians now were bounded by railroad tracks, and soon to be bounded by barbed wire, and soon would be bounded by small undesirable reservation land. The great irony of today is that the very land on which the Indians were forced has now become extremely valuable. Not only for its minerals, its oil, but for its status as an independent territory within the United States. And Indians are now finding many, many ways of retrieving the wealth of that land that was taken away from them. The final irony of all of the treaties and the laws rests in really two instances. The first treaty of the United States with the Indians was with the Delawares, those people living around Philadelphia, the remnants of whom Catlin found in Oklahoma. The treaty with the Delawares was for perpetual peace and mutual protection. It was the treaty of a new nation that desperately needed to secure its borders. The Dawes Act, breaking up the Indian reservation land into small quadrants, is a symbol of the difficulties and conflicts of a new nation with the old Native American nations.

Back to Interview Contents

Home | Site Info | Campfire Stories | For Teachers
Interviews | Search