The words we use, the stories they tell

In her post on “southern bells,” Elizabeth wrote about replacing, withholding, and silencing words. But sometimes words themselves do their own work of historical silencing.

American_progress

As we write drafts of this book we find ourselves constantly inheriting the words of others who have created the historical narratives we know today. We have been thinking a lot about the power of these words to frame the accepted story and to marginalize or entirely erase unsettling truths that might challenge that story. The words we use color and shift the stories we tell, in ways that are often imperceptible to us. We’ve come to realize that, in order to tell a different and truer history of this time and place, we have to reexamine the building blocks we have inherited. We’ve come to believe that in order to change the story we must first change the words used to tell it.

 

Thus far we have been writing mostly about the interactions and conflicts between whites and Native Americans, so the words we’re considering here have to do with that history. As we move forward with the project, we will look more deeply at the language used to describe slavery in the United States.

 

Settler: Webster currently defines settler as “a person who goes to live in a new place where usually there are few or no people.” Here in a nutshell is the whole idea of the empty continent or “virgin land” encountered by white “settlers.” The word itself erases the Indian inhabitants who managed the land’s resources, farmed, hunted, and buried their ancestors in it.*

 

The etymology of “settler” goes back to setl, the old English word for seat or place of rest. If the ideal of “settling” a land meant to “sit” or “come to rest” on that land, then the mobile and collective occupancy native populations practiced could not even be recognized as settlement. Both the “wild Irish” and the American Indians had farmed collectively in shared fields and used less arable land, forests or hillsides, as free pasture on which their animals could roam and graze. These practices were devalued and eventually criminalized to make way for what was considered “civilized” practices – the private ownership of land with a fixed residence on it and the fencing in of animals. In fact, the Indians were sometimes compared to animals for the way they roamed the land. So the Scotch-Irish, themselves pushed off their land by economic crises, became the advance guard of British colonization, pushing others off their lands just as they had been pushed off theirs.

 

The term “re-settlers” would be a truer word to describe the activities of Elizabeth’s ancestors. She prefers “land pirate,” which is what Andrew Jackson once called her great-x4-grandfather Robert Love (it took one to know one). But that might be an insult to pirates!

 

* Academics have used the term “settler-colonialism” to describe the activities of whites who colonized areas like the U.S. and Australia. The problem with this phrase, for us, is that it doesn’t reexamine and critique the concepts of settler and white settlement.

 

Pioneer: Merriam-Webster defines this word as “One of the first to settle in a territory.” “Pioneer” carries all the same problems as “settler” but adds a new dimension, claiming the title of first or original settler in lands that were already held and valued deeply by others. The American-English connotation of pioneer adds to the first-settler meaning the subtext of Manifest Destiny. The word conjures up covered wagons moving westward across vast untended lands, sometimes being attacked by savage Indians. Which is very different from the actual story of these “pioneers” moving through and claiming a landscape that was the pasture, hunting, farming, and sacred land of long-settled peoples.

 

Interestingly, the word pioneer is derived from the older French, paonier or “foot soldier who prepares the way for the army.” (Peon and pawn are related words.)  American “pioneers” were often, in fact, the advance forces that made way for the larger Euro-American invasion. The old French shading suggests the military aspect of taking the land, while on the other hand the root word peon points to the lowly status of the squatters and land tenants who were the leading edge of colonization, preparing the way for more established interests to occupy the land. Sometimes these peons were even used as tools by land speculators to prove they had “settled” the land.

 

Frontier: Merriam-Webster defines it as “a region that forms the margin of settled or developed territory,” simplified as “a distant area where few people live.”

 

Clearly the word has the same problems as “settler” and “pioneer.” In old French and 15th-century English, the word could mean the front line of an army or the boundary of a country facing another – two concepts that were closely allied in both theory and practice.

 

The term has had a long and storied history in American studies. In the late 19th century, Frederick Jackson Turner forever reshaped the understanding of U.S. history with his “frontier thesis,” an origin story for “American” egalitarianism and democracy that traced these to the leveling experience of the frontier. Thus it was the frontier that could perform the magic trick of transforming a system of racist domination into a motor of equality and innovation. The term continues to carry enormous appeal in politics and popular culture, even though it has been eclipsed in academic circles by “borderlands,” which aims to deflect the lingering connotations of Turnerism and Hollywood westerns but which also removes the underlying military sense that once gave the word a more straightforward meaning.

 

Expedition: In the 18th-century the military invasions led by Britain and later the U.S. against the Cherokee were called “expeditions.” Expedition has its etymological root in the Latin word for foot; to expedite meant to free the feet from fetters. In a pretty literal sense these “expeditions” did free white militia men to enter and overrun Cherokee lands, and many of the men came back after the war to “settle” the lands they had earlier scorched and pillaged. Robert Love was one of them: at the age of 16, he drove a wagon for the revolutionaries on the “Christian Expedition” of 1776. The British were a bit more blunt about their expeditions: commander James Grant who swept through the area of North Carolina where Will Thomas was later born declared that his army was “chastising” the Cherokee.

 

Removal: What we now generally refer to as the Trail of Tears – the massive and devastating forced expulsion of the tribes east of the Mississippi that took place in 1838 – was, at the time it was occurring, called the “Indian removal.” It is one the central events of our story. (Our book focuses on the Cherokee and their expulsion from their ancestral homeland in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, but other tribes were forced on the Trail of Tears as well.)

 

In the nineteenth century, removal usually referred to voluntary migrations or changes of residence. Whites were often said to remove, from one “settlement” to another. To re-move, or move again, fit the pattern of many settlers’ lives, as they migrated further west or south in search of cheaper and more bountiful land, and less competition for resources. Will Thomas’s mother’s family, the Colvards, are a perfect example of this pattern, moving from central Virginia to southern Virginia across the border to upper North Carolina and then southwest to the Cherokee border. They had no ancestral ties to the land and little reason to stay in one place if they could get a better deal somewhere else. Ironically these migrants were less settled than the Indians themselves, who stayed in their ancestral towns as long as they could avoid the invasions of the expeditions and the pioneers.

 

By “removing,” the white migrants were exercising their own agency, which would be heroicized later by their descendants and by white artists and writers such as Frederick Turner as a noble design to clear the wilderness, “tame” the frontier, and pave the way for democratic civilization. With its connotations of voluntariness as well as tidiness, “removal” sanitizes the expulsion of the Indians, as if they would leave their ancestral land as readily as white settlers jumped from one place to another. “Emigration” was another term favored by the Jackson administration. Emigration is, of course, a voluntary action, while the Indians were literally rounded up, interned in camps, and sent packing. Although no single term does justice to the complexities of this story, “expulsion” captures the mostly involuntary character of the migration and helps us overcome the historical blinkers that have blocked us from recognizing the many varieties of Cherokee resistance.

 

FollowFollow on Facebook

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *