Winner of the 2021 Bancroft Prize and the 2021 Ridenhour Book Prize
Finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Nonfiction
Named a Top Ten Best Book of 2020 by the Washington Post and Publishers Weekly and a New York Times Critics' Top Book of 2020
A masterful and unsettling history of “Indian Removal,” the forced migration of Native Americans across the Mississippi River in the 1830s and the state-sponsored theft of their lands.
In May 1830, the United States launched an unprecedented campaign to expel 80,000 Native Americans from their eastern homelands to territories west of the Mississippi River. In a firestorm of fraud and violence, thousands of Native Americans lost their lives, and thousands more lost their farms and possessions. The operation soon devolved into an unofficial policy of extermination, enabled by US officials, southern planters, and northern speculators. Hailed for its searing insight, Unworthy Republic transforms our understanding of this pivotal period in American history.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
The Native American Trail of Tears is rarely portrayed in history books as a human rights atrocity similar to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Claudio Saunt is here to correct that mistake. In Unworthy Republic, Saunt doesn’t pull any punches, describing in impeccably researched detail just how brutal the Indian Removal Act really was. Passed in 1830, that law explicitly sought to evict Native Americans from their own land and was enforced through open cruelty and abject violence. It was eye-opening to learn why the figures who spearheaded these inhumane efforts—like then president Andrew Jackson along with many slave owners—can’t simply be dismissed as products of their time. After all, so many of their contemporaries, including former president John Quincy Adams, spoke up to condemn these barbaric practices in terms that are strikingly similar to what activists and organizers might use today. The truth about what the U.S. did to its indigenous population is nothing less than horrific—and that’s why it’s a reality every American should know.
University of Georgia history professor Saunt (West of the Revolution) investigates the origins and repercussions of the 1830 Indian Removal Act in this eye-opening and distressing chronicle. Contending that the "state-administered mass expulsion" of 80,000 Native Americans from their homelands was both "unprecedented" and avoidable, Saunt contrasts pro-deportation depictions of indigenous peoples as "impoverished drunks" facing "imminent extinction" with examples of diverse communities interwoven into regional economies in the Great Lakes and Southeast. He incisively recounts congressional debates over removal (Southern slave owners wanted to open up new territories for cotton production; Northern reformers argued that preexisting treaties should be honored) and notes that the legislation passed by a mere five votes in the House of Representatives. When Native Americans refused to emigrate, state officials turned "ordinary property and criminal law into instruments of oppression," Saunt writes, and by the mid-1830s, federal troops were engaged in "exterminatory warfare" against indigenous families. He tallies deaths along the Trail of Tears, millions of dollars in real estate losses, and the spread of slavery into new regions across the South. Saunt presents a stark and well-documented case that Native American expulsion was a political choice rather than an inevitable tragedy. This searing account forces a new reckoning with American history.