All this talk about Native Americans and stone mounds and sacred burial grounds that's enveloped Calhoun County got me thinking about the "Alabama Feaver," as James Graham of Lincoln County, N.C., described it in November 1817.
Graham, historian Leah Rawls Atkins explains, was mystified about the Alabama territory's ability to attract land-hungry people from nearby Southern states. In those days, you'll remember, land was everything: It provided a place to live, a place to grow crops, a place to raise livestock, and — Ahah! — the ballot box, since landless souls in America, even if they were male and white and God-fearing, often had zero chance to cast a vote. Gotta keep the all-powerful in power.
Alabama, not yet a state in 1817, had lots of land.
What it also had were thousands of Native Americans, Cherokees (in the North) and Choctaws (in the Southwest) and Chickasaws (in the West) and Creeks (almost everywhere), who had lived and died on Alabama land for centuries.
Of course, by 1817 the concept of Indian removal in the United States was in full force. (Andrew Jackson's troops defeated the Creeks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend three years earlier, which essentially kick-started the whole Alabama land rush, Atkins writes.) And over the next 20 years, Alabama's Native Americans proved just as susceptible to the growing tide of U.S. western expansion and thoughts of bigoted racial superiority as those of any other territory or state.
As Alabama's Indians crossed the Mississippi — a few on their own, a greater number under order or by treaty — Americans feeling cramped in Georgia and North Carolina and South Carolina and elsewhere saw figurative gold in our hills. Land. Lots of land. And — you got it — lots of land without lots of Indians living nearby.
That was the "feaver" that stupefied the North Carolinian Graham. Atkins, writing in Alabama: The History of a Deep South State, said Graham complained mightily about the effect that Alabama's Indian removal was having on the population of his state. As Native Americans left Alabama, white Americans poured in. The spigot was irreversibly opened. It's as though he couldn't believe that people were moving to a "new home in the wide wild wilderness" of Alabama.
Yet, they did.
And here we are today, more than 150 years after the Treaty of Cusseta, which opened much of eastern Alabama to widespread white expansion, and we're arguing over what's more important: preserving a Native American stone mound on an Oxford hill that may hold Indian remains, or using the hill's soil for construction of a big-box retailer.
Wonder what William McIntosh, one of the Alabama Creeks' historic leaders, would say about that?
The thing that's most appalling to me about this preservation-vs.-development discussion isn't the normal concerns over Oxford's over-reliance on retail for its economy. It's the widespread lack of cultural awareness and appreciation.
Granted, an attractive, well-maintained exhibit at the stone mound would be a noble use for that site. That anthropologists and historical groups feel sure that Native Americans used the hill for religious purposes is a fact that shouldn't be summarily discounted.
And, yes, I know Native Americans aren't a leading minority in Calhoun County, numbers-wise. Less than 1,000 — 738, the U.S. Census estimates — lived in the county from 2005 to 2007; Oxford, with 256, had more than double that of Anniston, with 104. And, as historians will quickly note, it's no surprise that Alabama's Native American population (21,557) was just 0.5 percent of the state's total population.
Most, though not all, left long ago.
Still, this whole episode has an unbecoming "dehumanizing" quality to it, as if we're talking about a people long extinct, who can't stand up for their race, their beliefs, or for something done in — or against — their name. It's a sad testament that Native Americans again have become the "other" — different, ostracized, easy to discount.
If the Confederate army had sent military signals from that hill, would it be preserved?
Perhaps the James Graham of 1817 was correct. Perhaps there is a "feaver" running rampant in our midst, affecting our judgment, making us say and do things that just don't seem right.