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Silas Dinsmoor: Trials and Tribulations of an Indian Agent

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You’ve probably never heard of Silas Dinsmoor. He was an Indian agent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, at a time when Indian agents were viewed by Washington policymakers more as diplomats than as corrupt, racist bureaucrats.

The early American presidents knew that the Native American nations surrounding their fragile republic posed an existential threat. In the early era of the republic, there were three competing factions when it came to the West (the Appalachian Mountains): the federal government; western colonists from Europe; and the Indians, who were usually further divided into pro- and anti-American factions. The aims and ends of these three factions are easy to predict.

The federal government tended to fill its Indian agent positions with Ivy League graduates. Silas Dinsmoor was a Dartmouth man. Dinsmoor replaced a Princeton man. The man who replaced Dinsmoor in Cherokee country was also a Dartmouth man. The federal government wanted to acculturate the Natives who lived along the republic’s long western border into broader American society. The aim of acculturation was not charity. Acculturation was as much about Realpolitik as Andrew Jackson’s ethnic cleansing campaign in the 1830s.

Most of the the Native countries were allied with the United Kingdom or Spain. Many Natives had deep, centuries-long commercial ties with the French. The colonists advancing westward from America’s port cities wanted land and a government that would support their desires, so the leaders of the early republic had much to fret about.

Dinsmoor first became involved with the Cherokee Nation when he was made an assistant to Benjamin Hawkins, who had been tasked by George Washington himself to oversee relations with “Indians south of the Ohio.” Hawkins, a former senator from North Carolina, was given such an immense task after his predecessor got sacked for corruption (he was making deals with the British for Indian land, and deals with the Cherokee for Shawnee and Creek land). Hawkins went to live with the Creek, Dinsmoor with the Cherokee.

While an Indian agent, Dinsmoor labored to convince those deep in Cherokee territory of the superiority of agriculture, trade, and mechanized industry. Dinsmoor also pleaded with the Cherokee to establish a central government with limited, enumerated powers of some kind so as to better communicate with the federal government of the United States. A centralized power structure would also give law and order in Cherokee country a big boost (the frontier in the early republic era was a violent place).

Dinsmoor’s diplomatic efforts in Cherokee country laid the foundation for the nation’s ability to adapt and acculturate to the American way of life. (In 1832, for example, the Cherokee successfully sued the state of Georgia in the famous Worcester v. Georgia case). Dinsmoor, Yankee Ivy Leaguer and civilizer of the Cherokee, was far from done with life, though. When his assignment to Cherokee ended in 1798, he begged off Indian diplomacy and joined a Navy expedition to the Mediterranean.

Barbary pirates and sultans of Istanbul

Exactly one year after leaving Cherokee country, Dinsmoor was on the first American warship to enter Mediterranean waters. Dinsmoor’s position on the historic warship was more modest than being an Indian agent. (He was a purser, which is basically the ship’s recordkeeper.) The purpose of the warship’s mission was to establish peace with the Barbary states of northern Africa. Upon arriving in Algiers, the capital city of one of the Barbary states, the governor of the city told the Americans to keep sailing east until they reached Istanbul, the great capital city of the powerful Ottoman Empire. The governor of Algiers loaded up the American warship with slaves and exotic animals and sent the expedition on its way. Dinsmoor was ecstatic, but he also referred to Istanbul as Constantinople, which was the old name of the great city, when it served as capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Yankee Ivy Leaguers were, in the late 18th century, still country bumpkins.

It is unclear if the Dinsmoor expedition had any success in gaining the Sultan’s audience, though the Barbary War of 1801-05 suggests that not only did the Americans not reach the Sultan’s ear, but that the governor of Algiers had a sense of humor in addition to cunning and prowess.

The Choctaw years, feud with Andrew Jackson

Thomas Jefferson appointed Dinsmoor to be Indian agent to the Choctaw once he returned from the Mediterranean. Jefferson was more expansion minded than Washington, though, and while the republic’s third president encouraged Dinsmoor to do what he had done with the Cherokee, he also wanted Dinsmoor to push for more land purchases, which the Choctaw scoffed at. Jefferson reportedly grew exasperated with Dinsmoor’s inability to buy large chunks of Choctaw land away from the Indians, but Dinsmoor was somehow able to keep his job.

His job as Indian agent to the Choctaw became much less secure when he became embroiled in a controversy surrounding the slave trade in the region. Dinsmoor began enforcing a law that required traveling slave owners to carry proof of their ownership. Andrew Jackson, for some reason, saw this as intolerable and threatened Dinsmoor’s life. (The future president also threatened to burn down the federal office that Dinsmoor worked in.) In 1813, Dinsmoor was unceremoniously dumped from his position as Indian agent, so he moved first to Mobile, Ala. before finally settling on a family farm in northern Kentucky now known as the Dinsmore Homestead. It is there that he is buried alongside his wife.

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