Theodore Roosevelt: False Sentimentality About the Indians

Theodore Roosevelt favored a rational and equitable policy toward Native Americans, but he firmly believed that the Indian nations had no claim to the land they inhabited and were in fact nomadic people who by temperament had no desire to hold property. Roosevelt, disdainful of such zealous reformers as novelist Helen Hunt Jackson because he thought they distorted the character of Native American-white relations, dubbed the entire group “foolish sentimentalists.” He gave his own interpretation of government dealings with Native Americans in the following passage from The Winning of the West (1889-96).

It is greatly to be wished that some competent person would write a full and true history of our national dealings with the Indians. Undoubtedly the latter have often suffered terrible injustice at our hands. A number of instances, such as the conduct of the Georgians to the Cherokees in the early part of the present century, or the whole treatment of Chief Joseph and his Nez Percés, might be mentioned, which are indelible blots on our fair fame; and yet, in describing our dealings with the red men as a whole, historians do us much less than justice.

It was wholly impossible to avoid conflicts with the weaker race, unless we were willing to see the American continent fall into the hands of some other strong power; and even had we adopted such a ludicrous policy, the Indians themselves would have made war upon us. It cannot be too often insisted that they did not own the land; or, at least, that their ownership was merely such as that claimed often by our own white hunters. If the Indians really owned Kentucky in 1775, then in 1776 it was the property of Boone and his associates; and to dispossess one party was as great a wrong as to dispossess the other. To recognize the Indian ownership of the limitless prairies and forests of this continent–that is, to consider the dozen squalid savages who hunted at long intervals over a territory of 1,000 square miles as owning it outright–necessarily implies a similar recognition of the claims of every white hunter, squatter, horse thief, or wandering cattleman.


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