In the beginning of the summer of 1839, the Cherokee missionary and newspaper editor Elias Boudinot was building a house for himself, his wife, Delight, and their six children in the newly designated Cherokee lands west of the Mississippi. Though Boudinot had left the Cherokee territory in Georgia before federal troops had begun the mass removal of the tribe from its land, he couldn’t have been surprised at the tales of horror told by survivors as they arrived in the territory that is now Oklahoma. Even though their westward move had been ordered several years earlier by a government intent on turning over tribal land to white settlers and gold seekers, the Cherokees were not prepared for—could not have prepared for—the winter journey across the plains. Thousands died from exposure, starvation and disease. Knowing this, Boudinot likely acquiesced willingly when he was approached the following June by a group of fellow Cherokees looking for medicine. Being a Cherokee, a devout Christian and a very public figure, he might even have expected or at least accepted what came next, when two of the men drew tomahawk and knife, and left him for dead outside the Park Hill Christian Mission.
Three years earlier, Boudinot had been part of a small group of Cherokee leaders who defied the chief, John Ross, and the will of most of their fellow Cherokees, and signed the Treaty of New Echota, promising the Cherokees would leave behind 100 million acres of tribal land to move west. But to the Cherokees who took his life, Boudinot was almost certainly not just a leader who gave in to the pressure of the white government. As the former editor of the first Indian newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, and an outspoken early opponent of removal, he must also have been a visible, public traitor—the kind whose retracted words echo from beyond the grave. In an editorial published in April 1831, Boudinot attempted to rally his tribe as the agitation for Cherokee removal spread through Congress: “The rights of the Cherokees are as plain, as sacred, as they have been, and the duty of the Government to secure those rights as binding as ever…. The land is theirs—their right to it is ‘unquestionable,’ and it cannot be taken away from them without great injustice to them and everlasting infamy to the United States.”
Only a year later, with white cotton farmers and a culture of violence encroaching on the settled lives that Christian Cherokees valued so highly, Boudinot changed his mind. He had come to believe that removal was the only way to preserve the rights and sovereignty—indeed, the lives—of the Cherokee Nation. Yet forbidden by Chief Ross to express his views in the Phoenix, he resigned as editor in August 1832. In his final editorial Boudinot confessed that he had little hope that the Cherokees would reach a peaceful settlement with Jackson’s administration, and said he hated to conceal that belief from his readers. “I could not consent to be conductor of this paper without having the privilege and the right of discussing those important matters…. I should think it my duty to tell them the whole truth. I cannot tell them that we shall be reinstated in our rights when I have no such hope.”
In News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media, Juan González and Joseph Torres portray Boudinot not as a martyr to a misplaced national idea but rather as a martyr to the ideal of a free and uncensored press. It’s a retroactive standard anachronistically applied: Boudinot was a partisan editor who was no longer willing to toe the party line. (Indeed, when he lost his editorial pulpit, he took a cue from another patriot and published a pamphlet lambasting Chief Ross and his supporters, and warning of impending doom for the Cherokees.) But even in the single chapter he earns here, Boudinot makes a fascinating hero. And the story of the Phoenix, as it’s constructed by González, a columnist for the New York Daily News, and Torres, the government relations director for the media reform organization Free Press, does function as a microcosm for the larger story of race and the American press—a story full of tension, accommodation, dramatic reversals and bad jokes that haunt us across the centuries. If there is such a thing as “the American media,” it’s as complicated, surprising and divided against itself as the short-lived Phoenix.