Jeremiah F. Evarts (February 3, 1781 – May 10, 1831), also known by the pen name William Penn, was a Christian missionary, reformer, and activist for the rights of American Indians in the United States, and a leading opponent of the Indian removal policy of the United States government.
Evarts was born in Sunderland, Vermont, son of James Evarts, and graduated from Yale College in 1802. He was admitted to the bar in 1806. Evarts married Mehitabel Sherman, a daughter of United States Declaration of Independence signer Roger Sherman, and a member of the extended Baldwin, Hoar & Sherman family that had a great influence on U.S. public affairs. Jeremiah and Mehitabel Sherman Evarts were the parents of William M. Evarts, who later became a United States Secretary of State, US Attorney General and a US Senator from New York.
Battle against Indian removal
Evarts was influenced by the effects of the Second Great Awakening and served the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions as its treasurer from 1812-1820 and Secretary from 1821 until his death in 1831.
Evarts was the editor of The Panoplist, a religious monthly magazine from 1805 until 1820, where he published over 200 essays. He wrote twenty-four essays on the rights of Indians under the pen name "William Penn". He was one of the leading opponents of Indian removal in general and the removal of the Cherokees from the Southeast in particular. He engaged in several lobbying efforts including convincing Congress and President John Quincy Adams to retain funding for civilizing efforts. He was a leader of the unsuccessful fight against President Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act of 1830. This law led to the forcible removal of the Cherokees in 1838, known as the Trail of Tears.
Historian John Andrew III explains how Evarts hoped to defeat the Indian Removal Act: "Evarts' tactics were clear. He planned to organize a phalanx of friendly congressmen to present the case against removal on the floor of the House and Senate, hoping to convince enough Jacksonians that the immorality of removal required them to vote against the Indian Removal Bill. At the same time, he would continue to barrage the public with letters, pamphlets, and articles on the Indian question, along with whatever other information might create a groundswell of public opinion against removal."
In 1830, Georgia passed a law which prohibited whites from living on Indian territory after March 31, 1831 without a license from the state. This law was written to enable removing the white missionaries that Jeremiah had organized through the ABCFM. These missionaries were trying to help the Indians resist removal through efforts to integrate them into the white society through conversion and education. In the wake of the passage of the Indian Removal Act, Jeremiah encouraged the Cherokees to take their case against this and other laws that they felt were intended to annihilate them to the Supreme Court of the United States, which they did in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia.
Death and legacy
He died of tuberculosis on May 10, 1831 in Charleston, South Carolina having overworked himself in the campaign against the Indian Removal Act. He was buried in the Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, CT. According to historian Francis Paul Prucha, "the Christian crusade against the removal of the Indians died with Evarts."
The effect that Evarts's activism for the rights of indigenous peoples had on U.S. foreign policy through his son, William M. Evarts who was Secretary of State during the Hayes administration (1877-1881), is a question for historians. The moral and religious arguments that Evarts used against the Indian Removal Act had later resonance in the abolitionism movement.
Publications by or referring to Evarts
- Andrew, John A., III. From Revivals to Removal: Jeremiah Evarts, the Cherokee Nation, and the Search for the Soul of America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.
- Norgren, Jill, Cherokee Cases: Two Landmark Federal Decisions in the Fight for Sovereignty, University of Oklahoma Press (2004).
- Oliphant, J. Orin, ed. Through the South and West with Jeremiah Evarts in 1826. Lewisburg, Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press, 1956.
- Prucha, Francis Paul, ed. Cherokee Removal: The "William Penn" Essays & Other Writings by Jeremiah Evarts. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1981; containing essays originally published as Essays On The Present Crisis..American Indians in 1829.
- Tracy, E.C. Memoir of the Life of Jeremiah Evarts, Esq. Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1845.
- John A. Andrew III, From Revivals to Removal: Jeremiah Evarts, the Cherokee Nation, and the Search for the Soul of America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992), 220.