The first major law reversing U.S. policy of respecting native rights paved the way for the often forcible emigration of thousands of Indians to the West.
On this day in history, May 26:
President Andrew Jackson signed into law the controversial Indian Removal Act in 1830, after Congress passed the bill relocating eastern Indian tribes to land west of the Mississippi and granting them unsettled western prairies in exchange for their territories within state borders, mainly in the Southeast.
Promoted by Jackson, the aim of the act was to acquire land within state borders for white settlement, while guaranteeing Indian rights to western land in the Indian Territory, created by Congress in 1834.
Many tribes refused to trade their land and resisted the Army-enforced relocation. From 1830-40, about 60,000 Native Americans were forced to migrate, which resulted in such tragic episodes as the Seminole Wars from 1835-42 and the Trail of Tears from 1838-39.
Indian Removal Act
Most whites favored passage of the Indian Removal Act, despite opposition. It passed only after bitter debate in Congress. Christian missionaries protested the legislation, and Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey and Congressman Davy Crockett of Tennessee opposed it.
The act was strongly supported by Southerners, eager to gain access to lands inhabited by the Five Civilized Tribes. Georgia was involved in a jurisdictional dispute with the Cherokee, and Jackson hoped Indian removal would resolve the crisis.
Most observers realized that passage of the bill meant the inevitable removal of most Indians. Some Native American leaders who had previously resisted removal began to reconsider their position, especially after the landslide re-election of Jackson in 1832.
Supporters of Jackson’s policy agreed with the arguments he made in 1830, when he stated: “Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country, and philanthropy has been long busily employed in devising means to avert it, but its progress has never for a moment been arrested, and one by one have many powerful tribes disappeared from the earth.”
They claimed that the “savage” Native American culture must inevitably give way to civilization, and felt that efforts to civilize Indians within European American culture had been completely unsuccessful.
Thus, the only hope for Indian survival was to be moved outside the bounds of civilization. In the West, missionaries could continue to Christianize them at a slower pace, away from the vices of populated areas.
Jackson’s approach to sovereignty and land ownership supported his arguments for removal. He maintained that those choosing to remain east of the Mississippi were subject to the laws of the state and federal governments. Indian sovereignty and land ownership existed only if it could be ceded to the U.S. government.
Many opponents of Jackson’s policy agreed that the Indians were in the process of becoming extinct, but in their eyes the solution did not lie in segregation. Instead, they insisted that the process of civilization had been successful.
They pointed to the Cherokee nation as their prime example. The Cherokee were farmers, Christians, and had created a written language, supported their own newspaper, and had written their own constitution in 1828.
Jackson’s opponents argued that this process would not continue without the encouragement of civilization. They also claimed the U.S. government was obligated to recognize Indian sovereignty and their right to hold lands their ancestors had occupied.
The debate over whether removal offered the best solution to the “Indian problem” continued after the passage of the act, when the process became corrupt. Agents forged signatures of native leaders, dealt with individuals unauthorized to cede land, and falsified records. This led to the forced removal of several tribes that had not voluntarily ceded their land.
The first removal treaty was the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, signed on September 27, 1830, in which the Choctaw in Mississippi ceded land east of the river in exchange for payment and land out West. The Choctaw chief told the Arkansas Gazette that Choctaw removal was a “trail of tears and death.”
In Florida, the Seminoles fought resettlement in the Seminole Wars. They did not leave peacefully as did other tribes, but resisted, along with fugitive slaves. The Second Seminole War resulted in their forced relocation, and 3,000 were reportedly killed.
The Treaty of New Echota that resulted in the removal of the Cherokee was signed in 1836 by U.S. government officials and representatives of a minority Cherokee political faction. Although it was not approved by the Cherokee National Council, it was ratified by the U.S. Senate.
Trail of Tears
U.S. troops forced the Cherokee to march westward on what became known as the Trail of Tears. In 1838, about 15,000 Cherokee relinquished their land in Georgia and marched 800 miles west to Indian Territory, later Oklahoma, where they were to be resettled.
Supplies were short, winter was near, and more than 4,000 people, or 25 percent of the Cherokee nation, died on the journey. Another 1,000 are said to have perished soon after resettlement. Some 15,000 individuals were placed in detention camps, where they faced starvation and disease.
Despite the claim that it would benefit them, the Indian removal process hastened the seizure of more American Indian land and further disregard for Native American culture by the U.S. government.
In Jackson’s eight years in office, about 70 treaties were signed and ratified, which added 100 million acres of Indian land to the public domain at a cost of $68 million and 32 million acres of land west of the Mississippi River.
But even Americans who fretted over the fate of the Indians eventually went along with removal. The policy seemed enlightened, humane and logical. It constituted, Americans thought, the only possible solution to the Indian problem.
As Jackson said: “My friends, circumstances render it impossible that you can flourish in the midst of a civilized community. You have but one remedy within your reach, and that is to remove to the west. And the sooner you do this, the sooner you will commence your career of improvement and prosperity.”
- Rogin, Michael. Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian. 1975.
- Satz, Ronald. American Indian Policy in the Jacksonian Era. 1975.