Indian Removal Act
In the early 1800s, a debate began stirring in the new American nation. What should the government do about the now valuable lands in the southeastern states settled by Native Americans? The answer would result in one of the more controversial policies in American history.
Welcome to this Mometrix video on the Indian Removal Act.
By the early 1800s, the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee tribes had established an autonomous area covering one million acres of land in the southeastern United States. Some 125,000 Native Americans lived on land in Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, and Florida; valuable resource-rich land that caught the eye of European settlers.
As early as 1802, Georgia and the federal government agreed that it would purchase lands inside the state’s border occupied by Native Americans. The United States Supreme Court ruled, in 1823, that Native Americans could occupy land within states but could not hold title, and private citizens could not purchase Native American land.
This ruling did not sit well with Andrew Jackson. If you recall, Jackson defeated the Creek in the Creek War of 1813 to 1815 and then forced the Seminoles out of northern Florida in the First Seminole War. Jackson believed that Native Americans, whom he called “savages,” were headed for extinction and the best way to preserve their culture was by relocating them. Jackson won the presidency in 1828 and in 1829, he called for the forced removal of Native Americans to lands west of the Mississippi.
Southern states and many Americans greeted the forced removal proposal with glee, while some in Congress opposed the act, leading to a fierce debate.
Jackson believed his plan would ultimately make Native Americans more civilized, and at the same time, help states grow their normal populations and wealth. In a message to Congress, Jackson said his proposal would
… separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually . . . to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community. . . .
But legislator Edward Everett, speaking against the bill, called the proposed forced removal an “evil” that would result in incalculable suffering, saying:
Our friends will view this measure with sorrow, and our enemies alone with joy. And we ourselves, Sir, when the interests and passions of the day are past, shall look back upon it, I fear, with self-reproach, and a regret as bitter as unavailing.”
The measure passed the House of Representatives by just four votes, 101-97, and the Senate passed the bill 28-19.
For the next 20 years, between 1830 and 1850, the American government forcefully removed tens of thousands of Native Americans from their land.
During this time, there were several treaties signed between the Native Americans and the U.S. government.
The first of these was the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. Government officials gave the Choctaw Indians in Mississippi a choice: become U.S. citizens that abide by state law, or move west of the Mississippi. The Choctaw ceded nearly 10 million acres of land to the government, and some 13,000 made the trip west to Oklahoma.
While other tribes followed suit and signed treaties, the Seminoles refused to leave their Florida home. The result was the second Seminole War, which lasted from 1835 to 1842. Once the war ended, the remaining Seminoles were allowed to stay on an informal reservation in southwest Florida.
Of all of the tribes that suffered during the relocation, the Cherokee nation arguably suffered the worst documented losses. Even though the Supreme Court affirmed Cherokee sovereignty in Georgia, Jackson defied the order and cited the Treaty of Echota as justification. Some 500 Cherokees claiming to represent the 16,000-member tribe signed the treaty in 1835. The Cherokees ceded seven million acres of land in exchange for $5 million and a new home in what is now Oklahoma.
But the treaty was unpopular among Cherokees, and by 1838, only 2,000 had actually moved. That year, the U.S. government, now headed by President Martin Van Buren, sent 7,000 soldiers to lead the remaining Cherokees on a 1,200-mile trek to their new home. More than 4,000 of the estimated 15,000 Native Americans who made the trip died, a disastrous march now famously known as the “Trail of Tears.”
The government’s desire to assimilate native tribes didn’t stop there. From the 1940s to the 1960s, the United States government undertook a policy of “Indian termination.” The government wanted Native Americans to abandon their traditions and take on western culture, much like George Washington tried to do hundreds of years earlier. The government slowly dismantled tribal sovereignty which removed tribal government recognition. Hundreds of tribes across the country were terminated, though some were reinstated after the government abandoned its policy.
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