Indian Removal

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INDIAN REMOVAL. Indian removal, which involved transferring lands in the trans-Mississippi West to Native American groups who gave up their homelands east of the Mississippi, dominated U.S. government Indian policy between the War of 1812 and the middle of the nineteenth century. This practice, although not without detractors, had the support of several very important groups: speculators who coveted Indian lands, uneasy eastern settlers who feared Indian attacks, and missionary groups who felt that relocation would save the Indians from the degrading influences of their white neighbors.

Development of the Policy

The seeds of a removal program were sown in the series of negotiations with southeastern tribes that began with the first Treaty of Hopewell in 1785. Many citizens of the southeastern states, especially Georgia, believed that the federal government too often made concessions to powerful, well-organized tribes such as the Creeks and the Cherokees. In 1802, when Georgia was asked to cede the lands from which the states of Alabama and Mississippi would later be created, it did so only after extracting a promise from federal officials to "peaceably obtain, on reasonable terms," the Indian title to all land within Georgia's borders. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson saw an opportunity to both appease Georgia and legitimize his controversial Louisiana Purchase by drafting a constitutional amendment authorizing Congress to exchange lands in the West for eastern lands occupied by Indians. While this amendment was never submitted for ratification, Congress enacted legislation the following year authorizing the president to administer such a removal and exchange policy provided that participating Indians continued their allegiance to the United States.

In ensuing years, several attempts were made to persuade the Cherokees and other major tribes to remove voluntarily to the West. While some groups favored escaping white harassment through resettlement, many more opposed the idea of leaving their ancestral homes. Their desire to stay was reinforced by the unhappy experiences of small groups of Cherokees, Delawares, Shawnees, and others who had accepted a land exchange and gone westward between 1785 and 1800. After the War of 1812 and the elimination of the British as a potential ally, Indian removal became a basic item in virtually all treaties with Native groups. In 1817 John C. Calhoun, a strong advocate of Indian removal, was named secretary of war by James Monroe. Calhoun joined forces with the war hero Andrew Jackson and Lewis Cass, governor of Michigan Territory, to urge formal adoption of a removal policy.

Several treaties, often of dubious legality, such as that signed by the Sauks at St. Louis in 1804, had called for westward removal at an indefinite time in the future. The formal adoption of a removal policy, however, picked up the pace considerably following the conclusion of peace with the British. The Delawares, for example, already having been pushed into Indiana, signed a removal treaty in 1818. The following year, several bands of Illinois Kickapoos agreed to resettle on Missouri lands formerly occupied by Osages. Cass pushed vigorously(and usually successfully) for treaties of cession and removal throughout the area between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. More famously, federal negotiators sought removal of all tribes in the Southeast. Treaties aimed at achieving this end were signed by the Choctaws in 1820 and by the Creeks in 1821.

Monroe withheld his full support of this removal policy until January 1825, when he delivered a special message to Congress describing forced resettlement in the West as the only means of solving "the Indian problem." Immediately thereafter, Calhoun issued a report calling for the resettlement of nearly 100,000 eastern Indians and recommended the appropriation of $95,000 for this purpose. Within a month after Calhoun's report was made public, the Creeks signed the Treaty of Indian Springs, agreeing to resettle on lands in the West by 1 September 1826, but many Creek leaders and some whites (including John Crowell, the Indian agent to the Cherokee) protested the manner in which the treaty had been negotiated. Crowell also recommended special federal protection for William McIntosh, the Creek leader who was the principal treaty signer. The requested protection was not forthcoming, however, and shortly thereafter McIntosh was assassinated by members of his own tribe. In 1826 the Creeks were successful in having the Treaty of Indian Springs set aside but, almost immediately, President John Quincy Adams negotiated the Treaty of Washington, which reimposed more or less the same terms on the Creeks.

The Removal Act

Andrew Jackson assumed the presidency in March 1829 and threw his political influence behind a national policy of Indian removal. He defended his stand by asserting that removal was the only course that could save Native Americans from extinction. The following year, after much debate, Congress passed the national Indian Removal Act, authorizing the president to set up districts within the Indian Territory for the reception of tribes agreeing to land exchanges. The act also provided for the payment of

indemnities to the Indians for assistance in accomplishing their resettlement, protection in their new settlements, and a continuance of the "superintendence and care" previously accorded them. Congress authorized $500,000 to carry out this act, and the pace of removal accelerated dramatically. Treaty negotiators set to work in the East and the West both to secure the permission of indigenous tribes in Indian Territory for eastern peoples to be resettled there and to convince eastern tribes to comply with removal. Under the supervision of General Winfield Scott and the federal army, the Cherokees began traveling their tragic Trail of Tears in 1838, three years after signing the controversial Treaty of New Echota. Although some groups, such as the Seminoles, resisted with force, most eastern tribes, including the so-called Civilized Tribes of the Southeast, had little choice but to accept what was offered them.

Treaties negotiated in the aftermath of the War of 1812 had already reduced the Native American population of the Old Northwest considerably, but Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois remained critical areas of activity for federal officials carrying out provisions of the Removal Act. With the Treaty of Wapaghkonnetta, signed in August 1831, the Shawnees gave up the last of their lands in Ohio in exchange for 100,000 acres in the Indian Territory. By the end of the following year, Ohio's Ottawas and Wyandots had also agreed to land exchanges, effectively eliminating that state's Native American population. In response to both the Indian Removal Act and the fear of Native reprisals inspired by the Black Hawk War of 1832, Indiana and Illinois were similarly cleared of Indians in the early 1830s. Most Sauks, Mesquakies, Winnebagoes, and Potawatomies were relocated to what is now Iowa. The Ojibways were confined to reservations in northern Michigan and Wisconsin. The Ottawas, Kaskaskias, Peorias, Miamis, and some New York Indians were assigned tracts along the Missouri border. The last treaty between the United States and the Indians of Illinois was made with the Kickapoos in February 1833, when that group agreed to relocate in Kansas. The Kickapoos suffered several subsequent removals (both voluntary and involuntary), and some of them ended up settling as far away as Mexico.

The westward journeys of these groups have been well documented and are infamous for their brutality. The best-known example is that of the Cherokees, who, during their removal from Georgia and North Carolina to the Indian Territory, lost nearly one-fourth of their number along the way. Those who reached their intended homes faced further difficulties. They quickly came into conflict with indigenous groups, and the lands set aside for them often became havens for criminals escaping prosecution. By 1850 the removal period was essentially over, but with the continued expansion of white settlement across the Mississippi, the Indian Territory was no longer a place where Native Americans could be isolated and left to their own devices. In the decades preceding the Civil War, the holdings of the relocated Indians were further reduced as new states were created out of the lands that had been "permanently" set aside for their use and occupancy.

By no means did all Native Americans east of the Mississippi move westward. Small pockets of Indian settlement remained in many eastern states. In some cases, those who remained behind were individual treaty signers and their families who had been given special grants of land within ceded areas. In others, especially in states along the eastern seaboard, certain groups were granted state-recognized reservations, some of which dated to the colonial period. In still other instances, they were persons who had chosen to disavow tribal ways and take up the "habits and arts of civilization" as practiced by the whites. Other individuals simply refused to leave and managed to remain hidden until the storm blew over, by which time their numbers were so insignificant that they were no longer viewed as threats by the whites around them.

Among the Indians escaping removal was a small band of several hundred fugitive Cherokees who fled to the mountains along the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, where they lived as refugees until 1842. In that year, in large part through the efforts of an influential trader named William H. Thomas, they received special permission to remain on lands set apart for their use in western North Carolina. These lands make up the Qualla Reservation, one of the largest reservations under federal supervision in the eastern United States.

By 1850, the federal government had concluded 245 separate Indian treaties. Through them, the United States had acquired more than 450 million acres of Indian land at a total estimated cost of $90 million.


Green, Michael D. The Politics of Indian Removal: Creek Government and Society in Crisis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. 2 vols. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

———. American Indian Treaties: The History of a Political Anomaly. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. The Long, Bitter Trail: Andrew Jackson and the Indians. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.


See alsoCherokee Nation Cases ; Indian Land Cessions ; Indian Territory ; Removal Act of 1830 ; Trail of Tears ; andvol. 9:A Century of Dishonor .

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Indian Removal

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