American Indian Relations, 1815–1829

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American Indian Relations, 1815–1829

The history of United States–Native American relations between 1815 and 1829 was marked by an ascension of United States military superiority over the Native American nations. It was also marked by the continuation of the federal government's programs to acculturate Native Americans and bring order to the Native American trade, as well as by the emergence of an American plan to relocate the eastern tribes west of the Mississippi River.

general policies in 1815

Before 1815 the United States adopted policies intended to stabilize its frontiers and provide for the peaceful expansion of the nation. The government recognized the Native American tribes as sovereign nations possessing legitimate title to their land, paid for cessions acquired in diplomatic treaties, and prohibited white settlement on Native American lands without tribal permission. Congress also instituted a "civilization program" to prepare Native Americans for assimilation into the American population. The government included articles to encourage acculturation in its treaties with the tribes, appropriated money to supply Native Americans with farming tools and implements, and posted agents among the tribes to instruct individual Native Americans in their use. The federal government continued the civilization program with uneven success in the period from 1815 to 1829. Of particular note in this era was an act in 1819 in which Congress began appropriating funds for the education of Native American children. Rather than establishing secular schools, however, the government simply channeled the money to Protestant churches and missionary societies. By 1830 over fifty schools had been established in or around the Native American nations.

war of 1812

The civilization program was not as successful in achieving assimilation as its exponents had hoped. Most white Americans, particularly those on the frontier, refused to accept acculturated Native Americans into their midst on equal terms, and many Native Americans simply did not want to make the transformation required by the program. In some nations, nativist prophets like White Path (Cherokee) and Tenskwatawa (Shawnee) urged their followers to repudiate Anglo-American culture and goods (particularly alcohol) and drive American settlers out of Native American territory. Many Native American communities divided into factions that either accepted or rejected the civilization model.

During the War of 1812 the United States eliminated two major Native American uprisings spawned by nativist prophets. In the Old Northwest, American forces under William Henry Harrison destroyed a pan–Native American confederation of tribes led by Tenskwatawa and his brother, the warrior chief Tecumseh. In 1814 troops under Andrew Jackson annihilated a group of nativist "Red Stick" Creek warriors at Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa River. Jackson forced the Creeks to cede some twenty-three million acres to the United States in a treaty at Fort Jackson. American victories over the northwestern confederation and the Red Sticks established U.S. military hegemony over the Native American nations in the East.

In the Treaty of Ghent (1814) that ended the War of 1812, the United States promised Great Britain that it would make peace with Britain's Native American allies and restore their former "possessions, rights, and privileges." Within months the United States had concluded numerous treaties with the tribes from the Old Northwest at Portage des Sioux (near St. Louis) and Spring Wells (near Detroit). Rather than returning Native American territory, however, the United States immediately set out to acquire more.

Jackson became a pivotal figure in the American acquisition of tribal territory. As a U.S. treaty commissioner (1814–1820) he used harsh, if not unscrupulous, means to acquire major cessions from the southeastern tribes. He also played a controversial role in the United States's acquisition of western Florida. In 1818 Jackson, suspecting that the Spanish were encouraging Seminole attacks on white settlements in southern Georgia, led an army into Florida, attacked the Seminoles, and captured and executed two British traders. Spain surrendered control of Florida to the United States in the Adams-Onís, or Transcontinental, Treaty of 1819 that resolved the conflict; the Seminoles subsequently ceded much of their territory in the Treaty of Gadsden (1823).

regulating the native american trade

Until 1849 (when the Interior Department assumed responsibility), Native American relations, including the regulation of the Native American trade, fell under the jurisdiction of the War Department. The trade had always been a source of income, and trouble, for the United States and its colonial predecessors. The government continued trying to reduce the unrest provoked by unprincipled merchants in the years from 1815 to 1829. Congress required traders to obtain licenses and post bonds and provided punishments for those found guilty of corrupt dealing. These measures supplemented the public factory system (which provided trade goods to Native Americans at cost) that the government had established in 1795 to compete with private traders. As superintendent of Native American trade (1816–1822), Thomas L. McKenney urged the government to continue the factory system and use it to promote civilization, Christianity, and fair dealings with Native Americans. The factory system expanded throughout most of the Native American country until 1822, when John Jacob Astor, owner of the American Fur Company, and other prominent private merchants persuaded Congress to abandon the government's competing posts. McKenney lost his job as superintendent of trade in the process, but in 1824 Secretary of War John C. Calhoun created the Bureau of Indian Affairs to manage nonmilitary Native American matters and appointed McKenney its first commissioner. In 1832 Congress codified Calhoun's restructuring of Native American affairs.

To intimidate the tribes and prevent them from reestablishing trade and military ties with Great Britain and Spain, the United States built several forts at key river locations on the northwestern and southwestern frontiers after the War of 1812. In 1816 Congress began refusing trading licenses to noncitizens and authorized the president to arrest foreign traders and seize their goods. The federal government also tried, with little success, to eliminate crime and disorder among frontier and Native American communities. The fact that a particular crime could involve Native Americans and whites under state, federal, or Native American territory jurisdiction complicated prosecution. Much of the crime was caused by the widespread availability of alcohol in Native American and American towns. In the Trade and Intercourse Act of 1822, Congress authorized government agents to seize a trader's inventory if it included alcohol. In 1832 Congress prohibited the sale of "ardent spirits" in Native American country. This proscription was no more successful than the national prohibition declared nearly a century later, for the government agents lacked the resources to rein in the private suppliers.

native american removal

After the War of 1812 Jackson and Calhoun urged President James Monroe to abandon the federal government's policy of recognizing the land title and political sovereignty of the tribes. The United States, they argued, should treat Native Americans as subjects of the state in which they lived. Jackson and state political leaders in Georgia began calling for the federal government to remove the Native American tribes from the southern states. In 1803 Thomas Jefferson had proposed the idea of relocating eastern Native Americans to the Louisiana Territory where, he asserted, they would have time to acculturate free from the trespasses of white settlers. Although a few thousand Cherokees responded to Jefferson's entreaties and moved west in the years from 1808 to 1810, the vast majority of Native Americans preferred to remain in their ancestral homelands.

Georgia's removal argument was buttressed by an agreement concluded during Jefferson's administration. In the Compact of 1802, the state had surrendered its territory between the Chattahoochee and Mississippi Rivers to the United States. In exchange, the federal government had promised to extinguish the Native American title in Georgia as soon as it could be "peaceably obtained, and on reasonable terms." Georgia used this agreement to force the federal government to consider extinguishing the territorial rights of the Creeks and Cherokees who lived within the state's borders. President Monroe responded that the federal government was not bound by the Compact of 1802, and that while he favored the idea of removing the tribes to the West, he would not force any nation to relocate involuntarily.

The motivations of removal proponents were primarily economic and racial. The emerging profitability of cotton agriculture created a tremendous demand for land in the southern "Black Belt," a fertile crescent that stretched from western Georgia across central Alabama and Mississippi. The cotton boom enticed thousands of white settlers into and around Native American lands in the Southeast. In 1810, for example, 40,000 Americans lived in the Mississippi Territory; by 1830 the population of Mississippi and Alabama, the states formed out of that territory, had increased to almost 450,000. The Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, and Chickasaws were very quickly surrounded by white Americans who wanted their land, and as soon as Mississippi (1817) and Alabama (1819) were admitted into the Union, their political leaders began calling for Native American residents to leave their states.

Removal proponents also exploited the fears and racist inclinations of many frontier southerners and westerners who indicated that they would never afford Native Americans equal status, regardless of how civilized they became. The situation of the Cherokees offered a clear example of this irony. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the Cherokees developed a market economy, adopted a republican government, and built schools and churches throughout their nation. They devised their own written language, known as Sequoyah's syllabary, and used it in the publication of their own newspaper. Despite this movement toward the Anglo-American standard of civilization by the Cherokees, and by the other southeastern tribes as well, most white southerners refused even to entertain the idea that they might assimilate Native Americans in the future.

Toward implementation. Between 1817 and 1826 the Cherokees (1817 and 1819), Choctaws (1820), and Creeks (1826) signed cession treaties that included removal articles. The agreements offered Native Americans living on ceded territory the choice of removing to land offered in the West or remaining in the East, taking individual allotments of land, and living as subjects of the state. The treaties promised that the United States would protect the removed Native Americans from attacks and white settlement in their new lands, allow them to maintain their political autonomy, and continue to provide them with material and personnel to prepare them for their eventual assimilation. Similar provisions were included in the general removal treaties signed by the Native American nations in the 1830s. Some of these agreements, including the Cherokee treaty of 1817 (which was negotiated by Jackson), were signed by dissident factions in the face of opposition by the formal tribal government. In order to prevent future illegal cessions, the Cherokee national council enacted legislation formally establishing the land of the nation as property of the people in common and prohibited, upon penalty of death, the sale of tribal territory without its approval.

John Quincy Adams, who succeeded Monroe, held to the position that the Native Americans would have to consent to any removal proposal. The resistance of the Cherokees, and Adams's refusal to force them to remove, infuriated the Georgia government. In 1827 George Troup, governor of the state, had become so frustrated by the federal government's inaction that he threatened to use the state militia to remove the Cherokees and Creeks and promised a war if the federal government interfered. The Creeks tired of Georgia's unrelenting pressure and signed away their remaining territory in Georgia. The state then turned its attention to the Cherokees, who adamantly refused to concede. On 26 July 1827, the Cherokees adopted a constitutional government and declared their nation an independent, sovereign republic. In subsequent months they called over and over again for the federal government to intervene in the dispute and restrain Georgia's belligerence.

In 1828 the U.S. voters elected Andrew Jackson as president, and the administration of the national government passed into the hands of a man who had been promoting removal for almost a decade. In his first annual message, Jackson warned that the Native American tribes could either remove or fall under the jurisdiction of the state in which they lived. He also called on Congress to enact legislation to remove the eastern tribes. Georgia was emboldened by Jackson's election and, within weeks of his victory, its legislature had annexed the Cherokees' lands in the state. In 1829 Georgia extended its jurisdiction over the Cherokees and purported to abolish their national council, court system, and laws. Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee soon followed Georgia's lead and claimed jurisdiction over the Native Americans in their states. The discovery of gold in the Cherokee Nation in 1829 only exacerbated the desire of whites to move onto Native American land; the Georgia legislature unilaterally seized the strike locations, prohibited Cherokees from approaching them, and established a paramilitary force to harass the Native Americans. Soon thereafter Georgia sent surveyors into the Cherokee Nation, divided its territory into parcels, and distributed them to white state residents by lottery.

In 1830 Jackson's allies in Congress responded to his request and introduced a removal bill. Despite the determined efforts of Jeremiah Evarts, the secretary of the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions, who led public opposition to the bill in New England, and Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, who fought the bill in the Senate, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 passed by slim majorities in both houses. The bill, which Jackson signed into law on 28 May 1830, authorized the president to mark off territory in the West for Native American resettlement and negotiate removal treaties with the Native American nations. The law also authorized the president to reimburse Native Americans for improvements surrendered upon removal and to pay the costs of relocation and resettlement.

Native American response. With the passage of the removal bill, the Native American nations had four choices: submit to state jurisdiction, remove, litigate, or fight. In the 1830s different nations chose different courses. The Creeks, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and many tribes in the North reluctantly agreed to remove. The Cherokees, led by their principal chief, John Ross, challenged Georgia's extension laws in federal court. In Worcester v. Georgia (1832) the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Cherokees a sovereign nation and Georgia's extension laws unconstitutional. Jackson, however, did not enforce the decision against the state. The Cherokee national council continued to refuse to sign a removal treaty, but in 1835 a dissident group signed the infamous treaty of New Echota, which called for the surrender of all Cherokee lands in the East and the removal of the nation to a territory in the West. In 1838 federal troops entered the Cherokee Nation, rounded up some sixteen thousand Cherokees, and forced them to march to the Indian Territory that Congress had established west of the Mississippi River (in what became Oklahoma). Military resistance failed as well. The Seminoles, Sacs, and Foxes fought bitter wars against the U.S. Army before they surrendered and were forced to remove. Thousands died in the removal migrations, mostly from starvation, malnutrition, exposure, and heartbreak. The Cherokees, for example, who came to refer to the removal as the Trail of Tears, lost over a quarter of their population in the exile; deaths ascribable to the removal crisis may have approached ten thousand among the Creeks.

Although most of the removal controversy centered around the Cherokees and the other southern nations, the Indian Removal Act also resulted in the relocation of most of the tribes in the North, including the Cayugas, Delawares, Kaskaskias, Kickapoos, Menominees, Miamis, Ojibwas, Oneidas, Ottawas, Peorias, Piankashaws, Potawatomis, Senecas, Shawnees, Tuscaroras, and Winnebagos. In 1843 the War Department estimated that it had removed almost ninety thousand Native Americans from their homes.

See alsoAdams, John Quincy; Jackson, Andrew; Transcontinental Treaty; War of 1812 .


Garrison, Tim Alan. The Legal Ideology of Removal: The Southern Judiciary and the Sovereignty of Native American Nations. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002.

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

Kappler, Charles J., ed. and comp. Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties. 5 vols. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1904–1941.

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

Remini, Robert V. Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars. New York: Viking Press, 2001.

Viola, Herman J. Thomas L. McKenney: Architect of America's Early Indian Policy, 1816-1830. Chicago: Sage Books, 1974.

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

Washburn, Wilcomb E., comp. The American Indian and the United States: A Documentary History. 4 vols. New York: Random House, 1973.

Tim Alan Garrison

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American Indian Relations, 1815–1829

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American Indian Relations, 1815–1829