American Indian Removal

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American Indian Removal

The process of pushing indigenous tribes westward long predated Andrew Jackson and his oft-maligned Indian Removal Act. Every time since 1607 that native peoples had their land seized or purchased by the European invaders of North America, they had to find new habitations and hunting grounds. By 1776 they had been pushed well away from the Atlantic coast, and the new United States authorities soon determined to reduce the tribes' remaining landholdings through a process of negotiation and purchase conducted, after 1789, by the federal government. By 1820 this process had successfully extinguished the Indian title throughout most of the North, compelling most indigenous peoples to migrate farther west or north into Canada or restricting those that remained to reservations of very limited size. In the South, native tribes signed over thirty land-cession treaties between 1789 and 1820, but the situation there proved more complex and contentious.

Since 1789 the federal government had always been willing to envisage native people remaining as residents in the eastern states if they would accept "civilized" standards. Those standards required behaving as individuals rather than as members of tribes and becoming farmers rather than hunters—which would mean that Indians needed less land. This policy, backed by congressional appropriations after 1802, had its greatest successes among the most agricultural, settled, politically sophisticated, and numerous tribes—the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole—but, ironically, the "civilization" program made them ever more determined to retain their ancestral lands. In 1820 these "civilized" tribes still held the title to fifty million acres in the South, including large tracts of Georgia and Alabama and more than half of Mississippi, and their rights were recognized by existing treaties with the United States.

the removal policy, 1817–1825

The policy of persuading Indians to exchange their lands in the East for specific permanent grants of federal land across the Mississippi was first proposed by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803 but was not officially adopted until the presidency of James Monroe. His administration continued the "civilization" policy, but insisted that any tribe that refused to surrender tribal independence and adopt individual landownership must be encouraged to emigrate westward. The lands they would receive were not barren wilderness but desirable farming areas on the fringes of the prairies. In 1817 the first treaty was signed by which a tribe was explicitly offered federal land west of the Mississippi if it would agree to emigrate, and in 1818 some six thousand Cherokees moved west at the War Department's expense, as did some Choctaws in 1820.

However, the policy of buying up the Indians' lands piecemeal broke down in 1822 when the Cherokees and Creeks declared their determination not to remove, made land sales punishable by death, and even began to question the authority of the state they lived in. Any temptation to give up tribal authority and assimilate as individuals was in any case eliminated when the southern states refused to grant citizenship rights to those Indians who wished to remain as individual landowners. By 1824 the parties had come to an impasse: the speed of white encroachment on Indian lands made conflict likely, while the survival of tribal authority could not be fitted within the federal system without undermining state rights. On 24 January 1825 Monroe announced the first comprehensive removal plan, designed to move all the tribes—except those Indians who chose to remain as individuals—beyond the damaging influence of white men to lands across the Mississippi that would never be encroached on. The Senate approved the plan, but it failed in the House, many of whose members objected to a plan that seemed designed to encourage the internal expansion of the slave economy.

politics of removal, 1824–1830

By now the issue had begun to affect presidential politics. In the 1824 election most southwestern states overwhelmingly backed Andrew Jackson because of his leadership in crushing hostile Creeks in 1813–1814 and 1818 and securing huge land cessions. The successful candidate, John Quincy Adams, accepted the removal policy, but insisted that emigration must be voluntary and treaty rights respected. Georgia pointed out that in 1802 it had surrendered its claims in Alabama in return for a federal promise to extinguish the title of Indian tribes in Georgia as soon as practicable; in 1826, finally losing patience, Georgia began to survey lands not yet legally ceded by the Creeks. In January 1827 Adams's Secretary of War, James Barbour, threatened to use the army to uphold existing treaties, and Governor George M. Troup retorted that Georgia would repel all armed invaders. The Cherokees compounded this contest of constitutional authorities when they adopted their own constitution in July 1827, in effect creating a state within a state. Even the Adams administration recognized that removal would dissolve this impasse and prevent the possible destruction of the Georgia Indians. In the late 1820s Congress debated an Indian removal bill, but its proponents divided as to whether the new Indian lands should be established as a formal territory, with a locally elected legislature. The impasse helped make Jackson overwhelmingly popular in Georgia and the southwestern states, where local whites coveted the Indians' lands and feared their possible support for rebellious slaves.

When Jackson came to power, he threw all his influence behind securing a removal act. As passed on 28 May 1830, the act authorized the assigning of federal lands across the Mississippi to the tribes "forever" in return for their lands in the East, and provided a half-million dollars to pay for the improvements Indians had made to their lands as well as the costs of transport and subsistence for the first year in the West. Treaties for removal were still supposed to be negotiated freely and removal to be entirely voluntary, but in practice Jackson refused to protect the Indians against the governments of the states they lived in, and various southern states passed laws extending their laws over the tribes. Decisions of the Supreme Court striking down such measures could not be enforced, and most tribes quickly accepted the inevitable. By 1836 almost all the tribes east of the Mississippi, including most northern tribes, had agreed to remove to lands assigned to them west of the ninety-fifth meridian. Of the more reluctant, the Florida Seminoles fought on, retreating ever deeper into the Everglades, while about four thousand Cherokees died when forcibly moved west in 1838-1839 on what became known as the Trail of Tears. This tragedy was compounded by the fact that the lands across the Mississippi promised "forever" would in time be themselves lost, as white settlers moved west seeking land.

See alsoExpansion; Florida; Georgia; Jackson, Andrew; Land Policies; Monroe, James .


Cotterill, R. S. The Southern Indians: The Story of the Civilized Tribes before Removal. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954.

Horsman, Reginald. Expansion and American Indian Policy, 1783–1812. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1967; Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Sheehan, Bernard W. Seeds of Extinction: Jeffersonian Philanthropy and the American Indian. Chapel Hill: University Press of North Carolina, 1973.

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

Donald J. Ratcliffe

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American Indian Removal

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American Indian Removal