Driving the Indians Westward: Indian Removal to 1840

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Driving the Indians Westward: Indian Removal to 1840

For more than three hundred years, white men battled Native Americans for control of the North American continent. From the early seventeenth century, when European settlers landed on the shores of the present-day United States, to nearly the dawn of the twentieth century, white settlers and soldiers waged an unrelenting war to claim the lands that Native Americans, or Indians, had long known as their own. The three-and-a-half-century war between whites and Indians consisted of battles large and small; of organized campaigns by the U.S. Army and daring daylight raids by Indian warriors; of extreme brutality and rare kindness. Though the underlying cause of the wars was the hunger of white settlers and governments for land, the tensions were heightened by the huge cultural differences that separated the two peoples. Whites and Indians thought very differently about land, family, promises, and warfare—differences that only added to the tragedy of what is known as Indian removal.

First encounters

The very first encounters between whites and Indians in what would become the United States were peaceful and mutually beneficial. In fact, Indians probably ensured the survival of the colony that was established at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. Ill prepared for the harsh winters, the British colonists died in massive numbers until a local Algonquian Indian leader known as Powhatan (c. 1550–1618) provided them with food. Later the Indians helped the colonists plant native foods and harvest a weed known as tobacco (which would later become a major source of colonial income). Of course, the most famous instance of Indian friendship with settlers occurred at Plymouth, Massachusetts, where Indians helped the Pilgrim colonists grow food and learn how to use the land. Such Indian-white cooperation is now celebrated with the Thanksgiving holiday. White colonists also proved helpful to Indians, largely by providing them with guns, which made the Indians' hunting much easier than it had been with the bow and arrow.

Following God's plan

The many Native American peoples living in North America when white settlers began to arrive in the 1600s and 1700s had fully developed traditions and established ways of life. They built dwellings, hunted and farmed for their food, raised families, and worshiped in their own way. Yet the white colonists failed to appreciate the unique cultures of the native peoples. All they saw were uncivilized, primitive people who failed to use the land wisely and worshiped strange gods. Inspired by the belief that they needed to convert the Indians to Christianity, and eager to remake the landscape into the productive farms they had left behind in Europe, the colonists who would become Americans set about to claim both Indian land and Indian souls.

It is impossible to overemphasize the strength of the colonists' preconceptions. They firmly believed that God rewarded the people who made productive use of the land. The Indians that they saw wandered freely over the land, hunting where they wished and never building fences. What could be better, what would be more in line with God's plan, they thought, than to subject this land to orderly and productive use? The white settlers firmly believed that by doing this, they were acting according to the plan of their Christian God. Indians, on the other hand, worshiped nature gods in ways that to the settlers seemed "primitive" and "childish." According to author Don Nardo in The Indian Wars, one white minister described the Indians as living in a "miserable, Godless state of sin." The Bible gave the colonists guidance in dealing with the Indians; according to the Book of Psalms, "God will give him [the Christian] the heathen [non-Christians to convert and watch over], and the uttermost parts of the earth for his possession." Such beliefs made it seem to the settlers not just natural but necessary to lay claim to the land before them.

The white tide

While white colonists were unified by a common vision of their role in the new land, the various Indian tribes held a variety of religious and cultural beliefs. For years the Indians had been living lightly on the land, sometimes clashing with other tribes but never facing a unified and powerful foe. When white groups began settling on the land, the Native Americans saw them as yet another small tribe with whom they might trade, battle, and eventually learn to coexist. They had no notion that they faced a large and powerful enemy that would not be scared off by a few midnight raids or the loss of a few scalps.

Early hostilities

Given their vastly different expectations, it is unsurprising that conflict soon erupted between white colonists and the tribes they encountered. The first full-scale Indian war occurred in 1622, when chief Powhatan's younger brother, Opechancanough, led an attack on Jamestown, Virginia, to protest white use of Indian land, killing 350 colonists. The colonists struck back violently, burning Indian villages and killing all the Indians they found, including women and children. For twenty years the colonists harassed the Indians in this manner, until they agreed to sign a treaty granting the colonists control of all the land along the Atlantic coast.

A similar conflict shook New England in 1675 and 1676. The Wampanoag leader Metacomet (c. 1639–1676), known to the settlers as King Philip, organized several of the local tribes and attacked white settlements throughout New England. This clash between white and Indian forces, known as King Philip's War, ended in the destruction of nearly every major Indian village in the area and in the near-elimination of the Narraganset tribe. These early clashes set a pattern for future conflicts. Indians would attack whites who had encroached on them in some way. Offended that their will was being resisted, whites would organize massive counterattacks and drive the Indians from their land. Thus every Indian attack was met with an overwhelming display of force and determination until the white settlers had conquered every last bit of Indian land.

Dividing the land

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the growing British colonies had claimed most of the land stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the crest of the Appalachian Mountains, several hundred miles to the west. Yet they faced organized resistance in their attempts to move west of the Appalachians. The French government had a significant trading empire in the region west of the Appalachians. French forces protected the region and provided aid and support to the Indians. Determined to drive the French out of North America, the British sent troops to assist the colonists during the French and Indian War (1754–63; see Chapter 1). The British won the war; they now faced only Indian resistance to further westward expansion.

Native American resistance was fierce. Indian tribes that had long sided with the French remained hostile to the British and launched a series of attacks on British positions throughout the Ohio Valley. This loosely organized coalition of Native Americans, created in part by an Ottawa chief named Pontiac (c. 1720–1769), captured several British forts and harassed frontier settlers. Seeking to avoid further bloodshed, the British issued an order known as the Proclamation of 1763, which recalled all settlers from west of the Appalachian crest and forbade further emigration into the area. Though the proclamation temporarily halted white expansion onto Indian lands, it enraged many colonists, who felt that their victory in the French and Indian War entitled them to push farther into the interior. This attempt to limit colonial expansion eventually backfired, for the colonists ultimately revolted against British rule in part so that they could claim the interior of the continent for their own.

In the years following the French and Indian War, the colonists were more concerned with the difficulty of enduring British rule than with their conflicts with the Indian tribes to the west. In 1776 they declared independence from England, starting the Revolutionary War, and by the time the war ended in 1783, they had claimed control of the original thirteen colonies and of a large portion of land that became know as the Northwest Territory or the Old Northwest. The Northwest Territory stretched between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River to the west (including the present states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota). The Americans—as they were now rightly known—saw the new territory as a land of opportunity, capable of providing the space needed by the citizens of a growing nation—if only it could be claimed from the hostile Indians. The Northwest Territory became the site of furious battles with the Indians in the years to come.

Fighting for the Old Northwest

The Old Northwest was home to many Native American tribes, notably the Ottawa, Chippewa, Shawnee, and Potawatomi. Its dense forests, wide rivers, and fertile valleys provided these groups with all that they needed to survive. But the Americans were not content to let the Indians use this land in a traditional, Native American way; they saw in the rich Ohio River Valley a place where gentlemen farmers could establish family farms, using the land to provide for their families while they developed the virtues that would make good citizens in a growing democracy. This vision of the American future was offered most eloquently by Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), framer of the Declaration of Independence and soon to be the third president of the United States. In 1787 Jefferson authored the Northwest Ordinance, which provided for the orderly establishment of future states in the Old Northwest. (See Chapter 1 for more information about the Northwest Ordinance.) Jefferson was a vocal supporter of the virtues of yeoman farmers (owners of small farms) developing western lands. "Those that labor in the earth," he once wrote in Notes on Virginia, "are the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people." The earlier Ordinance of 1785, which provided for the orderly surveying and sale of western lands, had only encouraged the movement of settlers into the Old Northwest. (See Chapter 1 for more information about the Ordinance of 1785). At the end of the eighteenth century, large numbers of Americans began to cross the Appalachians and settle in territory that was claimed by Indians.

The Indians who lived in the Old Northwest had seen enough to know that when white settlers came into an area, they eventually drove Indians out. So when settlers began taking advantage of these new ordinances, the Indians in the Old Northwest resisted their advance. They attacked settlers' camps and burned their farms. But still the whites moved in. One Indian chief, a Shawnee named Tecumseh (1768–1813), believed that the only way to stop the white advance was for all the tribes to unite and fight them. Though he was based in present-day Indiana, Tecumseh roamed far across the frontier, traveling as far south as Georgia and north into present-day Michigan. Tecumseh was a powerful speaker, and he gave voice to the frustrations and anger of many Indian warriors. In a speech to Indian tribes quoted in Ray Allen Billington's Westward to the Pacific, Tecumseh called for "War now. War forever. War upon the living. War upon the dead; dig up their very corpses from the graves; our country must give no rest to a white man's bones." Tecumseh even forged alliances with the British, who hoped to maintain their presence in the Old Northwest even though they had been defeated in the Revolutionary War (1776–83).

Little Turtle's War

The first major confrontation in the Old Northwest was known as Little Turtle's War. Alarmed at the number of Indian attacks on American settlers, President George Washington (1732–1799) sent a force of fourteen hundred soldiers under General Josiah Harmar into the Ohio Valley in 1790. Believing he had intimidated the combined Shawnee, Potawatomi, and Chippewa forces into retreat, Harmar gave chase and suddenly found his troops in a deadly ambush. The Indians won the battle. Washington next sent a larger force under General Arthur St. Clair, but they were badly defeated in a battle along the banks of the Wabash River. Finally, Washington sent a force of three thousand soldiers under General Anthony Wayne (1745–1796) to drive the Indians from the country. Wayne built several strong forts and pledged himself to protecting the region's white inhabitants. Alarmed at the growing American strength, two thousand warriors led by Turkey Foot and Blue Jacket faced Wayne's force of thirty-five hundred in a stand of storm-damaged trees known as Fallen Timbers. In a fierce battle, Wayne's troops defeated the combined Indian forces and forced them to sign a treaty granting all of Ohio and much of Indiana to the United States. Though they had made a strong stand, the Indians had lost this stage of the war.

Defeating Tecumseh

Tecumseh refused to sign the treaty following the battle of Fallen Timbers and instead recommitted himself to organizing the tribes. "The whites," said Tecumseh, "are already nearly a match for us all united, and too strong for any one tribe to resist.... Unless every tribe unanimously combines to give check to the ambition and avarice of the whites, they will soon conquer us apart and disunited, and we will be driven away from our native country and scattered as autumnal leaves before the wind," according to Nardo. General William Henry Harrison (1773-1841), acting on the orders of President James Madison (1751–1836), negotiated treaties with the Miami and Delaware Indians, but Tecumseh vowed that he would never honor such treaties, for he believed that land could not be sold. Thus the battle lines were drawn.

In early November 1811, Harrison led a force of soldiers to attack Tecumseh's headquarters at Prophetstown on the banks of the Tippecanoe River (in present-day northwestern Indiana). Tecumseh was away, and the Indian forces were led by his brother, Tenskwatawa (c.1768–1834), who was also known as the Prophet. Tenskwatawa told his followers that he had cast a spell over the nearby troops and that they would easily defeat the heavily armed soldiers. Early in the morning of November 7, the Indian forces attacked Harrison's men, only to be mowed down by a torrent of musket fire. Harrison's troops counterattacked and burned Prophetstown to the ground. Enraged by the defeat, Indians across the Old Northwest raided white settlements. It was not long, however, before such minor skirmishes were swallowed up in the tumult of the War of 1812 (1812–14).

Essentially a war between the British and the Americans over control of the Old Northwest, the War of 1812 gave the Indians an opportunity to ally themselves with the British in hopes of driving out the Americans. Tecumseh led a band of warriors to several successes, though he grew increasingly frustrated with what he saw as the cowardice of British leaders. Tecumseh hungered for a final showdown that would once and for all drive the Americans from Indian lands. On October 5, 1813, Tecumseh decided to make his stand along the banks of the Thames River north of Lake Erie (in present-day Ontario). The British troops who fought alongside Tecumseh retreated after a powerful charge by mounted U.S. soldiers. Surrounded and outmanned, Tecumseh and his men fought on in bloody, hand-to-hand combat. Tecumseh was soon killed, and his followers retreated. White soldiers skinned one Indian they believed to be Tecumseh, hoping to make tobacco pouches of his skin and sell them for souvenirs. But several Shawnees rescued their leader's body and buried it in an unknown location. With Tecumseh's body were buried his dreams of stopping the white advance. The Americans won the War of 1812 and laid a secure claim to the lands of the Old Northwest. Emboldened by the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 (see Chapter 1), they looked westward to new lands.

Driving Native Americans westward

Whites had always justified evicting Indians from their lands by explaining that there was plenty of land to the west where the displaced tribes could settle. Such arguments ignored the fact that tribes preferred not to live alongside their traditional enemies or to change their entire lifestyle simply because white settlers wanted to "improve" their land. But increasingly, it was to the lands west of the Mississippi that the Indians were banished.

Andrew Jackson, Indian fighter

Though the War of 1812 eliminated the threat of "hostile" Indians in the Old Northwest, a number of large, established tribes continued to stand in the way of white settlement in the southern half of the growing nation. The man most closely associated with the removal of the southern tribes is Andrew Jackson (1767–1845). Jackson, "a tough, profane, brawling ramrod of a man," in the words of historians Robert M. Utley and Wilcomb E. Washburn, was given the task of suppressing the Creek Indians during the War of 1812. At the start of the war, the Creek had mounted a series of ferocious attacks on white settlements in the Alabama and Louisiana territories. Jackson was determined to strike back, and he did this so effectively that he nearly exterminated every Creek warrior. Shortly after their final defeat, Creek chief Bill Weatherford, who was only part Indian, came alone to Jackson's camp. "I am in your power," he told General Jackson, according to Utley and Washburn. "I have done the white people all the harm I could; I have fought them, and fought them bravely; if I had an army, I would yet fight, and contend to the last: but I have none; my people are all gone. I can now do no more than weep over the misfortunes of my nation." Jackson released Weatherford and then went on to negotiate treaties that stripped the Creek nation of nearly twenty-three million acres of land. It was the first of many victories for Jackson.

The Seminole wars

Another fierce tribe, the Seminole, hectored American settlements from their bases in Spanish-controlled Florida. When a band of Seminole attacked a boatload of U.S. soldiers' families in southern Georgia, the U.S. War Department tapped Andrew Jackson to defeat them. On the pretext of chasing Indian killers, Jackson marched on Florida, attacking both Indian and Spanish towns. Though he scored no major victories over the Seminole, his efforts did persuade the Spanish to sell Florida to the United States in 1819 for five million dollars. Jackson became governor of the territory, and as white settlement in the territory increased, he kept up the pressure on the Seminole. It was not until the late 1830s, however, that the fierce tribe was finally defeated and forced to retreat to lands beyond the Mississippi or into the Florida swamps, well out of reach of white settlements.

Indian removal

Andrew Jackson became president of the United States in 1829 and oversaw a concerted effort to remove Native Americans from all lands east of the Mississippi. In his first address to Congress as president, Jackson asked: "What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than twelve million happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?" Pressured by the governments of frontier states that complained of the difficulties they faced in dealing with conflicts between Indian tribes and white settlers, Congress passed and Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The Indian Removal Act called for the removal—voluntary or forced—of all Indians to an area west of the Mississippi. The actual Indian Territory that was defined by Congress in 1834 was far smaller than the "all lands west of the Mississippi" that whites had once promised. In fact, the Indian Territory covered only parts of the present-day states of Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Kansas.

Indian removal progressed throughout the 1830s. The Cherokee tribes of Georgia, realizing that warfare against the whites was futile, took their case against Georgia's discriminatory laws to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court actually ruled in favor of the Cherokee, stating that Indian tribes were "domestic dependent nations" that could conduct their own political processes and were afforded the protection of the federal government. But Jackson ignored the ruling and supported Georgia's efforts to drive the Indians from the state. Some Indians left voluntarily, carrying their belongings to a new and unfamiliar land. Others resisted. The Creek in Alabama were dragged away in chains, and soldiers drove the Choctaw from Mississippi in the dead of winter, killing many along the way. All in all, thousands of Indians died as they were driven from their native lands.

The Trail of Tears

By the late 1830s the Georgia Cherokee, an educated and prosperous tribe, had done all they could to stay on their ancestral lands, including starting the first Native American newspaper, the Georgia Phoenix, to promote their cause. But in 1838 Jackson's successor as president, Martin Van Buren (1782–1862), ordered U.S. troops and the Georgia state militia to remove the remaining seventeen thousand Cherokee by whatever means necessary. According to Utley and Washburn, commanding General Winfield Scott (1786–1866) ordered that "every possible kindness ... must ... be shown by the troops." But kindness is hardly the word to describe the horrors that were inflicted upon the Cherokee. Write Utley and Washburn: "Yet, on the sunny May morning when the soldiers set about their task, some of them raped, robbed, and murdered the Indians.... The army kept the Cherokee penned up in concentration camps throughout the stifling summer; many died, and many more fell ill. In the fall and early winter contingents started west, some in flatboats, some in wagons, some on foot."

The Cherokee thus began a forced march of some twelve hundred miles. Dozens died every day on the journey, falling prey to disease, starvation, or exposure. Those who survived were robbed by marauding parties of white men along the way, claiming Cherokee goods in exchange for ills done to them by other tribes. In all, four thousand Cherokee died before they reached their destination in present-day Oklahoma in March 1839. The trek is remembered by the Cherokee as the "Trail of Tears."

Whites believed that Indian removal had solved the territorial disputes to everyone's satisfaction. Settlers would no longer be bothered by Indian attacks, and the Indians could pursue their lifestyle on lands of their own in the west. But in reality, Indian removal would stop neither westward expansion nor the Indian wars.

Manifest destiny and the plight of Native Americans

Prior to the 1830s, many politicians, military leaders, and American citizens believed that the policy of removing Indians to western lands, separate from the white settlers, was best for everyone. Though there were some who thought that the only good Indian was a dead Indian, others regretted the difficulties that western expansion had caused for Native Americans and honestly hoped that the Indians would find a stable life in the Indian Territory. Yet the changing nature of American expansion in the years to come made it clear that settlers would not stop at the Mississippi and that the Indian wars were far from over.

At the turn of the eighteenth century, few Americans could imagine that their country would ever need to expand beyond the Mississippi River. The land east of that mighty river seemed capable of providing for the growing population for generations to come. Moreover, early explorers had indicated that much of the land west of the Mississippi was undesirable, either too arid or too mountainous to serve a nation of farmers. In fact, many maps depicted the area west of the Mississippi as the Great American Desert. But wars, gold, and a hunger for expansion soon changed these attitudes. Settlers who had ventured into Texas soon found themselves at odds with the Mexican governors of the territory. The Texans wanted to secede from Mexico and become part of the United States. Eventually Americans joined the dispute between the Texans and the Mexicans, fighting a war with Mexico. The Mexican-American War (1846–48) earned the United States a vast territory that included present-day Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California, which virtually doubled the size of the country. (See Chapter 4 for more information about the Mexican-American War.)

The western lands acquired from Mexico might well have remained relatively uninhabited and unvisited were it not for the California gold rush of 1849, which drew many thousands of gold seekers across the country to settle in California. Within a few years the United States had added vast tracts of western land and a new state on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Finally, an 1846 treaty with the British gave the Americans unimpeded control of the present-day states of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. There was now no reason for Americans not to spread across the entire continent. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s there developed a national fervor for building the nation until it reached from coast to coast. This fervor was known as manifest destiny—the belief that it was God's intended plan for the Americans to control a vast empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It was an old ideology, expanded to fit new circumstances. And it meant the doom of all those Indian tribes that had as yet escaped the white man's wrath.

For More Information


Drinnon, Richard. Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire Building. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980.

Hook, Jason. American Indian Warrior Chiefs: Tecumseh, Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph, Geronimo. New York: Firebird Books, 1990.

Lawson, Don. The United States in the Indian Wars. New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1975.

Prucha, Francis Paul. The Sword of the Republic: The United States Army on the Frontier, 1783–1846. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Rogin, Michael Paul. Fathers & Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian. New York: Vintage Books, 1976.

Utley, Robert M. Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866–1890. New York: Macmillan, 1973.

Utley, Robert M. Frontiersmen in Blue: The United States Army and the Indian, 1848–1865. New York: Macmillan, 1967.

Waldman, Carl. Atlas of the North American Indian. New York: Facts on File, 1985.

Web sites

"Battle of Fallen Timbers." Ohio History Central. [Online] http://www.ohiokids.org/kids/ohc/history/h_indian/events/bfallen.html (accessed April 6, 2000).

Georgia College and State University. Ina Dillard Russel Library Special Collections: Native American Resources. [Online] http://library.gcsu.edu/~sc/resna.html (accessed April 6, 2000).

National Historic Trail: The Cherokee Trail of Tears, 1838–1839. [Online] http://rosecity.net/tears/trail/tearsnht.html (accessed April 6, 2000).

State Library of North Carolina. "Andrew Jackson." North Carolina Encyclopedia. [Online] http://statelibrary.dcr.state.nc.us/nc/bio/public/jackson.htm (accessed April 6, 2000).

Tecumseh. [Online] http://www.geocities.com/SouthBeach/Cove/8286/warrior.html (accessed April 6, 2000).

"William Henry Harrison Biography" Grolier Online: The American Presidency. [Online] http://gi.grolier.com/presidents/ea/bios/09pharr.html (accessed April 6, 2000).


Axelrod, Alan. Chronicle of the Indian Wars: From Colonial Times to Wounded Knee. New York: Prentice Hall, 1993.

Billington, Ray Allen. Westward to the Pacific: An Overview of America's Westward Expansion. St. Louis, MO: Jefferson National Expansion Historical Association, 1979.

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970.

Morris, Richard B. The Indian Wars. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications, 1985.

Nardo, Don. The Indian Wars. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1991.

Utley, Robert M., and Wilcomb E. Washburn. Indian Wars. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.