Native Americans and Removal
Native Americans and Removal
Removal. Although the Constitution had excluded Native American Indians from the benefits of citizenship enjoyed by Americans of European descent, the federal government had not made a concerted effort to push Indians out of eastern North America. This changed in the
late 1820s, when the election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency combined with aggressive efforts of some Southern white farmers to gain control of lands owned by certain Indian groups. By the end of the decade, the federal government supported a policy of wholesale relocation for eastern Indians.
“Civilized” Tribes. Long before Jackson entered the White House in 1829, land-hungry whites—often with military backup—had encroached on the lands of the five so-called Civilized Tribes of the Southeast: the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Seminoles, and Creeks. Cherokee tribal holdings, for example, had dwindled from 50 million acres in 1802 to just 9 million in the early 1820s as a result of treaties, land sales, and blatant theft. And in 1814 the Creeks lost 22 million acres of tribal land in southern Georgia and central Alabama after they were defeated by Gen. Andrew Jackson at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.
White Encroachment Worsens. In 1829 there were still approximately sixty thousand Seminoles, Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws, and Cherokees who remained on their ancestral lands. Legally, these Southeastern tribes’ tenure on their land was secure; treaties signed by the federal government formally recognized them as sovereign nations. Congress had even passed legislation to provide the Indians with money for Bibles, tools, schools, and training in farming techniques; but federal Indian policy outraged many Southeastern whites, who believed that Indian-white relations should be left to the individual states and not the federal government. Some Southerners even made claims that the federal government was antidemocratic since it seemed to ignore local white hunger for the Indians’ fertile lands.
States’ Rights and Land. One person who took this view was Georgia’s governor, the former War Hawk George Troup. He forever linked the issues of states’ rights and white greed for Indian land when in early 1829 he declared Cherokee lands to be under state, not federal, jurisdiction. He then transferred the lands to poor whites by way of a lottery. In response the Cherokees declared themselves an independent republic in 1827, complete with their own constitution, courts, government, and police force. The Cherokees had also sought to hold onto their land by adopting “white” ways of life, including sedentary farming and livestock raising; they had also developed a written language. However, the discovery of gold within the Cherokees’ domain in late 1827 increased white lust for the land. Both the legislature and governor declared Cherokee laws null and void. Soon after, whites began surveying Indian lands for sale. Other states, including Mississippi and Alabama, which had large Creek, Chickasaw, and Choctaw populations, soon extended state authority over their Indian populations. All eyes focused on Washington to see what response President Jackson would have to the Southern states’ actions.
Jackson. Declaring that the federal government lacked the authority to recognize Indian sovereignty within a state, Jackson chose to ignore Georgia’s, Alabama’s, and Mississippi’s encroachments on Indian lands. Instead he decided to put the power of the federal government behind an effort to move eastern Indians to federal lands west of the Mississippi and temporarily out of the way of white settlement. This migration, he declared, would protect them from the “degradation and destruction to which they were rapidly hastening” in their own states. Put in writing, this “Act to provide for an exchange of lands with the Indians residing in any of the states or territories, and for their removal west of the river Mississippi,” became the basis for the policy known as Indian removal.
The Choice to Leave. Several native groups decided the time had come to give up and move West. Between 1831 and 1833 at least fifteen thousand Choctaws migrated from their tribal lands in Mississippi to locations west of Arkansas territory (now Oklahoma). Alexis de Tocqueville, a French nobleman traveling the country in the early 1830s, movingly described a group of Choctaws crossing the frozen Mississippi River:
The Indians had their families with them, and they brought in their train the wounded and the sick, with children newly born and old men on the verge of death … Never will that solemn spectacle fade from my remembrance. No cry, no sob, was heard among the assembled crowd; all were silent.
In Tocqueville’s Eyes
The following is an excerpt from the journal of the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville, who, along with his companion Gustave de Beaumont, traveled through the United States in 1831–1832. Some of the journal’s most moving passages concern Tocqueville’s observations of Eastern Indians’ removal west of the Mississippi:
The Chactas [Choctaws] were a powerful nation living on the frontiers of the States of Alabama and Georgia. After long negotiations [the U.S. government] finally, this year, succeeded in persuading them to leave their country and emigrate to the right bank of the Mississippi. Six to seven thousand Indians have already crossed the great river; those arriving in Memphis came there with the object of following their compatriots. The agent of the American government, who was accompanying them and was responsible for paying their passage, when he learned that a steamboat had just arrived, ran to the bank. The price that he offered for carrying the Indians sixty leagues further down was the final touch that made up the captain’s unsettled mind; the signal for all aboard was given. The prow was turned south, and we gaily mounted the ladder down which sadly came the poor passengers who, instead of going to Louisville, saw themselves obliged to await the thaw at Memphis. Thus goes the world.
But we had not left yet: it was a question of embarking our exiled tribe, its horses and its dogs. Here began a scene which, in truth, had something lamentable about it. The Indians advanced mournfully toward the bank. First they had their horses go aboard; several of them, little accustomed to the forms of civilized life, took fright and plunged into the Mississippi, from which they could be pulled out only with difficulty. Then came the men who, according to ordinary habits, carried only their arms; then the women carrying their children attached to their backs or wrapped in the blankets they wore; they were, be-sides, burdened down with loads containing their whole wealth. Finally the old people were led on. Among them was a woman 110 years old. I have never seen a more appalling shape. She was naked save for a covering which left visible, at a thousand places, the most emaciated figure imaginable. She was escorted by two or three generations of grandchildren. To leave one’s country at that age to seek one’s fortune in a foreign land, what misery! Among the old people there was a young girl who had broken her arm a week before; for want of care the arm had been frozen below the fracture. Yet she had to follow the common journey. When everything was on board the dogs approached the bank; but they refused to enter the vessel and began howling frightfully. Their masters had to bring them on by force.
In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, some-thing which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn’t watch without feeling one’s heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but somber and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas were leaving their country. “To be free,” he answered. I could never get any other reason out of him. We will set them down tomorrow in the solitudes of Arkansas. One must confess that it is a singular fate that brought us to Memphis to watch the expulsion, one can say the dissolution, of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples.
The old are spared no more than the others. I have just seen on the boat deck an aged woman more than 120 years old. She is almost naked and carries on her only a miserable woollen covering scarcely protecting her shoulders from the cold. She seemed to me the perfect image of old age and decrepitude. This unhappy woman is obviously at deaths door, and she leaves the land where she has dwelt for 120 years to go into another country to begin a new life….
Source: George Wilson Pierson, Tocqueville in America (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959), pp. 597-598.
Black Hawk War. Other native groups chose not to move. Groups of Sac and Fox, who the federal government resettled west of the Mississippi, defiantly returned to Illinois in 1831 to occupy land vacated by other nations. White settlers, fearing an Indian war, petitioned the governor to call for troops. Illinois state troops forced the natives back across the Mississippi and killed most of the Indians that were caught in a conflict later called the Black Hawk War. The surrender speech of the Sac leader Black Hawk in 1832 marked the end of the Northern Woodlands Indians’ attempt to reclaim lands west of the Mississippi.
Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. The Cherokees tried another tactic: they took their claims to the Supreme Court. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that an Indian tribe did not constitute a foreign state, and therefore could not sue a state in federal court. A year after the Cherokees suffered that defeat, Marshall wrote in his decision Worcester v. Georgia (1832) that Georgia had no right to control the Cherokees or their territory. Further, in a third case, Marshall again declared Georgia’s actions unconstitutional. In other words, though the Supreme Court limited the legal ability of Indians to seek redress in federal courts, Marshall and his colleagues also sought to limit any state’s ability to impinge on a native group’s territory.
The Trail of Tears. President Jackson ignored Marshall’s rulings, reportedly remarking that “John Marshall has made his decision now let him enforce it! ” Two years after Jackson left the White House, President Martin Van Buren sent the army to Georgia not to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision, but to march the eighteen thousand remaining Cherokees to Oklahoma. During the forced march in the winter of 1838–1839—aptly called the “Trail of Tears”—four thousand Indians died of exposure, disease, and starvation.
Black Hawk’s Surrender Speech
After the federal government resettled the Sac and Fox nations west of the Mississippi, some defiantly returned to Illinois in 1831 to occupy land vacated by other nations. Fearing war, settlers in Illinois petitioned the governor for troops to remove the Indians, who were led by a Sac warrior named Black Hawk. In the Black Hawk War, Illinois state troops forced the natives back across the Mississippi and killed most of the Indians that they caught. Black Hawk used his moving surrender speech in 1832 to shame the white occupiers of Indian lands:
You have taken me prisoner with all my warriors. I am much grieved, for I expected, if I did not defeat you, to hold out much longer, and give you more trouble before I surrendered. I tried hard to bring you into ambush, but your last general understands Indian fighting. The first one was not so wise. When I saw that I could not beat you by Indian fighting, I determined to rush on you, and fight you face to face. I fought hard. But your guns were well aimed. The bullets flew like birds in the air, and whizzed by our ears like the wind through the trees in winter.... [Black Hawk] is now prisoner of the white men; they will do with him as they wish. But he can stand torture, and is not afraid of death. He is no coward. Black Hawk is an Indian.
He has done nothing for which an Indian ought to be ashamed. He has fought for his countrymen, the squaws and papooses, against white men, who came, year after year, to cheat them and take away their lands. You know the cause of our making war. It is known to all white men. They ought to be ashamed of it. The white men despise the Indians, and drive them from their homes. But the Indians are not deceitful. The white men speak bad of the Indian, and look at him spitefully. But the Indian does not tell lies; Indians do not steal.
An Indian who is as bad as the white men, could not live in our nation; he would be put to death, and eat [sic ] up by the wolves. The white men are bad school-masters; they carry false looks, and deal in false actions; they smile in the face of the poor Indian to cheat him; they shake them by the hand to gain their confidence, to make them drunk, to deceive them, and ruin our wives. We told them to let us alone; but they followed on and beset our paths, and they coiled themselves among us like the snake. They poisoned us by their touch. We were not safe. We lived in danger. We were becoming like them, hypocrites and liars, adulterers, lazy drones, all talkers, and no workers.
Source: Sean Wilentz, ed., Major Problems in the Early Republic (New York: Heath, 1991).
William G. McLoughlin, Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986);
Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green, The Cherokee Removal (New York: Bedford Books, 1995);