Indian Removal Act (1830)

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Indian Removal Act (1830)

Sara M. Patterson

Excerpt from the Indian Removal Act

It shall and may be lawful for the President solemnly to assure the tribe or nation with which the exchange is made, that the United States will forever secure and guaranty to them, and their heirs or successors, the country so exchanged with them.... Provided always, That such lands shall revert to the United States, if the Indians become extinct, or abandon the same.

With the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, thoughts of Native American removal became a very real possibility for the policy makers of the U.S. government. It appeared that the Purchase had given the government endless amounts of land, more than could ever possibly be put to use. Thomas Jefferson initiated discussion over whether portions of this land could be used to solve what some viewed as the "Indian problem"Native Americans were occupying land that many European Americans believed could be put to better use. Jefferson proposed that unincorporated land west of the Mississippi River be exchanged for the more sought-after land occupied by Native Americans in the east. Debates over the removal of Native Americans grew more intense as the nineteenth century progressed and culminated in the passage of the 1830 Indian Removal Act (4 Stat. 411).

In the act Congress authorized President Andrew Jackson to begin the process of removal. Allocated $500,000, Jackson vigorously pursued his plan and in 1835 was able to announce that removal was complete or near completion. The majority of Native Americans had been removed to regions west of the Mississippi. The Indian Removal Act stood at the intersection of numerous debates among European Americans over the fate of American Indians. Questions surrounding the controversy included: Would removal benefit or hinder efforts to civilize Native Americans? Were Native American groups going to be considered sovereign nations? Did Native American groups own the land that they occupied? How was the extinction of Native Americans going to be prevented?


Supporters of Jackson's removal policy agreed with the arguments Jackson made in his 1830 Second Annual Message. Jackson stated that, "Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country, and Philanthropy has been long busily employed in devising means to avert it, but its progress has never for a moment been arrested, and one by one have many powerful tribes disappeared from the earth." Jackson and his supporters claimed that the "savage" Native American culture must inevitably give way to the onslaught of civilization. They believed that efforts to civilize Native Americans within European American culture had been entirely unsuccessful. The only hope for Native American survival, according to these supporters, was to be moved outside the reach of civilization. In the West, they argued, missionaries could continue their efforts at Christianizing and civilizing the Native American at a slower pace, away from the vices of more populated areas.

Jackson's approach to the question of sovereignty and land ownership supported his arguments for removal. He declared that Native Americans choosing to remain east of the Mississippi were subject to the laws and jurisdictions of the state and federal governments. Native American sovereignty and land ownership existed only insofar as it could be ceded to the U.S. government.

Opponents of Jackson's policy had quite different claims. Many of them, like Jackson, believed that Native Americans were in the process of becoming extinct. However, the solution in their eyes did not lie in segregation. Instead they insisted that the process of civilization had been successful. They turned to the Cherokee nation as their primary example. The Cherokee farmed, were Christian, had created a written language, supported their own newspaper, and in 1828 had written their own constitution. Jackson's opponents argued that this process would not occur in other groups without the encouragement and example of civilization. These opponents also claimed the U.S. government was obligated to recognize the sovereignty of Native American groups and their right to hold lands their ancestors had occupied.

The debates over whether removal offered the solution to the "Indian problem" continued after the passage of the Indian Removal Act. Although the act was meant to encourage Native Americans voluntarily to give up lands east of the Mississippi, the process of removal was one of misdeeds and corruption. Agents of the treaty-making process forged signatures of Native leaders, dealt with individuals unauthorized to cede land, and falsified records.

These actions led as well to the forced removal of several Native American groups who had not voluntarily ceded their land holdings. Soldiers and government officials forced several of the southern tribes, like the Cherokee, to Oklahoma on the infamous Trail of Tears. On this path many Native Americans faced starvation, freezing cold, and disease. Because of removal deadlines, 15,000 individuals were placed in detention camps where again they faced starvation and the spread of disease. Despite the claim that it would benefit Indians, the removal process hastened further seizure of Native American land and further disregard for Native American culture by the U.S. government.

See also: Indian General Allotment Act (Dawes Act); Indian Reorganization act of 1934.


Berkhofer, Robert F. The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. New York: Knopf, 1978.

Prucha, Francis Paul. American Indian Policy in the Formative Years: The Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts, 17901834. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Rogin, Michael. Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian. New York: Knopf, 1975.

Satz, Ronald. American Indian Policy in the Jacksonian Era. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975.

Trail of Tears

In 1838 the U.S. Army forced approximately fifteen thousand Cherokees to relinquish their native land in Georgia and march more than 800 miles west to Indian Territory, where they were to be resettled. Supplies were short, winter was setting in, and it is estimated that more than four thousand people, or 25 percent of the Cherokee nation, died on the journey. Another thousand are said to have perished soon after their resettlement. The Cherokees' path, which is known as the Trail of Tears, became a national monument in 1987.

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