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Indian removal was a 19th-century policy of ethnic cleansing by the government of the United States to move Native American tribes living east of the Mississippi River to lands west of the river. The Indian Removal Act was signed into law by President Andrew Jackson on May 26, 1830.
Some of the American Revolutionary thinkers and leaders viewed the American Indians not as a single people, but as nations in their own right, and developed early policies for the new United States to interact with Indian tribes.
Benjamin Franklin, in his "Proposed Articles of Confederation" (presented to the Continental Congress on May 10, 1775) for the nation about to take birth, called for a "perpetual Alliance" with the Indians, especially with the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy:
Article XI. A perpetual Alliance offensive and defensive, is to be entered into as soon as may be with the Six Nations; their Limits to be ascertained and secured to them; their Land not to be encroached on, nor any private or Colony Purchases made of them hereafter to be held good; nor any Contract for Lands to be made but between the Great Council of the Indians at Onondaga and the General Congress. The Boundaries and Lands of all the other Indians shall also be ascertained and secured to them in the same manner; and Persons appointed to reside among them in proper Districts, who shall take care to prevent Injustice in the Trade with them, and be enabled at our general Expense by occasional small Supplies, to relieve their personal Wants and Distresses. And all Purchases from them shall be by the Congress for the General Advantage and Benefit of the United Colonies.
Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), defended American Indian culture and marveled at how the tribes of Virginia "never submitted themselves to any laws, any coercive power, any shadow of government" due to their "moral sense of right and wrong". He would later write, "I believe the Indian then to be in body and mind equal to the whiteman". His desire was for the Native Americans to intermix with European Americans and to become one people. (p137) To achieve that end, President Jefferson would - in addition to offering U.S. citizenship to some of the Indian nations - propose lending credit to them for trade with the expectation they would be unable to honor their debts and thereby the United States would acquire their land.
President George Washington, while addressing the Seneca nation in 1790, publicly pledged to uphold their “just rights” and described the pre-Constitutional defrauding of the Indians out of their land as “evil”.
In March and April of 1792, Washington met with 50 tribal chiefs in Philadelphia – including the Iroquois – to discuss closer friendship between them and the United States.
Later that same year, Washington stressed the need for building peace, trust, and commerce with America's Indian neighbors:
I cannot dismiss the subject of Indian affairs without again recommending to your consideration the expediency of more adequate provision for giving energy to the laws throughout our interior frontier, and for restraining the commission of outrages upon the Indians; without which all pacific plans must prove nugatory. To enable, by competent rewards, the employment of qualified and trusty persons to reside among them, as agents, would also contribute to the preservation of peace and good neighbourhood. If, in addition to these expedients, an eligible plan could be devised for promoting civilization among the friendly tribes, and for carrying on trade with them, upon a scale equal to their wants, and under regulations calculated to protect them from imposition and extortion, its influence in cementing their interests with our’s [sic] could not but be considerable.
In 1795, in his Seventh Message to Congress, Washington expressed that if the US government wanted peace with the Indians, then it must give peace to them, and that if the US wanted raids by Indians to stop, then raids by American "frontier inhabitants" must also stop.
The new Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which would, for years to come, serve broadly as a precedent for the manner in which the United States' territorial expansion would occur, called for the protection of Indians' "property, rights, and liberty":
Article 3. Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged. The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity, shall from time to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them.
The U.S. Constitution of 1787 (Article I, Section 8) calls for regulating commerce with the Indian tribes, and makes their importance to Congress equal to that of the states and foreign governments.
In 1790, Congress passed the Indian Nonintercourse Act (renewed and amended in 1793, 1796, 1799, 1802, and 1834) to protect and codify the Indians’ land rights.
As president, Thomas Jefferson developed far reaching Indian policy that had two primary goals. The security of the fledgling United States was paramount so Jefferson wanted to assure the Native nations were tightly bound to the United States and not other foreign nations. Secondly he wanted "to civilize"(p136) them into an agricultural or more urbanized lifestyles. These goals would be achieved through trade and treaties.  He encouraged American policy to allow Native Americans to remain east of the Mississippi as long as they became assimilated or "civilized". As President, Jefferson made sustained efforts to win the friendship and cooperation of many Native American nations. He repeatedly articulated his aspirations for a united nation of both Whites and Indians, such as the following from a letter to the Seneca spiritual leader Handsome Lake dated November 3, 1802:
Go on then, brother, in the great reformation you have undertaken.... In all your enterprises for the good of your people, you may count with confidence on the aid and protection of the United States, and on the sincerity and zeal with which I am myself animated in the furthering of this humane work. You are our brethren of the same land; we wish your prosperity as brethren should do. Farewell."
Jefferson's personal nonsectarian religiosity appears to show in his references to the Great Spirit, as in the following letter to the Choctaw nation dated December 17, 1803:
I am glad, brothers, you are willing to go and visit some other parts of our country.... we thank the Great Spirit who took care of you on the ocean, and brought you safe and in good health to the seat of our great Council; and we hope His care will accompany and protect you, on your journey and return home; and that He will preserve and prosper your nation in all its just pursuits."
President Jefferson also sought full U.S. citizenship for those Indian nations which desired it, including the Cherokee. In his Eighth Annual Message to Congress on November 8, 1808, he presented to the nation a vision of White and Indian unity:
With our Indian neighbors the public peace has been steadily maintained.... And, generally, from a conviction that we consider them as part of ourselves, and cherish with sincerity their rights and interests, the attachment of the Indian tribes is gaining strength daily... and will amply requite us for the justice and friendship practiced towards them.... [O]ne of the two great divisions of the Cherokee nation have now under consideration to solicit the citizenship of the United States, and to be identified with us in laws and government, in such progressive manner as we shall think best."
Years after the Jefferson presidency, in 1817 the U.S. government would again offer citizenship to the Cherokee who lived east of the Mississippi River, along with 640 acres per family.
As other writings illustrate, his general compassion for the Indians at times gave way to impatience with nations which responded unfavorably to his communications with them, and to his frustration with the limited success of his efforts. His intention was to change their lifestyle from hunter-gatherer to farming, largely through "the decrease of game rendering their subsistence by hunting insufficient". Jefferson expected that the switch to agriculture would make them dependent on White Americans for trade goods and therefore more likely to give up their land in exchange. In an 1803 letter to William Henry Harrison, Jefferson wrote:
When they withdraw themselves to the culture of a small piece of land, they will perceive how useless to them are their extensive forests, and will be willing to pare them off from time to time in exchange for necessaries for their farms and families. To promote this disposition to exchange lands, which they have to spare and we want, for necessaries, which we have to spare and they want, we shall push our trading uses, and be glad to see the good and influential individuals among them run in debt, because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands. At our trading houses, too, we mean to sell so low as merely to repay us cost and charges, so as neither to lessen or enlarge our capital. This is what private traders cannot do, for they must gain; they will consequently retire from the competition, and we shall thus get clear of this pest without giving offence or umbrage to the Indians. In this way our settlements will gradually circumscribe and approach the Indians, and they will in time either incorporate with us as citizens of the United States, or remove beyond the Mississippi. The former is certainly the termination of their history most happy for themselves; but, in the whole course of this, it is essential to cultivate their love. As to their fear, we presume that our strength and their weakness is now so visible that they must see we have only to shut our hand to crush them, and that all our liberalities to them proceed from motives of pure humanity only. Should any tribe be foolhardy enough to take up the hatchet at any time, the seizing the whole country of that tribe, and driving them across the Mississippi, as the only condition of peace, would be an example to others, and a furtherance of our final consolidation.
However, elsewhere in the same letter, Jefferson spoke of protecting the Indians from injustices perpetrated by Whites:
Our system is to live in perpetual peace with the Indians, to cultivate an affectionate attachment from them, by everything just and liberal which we can do for them within... reason, and by giving them effectual protection against wrongs from our own people.
Native American land was sometimes purchased, either via a treaty or under duress. The idea of land exchange, that is, Native Americans would give up their land east of the Mississippi in exchange for a similar amount of territory west of the river, was first proposed by Jefferson in 1803 and was first incorporated into treaties in 1817. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 incorporated this concept.
Under President James Monroe, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun devised the first plans for Indian removal. By late 1824, Monroe approved Calhoun's plans and in a special message to the Senate on January 27, 1825, requested the creation of the Arkansas Territory and Indian Territory. The Indians east of the Mississippi were to voluntarily exchange their lands for lands west of the river. The Senate accepted Monroe's request and asked Calhoun to draft a bill, which was killed in the House of Representatives by the Georgia delegation. President John Quincy Adams assumed the Calhoun–Monroe policy and was determined to remove the Indians by non-forceful means, but Georgia refused to submit to Adams' request and forced[clarification needed] Adams to make a treaty with Creeks and Cherokees granting Georgia what it wanted.[clarification needed] When Andrew Jackson became the president from the newly organized Democratic Party, he agreed that the Indians should be forced to exchange eastern lands for western lands.
Andrew Jackson became president of the United States in 1829, and with his inauguration the stance of the government towards the Indians, along with that of the Democratic Party, turned harsher. Jackson abandoned the policy of his predecessors of treating different Indian groups as separate nations. Instead, he aggressively pursued plans to move all Indian tribes living east of the Mississippi River to west of the Mississippi. At Jackson's request, the United States Congress opened a fierce debate on an Indian Removal Bill. In the end, the bill passed, but the vote was close. The Senate passed the measure 28–19, the House 102–97. Jackson signed the legislation into law June 30, 1830.
In 1830, the majority of the "Five Civilized Tribes"—the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee—were living east of the Mississippi as they had for thousands of years. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 implemented the U.S. government policy towards the Indian populations, which called for moving Native American tribes living east of the Mississippi River to lands west of the river. While it did not authorize the forced removal of the indigenous tribes, it authorized the President to negotiate land exchange treaties with tribes located in lands of the United States.
On September 27, 1830, the Choctaw signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek and by concession, became the first Native American tribe to be removed. The agreement represented one of the largest transfers of land that was signed between the U.S. Government and Native Americans without being instigated by warfare. By the treaty, the Choctaw signed away their remaining traditional homelands, opening them up for European-American settlement in Mississippi Territory. When the Choctaw reached Little Rock, a Choctaw chief referred to the trek as a "trail of tears and death".
In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn't watch without feeling one's heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but sombre 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, could never get any other reason out of him. We ... watch the expulsion ... of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples.—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
While the Indian Removal Act made the move of the tribes voluntary, it was often abused by government officials. The best-known example is the Treaty of New Echota. It was negotiated and signed by a small faction of Cherokee tribal members, not the tribal leadership, on December 29, 1835. It resulted in the forced relocation of the tribe in 1838. An estimated 4,000 Cherokee died in the march, now known as the Trail of Tears. Missionary organizer Jeremiah Evarts urged the Cherokee Nation to take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Marshall court ruled that while Native American tribes were sovereign nations (Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 1831), state laws had no force on tribal lands (Worcester v. Georgia, 1832).
In spite of this acculturation, many white settlers and land speculators simply desired the land. Some claimed their presence was a threat to peace and security. Some U.S. states, like Georgia in 1830, passed a law which prohibited whites from living on Native American territory after March 31, 1831, without a license from the state. This law was written to justify removing white missionaries who were helping the Native Americans resist removal.
In 1835, the Seminole refused to leave their lands in Florida, leading to the Second Seminole War. Osceola led the Seminole in their fight against removal. Based in the Everglades of Florida, Osceola and his band used surprise attacks to defeat the U.S. Army in many battles. In 1837, Osceola was seized by deceit upon the orders of U.S. General Thomas Jesup when Osceola came under a flag of truce to negotiate peace. Osceola would die in prison of illness. The war would end up costing the U.S. over 1,500 deaths and cost the government $20 million. Some Seminole traveled deeper into the Everglades, while others moved west. Removal continued out west and numerous wars ensued over land.
In the aftermath of the Treaty of Fort Jackson and the Treaty of Washington, the Muscogee were confined to a small strip of land in present-day east central Alabama. Following the Indian Removal Act, in 1832 the Creek National Council signed the Treaty of Cusseta, ceding their remaining lands east of the Mississippi to the U.S., and accepting relocation to the Indian Territory. Most Muscogee were removed to Indian Territory during the Trail of Tears in 1834, although some remained behind.
Friends and Brothers – By permission of the Great Spirit above, and the voice of the people, I have been made President of the United States, and now speak to you as your Father and friend, and request you to listen. Your warriors have known me long. You know I love my white and red children, and always speak with a straight, and not with a forked tongue; that I have always told you the truth ... Where you now are, you and my white children are too near to each other to live in harmony and peace. Your game is destroyed, and many of your people will not work and till the earth. Beyond the great River Mississippi, where apart of your nation has gone, your Father has provided a country large enough for all of you, and he advises you to remove to it. There your white brothers will not trouble you; they will have no claim to the land, and you can live upon it you and all your children, as long as the grass grows or the water runs, in peace and plenty. It will be yours forever. For the improvements in the country where you now live, and for all the stock which you cannot take with you, your Father will pay you a fair price ...—President Andrew Jackson addressing the Creek, 1829
Unlike other tribes who exchanged land grants, the Chickasaw were to receive mostly financial compensation of $3 million from the United States for their lands east of the Mississippi River. In 1836, the Chickasaw had reached an agreement that purchased land from the previously removed Choctaw after a bitter five-year debate. They paid the Choctaw $530,000 for the westernmost part of Choctaw land. The first group of Chickasaw moved in 1837. The $3,000,000 that the U.S. owed the Chickasaw went unpaid for nearly 30 years.
As a result, the five tribes were resettled in the new Indian Territory in modern-day Oklahoma and parts of Kansas. Some indigenous nations resisted forced migration more forcefully. Those few who stayed behind eventually formed tribal groups including the Eastern Band Cherokee, based in North Carolina, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and the Creeks in Atmore, Alabama.
|Nation||Population east of the Mississippi before removal treaty||Removal treaty|
|Years of major emigration||Total number emigrated or forcibly removed||Number stayed in Southeast||Deaths during removal||Deaths from warfare|
|Choctaw||19,554  + white citizens of the Choctaw Nation + 500 black slaves||Dancing Rabbit Creek (1830)||1831–1836||12,500||7,000 ||2,000–4,000+ (Cholera)||none|
|Creek||22,700 + 900 black slaves ||Cusseta (1832)||1834–1837||19,600 ||100s||3,500 (disease after removal)||? (Second Creek War)|
|Chickasaw||4,914 + 1,156 black slaves||Pontotoc Creek (1832)||1837–1847||over 4,000||100s||500–800||none|
+ 2,000 black slaves
|New Echota (1835)||1836–1838||20,000 + 2,000 slaves||1,000||2,000–8,000||none|
|Seminole||5,000 + fugitive slaves||Payne's Landing (1832)||1832–1842||2,833 ||250–500 ||700 (Second Seminole War)|
Many figures have been rounded.
Tribes in the Old Northwest were far smaller and more fragmented than the Five Civilized Tribes, so the treaty and emigration process was more piecemeal. Bands of Shawnee, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Sauk, and Meskwaki (Fox) signed treaties and relocated to the Indian Territory. In 1832, a Sauk leader named Black Hawk led a band of Sauk and Fox back to their lands in Illinois. In the Black Hawk War, the U.S. Army and Illinois militia defeated Black Hawk and his warriors, resulting in the Sauk and Fox being relocated into what would become modern-day Iowa.
The Iroquois were also supposed to be part of Indian removal, and the Treaty of Buffalo Creek arranged for them to be removed to land in Wisconsin and Kansas. However, the land company that was to purchase the land for the territories reneged on their deal, and subsequent treaties in 1842 and 1857 gave back most of the Iroquois' reservations untouched. Only the Buffalo Creek Reservation was ever dissolved as part of the removal program; a small portion was purchased back over a century later to build a casino.