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The Indian Removal Act was a law passed by Congress on May 28, 1830, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. It authorized the president to negotiate with Indian tribes in the Southern United States for their removal to federal territory west of the Mississippi River in exchange for their homelands.
The act was strongly supported by non-native people of the South, who were eager to gain access to lands inhabited by the Five Civilized Tribes. Christian missionaries, most notably Jeremiah Evarts, protested against its passage.
The "Five Civilized Tribes," made up of the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, Seminole, and original Cherokee Nations, had been established as autonomous nations in the southeastern United States. The acculturation proposed by George Washington was well underway among the Cherokee and Choctaw. Thomas Jefferson's policy had been to respect the Native Americans' rights to their homelands, allowing all Native Americans who had adopted civilized behavior to remain east of the Mississippi. He planned to guide them towards practicing an agriculture-based society. However, Andrew Jackson sought to renew a policy of political and military action for the removal of the Native Americans from these lands and worked towards enacting a law for Indian removal.
In the 1823 case of Johnson v. M'Intosh, the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision which stated that Indians could occupy lands within the United States, but could not hold title to those lands. Jackson, as was common before the American Civil War, viewed the union as a federation of sovereign states. He opposed Washington’s policy of establishing treaties with Indian tribes as if they were foreign nations. Thus, the creation of Indian jurisdictions was a violation of state sovereignty under Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution. As Jackson saw it, either Indians comprised sovereign states (which violated the constitution) or they are subject to the laws of existing states of the Union. Jackson urged Indians to assimilate and obey state laws. Further, he believed he could only accommodate the desire for Indian self-rule in federal territories. That required re-settlement west of the Mississippi River on federal lands.
The Removal Act was strongly supported by non-native people in the South, who were eager to gain access to lands inhabited by the Five Civilized Tribes. In particular, Georgia, the largest state at that time, was involved in a contentious jurisdictional dispute with the Cherokees. President Jackson hoped removal would resolve the Georgia crisis.
The Indian Removal Act was controversial. While many European Americans during this time favored its passage, there was significant opposition. Many Christian missionaries, most notably missionary organizer Jeremiah Evarts, protested against passage of the Act. In Congress, New Jersey Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen and Congressman Davy Crockett of Tennessee spoke out against the legislation. The Removal Act passed after bitter debate in Congress.
Jackson viewed the demise of Indian tribal nations as inevitable, pointing to the advancement of settled life and demise of tribal nations in the American northeast. He called his northern critics hypocrites, given the north’s history; Indian tribes were driven to extinction, Indian hunting grounds replaced with family farms, and state law replaced tribal law. If the Indians of the south were to survive and their culture maintained, they faced powerful historical forces that could only be postponed. He dismissed romantic portrayals of lost Indian culture as a sentimental longing for a simpler time in the past—progress requires moving forward.
Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country and philanthropy has long been 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. … But true philanthropy reconciles the mind to these vicissitudes as it does to the extinction of one generation to make room for another … Philanthropy could not wish to see this continent restored to the condition in which it was found by our forefathers. 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 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?
Jackson, according to historian H. W. Brands, sincerely believed his population transfer was a “wise and humane policy” that would save the Indians from “utter annihilation.” Brand writes that given the “racist realities of the time, Jackson was almost certainly correct in contending that for the Cherokees to remain in Georgia risked their extinction.” Jackson portrayed his paternalism and federal support as a generous act of mercy.
On April 24, 1830, the Senate passed the Indian Removal Act by a vote of 28 to 19. On May 26, 1830, the House of Representatives passed the Indian Removal Act by a vote of 101 to 97. On May 28, 1830, the Indian Removal Act was signed into law by President Andrew Jackson.
While Native American removal was in theory voluntary, in practice great pressure was put on Native American leaders to sign removal treaties. Most observers, whether they were in favor of the Indian removal policy or not, realized that the passage of the act meant the inevitable removal of most Indians from the states. Some Native American leaders who had previously resisted removal now began to reconsider their positions, especially after Jackson's landslide re-election in 1832. Affected tribes included the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole. Additional tribal peoples affected and removed were the Wyandot, the Kickapoo, the Potowatomi, the Shawnee, and the Lenape.
The Removal Act paved the way for the reluctant migration of tens of thousands of American Indians to the West, an event widely known as the "Trail of Tears," a resettlement of the native population. The first removal treaty signed after the Removal Act was the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek on September 27, 1830, in which Choctaws in Mississippi ceded land east of the river in exchange for payment and land in the West. The Treaty of New Echota, signed in 1835, resulted in the removal of the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears. The Seminoles and other tribes did not leave peacefully. Along with fugitive slaves they resisted the removal. The Second Seminole War lasted from 1835 to 1842 and resulted in the forced removal of Seminoles. Only a small number remained, and around 3,000 were killed in the war between American soldiers and Seminoles.
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