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The Indian Removal Act was a law that was passed during the presidency of Andrew Jackson on May 28, 1830. The act authorized him to negotiate with the Native Americans 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, consisting of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, and Seminole, were well 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. Effectively, all Native Americans who had adopted a civilized behavior could remain east of the Mississippi. He planned to guide them towards practicing an agriculturally 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 spoke of enacting a law for Indian removal.
In the 1823 case of Johnson v. M'Intosh, the 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 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 comprise 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. He believed he could only accommodate the desire for Indian self-rule in federal territory and that required re-settlement west of the Mississippi River on federal land.
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 supposed to be 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. Other tribal people affected and removed were the Wyandot, the Potowatomi, the Shawnee, and the Lenape.
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 Cherokee nation. President Jackson hoped removal would resolve the Georgia crisis.
The Indian Removal Act was highly controversial. While most European Americans during this time favored the passage of the Indian Removal Act, 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 was passed after bitter debate in Congress.
The Removal Act paved the way for the reluctant—and mostly forcible—emigration of tens of thousands of American Indians to the West, an event widely known as the "Trail of Tears." 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. A Choctaw chief, thought to be Thomas Harkins or Nitikechi, was quoted in the Arkansas Gazette as saying the 1831 Choctaw removal was a "trail of tears and death". 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 amongst American soldiers and Seminoles.
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