Skip to main content

Indian removal. Making the land east of the Mississippi safe from native attacks, and even safer for growing cotton using slave labor to do so. This had been in the minds of American presidents since the Republicans (Democratic-Republicans, if you insist) took office in 1800, and in some ways it contradicted Federalist policy.

Ojibwa wrote an excellent diary on this in February. We agree on the central idea:

Removal was essentially a racially motivated idea. In the nineteenth century, most Americans tended to view Indians in racial terms and ignored cultural differences. They viewed all Indians as the same.
I'll approach this by examining the background: George Washington's "civilization" project and Andrew Jackson's attitude toward Indians, especially the ones who participated in the project. We'll take a look at the act itself, especially its voluntary nature, and the language Jackson used to sell it. Then we'll examine the second thoughts people had about it, and what that may have led to.  Finally, we'll examine what Jackson told the "civilized" tribes about relocation. I'll be concentrating on the white people because the part of Jackson's second inaugural message that deals with removal is SO long and SO sanctimonious it needs to be exposed.

Reviewing this material reminded me that there's one particular book on which I based  most of my lecture notes.  Brief (134 pages), incisive, and very complete in its overview of the Act and its consequences:

The “Civilization” project

The treaty the Cherokee signed in 1791 stipulated that in order for “the Cherokee nation [to] be led to a greater degree of civilization and to become herdsmen and cultivators, the United States will, from time to time, furnish, gratuitously, the said nation with useful instruments of husbandry.” This led to a total breakdown of the tribal elder system, as the men no longer had anything to teach the boys if they were never going to hunt or to engage in warfare.  In fact, after 1794, the whole question of what it meant to be a Cherokee was thrown into question – the men couldn’t hunt because they were supposed to be in the fields, and if the men were supposed to be in the fields, what were the women who had done the largest share of cultivating the fields supposed to do? Some traditionalist Cherokees joined the westward migration of the Shawnees and Delawares and, by 1817, almost a third of the Cherokee Nation lived west of the Mississippi.

And those who stayed? Ethnicity even played into this; as William McLoughlin writes,

Those Cherokees, however, who were the sons of white traders, Tory refugees, army deserters, and those white men who had married into the nation made the most of the government’s economic aid and got the lion’s share of it.
By 1809 members of the Cherokee Nation owned 583 black slaves, and some people argued that any progress the Cherokees made toward civilization was due either to the high proportion of white blood in their veins or because they had slaves.  The Civilizationists weren't always mixed bloods, but there was decidedly a mixed-blood elite among the Cherokees. The Cherokee constitution, and the written language, indicated they weren’t about to assimilate and they wouldn’t be moved either.

General Jackson and the Indians

This is a modern copy of a portrait Asher Brown Durand painted in 1835; it hangs in the Governor's mansion in Tallahassee, Florida to commemorate Jackson's years as the first territorial governor.

In 1820 there were an estimated 125,000 Indians east of the Mississippi. Andrew Jackson already didn't like them.  His deep hostility was evident well before he became president; as early as 1793, he said that Indians (he didn't differentiate) desired only “to comit Murder with impunity.” In 1814, he defeated the Creek Indians in Alabama in 1814 (the First Creek War) on his way to New Orleans.  Jackson managed to get himself appointed treaty commissioner to negotiate with the southern tribes from 1815-1820.  In that role, he was able to force cessions of land upon both friendly and hostile tribes: the land included 1/5 Georgia, half of Mississippi and most of the land area of Alabama.  It's worth noting that Jackson had a personal financial interest in some of the lands whose purchase he arranged, predictably in prime cotton acreage in northern Alabama.

One of Jackson's first actions as president call for passage of a Removal act that would effectively dislodge Native Americans (especially Southern tribes) from land east of the Mississippi by granting them land west of the Mississippi. As Ojibwa pointed out, this was not a new idea.  It originated with Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe, in his final state of the union message in 1825, proposed that all Eastern Indians should be moved west of the Mississippi. In Jackson's first state of the union message to Congress 8 December 1829, he wrote  

This emigration should be voluntary, for it would be as cruel as unjust to compel the aborigines to abandon the graves of their fathers and seek a home in a distant land.
This was based on his belief that the states had sovereign power to pass laws that applied to everyone who lived within the state’s borders, and that the national government had no right to interfere in intrastate matters. He also believed that the nation’s treaties with various Indian nations weren’t really binding on the United States. If Indians lived in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, they’d have to submit to the laws of the states, and everyone knew what that meant:the abolition of tribal units and their powers, the invalidation of Indian possession of lands, the encouragement of white settlement on Indian territory, and denial to Indians of the right to vote or to testify.

Jackson claimed that by completing the “civilization” program, the Cherokees had doomed themselves to “weakness and decay” and were no longer able to fight off transgressors.  He told the Chickasaw, using the language of paternal helplessness: “Your great father has not the power to prevent” white settlers from moving onto their land. Removal was SUPPOSED to be voluntary, but the only whites Jackson ordered off tribal lands were those who opposed government policy, since he thought it was missionary influence that encouraged “real Indians” to resist removal.

The Indian Removal Act, 28 May 1830

An 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.

It authorized the President to set aside Indian territory on public lands west of Mississippi

not included in any state or organized territory, and to which the Indian title has been extinguished, as he may judge necessary, to be divided into a suitable number of districts, for the reception of such tribes or nations of Indians as may choose to exchange the lands where they now reside, and remove there; and to cause each of said districts to be so described by natural or artificial marks, as to be easily distinguished from every other.
To exchange districts there for lands now occupied by Indians in the East
for the whole or any part or portion of the territory claimed and occupied by such tribe or nation, within the bounds of any one or more of the states or territories, where the land claimed and occupied by the Indians, is owned by the United States, or the United States are bound to the state within which it lies to extinguish the Indian claim thereto.
To ensure the tribes
that the United States will forever secure and guaranty to them, and their heirs or successors, the country so exchanged with them; and if they prefer it, that the United States will cause a patent or grant to be made and executed to them for the same: Provided always, That such lands shall revert to the United States, if the Indians become extinct, or abandon the same.
These are the lands (
1. "Forever." 2. "Become extinct." You see where this is going.

To ensure that property left behind be properly appraised and fair compensation be paid, to give the emigrants “aid and assistance” on their journey and for the first year after they arrived in the new country, and to protect them

against all interruption or disturbance from any other tribe or nation of Indians, or from any other person or persons whatever.
To protect these Indians from hostile Indians in the West and from any other intruders. This is promising, no?
And be it further enacted, That it shall and may be lawful for the President to have the same superintendence and care over any tribe or nation in the country to which they may remove, as contemplated by this act, that he is now authorized to have over them at their present places of residence: Provided, That nothing in this act contained shall be construed as authorizing or directing the violation of any existing treaty between the United States and any of the Indian tribes.

And be it further enacted, That for the purpose of giving effect to the Provisions of this act, the sum of five hundred thousand dollars is hereby appropriated, to be paid out of any money in the treasury, not otherwise appropriated.

That would be around $300,000,000 in today's money, or $2400/capita.  Not that much.

The Act had no provision in the bill authorizing the seizure of land that Indians declined to cede, and insistence on the voluntary nature of removal was necessary to get the bill passed.

The bill passes, and Jackson explains what it means

Ojibwa gave you the defense of the bill by people like Lewis Cass of Michigan.  There was opposition too. Both houses of congress were deluged by hundreds of petitions and memorials, solicited by religious groups and benevolent societies who were opposed to Indian removal. The attack on the bill observed that the Jackson administration was refusing to enforce existing treaties, and was thus violating the Constitution. The bill's supporters appealed to each state’s rights to exercise sovereignty over the Indians who lived within the state because no one understood the bill to do anything but help states force the Indians from their land. Jackson himself understood from the outset that states would refuse to offer full protection to any Indians who stayed behind. In general, representatives from eastern and northern states opposed the bill, and southern and Western delegates favored it. The Senate passed it by a vote of 28-19 4/23/30 28-19; 5/24 the House passed it by a narrower margin, 103-97.

Jackson signed it May 28 1830, and in his second address to Congress he called it “true philanthropy.” It's a long message, so I'll just keep the most sanctimonious and hypocritical material. He went on:

It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly 30 years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation . . . It puts an end to all possible danger of collision between the authorities of the General and State Governments on account of the Indians. It will place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters [The Caddo, Osage, Quapaw, Wichita and Comanche who live in Indian Country already].

By opening the whole territory between Tennessee on the north and Louisiana on the south to the settlement of the whites it will incalculably strengthen the SW frontier and render the adjacent States strong enough to repel future invasions without remote aid. It will relieve the whole State of Mississippi and the western part of Alabama of Indian occupancy, and enable those States to advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power. It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.

It will allow slaveholders to plant more cotton and, incredibly, will allow the Southern tribes to behave exactly the way they behaved before they were removed from their ancestral homes. Here's George Catlin on the "improvements" of civilization.  This is the Assiniboine chief Wi-Jun-Jon (Pigeon's Egg Head, or The Light) on his way to and on his way from Washington, D.C. (1837-39)
These treaties, being probably the last which will ever be made with them, are characterized by great liberality on the part of the Government. They give the Indians a liberal sum in consideration of their removal, and comfortable subsistence on their arrival at their new homes. If it be their real interest to maintain a separate existence, they will there be at liberty to do so without the inconveniences and vexations to which they would unavoidably have been subject in Alabama and Mississippi.
What chance do you think there was that any of these promises would be kept?
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?   . . . Doubtless it will be painful to leave the graves of their fathers; but what do they more than our ancestors did or than our children are now doing? To better their condition in an unknown land our forefathers left all that was dear in earthly objects. Our children by thousands yearly leave the land of their birth to seek new homes in distant regions. Does Humanity weep at these painful separations from every thing, animate and inanimate, with which the young heart has become entwined? Far from it. It is rather a source of joy that our country affords scope where our young population may range unconstrained in body or in mind, developing the power and faculties of man in their highest perfection.
If white people move "to better their condition" why can't the Indians do the same thing? Maybe because the Indians have different conceptions of their relationship to the land, and maybe because they survived the first hundred years of European presence in Indian country?

And this is my favorite:

And is it supposed that the wandering savage has a stronger attachment to his home than the settled, civilized Christian? Is it more afflicting to him to leave the graves of his fathers than it is to our brothers and children? Rightly considered, the policy of the General Government toward the red man is not only liberal, but generous. He is unwilling to submit to the laws of the States and mingle with their population. To save him from this alternative, or perhaps utter annihilation, the General Government kindly offers him a new home, and proposes to pay the whole expense of his removal and settlement.
Out of harm's way?  Again, what some people used as the explanation for the removal of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast in World War II.

The Opponents of Removal React

Edward Everett
, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The opponents of Jackson and removal refused to abandon the issue. On February 7 1831 Edward Everett presented a memorial from his constituents in Massachusetts praying for repeal of the Act to the House.  His motion to refer it to the Committee on Indian Affairs passed 101-93 (this means at least a few people who voted FOR the act wanted the memorial presented). Everett addressed the House February 14. He  described the Indian question as the greatest question to come before Congress short of questions of war, and went on to observe that Jackson and the State of Georgia had refused to uphold legal and binding treaties in a way that made them guilty of nullification. Northern Jacksonians broke with President, several absented themselves the day of the vote, and the House vote was sectional too, but the attempt to repeal the bill failed.

The Supreme Court was involved in challenges to the bill too. The Cherokees moved for an injunction to restrain Georgia from executing and enforcing its laws against the Cherokee. Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) challenged the constitutionality of Georgia’s attempt to execute state law within Indian country.  It was dismissed on the technical ground that an Indian nation was not a foreign state but a “ward” of its “guardian, the United States, with no standing to bring suits before the Supreme Court. A dissenting opinion, signed by two judges (and apparently encouraged by Chief Justice Marshall), argued that the Cherokee were a foreign state and that accordingly the Court held final jurisdiction. One of the judges, Joseph Story, confided to his wife,

I never in my whole life was more affected by the consideration that they and their whole race are destined to destruction.  I feel, as an American, disgraced by our gross violation of the public faith toward them.  I fear, and greatly fear, that in the course of Providence there will be dealt to us a heavy retributive justice
Then, because the Second Great Awakening had led missionaries to redouble their efforts among the Indians, Georgia had passed a law that prohibited the residence of whites (with the exception of government employees) in Indian territory, and several missionaries, including Samuel Worcester
were arrested for violating the law. The Georgia courts upheld the law but released the defendants on the grounds that they qualified as agents of the federal government.

The Governor of Georgia arranged with the Jackson administration to disavow any relation between the government and the missionaries, rearrested Worcester for refusing to leave Cherokee territory, and sentenced him, physician Elizur Butler, and nine others to four years in the Georgia penitentiary. Worcester v. Georgia (1832) found against Georgia’s right to supersede federal authority over Indian tribes, ruling that the Cherokee Nation

is a distinct community, occupying its own territory, with boundaries accordingly described, in which the laws of Georgia can have no force, and which the citizens of Georgia have no right to enter, but with the assent of the Cherokee themselves, or in conformity with treaties and acts of Congress.
Jackson wasn’t impressed, and whether or not he said “Let Marshall enforce it” the words represent his sentiments because the administration did nothing to aid missionaries or to deter intruders.

Historians have come to believe that disappointment among the people who tried to repeal the Indian Removal Act drove them into the antislavery camp, and that it is no accident that the beginning of the 1830s saw the emergence of people like William Lloyd Garrison. The fate of the Indians deserves a separate diary, but what I'll say about that is that if the Creek had had a written language in the 1830s, removal would be mostly about them.

9:24 PM PT: Thank you, Native American Netroots, Three Star Kossacks and Community Spotlight for republishing this, and thank you, readers, for the Rec List.

Originally posted to History for Kossacks on Sun May 27, 2012 at 03:01 PM PDT.

Also republished by Native American Netroots, Three Star Kossacks, and Community Spotlight.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site