During his eight years as president of the United States, Andrew Jackson passed one major piece of legislation: the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
A bill set up to allow negotiations between the federal government and tribal nations for land exchanges, it quickly set the precedent of forced indigenous removal. So what was the Indian Removal Act? And what were its impacts?
Don't forget the Intelligent Speech Conference is just a few weeks away - be sure to grab your tickets at www.intelligentspeechconference.com and use CIVICS to save 10%.
Burnett, John G. “The Cherokee Removal Through The Eyes of A Private Soldier.” December 11, 1890. (LINK)
Jackson, Andrew. Message to Congress on Indian Removal. December 6, 18330. (LINK)
Kidwell, Clara Sue. “The Effects of Removal on American Indian Tribes.” National Humanities Center. (LINK)
Kung, Jess and Shereen Marisol Meraji. “A Treacherous Choice and a Treaty Right.” Codeswitch. NPR. April 8, 2020. (LINK)
“Indian Removal.” PBS. (LINK)
Saunt, Claudio. “Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory.” New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2020.
The Removal Act of 1830. (LINK)
The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek Treaty With The Choctaw, 1830 September 27, 1830 7 Stat., 333. Proclamation, Feb. 24, 1831. Courtesy of the Choctaw Nation. (LINK)
“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, that it shall be and may be lawful for the President of the United States to cause so much of any territory belonging to the United States, west of the river 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,” May 28, 1830.
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey peeps. Welcome back.
As I mentioned last week, one of the central initiatives of the Jackson administration was the removal of the various indigenous tribes from territory they’d occupied for centuries. Given the act was Jackson’s sole main legislative accomplishment, and the devastation it meant for thousands of first americans, I felt it deserved its own episode.
What started out as a seemingly innocuous piece of legislation, quickly dissolved into the forced expulsion of thousands of first americans to clear a path for white settlers.
While the coerced relocation efforts included the infamous Trail of Tears, United States policy on native land holdings is so much more nuanced and devastating than the heartbreaking march taken by thousands of indigenous residents.
So this week, I am diving into the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the evolution of the forced relocation of thousands of Native Americans. How did the act come about? How did the policy evolve over the course of Jackson’s presidency? And what were the consequences for both the United States and the various tribes?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
Before we dive into the act of 1830, it is important to lay some groundwork. While Jackson was never a man supportive of indigenous populations, the call for the removal of whole communities from tracts of land did not start with his presidency. Ever since the arrival of european settlers on the shores of Virginia, there existed a tense relationship between those who were looking to develop new land and those who had lived there for generations. As the country expanded and more settlers came in, the call for native expulsion only intensified, with many citizens asking for the federal government to intervene and handle the quote unquote savage problem.
Trying to maintain their sovereignty and placate their white neighbors, many nateive tribes tried to break the label of savage by adopting a European way of life. They wore western clothes, learned the English language and participated in farming. All of this proved insufficient for a majority of the population who were committed in their belief the men and women of color living among them were dangerous and continued to pose a threat.
By the time Jackson was elected president in 1828, the government and settlers had succeeded in driving out large portions of tribal communities from the northeast. However, various tribes still controlled miles of potential farmland in the south. Nations such as Cherokee, Chickasaw and Creek held thousands of acres in what today is known as Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. So while Andrew Jackson built his career on his mistreatment of and total disregard for the thousands of native americans found throughout the south eastern parts of the country, he wasn’t entirely a man acting alone.
Many americans, committed to securing enough land to expand their crops, saw the indigenous nations as mere hurdles to overcome; savages who had no entitlement to the fertile soil needed for planting cotton. Jackson was a man of the moment and rode this wave of antagonism towards the first americans to the White House. And it was as president that Jackson really got to work, putting the entire federal government into clearing the fertile soil of indigeous families.
In the lone congressional accomplishment in his administration, Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. I read a selection of it at the top of the episode, but in essence, the legislation specified how the exchange of land was to be done. Giving the president the authority to negotiate removal treaties with the various tribal nations, first americans had two choices: give up their land and relocate to some other, often unknown, parcel of land west of the Mississippi or stay in place. If they decided to stay, they received no recognition as a separate sovereign nation or community; instead those registered with the government would become subject to the jurisdiction and laws of any state they lived in. Completely disregarding any established councils or borders created by these nations or the time spent cultivating their land and history, white settlers, and by extension the federal government, were solely focused on securing as much usable land for cotton.
The relocation and trading of lands was supposed to be voluntary and respect any existing treaties with various nations. Included in the bill’s language was a provision meant to honor prior agreements, quote: “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,” end quote. And initially, things were peaceful and various nations entered into agreements to trade their land and move west. But in a true comedy of errors, the government was trading land it didn’t really have a handle on. The area offered in trade for the first americans wasn’t exactly properly surveyed. Maps were incomplete or inaccurate and borders changed from map to map. As a result, representatives oversold land, promising parcels they didn’t entirely have details on, saying nothing of the fact that the land they were selling was also already settled by several other local nations.
Relocating thousands of people would cost money and initially the federal government was ready to foot the bill. But given it was federal dollars at stake, every effort was made to keep costs low. George Gibson, acting as the Commissary General of Subsistence for the Department of War, was responsible for approving or rejecting claims associated with the costs of travel. And Gibson was committed to his mission, prohibiting officers from purchasing extras like sugar or tea and banning the purchase of horses and wagons unless members of the relocation party were too young or too injured to make the journey on foot. Gibson was deeply committed to keeping costs low, even prohibiting the employment of a doctor or the purchase of medicine unless absolutely necessary. And while this may have been an easy decision for Gibson, it proved traumatizing to the men who were responsible for transporting the native families. Recalling his experience of watching his transports nearly freeze to death, an officer wrote quote: “I never did witness or experience anything equal to the scenes of the trip in my life and hope it will never be my lot to do it again,” end quote.
And despite Gibson’s best efforts to keep costs as low as possible, relocating thousands of individuals proved more costly than originally anticipated. The government’s original estimates put costs at moving families at $9 per person, of which they hoped to recouped $2 per person by reselling excess land. In reality, the cost was about $25 per person. The government also explored paying the individuals a set price to transport themselves, known as commutation.
However it was not only financial costs that spiraled out of control. The human cost of transporting the first americans, who often traveled hundreds of miles by foot, was astounding. Emigrating to their new homes on unpaved roads, marching through the elements including snow and rain, traveling parties watched helplessly as they lost members of the caravan. The human toll only got worse as Cholera hit the United States, further devastating the traveling parties.
It should come as no surprise that there were several tribes who were not interested in picking up their lives and moving to an unknown territory and were less than trusting of the registration process. Trying to work within the rules and laws of the United States, Cherokee Chief John Ross tried several cases before the supreme court in an effort to get the federal government to recognize the nation and their ability to self-govern. While the Supreme court agreed, Andrew Jackson did not and refused to enforce the court’s decision, making their decision essentially moot.
And what of those who went ahead and agreed to register their intent to remain? Well, they too fell victim to an unprepared government. Land agents responsible for filing the indigenous grants failed in their duty, leading to the General Land Office auctioning land to white settlers. As these owners arrived at their newly purchased parcels, many were ready to remove the families from their homes - by force if necessary. This left several nations without recourse, as the federal government seemed disinterested and otherwise incapable of providing a remedy. For members of the Chickasaw nation, who were disproportionately impacted by this failure of the land agent, attempted to make the best of the situation and entered into yet another agreement with the government in order to recoup at least some funds from their now stolen land. Under the terms of the contract, the United States agreed they would invest the proceeds of land sales for the use of the nation and would only deduct the expense associated with relocation.
If you thought that was a smooth process, then you haven’t been paying attention. Like almost everything else related to native removal, this was a demonstration of the dysfunction of government. The Chickasaw nation experienced a number of monetary slights affecting their bottom line, from being overcharged for relocation to failing to receive adequate compensation for the land. As historian Claudio Saunt wrote quote, “The United States made Chickasaws finance their own dispossession and pay for their own deportation,” end quote.
The hunger for land only continued to increase and citizens began to grow anxious at the length of time this quote unquote voluntary removal was taking. Despite the various carrots offered and the removal of several thousand indigenous tribes, by the middle of the 1830’s there still remained some sixty thousand inhabitants and speculators, politicians and the general public were getting frustrated. These were men who saw the potential value of the land they desired and the money to be made. If the tribes weren’t willing to voluntarily move, these men felt, then someone should force their hand.
This new attitude amongst the general public helped shift U.S. policy from one of removal to extermination. Always sensitive to the potential for an uprising, plantation owners were ever fearful of allowing the indigenous populations to remain on their land, lest they be motivated to join people in bondage in an uprising. Again from Saunt, quote: “the anxieties of white southerners about their tenuous control of hundreds of thousands of enslaved people were surpassed only by their interest in profiting from native dispossession,” end quote.
This all culminated in the infamous Trail of Tears. In 1835, several Cherokee signed the Treaty of New Echota wherein the United States government agreed to pay five million dollars and provide land in current day Oklahoma in exchange for nearly seven million acres of land. Though this treaty was opposed by a majority of the 16,000 member tribe, the government maintained the treaty was valid and it was ratified by Congress in 1836. The Cherokee were given a two year extension, but by 1836 only 2,000 members had moved. The federal government pulled no punches, sending some seven thousand troops to force the removal of the nation.
Over four thousand individuals died along the twelve hundred mile forced march towards their new homes in Oklahoma. Causes of death range from starvation to dysentery, with one particularly gruesome death involving an elderly man who, near freezing, decided to rest too close to a fire and burned to death. On his experience, George Hicks, who led a number of Cherokee on the trail, wrote quote: “it is (with sorrow) that we are forced by the authority of the white man to quit the scenes of our childhood, but stern necessity says we must go, and we bid a final farewell to it and all we hold dear East of the Father of Waters,” end quote.
So how did this policy impact the country? Well, the main champion himself, Andrew Jackson, he enjoyed wide ranging support from the country and was re-elected in a landslide in 1832. By the time he left office in 1837, his administration had successfully removed 46,000 indigenous americans. He continued to enjoy a sterling reputation, though many today find his paternalistic attitude towards individuals of color to be less than appetizing.
For settlers and farmers, this newly available land only served to create a great boon for the planter class. As the cotton crop continued to be in high demand, the fertile former soil of the native population was stripped and worked by thousands of enslaved men and women. Americans capitalized on the availability of massive plots of land and became so tied to their crop they eventually seceded from the union in order to protect their way of life.
For the indigenous americans, it was total devastation. On the eve of the forced migration in 1830, nearly 100,000 first americans resided in the disputed territory. By the close of the decade, that total plummeted to under 20,000. The United States spent roughly 75 million dollars to move thousands of individuals and families, and that’s with their cruel and deadly cost savings measures in place. Estimates place the total loss of generational wealth for Chickasaw families between four and ten million dollars, or roughly $4,200 per individual. Taking into consideration the potential for investment, and adjusted for inflation, that nest egg sits between $100,000 to well over a million dollars per individual, which would make the indigenous americans some of the wealthiest in the country.
Instead, the indigenous population is a shadow of what it once was. Instead of robust land holdings, their communities are limited to the various reservations peppered throughout the country. They were forced to relinquish their homeland and much of their culture, with things like ancestral burial grounds destroyed and planted over.
The relationship between native tribal members and the United State government was never quite the same.
To wrap up the impact and devastation of one of the darkest point in American history, I will end with a quote from a soldier who was on hand during the trail of tears who witnessed firsthand the devastation experienced by the Cherokee. Writing as an old man in 1890, John G. Burnett wrote quote: “Murder is murder, and somebody must answer. Somebody must explain the streams of blood that flowed in the Indian country in the summer of 1838. Somebody must explain the 4000 silent graves that mark the trail of the Cherokees to their exile. I wish I could forget it all, but the picture of 645 wagons lumbering over the frozen ground with their Cargo of suffering humanity still lingers in my memory.
Let the Historian of a future day tell the sad story with its sighs, its tears and dying groans. Let the great judge of all the earth weigh our actions and reward us according to our work,” end quote.
We’re not done with Mr. Jackson just yet peeps. Be sure to come back next week as I welcome a special guest to discuss Jackson and his presidency. I am very excited for you all to hear our conversation, so be sure to tune in.
Also, I want to remind everyone that the Intelligent Speech Conference is just a few weeks away. If you haven’t already, make sure you purchase your tickets at www dot intelligent speech conference dot com and use the code CIVICS to save yourself 10%.
Thanks, peeps. I will see you next week.
Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.