Indian removal was a forced migration in the 19th century whereby Native Americans were forced by the United States government to leave their ancestral homelands in the eastern United States to lands west of the Mississippi River, specifically to a designated Indian Territory (roughly, modern Oklahoma). The Indian Removal Act was signed by Andrew Jackson, who took a hard line on Indian removal, but it was put into effect primarily under the Martin van Buren administration.
Indian removal was a consequence of actions first by European settlers to North America in the colonial period, then by the United States government and its citizens until the mid-20th century. The policy traced its direct origins to the administration of James Monroe, though it addressed conflicts between European Americans and Native Americans that had been occurring since the 17th century, and were escalating into the early 19th century as white settlers were continually pushing westward. The Indian Removal Act was the key law that forced the removal of the Indians, and was signed into law by President Andrew Jackson on May 28, 1830.
American leaders in the Revolutionary and Early National era debated whether the American Indians should be treated officially as individuals or as nations in their own right. Some of these views are summarized below.
In a draft, "Proposed Articles of Confederation", presented to the Continental Congress on May 10, 1775, Benjamin Franklin called for a "perpetual Alliance" with the Indians for the nation about to take birth, 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.
In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Thomas Jefferson 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 to the Marquis de Chastellux in 1785, "I believe the Indian then to be in body and mind equal to the whiteman". His desire, as interpreted by Francis Paul Prucha, was for the Native Americans to intermix with European Americans and to become one people. To achieve that end, Jefferson would, as President, offer U.S. citizenship to some Indian nations, and propose offering credit to them to facilitate their trade—with the expectation, as Bernard Sheehan argues, that they would be unable to honor their debts and thereby allow the United States to acquire their land.
President George Washington, in his address to the Seneca nation in 1790, describing the pre-Constitutional Indian land sale difficulties as "evils", asserted that the case was now entirely altered, and publicly pledged to uphold their "just rights". 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, in his Fourth Annual Message to Congress, 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 Annual Message to Congress, Washington intimated that if the U.S. government wanted peace with the Indians, then it must give peace to them, and that if the U.S. wanted raids by Indians to stop, then raids by American "frontier inhabitants" must also stop.
The Confederation Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which would serve broadly as a precedent for the manner in which the United States' territorial expansion would occur for years to come, calling for the protection of Indians' "property, rights, and liberty": The U.S. Constitution of 1787 (Article I, Section 8) makes Congress responsible for regulating commerce with the Indian tribes. In 1790, the new U.S. Congress passed the Indian Nonintercourse Act (renewed and amended in 1793, 1796, 1799, 1802, and 1834) to protect and codify the land rights of recognized tribes.
As president, Thomas Jefferson developed a far-reaching Indian policy that had two primary goals. First, the security of the new United States was paramount, so Jefferson wanted to assure that the Native nations were tightly bound to the United States, and not other foreign nations. Second, he wanted "to civilize" them into adopting an agricultural, rather than a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. These goals would be achieved through the development of trade and the signing of treaties.
Jefferson initially promoted an American policy that encouraged Native Americans to become assimilated, or "civilized". As President, Jefferson made sustained efforts to win the friendship and cooperation of many Native American tribes, repeatedly articulating his desire for a united nation of both whites and Indians, as in 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.
When a delegation from the Upper Towns of the Cherokee Nation lobbied Jefferson for the full and equal citizenship George Washington had promised to Indians living in American territory, his response indicated that he was willing to accommodate citizenship for those Indian nations that sought it. 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.
As some of Jefferson's other writings illustrate, however, he was ambivalent about Indian assimilation, even going so far as to use the words "exterminate" and "extirpate" regarding tribes that resisted American expansion and were willing to fight to defend their lands. Jefferson's intention was to change Indian lifestyles from hunter-gatherering to farming, largely through "the decrease of game rendering their subsistence by hunting insufficient". He 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, or else be removed to lands west of the Mississippi. In a private 1803 letter to William Henry Harrison, Jefferson wrote:
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.
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.
By the terms of the treaty of February 27, 1819, the U.S. government would again offer citizenship to the Cherokees who lived east of the Mississippi River, along with 640 acres of land per family. Native American land was sometimes purchased, either via a treaty or under duress. The idea of land exchange, that is, that 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 had first been incorporated in treaties in 1817, years after the Jefferson presidency. 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 Arkansaw 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, forcing Adams to make a treaty with the Cherokees granting Georgia the Cherokee lands. On July 26, 1827, the Cherokee Nation adopted a written constitution modeled after that of the United States which declared they were an independent nation with jurisdiction over their own lands. Georgia contended that it would not countenance a sovereign state within its own territory, and proceeded to assert its authority over Cherokee territory. When Andrew Jackson became president as the candidate of the newly organized Democratic Party, he agreed that the Indians should be forced to exchange their eastern lands for western lands and relocate to them, and enforced Indian removal policy vigorously.
When Andrew Jackson assumed office as president of the United States in 1829, his government took a hard line on Indian Removal policy. Jackson abandoned the policy of his predecessors of treating different Indian groups as separate nations. Instead, he aggressively pursued plans against all Indian tribes which claimed constitutional sovereignty and independence from state laws, and which were based east of the Mississippi River. They were to be removed to reservations in Indian Territory west of the Mississippi (now Oklahoma), where their laws could be sovereign without any state interference. At Jackson's request, the United States Congress opened a debate on an Indian Removal Bill. After fierce disagreements, the Senate passed the measure 28–19, the House 102–97. Jackson signed the legislation into law May 30, 1830.
In 1830, the majority of the "Five Civilized Tribes"—the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee—were living east of the Mississippi. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 implemented the federal government's 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 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville, the French historian and political thinker, witnessed an exhausted group of Choctaw men, women and children emerging from the forest during an exceptionally cold winter near Memphis, Tennessee, on their way to the Mississippi to be loaded onto a steamboat, and wrote:
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.
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, which was negotiated and signed by a small faction of only twenty Cherokee tribal members, not the tribal leadership, on December 29, 1835. Most of the Cherokees later blamed them and the treaty for the forced relocation of the tribe in 1838. An estimated 4,000 Cherokees 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 heard the case in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), but declined to rule on its merits, instead declaring that the Native American tribes were not sovereign nations, and had no status to "maintain an action" in the courts of the United States. In Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the court held, in an opinion written by Chief Justice Marshall, that individual states had no authority in American Indian affairs.
Yet the state of Georgia defied the Supreme Court ruling, and the desire of white settlers and land speculators for Indian lands continued unabated. Some whites claimed that the Indian presence was a threat to peace and security; the Georgia legislature passed a law that after March 31, 1831, forbade whites from living on Indian territory without a license from the state, in order to exclude white missionaries who opposed Indian removal.
In 1835, the Seminole people refused to leave their lands in Florida, leading to the Second Seminole War. Osceola was a war leader of 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 a peace near Fort Peyton. Osceola died in prison of illness. The war would result in over 1,500 U.S. 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 a part 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 reached an agreement that purchased land from the previously removed Choctaw after a bitter five-year debate, paying them $530,000 for the westernmost part of Choctaw land. Most of the Chickasaw moved in 1837–1838. The $3,000,000 that the U.S. owed the Chickasaw went unpaid for nearly 30 years.
As a result, the Five Civilized Tribes were resettled in the new Indian Territory in modern-day Oklahoma. The Cherokee occupied the northeast corner of the Territory, as well as a strip of land seventy miles wide in Kansas on the border between the two. Some indigenous nations resisted forced migration more strongly. Those few that stayed behind eventually formed tribal groups, including the Eastern Band of Cherokee based in North Carolina, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and the Creeks in Alabama, including the Poarch Band.
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 ensuing 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 present day Iowa.
Tribes further to the east, such as the already displaced Lenape (or Delaware tribe), as well as the Kickapoo and Shawnee, were removed from Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio in the 1820s. The Potawatomi were forced out in late 1838 and resettled in Kansas Territory. Many Miami were resettled to Indian Territory in the 1840s.
By the terms of the Second Treaty of Buffalo Creek (1838), the Senecas transferred all their land in New York, excepting one small reservation, in exchange for 200,000 acres of land in Indian Territory. The U.S. federal government would be responsible for the removal of those Senecas who opted to go west, while the Ogden Land company would acquire their lands in New York. The lands were sold by government officials, however, and the money deposited in the U.S. Treasury. The Senecas asserted that they had been defrauded, and sued for redress in the U.S. Court of Claims. The case was not resolved until 1898, when the United States awarded $1,998,714.46 in compensation to "the New York Indians". In 1842 and 1857, the U.S. signed treaties with the Senecas and the Tonawanda Senecas, respectively. Under the treaty of 1857, the Tonawandas renounced all claim to lands west of the Mississippi in exchange for the right to buy back the lands of the Tonawanda reservation from the Ogden Land Company. Over a century later, the Senecas purchased a nine-acre plot (part of their original reservation) in downtown Buffalo to build the "Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino".
The following is a compilation of the statistics, many containing rounded figures, regarding the Southern removals.
|Nation||Population east of the Mississippi before removal treaty||Removal treaty
& year signed
|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
|700 (Second Seminole War)|
Historical views regarding the Indian Removal have been re-evaluated since that time. Widespread acceptance at the time of the policy, due in part to an embracing of the concept of Manifest destiny by the general populace, have since given way to somewhat harsher views. Descriptions such as "paternalism", ethnic cleansing, and even genocide have been ascribed by historians past and present to the motivation behind the Removals.
Andrew Jackson's reputation took a blow for his treatment of the Indians. Historians who admire Jackson's strong presidential leadership, such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., would skip over the Indian question with a footnote. Writing in 1969, Francis Paul Prucha argued that Jackson's removal of the Five Civilized Tribes from the very hostile white environment in the Old South to Oklahoma probably saved their very existence. In the 1970s, however, Jackson came under sharp attack from writers, such as Michael Paul Rogin and Howard Zinn, chiefly on this issue. Zinn called him "exterminator of Indians"; Paul R. Bartrop and Steven Leonard Jacobs argue that Jackson's policies did not meet the criterion for genocide or cultural genocide.
Even though the term “ethnic cleansing” has been applied mainly to the history of nations other than the United States, no term better fits the policy of United States "Indian Removal".
When you move a people from one place to another, when you displace people, when you wrench people from their homelands... wasn't that genocide? We don't make the case that there was genocide. We know there was. Yet here we are.
Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 38, 1 July–12 November 1802, ed. Barbara B. Oberg. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011, pp. 628–631.]
There is no doubt that Jefferson wanted to get Indians into debt so that he could lop off their holdings through land cessions.
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.Primary source.
The court has bestowed its best attention on this question, and, after mature deliberation, the majority is of the opinion that an Indian tribe or nation within the United States is not a foreign state in the sense of the constitution, and cannot maintain an action in the courts of the United States.