Indian Removal Act

As the United States expanded into the lower South during the early 19th century, white settlers faced what they considered an obstacle—it was home to the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chicasaw and Seminole nations. Eager for land to raise cotton, the settlers pressured the federal government to acquire Indian territory.

Andrew Jackson, was a forceful proponent of Indian removal. From 1814 to 1824, Jackson was instrumental in negotiating treaties which divested the southern tribes off their eastern lands in exchange for lands in the west. The tribes agreed because they wanted to appease the government in the hopes of retaining some of their land, However, only a small number of Creeks, Cherokee and Choctaws actually moved to the new lands.

In 1823 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. The Creeks, Cherokee, and Chicasaw instituted policies of restricting land sales to the government. They wanted to protect what remained of their land before it was too late.

The five Indian nations had made earlier attempts at resistance, many of their strategies were non-violent. One method was to adopt Anglo-American practices such as large-scale farming, Western education, and slave-holding.

Other attempts involved ceding portions of their land to the U.S. with a view to retaining control over at least part of their territory, or of the new territory they received in exchange. Some Indian nations simply refused to leave their land— the Creeks and the Seminoles even waged war to protect their land. The First Seminole War lasted from 1817 to 1818.

The Cherokee used legal means to safeguard their rights. They sought protection from land-hungry white settlers, who harassed them by stealing their livestock, burning their towns, and squatting on their land. In 1827 the Cherokee adopted a written constitution declaring themselves to be a sovereign nation. The Cherokee took their case to the Supreme Court, which ruled against them. The Cherokee went to the Supreme Court again in 1831. The court this time decided in favor of the Cherokee. President Jackson refused to enforce the decision.

In 1830, just a year after taking office, Jackson pushed a new piece of legislation called the "Indian Removal Act.” It gave the president power to negotiate removal treaties with Indian tribes living east of the Mississippi. The Indians were to give up their lands east of the Mississippi in exchange for lands to the west. The removal was supposed to be voluntary and peaceful. But the southeastern nations resisted, and Jackson forced them to leave.

The Choctaws were the first to sign a removal treaty, which they did in September of 1830. Some chose to stay in Mississippi under the terms of the Removal Act. Those who stayed were no match for the land-hungry whites who squatted on Choctaw territory or cheated them out of their holdings. Soon most of the remaining Choctaws, sold their land and moved west.

A small group of Seminoles signed a removal treaty in 1833, but most of the tribe declared the treaty illegitimate and refused to leave. The resulting struggle was the Second Seminole War, which lasted from 1835 to 1842. In the end, most of the Seminoles moved to the new territory.

The Creeks also refused to emigrate. They signed a treaty in March, 1832, which opened a large portion of their Alabama land to white settlement, but guaranteed them protected ownership of the remaining portion. The government did not protect them from speculators, however, who quickly cheated them out of their lands
The Chickasaws had seen removal as inevitable, and did not resist. They signed a treaty in 1832 which stated that the federal government would provide them with suitable western land and would protect them until they moved.

The Cherokee were tricked with an illegitimate treaty. In 1833, a small group agreed to sign a removal agreement: the Treaty of New Echota. The leaders of this group were not the recognized leaders of the Cherokee nation, and over 15,000 Cherokees -- led by Chief John Ross -- signed a petition in protest. The Supreme Court ignored their demands and ratified the treaty in 1836. The Cherokee were given two years to migrate voluntarily or they would be forcibly removed. Then began the march known as the Trail of Tears, in which 4,000 Cherokee people died of cold, hunger, and disease on their way to the western lands.

Source: Indian Removal Act
Copyright © 1998, 1999 WGBH Educational Foundation

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