The Injustice of the Indian Removal Act 1830
The Indian Removal Act signed by Andrew Jackson in 1830 was meant to establish peace in the nation and to give the Native Americans their own territory where they could practice their own activities, traditions and culture without interference from the American government. However, the Act resulted in the forced migration of thousands of Native Americans from their traditional homelands to a region of the U.S. that did not suit their lifestyle or their culture. Many suffered and died during the march on the Trail of Tears from the Southern states to Oregon. Though Jackson may have had good intentions at the time, the removal can now be viewed as an American tragedy that might have been prevented. In fact, it was just one example of an exercise in human rights abuses in a long history of human rights abuses committed by the American governmentâ€”from the time of slavery even into the 21st century. This paper will describe the history of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and show why and how it became a disaster for the Native Americans.
The Origins of the Indian Removal Act
The removal of the Native Americans was not actually President Jacksonâ€™s idea. George Washington had proposed it, and other administrations had followed suit, forcibly removing the Choctaw and Cherokee from their native soil throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.[footnoteRef:2] Washington and Jefferson had promoted the idea of having the Indians adopt the American culture and begin practicing Christianity, speaking English, and adopting Western dress. However, Washington had wanted to establish treaties with the Indian tribes. Jackson did not see them as being nations but rather as being unwanted residents on land that the Southerners could use. Jackson wanted to use the military to remove the Indians and give their land in the south to the Southern states. He was willing to divide the land west of the Mississippi up into territories where the Indians could go to live. That was all there was to his intention. He did not intend for it to be a death march or an exile to a small and useless patch of land. Jacksonâ€™s aim, however, was to fortify the Southâ€”and he did not consider the effect of this forced relocation on the Native Americans or how this was an injustice to them, their heritage, their culture, their people, and their race. [2: Theda Perdue, “Both White and Red”. Mixed Blood Indians: Racial Construction in the Early South (The University of Georgia Press, 2003), 45.]
In the first half of the 1800s there was a great deal of enthusiasm and optimism, coursing through the veins of Americans. This letter from a Methodist woman published in the Ladiesâ€™ Repository magazine in 1850 represents well this overwhelming spirit of progressivism, as the author gushes over the invention of the electric telegraph and what it could mean for the worldâ€”i.e., America: â€œThis noble invention is to be the means of extending civilization, republicanism, and Christianity over the earth. It must and will be extended to nations half-civilized, and thence to those now savage and barbarousâ€¦â€[footnoteRef:3] This sentiment was also expressed by John Oâ€™Sullivan, who coined the phrase â€œManifest Destinyâ€ to convey the idea that it was Americaâ€™s God-given mission to extend its borders and rule the world.[footnoteRef:4] America in the first half of the 1800s was very race-focused and convinced that the WASP (white Anglo Saxon Protestant) ethic was far superior to that of any other ethic and that the American realm should be ruled over by WASPs with WASP ideas directing all domestic and foreign policy. Groups that did not fit into that way of being were conquered, vanquished or pushed to the very margins of society[footnoteRef:5]â€”which is essentially what happened to most of the Native Americans following the Indian Removal Act of 1830â€”with the exception of a few Cherokee, who managed to maintain some semblance of their old way of life in the South, as shall be seen.[footnoteRef:6] [3: â€œThe Magnetic Telegraph,â€ Ladiesâ€™ Repository 10(1850), 61.] [4: Oâ€™Sullivan, John. â€œAnnexation.â€ United States Magazine and Democratic Review, vol. 17, no. 1 (July-August 1845), 5.] [5: Eugene J., Cornacchia and Dale C. Nelson. “Historical differences in the political experiences of American blacks and white ethnics: Revisiting an unresolved controversy.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 15, no. 1 (1992), 102.] [6: Cherokee Preservation Foundation. â€œAbout the Eastern Band.â€ http://cherokeepreservation.org/who-we-are/about-the-ebci/]
A Need for â€œProgressâ€
The idea behind the Indian Removal Act was simple. It was basically viewed by the WASP leaders of the day that the South would be made stronger and more unified through the Indian Removal Act, and there would be no more contentions.[footnoteRef:7] In Georgia especially there was a big dispute between the Georgian authorities and the Cherokee nation over land, though it was not limited to Georgia. Other states had issues with the Cherokee nation as well. For instance Tennessee Governor John Sevier had written in 1803 a letter to the Cherokee asking for their permission to build a road through their territory. The fact that the leaders of the U.S. needed to jump through these hoops of seeking permission from the Cherokee to lay the groundwork of transportation infrastructure became more and more of a problem as the century wore on. In Sevierâ€™s letter one sees the kind of attitude the rulers of the U.S. had and what their view of the Cherokee was. Referring to President Jeffersonâ€™s desire to commission the building of a road in the South, Sevier stated to the Cherokee in his letter: [7: Alfred A. Cave, “Abuse of power: Andrew Jackson and the Indian removal act of 1830,” The Historian 65, no. 6 (2003), 1330.]
You have just now heard your Fatherâ€™s the President talk, sent to you and delivered by your brother Colonel Meigs. It is a request from your great Father that a road be opened for the good and benefit of all his children both red and white, and will be more so for our red brothers, as the road will be through their own land and they will have the benefit of the ferries, houses of entertainment and all oppertunities of selling and disposing of their corn meat and provisions of every kind. The road will be of the same use to yourselves to travel on, to market, and for every other advantage that it can be of to your Brothers the white peopleâ€¦[footnoteRef:8] [8: John Sevier, Letter to the Cherokee. https://dp.la/primary-source-sets/cherokee-removal-and-the-trail-of-tears/sources/1500]
There is a great deal of condescension and superiority in the letterâ€”and much emphasis on the distinctions of race; the Native Americans were openly called â€œredâ€ people and treated like odd, out of touch children in a world now ruled by superior â€œwhiteâ€ people, whose leader the â€œredâ€ people had to address as Father. The American leaders would soon tire of having to display this type of â€œdiplomacyâ€ and eventually the overall plan was just to remove the Native Americans and thus be rid of this need for â€œpolitenessâ€ whenever the American leaders wanted to initiative some new project in the Southern lands inhabited by the Cherokee.
To be fair, this was not the only time the American leaders thought of removal in order to address a problem. The problem of slavery and the freeing of the African Americans was met with the same idea of removal. Under Lincoln, a plan was even drawn up to remove the African Americans and put them in a new territory, called Linconia, which would have been in Latin America, had the host country accepted the idea. However, though the Republic of New Granada agreed to accept the settlement proposed under Linconia, Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras and Nicaragua all rejected the idea and the plan never came to fruition.[footnoteRef:9] Had it been permitted, the Trail of Tears of the Cherokee nation would have been bookended by a Trail of Tears of the African American nationâ€”two tragic forced migrations revealing the utter racial hypocrisy at the heart of the American Dream. As it stands, only the first is remembered by historyâ€”and that only barely, as far as American culture is concerned. The urban migration of freed slaves after the Civil War is but a footnote, though it too is full of its own tragic stories and tales of woe. [9: DiLorenzo, T. The Real Lincoln. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002), 18.]
Jackson believed the Indian Removal Act would settle the dispute and resolve the matter of what to do about the Cherokee in the South. Many in the South also felt the same wayâ€”that by simply removing them to the West, the problem would be solved.[footnoteRef:10] They did not anticipate the issues that would plague the Native American community for decades and decades to come as a result of the Act. Native Americans are among the most at-risk populations in the U.S. suffering from depression and substance abuse. It is all part of the historical trauma they suffered from moments in their past like the Trail of Tears.[footnoteRef:11] [10: Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815â€“1848 (Oxford University Press, 2007), 351.] [11: Brown-Rice, Kathleen. “Examining the Theory of Historical Trauma Among Native Americans.” Professional Counselor 3, no. 3 (2013).]
At the time, most in America did not anticipate these problems. Indeed, President Jackson, being from the South, felt that life in America was moving in a civilized direction away from the frontier days that defined early American life. He wanted a more uniform America, one where there would be no cultural conflicts. The longer the Indians were allowed to live alongside the Americans the more the conflict would worsen, it was believed by many WASPs in government and in positions of social power and influence. Thus, the Indian Removal Act was Jacksonâ€™s way of solving the situation and ending the perceived cultural conflict. Jackson even felt that by forcibly removing the Indians he would actually be saving them from their own destruction. Ironically, of course, destruction is exactly what occurred as the Native Americans were forced to migrate to a part of the country that they had never before seen in what became known as the Trail of Tears.[footnoteRef:12] [12: John Ehle, Trail of tears: The rise and fall of the Cherokee Nation (Anchor, 2011), 3.]
By forcibly segregating the Indians from white civilization, Jackson basically began a process of genocide, as a result of the vast numbers of Native Americans who died on the Trail of Tears.[footnoteRef:13] The Native Americans lost their homes, their sense of pride and self-worth; vast scores of them died, and many disappeared into the cracks of history. Today, the Native American population suffers the most of all ethnic groups in America from depression and suicide. They have basically lived separated from the American experience as though exiles within their own country.[footnoteRef:14] [13: John Ehle, Trail of tears: The rise and fall of the Cherokee Nation (Anchor, 2011).] [14: Brown-Rice, Kathleen. “Examining the Theory of Historical Trauma Among Native Americans.” Professional Counselor 3, no. 3 (2013).]
Jackson supported the Indian Removal Act because he viewed it as the natural step of progress. He was in this sense a Progressive. He imagined that Progress was like a slow rolling train that could not be stopped and that if anything got in its way, it would eventually be pushed out or crushed. Jackson imagined that the American Way of Life was something that the Cherokee were in the way of, and that the Native Americans with their way of life, culture and land had to be moved out of the way, since they were in front of that train. His support of the Removal Act really was, he felt, in their best interest. He rationalized it this way: Instead of being crushed by the train of progress, they would simply be relocated out of the way.
Effects of Removal
One-quarter of the Cherokee population perished as result of the Indian Removal Act.[footnoteRef:15] Thus, the only progress that was made was the eradication of the Native American peopleâ€”the continuation of a policy that had been in place from the Frontier days when the U.S. Calvary was essentially at war with the Native American tribes in the West, as the U.S. pushed and fought its way through the prairies and plains all the way to the Pacific to achieve its â€œmanifest destiny.â€ The reservations that the Native Americans would be settled in, however, were not even in very good condition and the Cherokee who survived and made it to them were not pleased or happy about what had happened to their way of life. [15: John Ehle, Trail of tears: The rise and fall of the Cherokee Nation (Anchor, 2011).]
By enforcing the Indian Removal Act, the U.S. government essentially denied the basic human rightâ€”the right to self-determinationâ€”to the Native Americans living in the U.S. The â€œwhitesâ€ would have this rightâ€”but not the â€œredsâ€â€”that was what the Indian Removal Act made clear. The racist ideology underlining the American Dream of prosperity persisted and manifested itself here. Americaâ€™s â€œmanifest destinyâ€ was really the manifestation of racism. In the U.S.A. only white Anglo Saxon Protestants were allowed to self-determine their futures. All others were expected to get out of the way or serve the interests of the WASPs.
In a realistic sense, one must admit that Jackson was right, however. The â€œprogressâ€ of America was always linked to the removal of the Native Americans from their land. After the French and Indian war, the British had sought to sign treaties with the Native Americans and to prevent colonists from advancing on the land of the various tribes, particularly the Iroquois, and taking it from them.
The Founding Fathers, however, did not want to be denied what they believed rightfully belonged to them. That is why they wanted to expand their borders and push further west. They believed it was their destiny to rule the entire region and to push all the way to the Pacific. They took Texas from Mexico and annexed it. They used the slaves to build up their agricultural industry. The used the Chinese to lay the railroad out West. They used the lack of â€œcivilizationâ€ of the Native Americans as a foil to justify their progress. They justified their actions by noting how technological innovation would allow them to spread their Protestant ethic.[footnoteRef:16] [16: â€œThe Magnetic Telegraph,â€ Ladiesâ€™ Repository 10(1850), 61.]
The Objection of Davy Crockett
Not everyone supported it, though. Tennessee Congressman and American folklore legend Davy Crockett spoke out against the Indian Removal Act in Congress and argued that it was an offense to American sensibilities and to the common sense idea of respect. Crockett bitterly regretted what he saw as tyrannical overreach by the federal government. He saw Vice President Martin Van Buren as an even bigger threat than President Jackson and stated so in his letter regarding the governmentâ€™s attitude behind the Indian Removal Act:
I have almost given up the Ship as lost. I have gone So far as to declare that if he martin vanburen is elected that I will leave the united States for I never will live under his kingdom. before I will Submit to his Government I will go to the wildes of Texas. I will consider that government a Paridice to what this will be. In fact at this time our Republican Government has dwindled almost into insignificancy our [boasted] land of liberty have almost Bowed to the yoke of Bondage. Our happy days of Republican principles are near at an end when a few is to transfer the many.[footnoteRef:17] [17: Davy Crockett, On the removal of the Cherokees, 1834, https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-now/spotlight-primary-source/davy-crockett-removal-cherokees-1834]
Crockett saw the Indian Removal Act as an abuse of power that would set a precedent for future American leaders. He feared that federal government was acting tyrannically and that in the years to come there would be much less freedom for everyone because there had been so little freedom shown to the Native Americans. The leaders in the White House saw it differently. They saw only Progress and the fact that the â€œredsâ€ remained different from the â€œwhitesâ€â€”and that there was no room in the South for both.
The Native American thus became for the U.S. a scapegoatâ€”a representation of backwardness, and the Indian Removal Act was the governmentâ€™s way of dealing with it. If the Americans did not want to follow in the steps of progress, they might as well regress to the barbaric traditions and customs of the Indian: that was basically how the government put the matter. It was an artificial and superficial argument, however, and one that simply did not hold water. The fact of the matter was that the Catholic missionaries had lived peaceably among many different Native American tribes and had converted many of them to the Christian religion without feeling it necessary to slaughter them, force them onto reservations and change their customs and traditions too much. The WASP ethic was very different.
The WASP culture was always racist and the removal of the Indians from their land was just one more step down the racist path of progress that American always felt was its Manifest Destiny. Yet in the wake of so much progress was the trail of the deadâ€”the Trail of Tearsâ€”the string of bodies that Progress left behind it. Progress for the U.S. has always been an act of war against tradition, culture, roots and family. Progress has always been about domination and hegemony.
And just as Crockett suspected, the result of the Indian Removal Act was the further institutionalization of WASP racism. The Civil War would be fought 30 years later and it would lead to the end of slavery, but only because Lincoln was essentially a radical tyrant, just the sort of leader Crockett anticipated. Lincoln assumed more power and authority than was actually granted him in the Constitution. He used that power to undermine many more freedoms of the people and the states, even though he is known for freeing the slavesâ€”a step he took, though, only because he thought it would help him to win the war against the South.[footnoteRef:18] [18: DiLorenzo, T. The Real Lincoln. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002).]
Not All Were Removed
Though the Indian Removal Act was signed in 1830, some Cherokee found a home for themselves in North Carolina, thanks to the kind efforts of sympathetic land owners. There were roughly 800 Cherokee who did not take the Trail of Tears. Granted, this was just a small fraction of those Cherokee who didâ€”all told they numbered about 16,000 who were removed from their land in the South. 400 Cherokee stayed to live on land owned by William Holland Thomas in the Smoky Mountains. Thomas was wholly sympathetic to the plight of the Cherokee, and his story shows how misunderstood they were by the WASPs in power. Thomas had been adopted by the Cherokee as a youth and now in his adulthood he wanted to return the favor and adopt as many of them as he could by inviting them to live on his land and have their own â€œreservationâ€ there in the South in the Smoky Mountains. Some few hundred more Cherokee were allowed to live in the Qualla Boundary of North Carolina in exchange for their assistance in helping the U.S. government to catch a wanted Cherokee leader named Tsali.[footnoteRef:19] [19: Kutsche, Paul. “The Tsali legend: culture heroes and historiography.” Ethnohistory 10, no. 4 (1963), 329.]
The Cherokee were native to the woodlands of the Southeastern parts of the United States. They were part of the Iroquois tribe, with whom the British had meant to form a treaty. The Founding Fathers did not want any sort of treaty with the Natives, however. They wanted the land. Men like Thomas were few and far between, and they were sympathetic because unlike many of the WASPs who led the federal government, he had actually lived with the Native Americans, and learned of their ways and had seen firsthand their humanity. He respected and loved them; after all, he had been adopted a Cherokee Chief in his youth.
Crockett was another who understood the injustice of the Indian Removal Act. He too had been a frontiersman and had seen what life was like in the wilderness. He had no quarrel with the â€œredsâ€ and believed it was a step too far for the government to force them off their land. It was the end, as far as he was concerned, of freedom in America.
The few Cherokee who remained in the South were able to build their communities, but today they are still not really free. They rely on tourism for the most part. They live as an anachronistic people who sell trinkets that are meant to represent some long lost history and culture to people who want to see something exotic.[footnoteRef:20] The authentic way of life of the Cherokee, however, is largely goneâ€”wipe out by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. [20: Smith, E. Tourism and Native Americans, 1982. https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/tourism-and-native-americans-63]
In conclusion, the Indian Removal Act was promoted as a natural step in the way of progress. The federal government wanted to take over the territory in the South, make sure that a â€œwhiteâ€ culture could prevail, and that there would be no obstacles to expansion, growth and the laying of infrastructure for the coming industrialization of the world. The authorities did not care that they might be infringing upon the rights of the Native Americans. The Native Americans were â€œredâ€â€”not â€œwhiteâ€â€”and to the WASPs that made all the difference. Human rights and dignity were for â€œwhitesâ€â€”not other races. That idea was inherent in the WASPs system from the beginning. They themselves did not even realize it. President Jackson thought it would actually be good for the Cherokee to have their own separate land. It was an idea echoed by Lincoln when he, later, thought it would be a good idea to remove blacks from the U.S. and set them up with their own colony in Central America. The weakness of their argument, however, is in the fact that there is nothing organic or natural about Removal. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was a total picking up of the Native American people and forcing them to go live on reservations where their spirit and way of life would be utterly destroyed. One could not have developed a better wayâ€”short of killing them all outrightâ€”of controlling and destroying the Native American people and culture in the 19th century. The outcome of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 was the further destruction of Americaâ€™s moral compass and a genuine loss of the ideal of freedomâ€”which is exactly how Davy Crockett saw it and why it saddened him so immensely.
Crockett, Davy, â€œOn the removal of the Cherokees, 1834,â€ Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-now/spotlight-primary-source/davy-crockett-removal-cherokees-1834
â€œThe Magnetic Telegraph.â€ Ladiesâ€™ Repository 10(1850): 61-62. Oâ€™Sullivan, John. â€œAnnexation.â€ United States Magazine and Democratic Review, vol.17, no. 1 (July-August 1845): 5-10.
Sevier, John. Letter to the Cherokee. DPLA. https://dp.la/primary-source-sets/cherokee-removal-and-the-trail-of-tears/sources/1500
Brown-Rice, Kathleen. “Examining the Theory of Historical Trauma Among Native Americans.” Professional Counselor 3, no. 3 (2013).
Cave, Alfred A. “Abuse of power: Andrew Jackson and the Indian removal act of 1830.” The Historian 65, no. 6 (2003): 1330-1353.
Cherokee Preservation Foundation. â€œAbout the Eastern Band.â€ Cherokee Preservation, 2010. http://cherokeepreservation.org/who-we-are/about-the-ebci/
Cornacchia, Eugene J., and Dale C. Nelson. “Historical differences in the political experiences of American blacks and white ethnics: Revisiting an unresolved controversy.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 15, no. 1 (1992): 102-124.
DiLorenzo, T. The Real Lincoln. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002.
Ehle, John. Trail of tears: The rise and fall of the Cherokee Nation. Anchor, 2011.
Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815â€“1848, 2007.
Kutsche, Paul. “The Tsali legend: culture heroes and historiography.” Ethnohistory 10, no. 4 (1963): 329-357.
Perdue, Theda. “Chapter 2 “Both White and Red””. Mixed Blood Indians: Racial Construction in the Early South. The University of Georgia Press, 2003.
Smith, E. Tourism and Native Americans. Cultural Survival, 1982. https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/tourism-and-native-americans-63
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