The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced countless Indians from their homes to reservations and government lands on the western side of the Mississippi River. It was this legislation that led to the tragic Trail of Tears.
The legislation was pushed through by then President Andrew Jackson, despite opposition from Congress. The act was supposed to provide voluntary relocation, complete with resources and government aid where necessary. That’s not how it played out, though; because Andrew Jackson was determined to remove the Indians from their land on his own terms. The Indian Removal Act only functioned as a smokescreen for his true intentions.
But what caused him to take such drastic action and push the legislation through? While the facts were not very clear at the time, thanks to government cover ups and a general media hush in many instances, the truth is much easier to see now.
Andrew Jackson’s History with the Native Americans
Andrew Jackson and his run-ins with the Indians didn’t start once he was president. He had battled against Indians briefly during the Revolutionary War, and then to a far greater extent in Florida in the First Seminole War. There he went far beyond his orders to protect the territory from Spanish control and brutally wiped out the villages of many Seminole tribes who were aiding the Spanish. He had a reputation as a man with a temper, and he grew up moving from one war to the next.
Andrew Jackson was a man of ambition, and he didn’t let anyone get in his way. He owned hundreds of slaves before rising through the political ranks, and he was known as a cutthroat statesman as he began to gain political power.
As a military commander, Jackson would be directly involved in Indian affairs. He often met with tribes in his area and told them they had no future as warriors and that they should give up their traditional ways to become hunters and gatherers. During his tenure as a military commander, Andrew Jackson convinced 11 different tribes to divest their lands and move to the West or to simply give up portions of their lands to white settlers and the U.S. government.
Jackson’s Presidential Policy
His handling of the Indian nations continued the same way it always had when he ascended to the highest office in the nation. He was a strong proponent of Indian removal, and he believed the Indians should be subject to the state laws. He did not see them as sovereign nations.
This was a point of contention since the very earliest dealings between the U.S. Government and the Indian nations. They wanted to retain their autonomy and govern themselves. They saw their own tribes as Indian nations living within the United States but not a part of it nor subject to it. The United States’ definition of the Indian people varied from one presidency to the next, but they were never treated with the respect and sovereignty that they desired to that point.
Jackson described the Indians as children that need a parent and who could not govern themselves. He saw them as his wards to a degree, and he treated them with the same disdain as one would an errant child, strictly punishing them when he thought they were getting out of line.
Such was the case with the Indian removal treaty, which, when several tribes resisted against its stipulations, he forced them to move to new lands on the other side of the Mississippi. For years before that, the Indians had been trying through legal means to regain their sovereignty and be officially recognized as sovereign powers by the U.S. Government. They lobbied and petitioned and attempted to get laws passed that would honor their traditions and ways of life, but they continuously ran up against people who treated them the same way Andrew Jackson did or even worse.
The Moment Everything Changed
The opposition to their sovereignty attempts was strong, and Andrew Jackson became tired of locking horns with them over the same issues again and again. Then, in 1930, Georgia brought complaints to the U.S. Government about its rights of governance over the Indians living within its borders. In particular, the state of Georgia wanted ownership of the Indian lands – to decide what was to be done with the lands and to determine whether the Indians were to stay or leave.
Georgia had been in talks with the government for years about these kinds of governing issues, and in 1930, they started to speed up the process of determining ownership and governance and tried to force their rule over the Indians and their lands into law.
President Andrew Jackson had tolerated enough of this battling between states and Indians, and he pushed the Indian Removal Act through Congress. This law stipulated that any removal of the Indians would be voluntary and they would own specified lands on the western side of the Mississippi forever. Of course, we know how those promises were repeatedly broken.
There were those tribes who did sign the act voluntarily and then moved onto those western lands. But many more fought against it, refusing to sign and launching attacks against military targets close to their lands when they thought their sovereignty was being jeopardized.
The resistance to the act caused Andrew Jackson to react even more severely. He said the Indian nations could not survive without government oversight, and promptly forced thousands of Indians to move from their homes to the reservations on the other side of the Mississippi. Those that resisted were either jailed or executed and the voluntary nature of the act was almost completely ignored.
Had a different president been in power at the time or had Georgia not pushed for control of Indian lands, the Indian Removal Act might have been delayed a while longer, but it was an eventuality without widespread change coming first. That change came afterwards and certain reparations have been made to the Indians since then, but the tragedy had already occurred and there was no taking it back.
The Ugly Closing Act
As of 1838, only 2,000 or so Cherokee Indians had left Georgia and so then-President Martin Van Buren assigned responsibility to General Winfield Scott to accelerate the process. Scott took 7,000 troops into the Indian territories and rounded up more than 12,000 into stockades. After a brief period of organization, those Cherokees were forced to march across the U.S. to reservation lands in Oklahoma. It was a brutal trip during which some 5,000 Indians are believed to have died, and is now hauntingly call the Trail of Tears.