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Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears

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Introduction

The concept of a moral compass can be quite the subjective realm when considering the management of a nation. Take for example the decision by U.S. president Harry S. Truman, to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, ending the Second World War. Even more recently, the intervention on behalf of one’s own nation in the internal affairs of another nation. Such as in Operation Condor, where the U.S. sent government agents to manipulate the outcome of many presidential elections and coup d’états in Latin America for the purpose of keeping in check the spread of certain political ideas such as communism. In every decision made on the grand scale, there will always be a motive, which in retrospect can change the tune of a story forever.

Enter the early 19th century; a time of colonization and expansion in all directions. In the United States that expansion would mostly go westward into the lands inhabited by countless Native American tribes whom have been its residents for far more than a few mere centuries. The year is 1830 and the United States was still an infant nation at the time, having obtained its independence only about 50 years prior. The settlement of land on the western frontier was expeditious, pushing against Native American territories in only a few decades. It resulted in an increasing number of confrontations between settlers and Natives. Meanwhile, it was time for presidential elections in 1828, as candidate Andrew Jackson runs for a second time against his opponent John Quincy Adams after having lost the election the first time. He wins the vote by a landslide. Now the stage is set for the issue at hand. What will be done with those Native Americans on the very fringes of the new and upcoming United States?

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The Indian Removal Act of 1830

The general attitude of settlers towards Native Americans has always been one of two approaches. Either they are assimilated into the European culture, or they are removed entirely from the scene, almost exclusively by force. Originally proposed by George Washington, acculturation had made great strides among the Cherokee and Choctaw tribes by the turn of the 19th century. However, the current president Andrew Jackson did not believe that assimilation would work and opted to settle for a physical removal of the Native Americans living in the south east portion of the country. The states would undoubtfully want to cash in on this. This stemmed from a few key reasons.

Firstly, the states were growing in power and expanding all on their own. Each sought to expand its interests wherever possible. In “The American Journal of Legal History” J.D. Ethan Davis states: “the federal government had promised Georgia that it would extinguish Indian title within the state’s borders by purchase ‘as soon as such purchase could be made upon reasonable terms'”. Other southern states brought up the notion that there was no contract in the deal between Georgia and the Federal Government. Thus, they could otherwise pass the law themselves. This scheme between the states to acquire as much as possible pushed the Government into a position of full forwardness on the matter, making it almost inevitable that the law would be passed. Furthermore, in the famous supreme court case Johnson v. M’Intosh (pronounced McIntosh) in 1823, it was concluded that the only Native American lands and land sales which can be considered valid are those made or owned by the Federal Government, because the natives were neither an official independent nation, nor citizens of the United States.

Secondly, Andrew Jackson brought forth the following situation; Negotiating with the tribes who resided within the current state borders as if they were foreign autonomous nations was unconstitutional according to Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution. It states that:

“New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new States shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.”-Constitution of the United States, Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1

He creates an untenable position for the natives by monopolizing the solution in his favor. Either the natives must assimilate into the states, becoming part of their society, obeying their laws or they could live the lives they want, but only in the pre-designated federal territories west of the Mississippi River.

Thirdly, it is widely known that Andrew Jackson was prejudiced towards Native Americans. He had no intention of keeping them around. In his “Case for the Removal Act” he clearly and shamelessly shows his disdain for the natives, as if they were just something to be pushed to the side or be pocketed.

“It puts an end to all possible danger of collision between the authorities of the General and State Governments on account of the Indians. It will place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters… it will incalculably strengthen the southwestern frontier and render the adjacent States strong enough to repel future invasions without remote aid…It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.”- Andrew Jackson, Case for the Removal Act, First Annual Message to Congress, 8 December 1829

Jackson equates the Native Americans to “a few savage hunters” referring to their presence as a threat by implying that by expelling them, the land will be safer from “future invasions”. He then continues by labeling their institutions as “rude” and attempting to justify the whole operation by stating that the natives would finally be able to live the lives they want in the territories they’d be assigned after being removed.

Short- and Long-term Effects

Ultimately the Indian Removal Act of 1830 would divide the territory west of the Mississippi into districts for the Native American to compensate for the territory from which they were ousted. Not all were in favor of the legislation. People such as evangelist Jeremiah Evarts, New Jersey senator Theodore Frelinghuysen and the famous Tennessee Congressman Davey Crocket, who later met his end at the Battle of the Alamo, were all opposed. There were mainly five tribes in the area involved excluding a few minor ones: The Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, Creek, and Chickasaw tribes. Most of the tribes cooperated with the relocation, but one stayed and resisted through the courts. The Cherokee made a legal stand against the Government in court but ultimately the Government came to conveniently recognize the Cherokee in favor of relocation as the true representatives of the tribe and had them sign the Treaty of New Echota. This granted them $5 million and land out west. However, by 1838 there were still a couple of tens of thousands of Cherokees in the area. The president was now Martin Van Buren. He ordered their forced removal by the army. The Cherokee lost a quarter of their people on the way there, due to many conditions like sheer exhaustion and raiding from outlaws. This would come to be known as The Trail of Tears. In the long run the effects are more of a shameful sentiment towards what is otherwise an inhumane act and a downright abuse. Surely there are laws that must be followed, and justifications were attempted for the act in the notion that the native’s annihilation would be inevitable as history had previously shown. Ambition, greed and power decided the day for those with final say, and the result is undeniable. The heat of the moment paints one picture. Hindsight will always paint another. In every decision made, there will always be a motive, which in retrospect can change the tune of a story forever.

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