Indian removal

Early in the 19th century, while the rapidly-growing United States expanded into the lower South, white settlers faced what they considered an obstacle. This area was home to the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chicasaw and Seminole nations. These Indian nations, in the view of the settlers and many other white Americans, were standing in the way of progress. Eager for land to raise cotton, the settlers pressured the federal government to acquire Indian territory.

Andrew Jackson, from Tennessee, was a forceful proponent of Indian removal. In 1814 he commanded the U.S. military forces that defeated a faction of the Creek nation. In their defeat, the Creeks lost 22 million acres of land in southern Georgia and central Alabama. The U.S. acquired more land in 1818 when, spurred in part by the motivation to punish the Seminoles for their practice of harboring fugitive slaves, Jackson's troops invaded Spanish Florida.

From 1814 to 1824, Jackson was instrumental in negotiating nine out of eleven treaties which divested the southern tribes of their eastern lands in exchange for lands in the west. The tribes agreed to the treaties for strategic reasons. They wanted to appease the government in the hopes of retaining some of their land, and they wanted to protect themselves from white harassment. As a result of the treaties, the United States gained control over three-quarters of Alabama and Florida, as well as parts of Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky and North Carolina. This was a period of voluntary Indian migration, however, and 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. This was because their "right of occupancy" was subordinate to the United States' "right of discovery." In response to the great threat this posed, 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.

Although 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. This earned the nations the designation of the "Five Civilized Tribes." They adopted this policy of assimilation in an attempt to coexist with settlers and ward off hostility. But it only made whites jealous and resentful.

Other attempts involved ceding portions of their land to the United States 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 territory. The First Seminole War lasted from 1817 to 1818. The Seminoles were aided by fugitive slaves who had found protection among them and had been living with them for years. The presence of the fugitives enraged white planters and fueled their desire to defeat the Seminoles.

The Cherokee used legal means in their attempt to safeguard their rights. They sought protection from land-hungry white settlers, who continually harassed them by stealing their livestock, burning their towns, and sqatting on their land. In 1827 the Cherokee adopted a written constitution declaring themselves to be a sovereign nation. They based this on United States policy; in former treaties, Indian nations had been declared sovereign so they would be legally capable of ceding their lands. Now the Cherokee hoped to use this status to their advantage. The state of Georgia, however, did not recognize their sovereign status, but saw them as tenants living on state land. The Cherokee took their case to the Supreme Court, which ruled against them.

The Cherokee went to the Supreme Court again in 1831. This time they based their appeal on an 1830 Georgia law which prohibited whites from living on Indian territory after March 31, 1831, without a license from the state. The state legislature had written this law to justify removing white missionaries who were helping the Indians resist removal. The court this time decided in favor of the Cherokee. It stated that the Cherokee had the right to self-government, and declared Georgia's extension of state law over them to be unconstitutional. The state of Georgia refused to abide by the Court decision, however, and President Jackson refused to enforce the law.

In 1830, just a year after taking office, Jackson pushed a new piece of legislation called the "Indian Removal Act" through both houses of Congress. It gave the president power to negotiate removal treaties with Indian tribes living east of the Mississippi. Under these treaties, the Indians were to give up their lands east of the Mississippi in exchange for lands to the west. Those wishing to remain in the east would become citizens of their home state. This act affected not only the southeastern nations, but many others further north. The removal was supposed to be voluntary and peaceful, and it was that way for the tribes that agreed to the conditions. But the southeastern nations resisted, and Jackson forced them to leave.


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