In the first four decades of the nineteenth century, the United States cajoled, bribed, arrested, and ultimately removed approximately seventy thousand American Indians out of their ancestral lands in the American South. Although Pres. Andrew Jackson is often deemed the architect of this program, the removal of the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole began years before the 1830 Indian Removal Act and Jackson's subsequent use of the military to relocate the Indians.
In 1802 the state of Georgia agreed to cede its westernmost lands to the federal government, and in return the government vowed to extinguish the Indian title to lands within Georgia as soon as possible. In the following years the United States made only a few serious efforts to live up to that promise. After the 1803 Louisiana Purchase Pres. Thomas Jefferson pressured the Cherokee and other Indian nations to exchange their eastern domains voluntarily for regions in the newly acquired western territory. Only a few tribes accepted the offer. After the War of 1812 the United States obtained thousands of acres of Creek lands in Georgia and Alabama, but the acquisition did not accompany a larger plan for Creek removal.
Finally, in the 1820s Georgians began to demand that the United States extinguish the Indian title to lands within their state. Pres. James Monroe determined that arranging the exchange of acreage in the East for areas in the West was the best means to accomplish this goal. While the federal government tried to create inducements to convince the Southeastern Indians to leave their homes, the discovery of gold in Georgia led to more aggressive demands for immediate removal.
The election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency in 1828 encouraged Georgia and its land-hungry settlers. Jackson made his position clear in his first message to Congress. He told the Cherokees that they had no constitutional means to resist and that it was in their best interest voluntarily to move west. Staying would lead to their destruction. As Congress debated the issues, several Cherokees negotiated a removal agreement with the United States. Major Ridge, a Cherokee planter and soldier, his son John Ridge, and his nephew Elias Boudinot conducted these negotiations with the United States despite the expressed wishes of the majority of their nation. Most Cherokees, including Principal Chief John Ross, protested and tried to stop Ridge and his so-called Treaty Party.
On May 28, 1830, while Ridge and his supporters negotiated terms of removal with the United States, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act. This law provided the president with $500,000 to establish districts west of the Mississippi River, to trade eastern tribal lands for those districts, to compensate the Indians for the cost of their removal and the improvements on their homesteads, and to pay one years worth subsistence to those who went west. Armed with this authority, President Jackson authorized agents to negotiate and enforce treaties.
Chief John Ross hired former attorney general William Wirt to represent the Cherokee in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and then in Worcester v. Georgia (1832). In each case the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the sovereignty of the Cherokee tribe. The latter determined that Georgia could not make laws for the Cherokee people. The Supreme Court's rulings, however, could not prevent forced removal. Georgia and the United States ignored the ruling and refused to recognize Cherokee sovereignty.
President Jackson embraced Ridge and the Cherokee minority, and together they signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835. Ridge ceded all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi in return for territory in present northeastern Oklahoma, five million dollars, transportation west, and one year of subsistence. Amid a chorus of protests by Cherokees and their American supporters, the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty. Nearly two thousand Cherokees moved west in accordance to the agreement, but most of the nation remained. They still hoped that their constitutional victories and the illegalities of the treaty might be recognized. In 1838 the United States sent armed soldiers to enforce the law. The federal troops confined the Cherokees in disease-ridden camps for several months before forcing them to proceed west. Death and hardship was common, and nearly one in four Cherokees died.
The other Southeastern Indian nations experienced similar stories of upheaval and dislocation. Although each resisted, the Choctaw (1831-32), the Chickasaw (1837-38), the Creek, and the Seminole too found their ways westward on Trails of Tears. Divisions within the Creek Nation led to the execution of William McIntosh, one if its prominent chiefs, for signing the 1825 Treaty of Indian Springs. Ironically, McIntosh was killed in accordance to a law that he had created only years earlier. Despite their continued opposition, most of the Creek Indians trekked west in 1836. Hundreds of Seminoles moved to Indian Territory in 1832, but many more refused to leave the swamps of Florida. Instead, they fought the Second Seminole War (1835-42), and some moved further into the Everglades.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Grant Foreman, Indian Removal: The Emigration of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indians (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1932). Francis Paul Prucha, The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984). Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green, ed., The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1995).
Andrew K. Frank
© Oklahoma Historical Society