The Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears

Andrew Jackson was a Southern slave owner and former military commander in wars with Native nations.

Andrew Jackson was a Southern slave owner and former military commander in wars with Native nations.

A grassroots campaign to remove President Andrew Jackson’s portrait from the $20 bill is receiving some attention. Why Jackson especially? A little history is necessary.

On May 28, 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act, after having pushed the legislation through Congress. This deplorable act legalized the expulsion of Indigenous peoples from their land on a massive scale.

From the beginning of the 19th century the U.S. government had planned the removal of Indigenous people from their ancestral homelands. As a solution to the “Indian problem,” early proposals allowed the Indigenous to remain on their homelands only if they agreed to adopt Euro-American behavioral and cultural practices. An 1823 Supreme Court decision had stated “Indians” could occupy lands but could not hold title to them.

The United States in 1830 consisted of only states east of the Mississippi River. That area had originally been inhabited by the Indigenous, referred to as Indians or Native Americans. Jackson called for Native removal from the Southeast, with resettlement in the West. Ancestral homelands of Northeast tribes were already being confiscated.

Slave-owner Jackson promotes relocation

Jackson was a Southern slave owner and former military commander in wars with Native nations. He was a strong supporter of expanding federal territory westward for white settlers and for ever-enlarging cotton fields.

In justifying his relocation policy to Congress, Jackson stated that the demise and extinction of Indian Tribal Nations was inevitable. He viewed the Indigenous as in need of “guidance” and presented the removal policy as beneficial to them. He stated their continued existence impeded the economic progress and prosperity of white settlers.

In congressional addresses, Jackson described how Euro-American “forefathers” had found the country “covered with forests” and occupied by “savages,” as compared to the “extensive Republic studded with cities, towns and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12 million happy people.”

Slaveowners also considered slavery as absolutely essential to progress and growth; without slavery, there could be no civilization. They stated that slavery freed them from manual labor and the economic worries of day-to-day life. Thus, they could supposedly devote more time to intellectual and artistic pursuits and inventions.

The systematic removal of Native peoples from the Southeast focused on five Tribal Nations: the Seminole, Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw and Creek. They were referred to as the “Five Civilized Tribes,” as they seemed the most adaptable to white “civilized” culture in their attempts to assimilate and peacefully coexist.

Pressure, military and otherwise, was put on the Indigenous to sign removal treaties. They signed in order to appease the government in the hopes of retaining some of their land, or to protect themselves from the onslaught of harassment by hostile whites who squatted on their land, stole their belongings and livestock, and burned their villages. Tribes that resisted resettlement were massacred.

Indian Nations strategically resisted removal both through wars and nonviolence. The Seminoles, who protected and harbored fugitive slaves in Spanish Florida, were targeted and invaded by Jackson’s troops. After several wars, they were allowed to migrate to southern Florida swamplands.

The Cherokees, after being tricked into signing an illegitimate treaty, unsuccessfully appealed to the Supreme Court.

Genocidal history of forced removal

The march westward in 1838-39 became known as the “Trail of Tears.” More than 46,000 Native peoples were forcibly expelled by federal troops. Thousands died of hunger, cold, disease and exhaustion. Forced relocation, until 1858, resulted in close to three-quarters of Indigenous land coming under federal control. As a result, the white population was given ownership to 25 million acres of stolen land, which subsequent generations of white families inherited. And slavery was expanded southwest into Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas.

In what was to become Texas, settlers fought the Mexican government, which resulted in the U.S. government annexing that part of Mexico by 1836. U.S. history portrays frontier expansion as part of the progress of humanity and as spreading the “empire of liberty.” However, U.S. history is replete with genocidal and racist treatment of Indigenous people in its colonies and globally.

Attacks on oppressed people, including its citizens, who demand freedom, justice and independence are common. War has always been preferred. Peaceful coexistence is not in the DNA of the U.S., domestically or internationally.

The legacy of the Indian Removal Act is seen on Indigenous reservations today throughout the West, where its devastating economic, social and political impact continues. On the East Coast, the residual damaging effects of displacement on remaining Native peoples are also evident.