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Indian Removal

In the 1830s, President Andrew Jackson pursued a policy of Indian Removal, forcing Native Americans living in Georgia, Florida, and Mississippi to trek hundreds of miles to territory in present-day Oklahoma. 


  • US President Andrew Jackson oversaw the policy of "Indian removal," which was formalized when he signed the Indian Removal Act in May 1830.
  • The Indian Removal Act authorized a series of migrations that became known as the Trail of Tears.
  • This was devastating to Native Americans, their culture, and their way of life.

A history of conflict between Euro-Americans and Native Americans

From the earliest days of colonial contact, relations between white European settlers and indigenous people in the Americas were plagued by conflict over land and its natural resources. John C. Calhoun, who served as Secretary of War under President James Monroe, was the first to design a plan for removing Native Americans to lands west of the Mississippi River, but the Georgia delegation in the House of Representatives sunk the bill.
President John Quincy Adams believed the issue should be resolved peaceably, but Georgia again proved an obstacle when they blocked the implementation of voluntary removal of Native Americans from territories in the southeast United States. It wasn't until the presidency of Andrew Jackson that "Indian removal" became official US policy.1

Andrew Jackson’s policies towards Native Americans

Before becoming president, Andrew Jackson had distinguished himself as a champion of white settlers against indigenous people. In the War of 1812, Jackson had led an offensive against the Creek nation in an attempt to clear the Mississippi Territory for white settlement, and under President James Monroe, he had participated in the First Seminole War, which devastated the Seminole tribe of Florida.2
By the time Jackson entered the White House, white settlers in Georgia had been complaining for some time about the continued presence of Cherokee and Creek people on the lands they wished to inhabit. These white settlers were emboldened by the election of Jackson in 1828 and revoked the constitution of the Cherokee nation in Georgia, declaring that indigenous people were subject to the laws of the state of Georgia. In 1830, the Cherokee nation took the state of Georgia to the Supreme Court, arguing that it was an independent nation and as such, was not subject to the authority of the state of Georgia. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall agreed that the Cherokee nation was a distinct society but not that it was a foreign nation.
In Worcester v. Georgia, Chief Justice Marshall expanded on this argument, declaring that the state of Georgia had no authority over the Cherokee, which as a sovereign nation could only be subject to the authority of the federal government. The ruling established the nature of relations between the federal government and indigenous peoples as that between sovereign nations. But President Jackson refused to enforce the ruling and pursued a policy of genocide. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 authorized the voluntary relocation of Native Americans to the lands west of the Mississippi River but was frequently abused by government officials and resulted in some forced removals.3

The Trail of Tears

The Indian Removal Act was applied to the "Five Civilized Tribes"—Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole—so named by people of the time because they had to some degree assimilated into white European culture and society. In September 1830, Choctaws became the first tribe to sign a treaty and voluntarily relocate to the territory that would become the state of Arkansas. Seminoles refused to leave their ancestral lands in Florida, sparking the Second Seminole War in 1835. Seminole chief Osceola led the resistance, which proved costly to the United States in terms of both money and casualties. The US Army ultimately emerged victorious, however, and forced remaining Seminoles out of Florida and into the area west of the Mississippi River that became known as Indian Territory.4
Portrait of Osceola, who led the Seminoles in the First Seminole War
George Catlin, Portrait of Osceola, who led the Seminoles in the Second Seminole War, 1838. Image credit: courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Chickasaws agreed to leave their lands in exchange for a monetary settlement of $3 million, which the United States refused to pay until almost 30 years later. The Creeks had been forced to cede over 20,000 acres of their ancestral lands in the Treaty of Fort Jackson following the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in the War of 1812; the remaining Creeks signed over the rest of their lands after the enactment of the Indian Removal Act and relocated to Indian Territory through the Trail of Tears.5
Map showing Native Americans territories in the Eastern United States—particularly Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi—and the areas in present-day Oklahoma to which Native Americans were forcibly relocated
Map depicting the territories of Chickasaws, Choctaws, Cherokees, Creeks and Seminoles c. 1830 and the routes they took during their forced relocation—The Trail of Tears—to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
As for Cherokees, a small faction had signed a treaty with the US government in 1835, but that faction did not represent Cherokee leadership, who refused to leave their lands voluntarily. As a result, the US government forcibly relocated Cherokees to the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. Of the 17,000 Cherokees who were forced to move, at least 4,000—and possibly as many as 8,000—perished.6

What do you think?

How would you characterize Andrew Jackson’s attitude toward Native Americans?
Imagine you were forced to relocate to a distant place or face death. What would you take with you? How would you feel about your new surroundings?
Can you imagine any alternative policies that would have protected the interests of white settlers while preserving the rights and respecting the culture of Native Americans?

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