Indian Removal was a nineteenth century policy of the government of the United States to remove Native American tribes living east of the Mississippi River to Lands west of the river.
The Indian Removal Act was signed into law by President Andrew Jackson (D) on May 26, 1830, just passing through Congress by a single vote.
It displaced and forcibly removed thousands of Native Americans from their homeland.
Jackson was convinced that the only solution to the Indian ‘problem’ was the complete removal of all natives beyond the Mississippi and now he had the law with which to accomplish it. No people would be more affected by this than the Cherokees.
The Cherokees lived on the Georgia-Tennessee border. They were the richest and most advanced of all Indian tribes. They had learned early to be farmers and had grown 40,000 acres worth of crops, along with running 22,000 cattle and 7200 horses. They also kept many black slaves who operated their ten sawmills. The Cherokees of 1830 were far from wild savages. One of their number, Sequoyah, had even developed the first Indian alphabet. The people could now read books. A newspaper was also published – the Phoenix. The Cherokee were also the only Indian nation to have their own constitution. They lived in log cabins and frame houses.
U.S. President Andrew Jackson called for an Indian Removal Act in his 1829 “State of the Union” message.
The Cherokees endeavoured to live in peace with their white neighbours. But that was not to be. The whites looked enviously at their lands and attempted to take it for themselves. The Cherokees resisted in a novel way – they took their case to the United States Supreme Court. That Court declared that the Cherokee were a people of a ‘domestic, dependant nation’ and that the state of Georgia had no right to extend it’s laws over them. The Indians had won their case.
Enforcing the decision was another story entirely.
In 1835, 500 Cherokees were pressured into signing a treaty that sold all of their lands for just five million dollars plus an entitlement of seven million acres out west. The 500 who had signed were not chiefs and had no authority to sign for the people. Quickly a petition was organised repudiating the treaty which gained 16,000 signatures.
But President Jackson ignored the petition.
He set a deadline for the complete removal of the Cherokee – May 23rd, 1838. Many of the army top brass sent in to enforce the decision were ashamed of the whole affair. General John Wool stated that the only good involved in the removal of the Cherokees would be that it would get the Indians ‘ beyond the reaches of the white men who, like vultures, are watching, ready to pounce on their prey and strip them of everything they have.’
General Winfield Scott told his 7000 men, who were to act as escorts, to show every kindness to the 16,000 Cherokees. Scott vowed that any injury done to a Cherokee would be dealt with swiftly.
Although Jackson wanted the Cherokees quickly removed, General Scott waited until the weather was more conducive to travel. Over the summer the Cherokees were forced off their land and penned up in prison camps. Unhealthy conditions resulted and dysentery and fevers spread throughout the nation. Meanwhile their lands, crops and property was looted by greedy white settlers.
The Cherokees had been preceded to Oklahoma by the Choctaws, the Creeks and the Chickasaws.
The Seminoles were not so willing to be uprooted, however. It took two wars to get them to follow their neighboring tribes in the drive west.
Finally, in the fall of 1838, the Cherokees were put on the road in what was perhaps the most disgraceful official act of the United States Government against a friendly nation.
The trek to Oklahoma was over about a thousand miles of inhospitable terrain. The going was tortuous for these agricultural, peace loving people. The trek was to become known as the Trail of Tears.
The result of this man’s failure as chief executive was 4,000 Cherokee children, women and men who died when they were driven like cattle to Oklahoma.
“I saw the helpless Cherokees arrested and dragged from their homes, and driven at the bayonet point into the stockades. And in the chill of a drizzling rain on an October morning I saw them loaded like cattle or sheep into six hundred and forty-five wagons and started toward the west…
On the morning of November the 17th we encountered a terrific sleet and snow storm with freezing temperatures and from that day until we reached the end of the fateful journey on March the 26th 1839, the sufferings of the Cherokees were awful. The trail of the exiles was a trail of death. They had to sleep in the wagons and on the ground without fire. And I have known as many as twenty-two of them to die in one night of pneumonia due to ill treatment, cold and exposure…”
-Private John G. Burnett
Captain Abraham McClellan’s Company,
2nd Regiment, 2nd Brigade, Mounted Infantry
Cherokee Indian Removal 1838-39
The land that the Cherokees arrived in was completely different to that they had left. No longer could they live a life as planters of corn and farmers of the land.
The once united tribe was now torn apart by internal vendettas, recriminations and, ultimately, civil war.
Sidebar: THE CREEK CONFEDERACY
(Historical tribes who were members of the Creek Confederacy)
Most of the Creeks descended from groups living in six towns: Cusseta, Coweta, Areka, Coosa, Hoithle Waule, and Tuckabatchee, all within the confines of the future Alabama and Georgia. These groups most probably formed the confederacy. Later, the Creeks established the practice of adopting conquered tribes and accepting bands fleeing from English, French, and Spanish attacks. By these methods the Alabama, Coushatta, Hitchitee, Tuskegee, and Natchez Indians eventually became Creeks.