In 1830 Congress passed one of the most significant laws regarding Native Americans in United States history. The effects of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 would prove devastating for the indigenous population and their way of life.
In the election of 1828 Andrew Jackson won on a promise to solve the “Indian problem.” One of the first laws he helped guide through Congress during his presidency was the Indian Removal Act.
Jackson truly thought that there was no way that Native Americans and white settlers could coexist peacefully. His solution was to push for all Native Americans east of the Mississippi River to be removed and sent west of the river.
The aggressive posture broke with decades of US policy that encouraged assimilation of Native American nations into US culture. The so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” of the southeastern United States showed just how possible this feat was.
Jackson’s allies in Congress (the Jacksonian Democrats) made possible the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830. The act specifically allowed Jackson to aggressively negotiate with Native American nations for the sale of the eastern lands in exchange for land west of the Mississippi River.
As a result the federal government proceeded with the removal of the Five Civilized Tribes in particularly brutal fashion through often dubious means. The removal led to the death of thousands of Native Americans along what is now known as the Trail of Tears.
The effects and causes of the Indian Removal Act were devastating towards these populations and could be seen for decades in its aftermath.
Background on Native American Removal
Despite the law formalizing the Indian Removal policy in 1830, removal of Native Americans to the west had been taking place for decades as settlers gobbled up lands while continuing to migrate west.
Native Americans and Europeans had long been engaged in a struggle over land ownership in general. Most of the time Europeans preferred nonviolent means to obtain land such as via treaties.1
The alternative was full-scale warfare which drained valuable resources in early colonial life. Still, warfare was inevitable as more and more settlers arrived and demanded land.
The Pequot War of 1637 was a primary example where settlers encroaching upon Pequot lands sparked all out warfare that foreshadowed future bloody conflicts.
Animosity between the British colonists and eventually American citizens only grew as the Native Americans largely sided against them in large-scale conflicts such as the French and Indian War, American Revolution, and the War of 1812.
Native Americans in general disliked all foreign parties in these conflicts. They generally sided against those that threatened their lands the most.
The British took measured steps to abide by treaties with Native Americans such as the Proclamation of 1763 and proposing the creation of an Indian Buffer State in the War of 1812.
Native hostilities continued with the Americans as early leaders such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson outwardly pursued a policy of assimilation. The hope was that if the indigenous people assimilated into Anglo-American society, conflict would disappear and the natives could integrate into the larger American construct.
Several Native American nations in the south saw the inevitability of conflict and chose assimilation. These nations were known as the Five Civilized Tribes and proved that natives could indeed assimilate successfully.
Despite their success, conflicts with other natives continued, particularly in the aftermath of the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 that further stoked settlers’ fears of native attacks.
Andrew Jackson rode a wave of popular support to victory in the election of 1828, bringing with him the promise to finally “solve” the “Indian problem.”
What Did the Indian Removal Act Do?
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 specifically authorized the president to negotiate with Native Americans for their removal to lands west of the Mississippi River. The treaties would then open up existing native lands to white settlement.
The act itself was highly controversial and divisive in Congress. In the leadup to passage there were many heated debates surrounding the issue with vocal entities on both sides.
The influential Senator Henry Clay and Representative Davy Crocket were prominent opponents of the removal act. They argued that native autonomy and claims to land via prior treaties eclipsed all else.2
Proponents primarily used the argument of state sovereignty over its lands and the high-profile case of Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823 to justify their position.
The 1823 court case asserted that Native American nations could occupy and control lands, but not hold title to them. Only the federal government could in effect purchase lands from Native Americans.
In the view of removal proponents, it was the obligation of the federal government to legitimize state sovereignty by negotiating the removal of natives from state lands. In their view separate native jurisdictions within and across state borders were unconstitutional and not compatible with state law.2
Two other court cases also played a pivotal role in the removal process when the Cherokee Nation opted to utilize the US court system to plead their case against the removal law.
In 1831 the Cherokee Nation v. Georgia ruling stated that the Cherokee Nation and Native Americans in general could not bring a case to federal court due to their standing as a “domestic, dependent nation.”
The second case in 1832 was the significant Worcester v. Georgia case that ultimately was in favor of the Cherokee Nation. The ruling declared that the state of Georgia did not have jurisdiction over Cherokee lands which surmounted to a huge win for Native Americans.
Sadly, Jackson declined to enforce the decision, meaning that Native Americans had no support from the federal government to defend their rights.
Effects of the Indian Removal Act
The Indian Removal Act had three primary effects:
- It brought an aggressive push from the Jackson administration to remove natives by any means necessary
- Caused protests of various means from Native American nations and white sympathizers
- Led to southern states and the federal government working closely together in the removal effort despite high tensions over tariff policy at the time
Upon passage the Jackson administration immediately began to negotiate with Native American nations for removal to the west. No course was off-limits as Jackson’s men threatened natives with non-enforcement of prior treaties, floods of white settlers, and military action if no agreement was to be made.
Jackson’s men even stooped so low as to sign a treaty with the minority faction that represented less than 5% of the Cherokee Nation in the significant Treaty of New Echota. Jackson paraded the treaty as just and Congress ratified it despite its fraudulent nature.
Some Native American nations fought back through various methods that included warfare (by the Seminoles) and non-violent means of protest such as the Cherokee Nation using the US Supreme Court.
Other nations like the Choctaw and Chickasaw put up less resistance believing that removal was inevitable. The Choctaw were among the earliest to move west.
What is less known is that fragments of many nations chose to stay on their ancestral lands. As part of the agreement they were forced to abide by the laws of the states they resided in. Eventually, many of these fragments were formally recognized by Congress like the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.3
The Indian Removal Act also came at a time of heightened tensions between the federal government and southern states over tariff policy. The act forced the two entities to work closely together on removal efforts, despite the near split of the Union during the 1832 Nullification Crisis.4
Significance of the Indian Removal Act
The historical significance of the Indian Removal Act is that it directly led to the horrendous Trail of Tears that killed thousands of Native Americans during forced removal.
The legacy of the Trail of Tears is one of death and misery that has left a stain on this period of American history. Countless Native American lives could have been saved if not for the Indian Removal Act and the failure of the US government to abide by its prior treaties.
The Indian Removal Act and subsequent removal forced natives onto lands that they were unfamiliar with. Learning to work the new lands took time and greatly contributed to impoverishing the natives and leading them to be partially reliant on the federal government for support.
The irony of the entire debacle is that President Andrew Jackson truly believed that he was helping the natives by sending them west. In his view natives and whites could never coexist peacefully. Therefore it was merciful to send them west which would save them from “utter annihilation.”
Another significant aspect of the Indian Removal Act was that the removal process opened up an enormous amount of land in the south for further development. This helped the south further grow cash crops like cotton via use of the cotton gin and expand the institution of slavery.
Northern votes were necessary for the passage of the removal act as well as ratifying the removal treaties with native nations. It can thus be said that the north aided in the expansion of slavery at a time when abolitionist sentiment was rapidly growing.
The Indian Removal Act ultimately was a significant feature of the “Jacksonian Era,” where the political, social, and economic climate of the United States rapidly shifted. Its legacy can still be felt today.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Meyers, Jason. “No Idle Past: Uses of History in the 1830 Indian Removal Debates.” The Historian, vol. 63, no. 1, 2000, pp. 53–65. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24450846.
2) John P. Bowes. “American Indian Removal beyond the Removal Act.” Native American and Indigenous Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2014, pp. 65–87. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.5749/natiindistudj.1.1.0065.
3) Perdue, Theda. “The Legacy of Indian Removal.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 78, no. 1, 2012, pp. 3–36. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23247455.
4) Morris, Michael. “Georgia and the Conversation over Indian Removal.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 91, no. 4, 2007, pp. 403–23. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40585021.