Age of Jackson: 1824–1840

American Indians in the Age of Jackson

Indian Removal Act

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 promised land and protection in the West to Native American tribes living east of the Mississippi River.

The population of the United States grew rapidly following the American Revolution. White settlers flocked to the rich land southeast of the Mississippi River, much of which belonged to American Indian tribes, particularly the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole.

The British Proclamation of 1763 had granted this territory to the tribes. The proclamation stated the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River was for American Indian use only. However, by the mid-1820s it was clear that white settlers wouldn't coexist peacefully with Indians as their neighbors. New treaties promised money, supplies, and protection to tribes that moved to less desirable land. Unwilling to risk combat with American military forces, a few Cherokee, Creek, and Choctaw accepted the treaties and moved. The Seminole and Chickasaw—along with some Choctaw, Creek, and many Cherokee—refused. Instead of giving in to pressure from the government and land-hungry settlers, they reshaped their culture to fit in with European American society. Some Cherokee expanded small farms into plantations. Blacksmith shops and grain mills dotted Indian villages. White missionaries formed schools for Indian children that mirrored Anglo-American schools. Though tribes maintained their cultural and religious beliefs, many American Indian settlements resembled every other part of the country.

None of those efforts mattered to state legislatures or President Jackson. During Jackson's military career, he led the slaughter of southeastern Indians. He gained fame in conflicts such as the First Seminole War (1817–18), when American troops invaded Spanish Florida to hunt down runaway slaves who had taken refuge among the Seminoles. Like many white Americans, he viewed American Indians as inferior to people of European descent. He didn't believe it possible for European Americans and American Indians to peacefully live side by side. The president, whom Indians referred to as "Sharp Knife," attempted to resolve this predicament in an 1829 address to Congress. Jackson suggested setting aside unsettled territory west of the Mississippi River "to be guaranteed to the Indian tribes, as long as they shall occupy it." His proposal became law in the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The act promised tribes land west of the Mississippi River and the protection of the U.S. government.

Language in the Indian Removal Act stated the government could negotiate payment to Indian tribes in exchange for the tribes' lands. It said nothing about the use of military pressure to get the Indians to move. Although negotiations with some tribes were successful, others balked at leaving their homes and sacred land. In those instances the government often resorted to military intimidation to gain tribes' compliance. The Seminole of Florida fought to remain on their land. The Second Seminole War of 1835–42 cost thousands of lives. At its conclusion, most tribal members moved to Indian Territory. The last of the Seminoles, however, would not leave Florida until the Third Seminole War (1855–58). The third was the least violent of the Seminole Wars, with the U.S. government paying the final stragglers to emigrate.

During the 1830s the American military forced over 100,000 Indians from their land east of the Mississippi River. As tribes moved west, they encroached on the Comanche, the dominant tribe of the Great Plains. The Comanche fought being displaced. Although they signed away most of their territory in the 1867 Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek, many tribal members refused to leave. The last band of Comanche held out until 1875, when Chief Quanah Parker surrendered and moved his group to the Fort Sill reservation in Oklahoma.

Worcester v. Georgia

In Worcester v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled American Indian nations were sovereign and in control of what happened on their land.

The state of Georgia spent the 1820s and part of the 1830s trying to force the Cherokee out of the state. The Cherokee—who had achieved a written language and adopted many white American practices—in 1827 declared themselves a constitutional republic and adopted a constitution modeled on the US constitution. The Cherokee argued that Georgia laws did not have jurisdiction in their territory. In response, state officials abolished the Cherokee government and began taking possession of Cherokee land. Georgia officials increased efforts to remove the Cherokee following the 1829 discovery of gold in the state. People who invested in gold—including President Andrew Jackson—advocated all land be under the control of individual states, even if it belonged to native tribes. This problem was solved by the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Georgia lawmakers determined the Indian Removal Act meant the Cherokee would be forced to give up any property in the state. The Cherokee disagreed. In 1831 they brought their grievances to the U.S. Supreme Court in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. The court sided with the state of Georgia. Chief Justice John Marshall said the Cherokee were "a domestic, dependent nation" of which the United States government was guardian.

The Cherokee continued to resist relocation. They were aided by Samuel Worcester, a white minister who had been living with the Georgia Cherokee for three years. Worcester counseled the Cherokee about their legal rights under the Constitution and various treaties they had signed. Worcester's actions irked Georgia's legislature, which passed a law prohibiting "white persons" from living with the Cherokee without approval of state authorities. Worcester and several fellow missionaries refused to leave by the March 1831 deadline. They were arrested and sentenced to four years in prison.

To challenge the constitutionality of their imprisonment, Worcester and the other missionaries brought their concerns to the Supreme Court in the 1832 case Worcester v. Georgia. This time the court ruled against the state. Justice Marshall reversed the position he had taken in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. He declared American Indians were "distinct, independent political communities retaining their original natural rights as the undisputed possessors of the soil." The state of Georgia had erred when it tried to regulate who could live on Cherokee land.

The Cherokee hoped this ruling would negate the Indian Removal Act. But the state of Georgia and President Jackson ignored the ruling. Contrary to the Supreme Court's decision, Georgia continued to hold the missionaries in prison until the governor pardoned them in 1833. The U.S. Army began escorting the Cherokee to their new territory in 1833. Despite Jackson's refusal to enforce the court's decision, Marshall's ruling on the sovereignty of Indian nations became a rallying point for Native Americans in years to come.

Cherokee Territory Prior to 1830

The Cherokee declared themselves a sovereign nation in 1827. They asserted they did not have to follow the laws of the states where they lived. The state of Georgia disagreed.

Trail of Tears

In 1838 approximately 17,000 Cherokee were forced from their homes in the Southeast. During an arduous trek to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River, several thousand Cherokee died.

The purpose of the Worcester v. Georgia Supreme Court decision was primarily to win freedom for missionaries imprisoned because of their assistance to the Cherokee. However, most tribal members saw the ruling differently. They believed it was a sign they should continue resisting relocation to the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. But a smaller group of tribe members felt the only way to survive as a nation was to acquiesce to the white man's wishes. In defiance of the rest of the tribe, 100 Cherokee known as the Treaty Party signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835. The treaty promised money, livestock, and supplies in exchange for all Cherokee land located east of the Mississippi River. Most Cherokee opposed the treaty and thought it null. But the state of Georgia and President Jackson used the agreement as justification to force the entire tribe off their land.

In 1838 Jackson authorized the use of military troops to remove the Cherokee from the southeastern United States. That summer, some 16,000 Cherokee were forced out of their homes and into internment camps, where they waited for days or weeks until the mass migration began. The first 3,000 Cherokee were put on boats that followed the Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi, and Arkansas Rivers to Indian Territory. The trip took much longer than expected because of droughts and low rivers, and many Cherokee died from exposure and disease. Those still waiting in internment camps petitioned to take a land route to Indian Territory.

The two-month trip upon which the Cherokee thought they were embarking took nearly four months. They were ill-prepared for the arduous journey. Food and supplies wouldn't be available until they reached Indian Territory, meaning there was little food and inadequate clothing and protection from the elements. Hundreds were weak from their time in the internment camps. Thousands more fell ill because of starvation and exposure to winter weather. Those who survived the march did so at the gunpoint of American soldiers. By the time they reached their destination, an estimated 4,000 Cherokee had died.

The term Trail of Tears is most often used to describe the hazardous 1,000-mile journey taken by the displaced Cherokee in 1838. But it also refers to the forced displacement of all southeastern Indian tribes from their homelands. The term aptly depicts the misery felt by the individuals who endured the hardships of losing their homes, their land, and their loved ones. Displaced tribal members traveled several land and water routes. The experiences of those who followed the different routes are similarly horrific. Their displacement also foreshadowed the hardships for tribes residing further west.

Trail of Tears, 1838

Throughout the 1830s the Cherokee and other southeastern Indians followed land and water routes to the newly established Indian Territory.