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Westward Expansion (1807-1912)

Indian Removal

Western Economy: Boom and Panic

The Transportation Revolution and the Rise of Cities


The Louisiana Purchase and the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, effectively removed all foreign infringement on American territory in North America. This had the ancillary result of removing all the protection that the region's Native Americans had received from foreign powers, most notably Britain. Free to expand, American foreign policy throughout the nineteenth century worked to the disadvantage of the Indians.

The Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles--whom whites referred to as the "Five Civilized Tribes"--occupied sizable tracts of land in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. Portions of these tribes had accepted the teachings of white missionaries and accepted Christianity, white inventions, and even the concept of slavery. The Cherokee chief Sequoyah devised a written form of the Cherokee language and the tribe published a newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix. While a significant number of Indians ceded their lands to the US government, many resisted removal. Many of the "civilized" Indians resisted knowing that they depended on interactions with whites for survival. Others, who had clung to their ancient customs, were reluctant to abandon their ancestral lands. Many of the latter were full- blooded Indians, as opposed to the many mixed bloods produced from years of intermixing with whites. Full bloods were often resentful of mixed bloods, who were more likely to give in to the wishes of the US government.

When Andrew Jackson became president in 1829, he quickly instituted a coercive removal policy. In 1830, the Indian Removal Act granted Jackson funds and authority to remove the Indians by force if necessary. The Georgia legislature passed a resolution stating that after 1830, Indians could not be parties to or witnesses in court cases involving whites. Treaties signed in 1830 and 1832 had begun the removal of the Chickasaws from Alabama and the Choctaws from Alabama. In 1836, the Georgia militia attacked Creeks residing in the state. In that year, 15,000 Creeks were removed and forced west of the Mississippi. Between 1835 and 1840, the federal government spent 420 million on a war to eject the Seminoles from Florida.

The Cherokees attempted legal resistance to removal. In 1827, they declared themselves an independent nation within Georgia, only to have the Georgia legislature pass laws giving it jurisdiction over the nation. The Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokees were neither a state nor a nation. However, in Worcester v. Georgia, Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Cherokees were a "domestic dependent nation" and were thereby entitled to protection. This decision carried only minimal weight. Andrew Jackson reportedly responded to the decision saying "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it." The Cherokee nation itself was divided between factions favoring and opposing removal. In 1835, federal agents persuaded a pro-removal chief to sign the Treaty of New Echota, which ceded all Cherokee land for $5.6 million and free transportation west. Most Cherokees rejected the treaty, but resistance was futile. Between 1835 and 1838 bands of Cherokee Indians moved west of the Mississippi along the so-called Trail of Tears. Between 2,000 and 4,000 of the 16,000 migrating Cherokees died.

The Northwestern Indians put up mild resistance to removal but met with a similar fate. Most notable among the resistance was that of chief Black Hawk, who mounted significant resistance in both 1831 and 1832 in Illinois. In the end, federal troops crushed this rebellion and others, and between 1832 and 1837, the US acquired nearly 190 million acres of northwestern land in return for about $70 million in gifts.


The burst in enthusiasm for Indian removal under Jackson was just another step in the ongoing oppression to which American Indians were subject from the beginning of white occupation of North America. During the period following the Revolutionary War, the federal and state governments of the United States had taken steps to remove Indians from the borders of western states. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Indian population at large had dwindled, and the only Indians remaining inside the borders of the United States lived in tight communities, very much separated from white society, despite the efforts of some to integrate them into white American life. The Indians experienced fairly constant antagonism at the hands of white settlers, but it was not until after the War of 1812 that the federal government took a fierce stance on removal. The Louisiana Purchase and moderate success in the War of 1812 had removed the British, who had been the Indians' primary advocates, from the American West, and sparked a new American nationalism, which centered on the desire to expand. The Indians were seen as an obstacle to this aggressive nationalism. The Government took steps to force the Indians from their homelands throughout the nation's territory into a small, concentrated area of Indian reservations in what is now Oklahoma and southern Kansas.

Whites' demands for Native American lands peaked in the 1820s and 1830s. Under this pressure, the traditional policy of negotiating piecemeal treaties with individual factions and tribes was scrapped in favor of a policy far less friendly to the Indians. Andrew Jackson embodied America's new militancy toward the tribes. He realized that by the 1820s, the balance of power between the American settlers had shifted from earlier years. The whites had grown stronger, and the Indians, having lost foreign support, weaker. Jackson personally had led troops against the Creek Indians, and his victory at Horseshoe Bend in 1814 had convinced him that the Indians were much weaker than many assumed, and that they would crumble quickly under the advance of western expansion. He decried the practice of negotiating treaties in favor of coercive measures. His policies reflected both his disdain and racism toward the Indians and his somewhat less vicious conviction that in the East the full- blooded Indians would be exploited by devious whites and self-serving mixed- bloods. Nowhere was Jackson's commitment to removal more strongly demonstrated than in his reaction to the ruling in Worcester v. Georgia. He not only showed his unflinching support for Cherokee removal, but also demonstrated the growing power of the presidency, clearly defying the will of the Supreme Court without major consequence.

The case of the Cherokee nation is itself demonstrative of the struggle of the Indians of the 1820s. In efforts to consolidate their collective identity and ancestral lands, both slipping away as whites increasingly interacted with the tribe, the Cherokees founded a nation, in hopes of maintaining their culture and land. In response, the federal government denied the tribe the strength provided by nationhood, and in a sign of complete disrespect, used trickery and force to expel the Indians to serve the greedy desires of the American settlers and the government that backed them. Armed with a new sense of national destiny, the federal government took what it was beginning to believe was rightfully its own, with little regard to the consequences for the previous inhabitants.

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