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May 28, 1830, the Indian Removal Act was enacted, allowing the American president, Andrew Jackson, to negotiate the relocation of Native American tribes east of the Mississippi River to its west, freeing these territories from exploitation. This transmutation proved to be catastrophic for the five tribes who left their lands, having to run thousands of miles to their new home. This road produced thousands of victims, the severe conditions and diseases being the main culprits for their death.

This mass migration was called by one of the participants “The Trail of Tears,” the name under which this genocide has remained known to this day. The life of Native Americans before the enactment of the 1830 law has been a very harsh one as they were not offered much freedom. From the seventeenth century, from the establishment of the first colonies in the present territory of the United States, until the nineteenth century, the lands belonging to various Native American tribes came into the possession of the new European inhabitants.

Native Americans in the 19th century

From the point of view of the American rulers of that time (such as Jefferson Davis and Andrew Johnson), they legally came into possession of the Native American lands. The ways in which they appropriated these lands, however, were largely abusive. In the early 19th century, the United States federal government designated the five Native American tribes — the Chicksaw, Chocktaw, Muscogee-Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee — as the “Five Civilized Tribes.”

Their degree of development compared to other Native American populations, their cooperation with the federal government, and their adoption of European culture gave them the advantage of a special status in the young federal republic of the United States of America. These tribes had designated territories in the southeastern United States today, enjoying some autonomy.

The Civilized Tribes at the reservation in Wyoming, the 1800s. (Source: National Archives)

Thus, they maintained their old way of tribal organization, being, at the same time, integrated into the American economic model of organization, practicing large-scale agriculture based on African slaves. However, the expansion of trade and the growing need for land for plantations pushed the Americans to expand westward. The territories of the Five Tribes were targeted in this expansion. US President Thomas Jefferson believed that with the integration of Native Americans into the American cultural model, including the agricultural one, the tribes would get rid of the territories used for hunting, later taking possession of the American Lands.

Jefferson’s prediction was partially fulfilled, with few tribes willing to abandon their homelands, and US authorities were forced to take increasingly severe measures to remove Native Americans from their desired areas. The first ideas for giving Native Americans east of the Mississippi River territories of equal value west of the river appeared in 1803.

The first implementation was in 1817, when the Cherokee Indians agreed to cede two portions of their land for equal size plots in the West. The limited success of this method led to the emergence of other methods, as effective as they are abusive. In the American Congress, discussions began on the legitimacy of the autonomous territories of the tribes.

The argument for the territorial integrity of the United States seemed to be the one adopted by most of the leaders of the former colonies, starting with the elimination of any form of the state organization of the Native Americans. Also, not having American citizenship, members of those tribes were not legally allowed to own property on American soil.

This legal framework was used by the United States leadership to take possession of Indian territories. During the tenure of President James Monroe, Secretary of State John C. Calhoun began organizing the plan to remove Native Americans from the affected regions. Thus, in 1824, Calhoun received a green light from the president for the implementation of the plan, and in 1825, the Arkansas Territory and the Indian Territory were created for this purpose. These are the areas where Native American populations were to be moved. The future president, John Quincy Adams, presented Calhoun’s plan in Congress. Although his plan made it clear that the Amerindians would be moved voluntarily, Georgian delegates opposed the project.

The Indian Removal Act

In 1829, Andrew Jackson was elected the seventh president of the United States. From the beginning of his tenure, he took a hard line against the American Indians, refusing to accept the existence of Indian Nations and wanting to forcibly move those tribes from eastern Mississippi. In the same year, at his request, the law on the relocation of Indians was discussed in Congress. At the beginning of 1830, the law was approved by Congress, being promulgated on June 30, 1830, by the president. Although it did not provide for the forced relocation of Native Americans, the law empowered Jackson to negotiate the relocation of any Native American tribe from the United States.

Native Americans from the Choctaw tribe from the early 19th century (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Choctaw tribe was the first to be affected by this law. On September 27, 1830, the tribal leaders signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, by which they agreed to move to the western territories of the river. This was the first move of a Native American tribe after the law was enacted, but also the first in which no incident was recorded between the members of the tribe and the authorities.

The road traveled by the Chocktaw tribe was disastrous, according to oral sources, a Choctaw tribe chief calling it “a road of tears and death.” The French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville witnessed the relocation of this tribe, recording in his book Democracy in America the external and internal misfortunes that individuals who had to travel that long road went through.

During the relocation of the Cherokee tribe, the first abuse against the right of Native Americans to decide to leave their lands took place. Under the New Echota Treaty, a small part of the Cherokee Council negotiated the transfer of land to the US authorities. The rest of the council, together with its leaders, condemned this action and decided to refer the case to the Supreme Court of Justice, but without success.

Seminoles wearing traditional clothing, c. 1926. (Source: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

The Seminole tribe stood out in this process through armed resistance against the American authorities. Under Osceola’s command, the Seminole Indians refused to cede land in 1835, starting a war with the American authorities. Although they had the advantage of knowing the swampy areas of Florida and the element of surprise, the Seminole Indians were defeated in 1837, their leader, Osceola, being taken prisoner by the Americans. Some of these Native Americans accepted relocation to the west, the rest remaining in their homeland and continuing the struggle to preserve the lands.

Jackson’s law was not the first time the Muscogee (Creek) Indians were moved. They were forced, after losing the war against the American Army in 1814, to move to a narrow piece of land in eastern Alabama today. In 1832, the Creek National Council accepted under the Treaty of Cusseta the transfer of lands received in 1814 in exchange for relocation to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. Most of them were forced to move in 1834, during migration taking place on the “Trail of Tears.”

The ethnic cleansing of the Cherokee nation by the U.S. Army, 1838. This painting, The Trail of Tears, was painted by Robert Lindneux in 1942. (Source: Public Domain)

A unique case was that of the Chickasaw Indians, who were to be compensated by the United States with three million dollars for their territories east of the river. After five years of debate, the tribal leaders decided to use that money to buy from the Chocktaw tribe the western part of their homeland. The Chickasaw Indians paid $530,000 to the Chocktaw Indians before the last of them left their territories to set out on the Road to Tears. However, the US state has honored its three million dollar payment just over thirty years after the compensation agreement was concluded.

The mission of American missionaries

The huge distances of thousands of miles between the homelands of the five tribes and between the Arkansas and Indian territories exposed the Native Americans to many hardships. The lack of a home and the journey of weeks, if not months, to walk through unknown and wild regions resulted in the deaths of many participants in this forced migration. European diseases undoubtedly produced most of the fatalities among Native Americans. The lack of immunity to these relatively new diseases, along with the harsh road conditions, killed thousands.

Depiction of Native Americans on the “Trail of Tears”, marching for miles in harsh conditions, (source: Native America Today)

A small part of these tribes decided to refuse relocation, organizing in smaller communities within their old territory, and putting up armed resistance to any attempt by the Americans to drive them away. They survived throughout the twentieth century, their resistance being eventually defeated and later organized into reservations.

Many Christian missionaries who preached the faith to Native American populations opposed this law. Missionaries such as Jeremiah Evarts protested American actions to relocate Native Americans. Evarts also stood out in the case of the Cherokee Indians, advising them to challenge the abuse they were subjected to in the Supreme Court.

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