During the early 1800s, the United States wanted lands that Native American groups inhabited east of the Mississippi River. The young nation needed land for continued expansion. Occupying the region along with Native Americans was not a real consideration, since white settlers believed in private land ownership that contrasted starkly with the Native American concept of communal property. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was the Congressional solution to the dilemma. This law relocated Native American tribes to locations west of the Mississippi and provided the president with the authority to negotiate treaties to implement removal.
After Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, President Andrew Jackson signed it into law on May 28, 1830. The president had a history of aggression with Native Americans. Jackson, serving as an army officer, defeated the Creek Nation in 1814. As a result, the United States took over 20 million acres of territory from the Creek. Over the next decade, Jackson forced Native American groups to surrender land throughout the Southeast. Out of the 11 treaties Native Americans signed between 1814 and 1824 ceding land to the United States, Jackson played a central role in nine.
Implementing the Removal Act
President Jackson lobbied Congress to draft a law providing him with the power to give western lands to Native Americans. In return for the land grants, the tribes would have to relinquish all claims to lands east of the Mississippi River. Consequently, 50,000 people relocated to so-called Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma under treaties signed with Jackson.
The Removal Act legitimized Jackson’s desire to take Native American lands. Things worked smoothly in that regard when tribes accepted the terms Jackson set out for them, but the steadfast Cherokee refused to submit and remained in Georgia. Threatened with removal under state law, the Cherokee filed suit in the United States Supreme Court. In the case of Worcester vs. Georgia (1832), the justices ruled that the Cherokee were an independent nation living within the borders of the United States. The State of Georgia could not forcibly remove the Native Americans west, the decision declared. Andrew Jackson refused to back the ruling, leaving the Cherokee defenseless against Georgians determined to settle the land.
Trail of Tears
Emblematic of removal policy was the ultimate fate of the eastern Cherokee. The Jackson administration ignored the Supreme Court ruling and signed the Treaty of New Echota with a small group of Cherokee in 1835. This minority relocated to Oklahoma. The majority of the tribe remained in Georgia, citing their rights under the earlier Supreme Court ruling. President Martin van Buren, who succeeded Jackson, sent federal troops to Georgia in 1838 to lead a forced march to Oklahoma. On November 12, 1838, about 12,000 Cherokee began the 800-mile journey from Georgia. Estimates are that 4,000 died along the way.
David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.