The Trail of Tears and Jackson's Indian Removal Act of 1830

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  • 0:04 War on the Native American
  • 2:20 Indian Removal Act
  • 3:29 The Cherokee Resist
  • 5:10 Trail of Tears
  • 7:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Steven Shirley
In this lesson, we'll discuss Jackson's forced removal of Native Americans from their land in the east to new territory west of the Mississippi River.

Jackson's Political War on the Native American

President Jackson and Vice President Calhoun
Andrew Jackson John Calhoun

In his dealings with Vice President Calhoun and the legislature of South Carolina, President Andrew Jackson had sided distinctly with the federal government. He was the president of all the people, had fought hard to keep the Union intact, and did not believe states had the right to nullify federal law as they saw fit. In his America, the Union came first; states' rights had to take a back seat. That is until he found an issue on which he agreed with the states, and on those rare occasions, no state had a better friend than Andrew Jackson.

During his years in the White House, there happened to be one issue of particular importance to Jackson and the states, allowing for a close cooperation in its resolution. That issue? The removal of indigenous Americans, Indians as they were called, from their ancestral lands and displacing them westward on to reservations. There, they would be out of the white man's hair, out of his affairs, out of his business. What is more, Indian lands could then be seized and exploited as Americans saw fit.

It came as no surprise that Jackson had little sympathy for the plight of Indian tribes east of the Mississippi. He had spent the majority of his career fighting the tribes; indeed, he had made a substantial part of his reputation as a hard-as-nails general fighting Indian tribes throughout the Southeast.

As president, he was no less eager to consent to Indian self-rule inside the United States as were state governments who had to deal with the tribes directly. He believed the Indians were incapable of self-government, equating them to savages who rejected the finer points of civilization.

Even when certain tribes, like the Cherokee, had adopted 'white' ways, settled down, and governed themselves, Jackson was quick to ignore it as an anomaly. He had one goal, and that was their removal. His people, the white men of the states, were also his voters, and they came first, and so the Indians had to go.

Map showing the changing Cherokee land borders
Cherokee Lands Map

Indian Removal Act of 1830

To modern eyes, the policy of Indian removal may seem heartless, but to those living at the time, they saw it as a humane way to solve a nagging problem. To facilitate this 'humane' program, Jackson introduced to Congress the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The act promised that the federal government of the United States would pay a fair price to the tribes for their lands, and the government would also be responsible for paying any costs associated with tribal relocation. Moreover, the new land to be given to the tribes west of the Mississippi would be inviolate, and the government promised to protect them against all encroachment and conflict.

Several tribes who inhabited lands in the South took the government up on their offer and voluntarily moved westward. For they knew, especially after the Jackson landslide victory of 1832, that resistance was futile. One tribe, however, did not budge but decided to stay and fight through legal channels. These were the Cherokee.

The Cherokee Resist

The largest and most 'advanced' of tribes east of the Mississippi, the Cherokee once dominated territories in the Great Smokey Mountains. At the time Jackson was president, their lands had shrunk, but still they remained in control of sizable swaths of land in northern Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, lands the white settlers wanted for growing cotton.

It didn't help their cause that gold was discovered in Dahlonega, Georgia, also an area the Cherokee claimed. The first gold rush of the United States simply added to the insistence that the Cherokee move out so the white man could move in.

General Winfield Scott forced resistant Cherokees into concentration camps
General Winfield Scott

With mounting pressure from all sides, the Cherokee tried to appeal their case to the United States Supreme Court in 1831 but were denied a hearing. In another court case, Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the Supreme Court held that the Cherokee were entitled to legal protection from encroachments by the state of Georgia on their lands.

The problem was the Supreme Court gave opinions with no power to back them up. When it came time to enforce the ruling, Georgia and President Jackson simply ignored it and continued preparations for the removal of the Cherokee.

With the support of the president, Georgia moved forward and held a lottery for the sale of Cherokee land, even though the Cherokee still lived on the land. Those who bought the lands pressured further for the state or the federal government to quicken Cherokee removal by force, if necessary.

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