Martin Van Buren's Role in the Trail of Tears

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Trail of Tears was one of the most inhumane moments in American interactions with Amerindian nations, but who was responsible? In this lesson, we'll see how Martin van Buren played into this history.

Martin van Buren and Jackson's Indian Policies

In 1836, Martin van Buren was elected as President of the United States. He was essentially the handpicked successor of Andrew Jackson, under whom he had served as vice president. As a result, a lot of Martin van Buren's presidency was basically a continuation of Jackson's policies. Van Buren's successes were Jackson's successes, and his failures were Jackson's failures.

Martin van Buren
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This was rarely more evident than in van Buren's Indian policy. Jackson had taken an extraordinarily harsh stance against Amerindian nations in the USA and laid the groundwork for some of the most inhumane policies the government ever embraced. However, it was Martin van Buren who was responsible for carrying many of them out.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830

Andrew Jackson had built his career fighting Amerindian nations for the US government, and he developed a deep prejudice against them. By the time he was elected president, Jackson believed that Amerindian peoples were savage, barbarous, and that there could be no coexistence between white America and Amerindians.

He put this prejudice to work as president, signing the Indian Removal Act in 1830. This law demanded that the Amerindian nations east of the Mississippi relocate themselves to designated lands out in the massive Western territory of Louisiana (then basically all the US lands west of the Mississippi). The Indian Removal Act designated the lands, but kept removal as a voluntary action. To expedite the process, however, Jackson stopped paying Amerindian nations what they were owed for lands purchased by the United States. He promised to resume payment once they moved.

Various routes taken by nations forcibly removed after 1830
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The nation that put up the most resistance was the Cherokee, who lived in Georgia. They turned to the American legal system to fight for their rights, and actually won. Jackson, however, refused to enforce the Supreme Court's decision. Then, in 1835 he managed to find a rogue faction of the Cherokee nation who supported removal. He signed a treaty with them, despite the fact that they did not have any authority to speak for the Cherokee nation. The Cherokee (and many Americans) protested, but Congress ratified the treaty. The Cherokee would have two years to get out.

Martin van Buren Takes Over

Martin van Buren was the Vice President of the United States while all of this was occurring. He had been involved in the entire process, working under Jackson, and in 1837, he was sworn in as the new president, ready to continue Jackson's legacy.

The Cherokee were given until 1838 to remove themselves, but they refused. Van Buren sent his generals to arrest 15,000 Cherokee dissidents. They were thrown into very poor prisons, where up to 3,000 died. Van Buren then threatened the full military might of the US government, and Chief Ross of the Cherokee finally relented. He began organizing his people in preparation for a four-month forced walk from Georgia to Oklahoma.

Even as the Cherokee began preparing for their journey, there was confusion about the timing. The Cherokee, who had been semi-nomadic for generations, knew better than to leave for a major journey at the end of summer. They expected to wait until spring. Van Buren didn't care. The Cherokee were forcibly removed starting in October of 1838.

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