Jackson's Political War on the Native American People
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 people from their ancestral lands and displacing them westward on to reservations. There, it was believed, they would be out of the settler's affairs. What is more, Native American people's lands could then be seized and exploited as the American people saw fit.
It came as no surprise that Jackson had little sympathy for the plight of Native American people 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 Native American tribes throughout the Southeast.
As president, he was no more eager to consent to the Native American people's self-rule inside the United States as were state governments who had to deal with the tribes directly. He believed the Native American people were uncivilized and incapable of self-government.
Even when certain tribes, like the Cherokee tribe, had adopted the ways of the settlers, 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 people of the states, were also his voters, and they came first, and so the Native American people had to go.
Indian Removal Act of 1830
To modern eyes, the policy to remove the Native American people 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, Jackson introduced to Congress what was known as 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 members of the Cherokee tribe.
The Cherokee Resist
The Cherokee tribe, the largest Native American tribe east of the Mississippi, once dominated territories in the Great Smoky 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 that members of the Cherokee tribe claimed. The first gold rush of the United States simply added to the insistence that Cherokee members move out so the settlers could move in.
With mounting pressure from all sides, the Cherokee members 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 Cherokee members 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 Cherokee members.
With the support of the president, Georgia moved forward and held a lottery for the sale of the Cherokee tribe's land, even though Cherokee members still lived on the land. Those who bought the lands pressured further for the state or the federal government to quicken the removal of Cherokee members by force, if necessary.
Trail of Tears
A small group of Cherokee members saw a fight with the United States as a lose-lose situation.
Jackson's administration reached out to this malleable lot and brokered the Treaty of New Echota. The treaty, signed in 1835, caused a rift in the tribe. Many felt betrayed by the treaty and urged the Senate not to ratify it, but it was in vain. The Senate ratified the treaty in 1836, and the clock was ticking for the Cherokee nation.
Jackson's successor in the White House was Vice President Martin Van Buren, who ordered General Winfield Scott to round up Cherokee members into concentration camps and prepare them to be force-marched west. Scott carried out his duties without delay.
Those who resisted the round-up had their homes burned, property destroyed, and some even lost their lives. In the end, Cherokee members were resigned to their fate and began the thousand-mile walk westward. Many thousands would die along the way, die of exposure to the cold winter, die of disease, die of old age and fatigue, but the Cherokee members marched on. They had no choice. It caused some soldiers involved in the event even to question their own humanity.
One soldier, looking back at his role in the removal of the Cherokee members, compared it to other atrocities and violence he had witnessed during the Civil War a few decades later. He said, ''I fought through the War Between the States and I have seen many men shot, but the Cherokee Removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.'' But those were the orders, and they were carried out.
In the end, Jackson and his allies got their way, and the struggle of the Native American people east of the Mississippi was finally at an end. This forced removal and march, under the prodding of the U.S. military, came to be known as the Trail of Tears and has gone down in our history as a dark chapter in America's relationship with indigenous peoples.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Explain President Jackson's view of Native American people and his solution known as the ''Indian Removal Act of 1830''
- Summarize the Cherokee tribe's attempt at resistance and the results
- Describe the Trail of Tears
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