The Indian Removal Act & Trail of Tears

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The Indian Removal Act & Trail of Tears

When President Andrew Jackson took office in 1829, he pursued a policy of removing Native Americans from their ancestral lands. This was done to make room for white settlers and speculators who made large profits from the purchase and sale of land.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 passed Congress by a narrow margin. 

The frontiersman and folk hero Davy Crocket represented Tennessee in the House of Representatives at the time and voted against the bill. He later wrote, "I believed it was a wicked, unjust measure.... I voted against this Indian bill, and my conscience yet tells me that I gave a good honest vote, and one that I believe will not make me ashamed in the day of judgement."

Jackson and southern states pushed for its passing, however, and Jackson signed it into law in 1830. 

The Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee nations had been long been established as autonomous nations in the southeastern United States. They had their own governments, towns, and signed treaties with America.

In 1832, a large group from the Sac and Fox Nation led by Chief Black Hawk went to Illinois, but militia members easily drove them back across the Mississippi. The Seminole resistance in Florida was more formidable, resulting in a war that began under Chief Osceola and lasted into the 1840s.

The Cherokee of Georgia, on the other hand, used legal action to resist. They developed their own written language, printed newspapers and elected leaders to representative government.

When the government of Georgia refused to recognize their autonomy and threatened to seize their lands, the Cherokee took their case to the Supreme Court and won a favorable decision.

The Trail of Tears

John Marshall’s opinion for the Court majority in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia was essentially that Georgia had no jurisdiction over the Cherokees and no claim to their lands.

However, Georgia officials simply ignored the decision, and President Jackson refused to enforce it. Jackson was furious and personally affronted by the Marshall ruling, stating, “Mr. Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it!”

The Trail of Tears

Finally, federal troops came to Georgia to forcibly remove any Native Americans who resisted or refused to leave. As early as 1831, the army began to push the Choctaw nation off their lands to march to Oklahoma.

In 1835, a small number of Cherokee leaders agreed to accept western land and payment in exchange for relocation. With this agreement, known as the Treaty of New Echota, Jackson had the green light to order Cherokee removal.

The majority of Cherokee, under the leadership of Chief John Ross (seen to the left), resisted until the bitter end.

About 20,000 Cherokee were marched westward at gunpoint by the US Army on the infamous Trail of Tears.

Those forced to march suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while en route to their reservation. Nearly a quarter died along the way, including Chief Ross's wife. Those who made it to Oklahoma were forced to seek survival in a completely foreign land.

The Cherokee Nation became divided as the followers of Ross murdered those who signed the Treaty of New Echota. Later, the US Civil War further divided them as the issue of slavery and which side to join split the tribe. 

According to legend, a Cherokee rose, the state flower of Georgia, grew in every spot a tear fell on the Trail of Tears. The flowers grow along many of the trails that the Native Americans took West.

Today, the Indian Removal Act and Trail of Tears is considered an ethnic cleansing and a sad chapter of American history.

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