Back To CourseHistory 103: US History I
12 chapters | 108 video lessons
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.
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 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.
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.
A small group of Cherokee within the tribe saw a fight with the United States as a lose-lose situation. Nothing, they believed, would stop their removal.
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 on the Cherokee nation.
Jackson's successor in the White House was Vice President Martin Van Buren, who ordered General Winfield Scott to round up the recalcitrant Cherokees 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, the Cherokee 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 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 Cherokee removal, 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 his orders, and they were carried out.
In the end, Jackson and his allies got their way, and the age of the American Indian 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 our indigenous peoples.
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Back To CourseHistory 103: US History I
12 chapters | 108 video lessons