Positions of the opponents and proponents of the Indian Removal Act
When the white, European settlers first came to America, many of them had to rely on the natives for help surviving the first difficult years. Today Americans celebrate Thanksgiving to celebrate the survival of the Puritan settlers from England, also remembering the invaluable help provided by the Wampanoag tribe. However this gratitude was not enough to protect the native tribes and they found themselves more and more under pressure from the increasing numbers of white settlers. Land was always the primary issue in Indian-white relations and no matter how much the tribes ceded, it was never enough. The settlers kept coming. When the Indian Removal Act was proposed, many Indians were livid. When would the encroachment on their lands end? Some individuals, like from the Cherokee, had made significant advancements in becoming “civilised” and realised resettlement would rob them of all their progress. Some whites opposed the action too, claiming it was immoral and reneged on previous promises solemnly made by their forefathers. Some proponents of the bill believed it was actually the humane thing to do, citing the adverse affects white vice and culture had had on many tribes. Only through the separate of the white and Indian communities could the Indians be able to be civilised, they thought. Some more pragmatic individuals saw the opportunity to seize Indian land for themselves. Frontier states argued that the land was under their jurisdiction and although the federal government never disputed Indian rights, they were unable to enforce them. President Andrew Jackson himself was elected on a pro-expansion policy and many lawmakers looked to curry favour with the settler vote. The decision of the courts not to prosecute only encouraged trespassers more. In the end, no matter how sympathetic some whites were to the Indians, white priorities almost always came first.
Advocates of Removal
White philanthropists, or gradualists, had been encouraging the civilising of the Indians for many years before the 1820s. In their minds Indians would inevitably and should ideally become part of the white U.S. community. Schools were set up in some tribal areas, missionaries travelled to preach the gospel and traders sold farming equipment, as well as other modern inventions and luxuries. Some Indians did make impressive advances, building up cattle herds and farming their land more to white standards. Amongst the Cherokees, there were those who had mansions, plantations and even black slaves. However there were many more who had been adversely affected by interaction with whites. Drunkenness became a common sight in many Indian areas and as a whole the tribes appeared to be in decline, at least to gradualist eyes. Thomas McKenney wrote that 'two centuries have gone round and the Indian remnants.......are more wretched than when they were a great and numerous people'. The Indians could not or would not be civilised in their current lands. They had to be separated from the white settlers somehow.
Ideally the gradualists would have preferred the Indians to be able to stay on their current lands. But for decades the government had tried in vain to halt the flow of frontiersmen and their families into Indian lands. Those Indian agents who took an active role in protecting tribal interests would often send requests to the Federal authorities to remove illegal settlements. Time after time, log cabins were burnt and families moved back over the border. But they kept coming back. Lead deposits in Upper Mississippi attracted a horde of miners and their families in 1827. By 1828 there were 10,000 people there, a number impossible to control. The U.S. Army was simply not big enough to mount continual border patrols – such was the manpower shortage that some agents had to use Indian horsemen to help remove the frontiersmen. The courts were no help either, as they felt that the Intercourse Acts only gave provision for the removal of illegal settlers, not their prosecution. Thus there was nothing to stop them returning to Indian land. So some gradualists believed that there was no alternative but to move the Indians away from the whites. Some more of them also commented that the Indian hunting grounds were becoming depleted and that many tribes were roaming further and further west to find food. If they stayed, it would only cause them further grief.
The U.S. Government generally agreed with these ideas and decided that removal was a good policy, especially as the Louisiana Purchase provided land for the Indians to be moved on to. President Jackson was elected on a pro-expansionist mandate and had seen first-hand the failure of the old policy of trying to remove the white settlers, when he was in the army. The government had always been in favour of expansion and though many officials were sympathetic to the Indians, it was a lot easier to believe moving them would solve the problem. After all the frontiersmen were voters too. Lawmakers from states like Georgia vehemently argued their case in Congress and the Senate. Other supporters, such as from the scientific community, believed the Indians to be no more than animals and were dying out like any other animal could. Thus there was no reason to give them equal treatment with whites.
There were of course people with less charitable intentions. The white frontiersmen were described by William Franklin in an extremely damning way, when he said 'some of the worst people in every colony reside on the Frontiers'. Though this is debatable, many were certainly poor and were trying to build a new life for themselves. They were brave but ill-educated and hardly diplomatic. Years of conflict with Indians bred a strong hatred amongst the settlers. From their perspective the Indians wasted the land, as they did not intensively farm it, and felt that they were treated unfairly – 'nearly 100,000 acres of land to a each man......whilst they who would be a supporte to government..must be debared even from injoying a small corner of this land'. The Removal Act was the perfect way to get rid of these “heathens” who squatted on land that they didn't deserve to live on. It was also important to do this soon, as it was apparent that some Indians were becoming too civilised. The Cherokees adopted their own constitution and administrative framework and generally it was understood that the more “white” the Indians became, the more difficult it would be to remove them. States like Georgia were angered by the constitutional reforms made by the Indians. It was a challenge to their sovereignty, or as Sheehan puts it 'an unmistakeable challenge to their own exaggerated political pretensions'. They believed that as Indian land fell inside their borders, it was under their jurisdiction. Removal would ensure the land became theirs.
Opponents of Removal
Though some Indians did move voluntarily, most had no desire to leave their homes. It had been their land for a very long time and the white man was a relatively new arrival to this place. Why should they let him drive them off their territory? Tecumseh indicated his people's feelings, stating 'the camp is stationary and....it belongs to the first who sits down on his blanket or skins....and till he leaves it no other has a right'. They had a strong spiritual link to the land, something that the white man could not understand. When many tribes left, they found that they were almost leaving behind a piece of themselves – as a result many died on the way to the reservations. The U.S. Government had promised that their lands would not be taken in years past. Speckled Snake replied to President Jackson saying that the white man always requested the Indians to 'get a little farther', when one of his predecessors had said that the land '“would be yours forever”'. The advancements made by several tribes would be wasted if they moved. And even if they could emulate these successes in the new lands, as one chief pointed out, what would the point be if they were asked to move again in 50 years time? The new land itself was mostly untamed, the reason why it was decided Indians instead of whites should live there, and there already other Indians living there. Many chiefs knew that life there would be harsh, to say the least. Educated Indians like Elias Boudinot put their case eloquently – 'we would not deny that many great tribes have perished.....but we are yet to be convinced that this will always be the case'. Indeed it is unclear how reliable the observations made of the Indian decline were.
There were some white objections. First of all the missionaries, who had worked hard to convert and educate parts of the Indian community. Removal would destroy all of their work. They and others also realised that it would not speed white-Indian integration. It could only antagonise and push the Indians further away. Removal was just a panacea in their minds to the Indian problem. Indian agents, churchmen, other gradualists and military officials saw who caused most of the troubles – the white settlers. Unless they could be brought to heel, the same problems would occur again in the future. State authorities rarely enforced removal of squatters and though the Army often complained of a shortage of manpower, it was also true that many officers had little or no interest in tackling the tresspassers. Equally they remembered the promises made in years past, just like the Indians did. Theodore Frelinghuysen, senator for New jersey, stated that 'our fathers successfully and triumphantly contended for the very rights and privileges that our Indian neighbors now implore us to protect and preserve to them'. For him it was a matter of honour and trust. Breaking these solemn promises would only make the Indian mistrust the whites in the future, making the Indian problem worse, not better.
Contact with whites caused many problems for the Indians. Land inevitably caused conflict with frontiersmen and white vices caused severe decline in many tribes. When the gradualists thought that their hopes of civilising the Indians was failing, many decided that only removal could work. Only by separating them from whites, could they advance without inference and being corrupted. The Federal government believed this to be the best policy too, as their efforts it policing the border were proving futile. Local state authorities often sided with the settlers and the courts were unable, or unwilling, to prosecute trespassers on Indian land. White settlers saw removal as a way to get at land that was “rightly theirs” and get rid of the Indians before they improved the land or assimilated to the point where they couldn't be removed. State authorities wanted to exert control on the land that was within their boundaries, and they were tired of what they saw as interference from the Federal authorities and the eastern states. They would not advocate the old tribes take their land back in New York, for example. However the Indians were not convinced that they would have a better chance in the new land. They knew that the white settlers weren't going to be sent there and that it would be a very difficult life, due to hostile Indians and the inhospitable land. Any advancements they had made would be lost. Plus it was their home and they had a strong attachment to it. Why should they leave when the white chiefs had said the land would be theirs forever? Some white lawmakers and churchmen remembered this and claimed the Indians would never trust whites again after removal, making the civilising process all but impossible. And they also knew that removal would not solve the problem. But they were ignored. The Removal Act may have just been a temporary relief but that satisfied many white men of the time. As the saying goes – out of sight, out of mind.
Christine Bolt, American Indian policy and American reform (London, 1987)
eds. A. L. Hurtado & P. Iverson, Major problems in American Indian History (Boston, 2001)
F. P. Prucha, American Indian Policy in the formative years (Cambridge, 1962)
B. W. Sheehan, Seeds of Extinction (University of North Carolina, 1973)
Deloria Vine, American Indian, American justice (University of Texas, 1983)
Deloria Vine, The nations within (University of Texas, 1998)
Philip Weeks, Farewell my nation (Illinois, 2001)