American Indian Removal Policy and the Trail of Tears

Andrew Jackson's Policy Led to a Shameful Episode in US History

Engraved portrait of Andrew Jackson. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The American Indian Removal policy of President Andrew Jackson was prompted by the desire of White settlers in the South to expand into lands belonging to five Indigenous tribes. After Jackson succeeded in pushing the Indian Removal Act through Congress in 1830, the U.S. government spent nearly 30 years forcing Indigenous peoples to move westward, beyond the Mississippi River.

In the most notorious example of this policy, more than 15,000 members of the Cherokee tribe were forced to walk from their homes in the southern states to a designated territory in present-day Oklahoma in 1838. Many died along the way.

This forced relocation became known as the “Trail of Tears” because of the great hardship faced by Cherokees. In brutal conditions, nearly 4,000 Cherokees died on the Trail of Tears.

Conflicts With Settlers Led to the American Indian Removal Act

There had been conflicts between Whites and Indigenous peoples since the first White settlers arrived in North America. But in the early 1800s, the issue had come down to White settlers encroaching on Indigenous lands in the southern United States.

Five Indigenous tribes were located on land that would be highly sought for settlement, especially as it was prime land for the cultivation of cotton. The tribes on the land were the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole.

Over time the tribes in the south tended to adopt White ways such as taking up farming in the tradition of White settlers and in some cases even buying and owning enslaved Black people.

These efforts at assimilation led to the tribes becoming known as the “Five Civilized Tribes.” Yet taking up the ways of the White settlers did not mean the Indigenous peoples would be able to keep their lands.

In fact, settlers hungry for land were actually dismayed to see these tribes, contrary to all the grotesque propaganda about them being "savages," adopt the farming practices of the White Americans.

The accelerated desire to relocate Indigenous peoples to the West was a consequence of the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828. Jackson had a long and complicated history with Indigenous tribes, having grown up in frontier settlements where stories of attacks by them were common.

At various times in his early military career, Jackson had been allied with Indigenous peoples but had also waged brutal campaigns against them. His attitude toward Indigenous tribes was not unusual for the times, though by today’s standards he would be considered a racist as he believed tribal members to be inferior to Whites.

Jackson’s attitude toward Indigenous peoples could be viewed partly as paternalistic. He believed them to be like children who needed guidance. And by that way of thinking, Jackson may well have believed that forcing Indigenous peoples to move hundreds of miles westward may have been for their own good, since he believed they would never fit in with a White society.

Of course, these Indigenous peoples, not to mention sympathetic White people ranging from religious figures in the North to the backwoods hero-turned-Congressman Davy Crockett, saw things quite differently.

To this day, Andrew Jackson's legacy is often tied to his attitude and actions toward Indigenous tribes. According to an article in the Detroit Free Press in 2016, many Cherokees will not use $20 bills because they bear the likeness of Jackson.

Cherokee Leader John Ross

The political leader of the Cherokee tribe, John Ross, was the son of a Scottish father and a Cherokee mother. He was destined for a career as a merchant, as his father had been, but became involved in tribal politics. In 1828 Ross was elected the tribal chief of the Cherokee.

In 1830, Ross and the Cherokee took the audacious step of trying to retain their lands by filing suit against the state of Georgia. The case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Chief Justice John Marshall, while avoiding the central issue, ruled that the states could not assert control over the Indigenous tribes.

According to legend, President Jackson scoffed, saying, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it."

And no matter what the Supreme Court ruled, the Cherokees did face serious obstacles. Vigilante groups in Georgia attacked them, and John Ross was nearly killed in one attack.

American Indian Tribes Forcibly Removed

In the 1820s, the Chickasaws, under pressure, began moving westward. The U.S. Army began forcing the Choctaws to move in 1831. The French author Alexis de Tocqueville, on his landmark trip to America, witnessed a party of Choctaws struggling to cross the Mississippi with great hardship in the dead of winter.

The leaders of the Creeks were imprisoned in 1837, and 15,000 Creeks were forced to move westward. The Seminoles, based in Florida, managed to fight a long war against the U.S. Army until they finally moved westward in 1857.

Cherokees Forced Along Trail of Tears

Despite legal victories by the Cherokees, the United States government began to force the tribe to move west, to present-day Oklahoma, in 1838.

A considerable force of the U.S. Army—more than 7,000 men—was ordered by President Martin Van Buren, who followed Jackson in office, to remove the Cherokees. General Winfield Scott commanded the operation, which became notorious for the cruelty shown to the Cherokee people.

Soldiers in the operation later expressed regret for what they had been ordered to do.

Cherokees were rounded up in camps, and farms that had been in their families for generations were awarded to White settlers.

The forced march of more than 15,000 Cherokees began in late 1838. And in the cold winter ​conditions, nearly 4,000 Cherokee died while trying to walk the 1,000 miles to the land where they had been ordered to live.