The Indian Removal Act was signed into law by Andrew Jackson in 1830. In direct violation of a treaty signed in 1791, the Indian Removal Act authorized the forced removal of 12,000 Cherokee from their ancestral homes in Georgia.

The Cherokee tried to resist through legal channels, including a petition. Davy Crockett lost his office opposing the Act. In the end, the 12,000 people were force marched to Oklahoma in 1838.

4,000 people died on the trek, which came to be known as The Trail of Tears. Especially the aged and the very young fell victim to cholera, measles, starvation and exposure.

See also:

The Five Civilized Tribes
Atrocities against Amerindians
Atrocities by Amerindians

The idea for Indian removal was hardly new. Either by persuasion, coercion, or "force" it had been implemented since before the United States became a country to varying degrees. By the 1820s, it was becoming more and more clear (at least to the government and many of its citizens) that coexistence was no longer possible and "room" was needed for the growing population and further settlement. Things began to be seen almost in a black and white "removal or extermination" way.

Almost making things worse was that some of the Indians known as the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) had actually in many ways begun assimilating themselves into American society and culture (though remaining as separate entities). In fact, the Cherokee not only had plantations and farms, businesses and slaves, they also had a congress, a court system, and a constitution based on that of the United States. This "set" them up as a seemingly independent nation within the country—thus making future removal more difficult.

Part of what helped get Andrew Jackson elected in 1828 was his policy (by then, an "official unofficial" government policy) on removal. In 1830, Congress passed and he signed the Indian Removal Act, giving legislative (and therefore, eventual military) force to the policy and opening the door for the future removals referred to as the various " Trails of Tears" (often used specifically in respect to the Cherokee, it's often used for the other removals as well) during which large numbers died due to disease, exposure, neglect, and mistreatment. The vast majority of Indians then living east of the Mississippi River (an estimated 100,000 in the 1830s alone) were "removed" to "Indian Territory" over the next twenty-five years.

The Cherokee attempted to escape the act by taking cases to the Supreme Court. The first failed as it was ruled they were not a "foreign nation" (and immune to the act) but a "domestic, dependent nation," over which the court had no jurisdiction. Eager to get at the Cherokee land (mainly because of gold being discovered there), the state of Georgia made a series of laws in order to facilitate removal. One was aimed at missionaries on Indian land who were trying to help the Cherokee (any "white" living on Indian land had to be licensed through the state or face imprisonment—some chose to risk it and were incarcerated). As a result of the law, the second case went to the Supreme Court. This time it was a victory. It was ruled that

the Cherokee Nation then, is a distinct community, occupying its own territory, with boundaries accurately described, in which the laws of Georgia have no force, and which the citizens of Georgia have no right to enter, but with the assent of the Cherokees themselves, or in conformity with treaties, and with acts of Congress.

Because of that, Georgia had no authority over them and the laws were null and void.

Despite the victory, the court and Cherokee had no way to enforce the ruling which was ignored by the state. By then Georgia had begun displacing the Indians by giving away their land through a lottery system. No help came from President Jackson, either, who supposedly said that "[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it."

All the court decision was able to do was postpone the inevitable by requiring a treaty to enforce removal. A small faction of the tribe (many of the better respected and best educated Cherokee—but, by far the minority), believing that the choice, indeed, was a matter of "removal or extermination" signed a treaty in 1835 with full knowledge that doing so was signing their own death sentence.

An originally unspoken law that made it into the Cherokee constitution stated that "if any citizen or citizens of this nation should treat and dispose of any lands belonging to this nation without special permission from the national authorities, he or they shall suffer death" and that "any person or persons, citizens of this nation, may kill him or them so offending in any manner most convenient...and shall not be held accountable for the same." The major leaders of the treaty faction were eventually murdered.

And in 1838, the Cherokee began their Trail of Tears. They were not alone.

(Sources:John Ehle Trail of Tears 1988, Gloria Jahoda TheTrail of Tears 1975, Carl WaldmanAtlas of the North American Indian rev. ed. 2000, JamesWilson The Earth Shall Weep: the history of Native Americans,,numerous other sources consulted, text of the act from

Text of the Act
Not surprisingly, the "aid," assistance," "protection," and "appropriations" promised by the act were either insufficient and/or slow in coming or nonexistent. It should also be noted that the territory "not included" in any "state or organized territory" continued to shrink due to settlement and population encroachment, future treaties, and the Dawes Act (or General Allotment Act, 1887). The members of the Five Civilized Tribes were exceptions to the act at first, but the Curtis Act (1898) dissolved tribal government and title to the lands (other than that offered through the allotment system). In 1907, what was left of "Indian Territory" became Oklahoma.

Indian Removal Act (1830)


An Act to provide for an exchange of lands with the Indians residing in any of the states or territories, and for their removal west of the river Mississippi.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That it shall and may be lawful for the President of the United States to cause so much of any territory belonging to the United States, west of the river Mississippi, not included in any state or organized territory, and to which the Indian title has been extinguished, as he may judge necessary, to be divided into a suitable number of districts, for the reception of such tribes or nations of Indians as may choose to exchange the lands where they now reside, and remove there; and to cause each of said districts to be so described by natural or artificial marks, as to be easily distinguished from every other.

Sec. 2 And be it further enacted, That it shall and may be lawful for the President to exchange any or all of such districts, so to be laid off and described, with any tribe or nation of Indians now residing within the limits of any of the states or territories, and with which the United States have existing treaties, for the whole or any part or portion of the territory claimed and occupied by such tribe or nation, within the bounds of any one or more of the states or territories, where the land claimed and occupied by the Indians, is owned by the United States, or the United States are bound to the state within which it lies to extinguish the Indian claim thereto.

Sec. 3 And be it further enacted, That in the making of any such exchange or exchanges, it shall and may be lawful for the President solemnly to assure the tribe or nation with which the exchange is made, that the United States will forever secure and guarantee to them, and their heirs or successors, the country so exchanged with them; and if they prefer it, that the United States will cause a patent or grant to be made and executed to them for the same:

Provided always, That such lands shall revert to the United States, if the Indians become extinct, or abandon the same.

Sec. 4 And be it further enacted, That if, upon any of the lands now occupied by the Indians, and to be exchanged for, there should be such improvements as add value to the land claimed by any individual or individuals of such tribes or nations, it shall and may be lawful for the President to cause such value to be ascertained by appraisement or otherwise, and to cause such ascertained value to be paid to the person or persons rightfully claiming such improvements. And upon the payment of such valuation, the improvements so valued and paid for, shall pass to the United States, and possession shall not afterwards be permitted to any of the same tribe.

Sec. 5 And be it further enacted, That upon the making of any such exchange as is contemplated by this act, it shall and may be lawful for the President to cause such aid and assistance to be furnished to the emigrants as may be necessary and proper to enable them to remove to, and settle in, the country for which they may have exchanged; and also, to give them such aid and assistance as may be necessary for their support and subsistence for the first year after their removal.

Sec. 6 And be it further enacted, That it shall and may be lawful for the President to cause such tribe or nation to be protected, at their new residence, against all interruption or disturbance from any other tribe or nation of Indians, or from any other person or persons whatever.

Sec. 7 And be it further enacted, That it shall and may be lawful for the President to have the same superintendence and care over any tribe or nation in the country to which they may remove, as contemplated by this act, that he is now authorized to have over them at their present places of residence:

Provided, That nothing in this act contained shall be construed as authorizing or directing the violation of any existing treaty between the United States and any of the Indian tribes.

Sec. 8 And be it further enacted, That for the purpose of giving effect to the provisions of this act, the sum of five hundred thousand dollars is hereby appropriated, to be paid out of any money in the treasury, not otherwise appropriated.

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 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)

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