Congress Passes Indian Removal Act

This federal legislation began the forced resettlement of sixty thousand eastern Native Americans to lands west of the Mississippi River—a traumatic blow to Indian societies that caused untold suffering and changed the cultural map of Native America.

Summary of Event

Members of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes—Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Seminole, and Creek—established independent republics with successful governments. Adapting to the culture of their white neighbors, they became farmers, miners, and cattle Cattle;and Native Americans[Native Americans]
Native Americans;and cattle[Cattle] ranchers. Some had plantations and even owned slaves. They built schools and churches, wrote constitutions, Constitutions;Native American
Native Americans;constitutions and established independent governments. However, despite their achievements, they learned a bitter lesson: Whites wanted their land, not their assimilation into Euro-American society. Indian Removal Act of 1830
Native Americans;removal of
Cherokees;removal of
[kw]Congress Passes Indian Removal Act (May 28, 1830)
[kw]Passes Indian Removal Act, Congress (May 28, 1830)
[kw]Indian Removal Act, Congress Passes (May 28, 1830)
[kw]Removal Act, Congress Passes Indian (May 28, 1830)
[kw]Act, Congress Passes Indian Removal (May 28, 1830)
Indian Removal Act of 1830
Native Americans;removal of
Cherokees;removal of
[g]United States;May 28, 1830: Congress Passes Indian Removal Act[1570]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;May 28, 1830: Congress Passes Indian Removal Act[1570]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 28, 1830: Congress Passes Indian Removal Act[1570]
[c]Indigenous people’s rights;May 28, 1830: Congress Passes Indian Removal Act[1570]
Jackson, Andrew
[p]Jackson, Andrew;and Indian removal[Indian removal]
Marshall, John
[p]Marshall, John;on Native Americans[Native Americans]
Ridge, Major
Ridge, John
Boudinot, Elias
Ross, John
Worcester, Samuel A.

As a local militia leader and politician, Andrew Jackson Jackson, Andrew
[p]Jackson, Andrew;and Indian removal[Indian removal] negotiated the acquisition of fifty million acres of Indian land in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi even before he became president of the United States. By the time he became president in 1829, the Cherokees had lost their land outside Georgia, and their neighbors had grown increasingly jealous of Cherokee success. For generations, Cherokees had provided a textbook picture of Jefferson’s ideal nation of farmers. For example, Sequoyah, a young man of Cherokee and white blood, invented Inventions;Cherokee alphabet
Alphabets;Cherokee a phonetic alphabet, or syllabary, that enabled almost every member of his nation to become literate within a few months. To ensure that they held their remaining land, Cherokees made the sale of any additional land to whites a capital offense.

Violent conflicts between whites and Indians became so common that many friends and enemies alike advocated removal of the Cherokees to the west to protect Cherokees from white citizens who routinely attacked them. In 1817, some Cherokees exchanged land in North Carolina North Carolina;Cherokees for space in Arkansas. Arkansas;Cherokees Within two years, six thousand had moved voluntarily. However, their move only worsened Cherokee problems. By 1821, the Cherokees were at war with the Osages Osages who had been in Arkansas Territory already, and both groups fought whites who continued to move onto their land.

These early voluntary removals proved so disastrous that the Cherokees and Choctaws Choctaws;removal of remaining in Georgia vowed to stay on their native land. Although President James Monroe Monroe, James
[p]Monroe, James;and Indian removal[Indian removal] proposed removal again in 1825, neither Monroe nor his successor, John Quincy Adams Adams, John Quincy
[p]Adams, John Quincy;and Indian removal[Indian removal] , could get a removal measure through Congress. Only the enthusiasm of President Jackson Jackson, Andrew
[p]Jackson, Andrew;and Indian removal[Indian removal] got removal approved on a close vote in 1830. In 1829, Jackson admitted that the five Indian republics had made “progress in the arts of civilized life,” but he said American Indians occupied land that whites could use. Beyond the Mississippi River lay enough land for Native Americans and their descendants to inhabit without interference “as long as grass grows or water runs in peace and plenty.”

Meanwhile, the Georgia state legislature extended its power over the Cherokee nation and stripped Native Americans of civil rights. These laws forbade anyone with American Indian blood to testify in court against a white man, annulled contracts between Native Americans and whites, and required oaths of allegiance to Georgia from white people living among American Indians. The laws also prevented Native Americans from holding meetings or digging for gold on their own land.

Instead of going to war, the Cherokees hired two prominent Washington lawyers and went to the U.S. Supreme Court with a series of legal actions that became known as the Cherokee cases. Cherokee cases (1831-1832)
Supreme Court, U.S.;and Native Americans[Native Americans] They lost their first case, challenging Georgia for hanging a Cherokee man convicted under Cherokee law. The second case, Worcester v. Georgia
Worcester v. Georgia (1832) (1832) challenged the Georgia loyalty oath that was designed to remove teachers, missionaries Missionaries;and Native Americans[Native Americans] , and other whites from the reservation. The Reverend Samuel A. Worcester Worcester, Samuel A. and other missionaries among Cherokees refused to sign the loyalty oath, despite public humiliation, abuse, and imprisonment.

Tribal Lands in Indian Territory in 1836

Chief Justice John Marshall Marshall, John
[p]Marshall, John;on Native Americans[Native Americans] declared Georgia’s repressive laws unconstitutional. American Indian nations, Marshall said, were “domestic dependent nations” that were entitled to have independent political communities without state restrictions. President Jackson Jackson, Andrew
[p]Jackson, Andrew;and Indian removal[Indian removal] , who had built his reputation by fighting Indians in the South, suggested that Georgia could ignore the Court’s decision, as he, not the Supreme Court, controlled the army.

Congress also took up Georgia’s cause by passing the Indian Removal Act on May 28, 1830. It began a process of exchanging Indian lands in the twenty-four existing states for new lands west of the Mississippi River. In 1834, Congress established Indian Territory Indian Territory;creation of —which is now a major part of Oklahoma Oklahoma;Indian Territory —as a permanent reservation. The Cherokee leader Major Ridge Ridge, Major and his family, who had been among the strongest opponents of removal, and Cherokee lobbyists, including John Ridge Ridge, John , celebrated their Supreme Court victory in Worcester. However, they had incorrectly thought Whigs Whig Party (American);and Native Americans[Native Americans] in Congress would prevail against Jackson’s removal policy. Jackson, Andrew
[p]Jackson, Andrew;and Indian removal[Indian removal]

The federal removal law did not specify that Native Americans could be forced to move, but the Ridge family and the Cherokee newspaper editor Elias Boudinot Boudinot, Elias began to see the move as necessary to protect Cherokees from increasing violence. Principal Chief John Ross Ross, John , however, still resisted removal. Believing that removal was in their nation’s best interest, the Ridge family signed a removal treaty without approval of the tribal council.

Many Indians resisted removal from their ancient homelands. The Alabama Creeks Creeks;removal of
Alabama;Indian removal were forcibly removed, some of them in chains. Choctaws were forced out of Mississippi in winter and given no opportunity to carry provisions against the cold. Some were tricked into getting drunk and signing away their possessions. Others signed away their lands, believing the promises of government officials. Forced marches of Creeks, Choctaws, and Cherokees brought sickness, starvation, and death to thousands of people during the 1830’s.

The Cherokees faced a special horror. Georgia’s repressive laws had created a climate of lawlessness. Whites could steal land, and Cherokees could not testify in court against them. In one notorious case, two white men dined in the home of a family whose father was part Cherokee. In the evening, the parents left temporarily and the guests forced the children and their nurse from the home and set it on fire, destroying the house and all of its contents. The men were arrested, but a judge dismissed the case because all the witnesses were part Cherokee. Only pure-blooded whites were allowed to testify in court.

Finally, Jackson’s successor, President Martin Van Buren Van Buren, Martin
[p]Van Buren, Martin;and Indian removal[Indian removal] , ordered General Winfield Scott Scott, Winfield
[p]Scott, Winfield;and Indian removal[Indian removal] , with about seven thousand U.S. soldiers and state militia, to begin the forced removal on May 26, 1838. Soldiers quietly surrounded each house to surprise its occupants, according to James Mooney, a researcher who interviewed the participants years later. Under Scott’s orders, the troops built stockades to hold people while being prepared for the removal. “From these,” Mooney wrote,

squads of troops were sent to search out with rifle and bayonet every small cabin hidden away in the coves or by the sides of mountain streams, to seize and bring in as prisoners all the occupants, however or wherever they might be found. Families at dinner were startled by the sudden gleam of bayonets in the doorway and rose up to be driven with blows and oaths along the weary miles of trail that led to the stockade.

Men were taken from their fields, children from their play. “In many cases, on turning for one last look as they crossed the ridge, they saw their homes in flames.” Some scavengers stole livestock and other valuables, even before the owners were out of sight of their homes. “Systematic hunts were made by the same men for Indian graves, to rob them of the silver pendants and other valuables deposited with the dead.” Some sympathetic soldiers allowed one family to feed their chickens one last time, and another to pray quietly in their own language before leaving their home.

Within a week, the troops had rounded up more than seventeen thousand Cherokees and herded them into concentration camps. In June, the first group of about one thousand began the eight-hundred-mile journey. Steamboats took them on the first leg down the Tennessee River. The oppressive heat and cramped conditions on the boats fostered disease Diseases;and Native Americans[Native Americans] and caused many deaths. Then the Cherokees walked the last leg of the trip to beyond the western border of Arkansas. Because of the heat, Cherokee leader John Ross Ross, John persuaded General Scott to delay the largest removal until fall. Thus, the largest procession—about thirteen thousand people—started on the long overland march in October, 1838. Most walked or rode horses; Horses;and Native Americans[Native Americans] others drove 645 wagons.

Dozens of people died of disease, starvation, or exposure on each day of the journey. Before it was over, more than four thousand Cherokees died on the journey that the survivors named the Trail of Tears Trail of Tears . The procession reached the Mississippi River opposite Cape Girardeau, Missouri, in the middle of winter. Most had only a single blanket to protect themselves from the winter winds as they waited for the river ice to clear. In March, 1839, they reached their destination in Indian Territory. Many were buried along the road, including Chief John Ross’s wife, Quatie Ross, who died after giving up her blanket to a sick child in a sleet- and snowstorm. Her death left Ross Ross, John to grieve both his wife and his nation.

In his last message to Congress, President Jackson Jackson, Andrew
[p]Jackson, Andrew;and Indian removal[Indian removal] said he had settled the Native American problem to everyone’s satisfaction and saved the race from extinction by placing them “beyond the reach of injury or oppression.” Native Americans would now share in “the blessings of civilization” and “the General Government will hereafter watch over them and protect them.” Between 1778 and 1871, 370 treaties stipulated land cessions to whites. Jackson ridiculed the idea of making treaties with Native Americans and called the idea of treating American Indians as separate nations an absurd farce.

By the end of June, 1838, Georgians could boast that no Cherokees remained on their soil, except in the stockade. Sixty thousand members of the five Indian republics had been removed to beyond the Mississippi River. In the process, as many as fifteen thousand men, women, and children died of starvation and disease Diseases;and Native Americans[Native Americans] . The Choctaws Choctaws;removal of had moved in 1832; the Chickasaws Chickasaws;removal of in 1832-1834, the Seminoles Seminoles;removal of in 1836, and the Creeks Creeks;removal of in 1836-1840. In June, 1839, members of the Ross faction, in revenge for the law that John Ridge Ridge, John signed into effect, murdered John Ridge, Major Ridge, and Elias Boudinot Boudinot, Elias for their signing a removal treaty selling Cherokee land.


Although nineteenth century controversies surrounding removal focused on the Five Civilized Tribes, the small but numerous bands of Indians living in the north were also subject to removal. With the exception of some who migrated to Canada, Canada;Native American immigrants their fates differed little materially from that of the southern tribes, and many also were forced to relocate several times before reaching their final destinations.

The impact of removal on Indian culture was demoralization and destruction. Shifts in geographical locations often eroded their culture and rendered subsistence patterns obsolete. In addition, Indians often faced hostile welcomes from western tribes. Ultimately, treaties were broken by the U.S. government as the whites’ inexorable population growth and westward movement stimulated their interest in even the most marginal Indian lands.

Further Reading

  • Decker, Peter R.“The Utes Must Go!”: American Expansion and the Removal of a People. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 2004. Study of three centuries in the history of the Utes, with particular attention to the federal government policies forcing their removal from Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming.
  • Foreman, Grant. Indian Removal: The Emigration of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indians. 2d ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953. The classic and most comprehensive history of removal.
  • Green, Michael D. The Politics of Indian Removal: Creek Government in Crisis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982. Well-researched history of removal as it affected the Creek nation.
  • Guttmann, Allen. States’ Rights and Indian Removal: “The Cherokee Nation v. the State of Georgia.” Boston: D. C. Heath, 1965. Brief documentary history of the Cherokees’ legal struggle to keep their land.
  • Jahoda, Gloria. The Trail of Tears. New York: Wings Books, 1995. Sympathetic history of the forced removal and resettlement of the Cherokees to west of the Mississippi River.
  • McLoughlin, William G. After the Trail of Tears: The Cherokees’ Struggle for Sovereignty, 1839-1880. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993. Study of the social, cultural, and political history of the Cherokees during the first four decades after they were moved to Oklahoma.
  • ________. Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. Cherokee history up through the removal crisis.
  • ________. Cherokees and Missionaries, 1789-1839. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984. Thorough and well-documented history of missionary involvement among the Cherokees in the period leading up to their removal.
  • Mooney, James. Historical Sketch of the Cherokee. Chicago: Aldine, 1975. A valuable study by a contemporary who interviewed people involved.
  • Moulton, Gary E. John Ross, Cherokee Chief. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978. Biography of the Cherokee leader at the time of removal.
  • Remini, Robert V. The Legacy of Andrew Jackson: Essays on Democracy, Indian Removal, and Slavery. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. The leading biographer of Andrew Jackson reflects on his significance to these issues.
  • Wallace, Anthony F. C. The Long, Bitter Trail: Andrew Jackson and the Indians. New York: Hill & Wang, 1993. Brief overview of the removal policies, the Trail of Tears, and the implications of both for U.S. history.
  • Wilkins, Thurman. Cherokee Tragedy: The Ridge Family and the Decimation of a People. Rev. ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986. Discusses the prominent family of Cherokee leaders.

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