“We now propose to acquire the countries occupied by the red men of the South and West by a fair exchange, and, at the expense of the United States, to send them to land where their existence may be prolonged and perhaps made perpetual.”
This document is a portion of President Andrew Jackson’s annual message to Congress, submitted to Congress in written form in December 1830. These annual messages correspond to what came to be called the “State of the Union Address,” but beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s administration (1801–1809), presidents did not deliver these addresses, but submitted them in written form. It was not until Woodrow Wilson’s presidency that the practice of an orally delivered speech was revived. In this document, Jackson surveys the progress of the government’s program to move American Indians out of the eastern parts of the United States to the Great Plains, beyond the Mississippi River. Such removals had begun before Jackson’s time, but they became an official policy of the government with the passage of the Indian Removal Act in May, 1830. Jackson firmly supported the removal program, and in this message he cites several points which he believed justified the relocation of the American Indians.
Frontier settlers moving into the lands between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River called for the American Indians in this region to be relocated into the Great Plains regions beyond the Mississippi. Many believed that white people would never settle the Plains region because the semiarid climate of much of that area was not suitable for the type of agriculture American farmers practiced. Even before Jackson’s presidency, many removal treaties were negotiated with various tribes, but the major resettlement of eastern tribes into the West came as a result of the Indian Removal Act, passed in May 1830, during Jackson’s first administration. The government intended to exchange the lands the American Indians occupied in the east for lands in the West. The American Indians would be paid for improvements made on their land, and the government would pay the expenses of moving them. These terms were not always followed faithfully, and perhaps most importantly, some tribes or tribal factions were eventually forced to move, although the bill had said nothing about moving anyone against their will. American politicians and opinion makers justified removal on humanitarian grounds, suggesting that it would enable the Indians to go on living as distinct people, pursuing their traditional lifestyles, unhampered by settler pressure in the West. The Indian Removal Act was bitterly debated in Congress. Not surprisingly, it was supported by states that still had large American Indian populations within their borders, and opposed by Northeastern and New England states where this was not the case. Support for the bill generally followed party lines as well, with most of Jackson’s Democratic Party supporting it, while the opposition Whig Party was critical of the bill. While many supported removal just because they wanted access to American Indian lands, many humanitarians and missionaries supported removal because they believed that in the long run, it would be in the best interest of the American Indians. In this message to Congress, Jackson comments on the progress of the removal effort up to that point. Perhaps because the debate over the removal bill had been so acrimonious, Jackson was anxious to present evidence to Congress and the American people about the successes of the removal program, and gives many arguments justifying the policy. Including removals before Jackson’s administration, and those carried out after the passage of the Indian Removal Act, over seventy thousand American Indians were moved from the Southeast and the Upper Midwest, into the “Indian Territory” in what is now the states of Kansas, Oklahoma, and part of Nebraska.
Andrew Jackson rose from an obscure background to become a wealthy planter, a military officer, politician, and finally the seventh president of the United States. He was born in Waxhaw, South Carolina, on March 15, 1767. He served briefly in the last years of the American War of Independence. Although he had little formal education, Jackson studied law with a lawyer in Salisbury, North Carolina and was admitted to the bar in that state in 1787.
Jackson was appointed to serve as a prosecuting attorney in the western district of North Carolina, which included what is now the state of Tennessee. Thus began his association with the state that became central to his life and career. When Tennessee was preparing for statehood, Jackson served in the state constitutional convention, and then was elected as the first US congressman from the new state. He was elected to the US Senate in 1797 but served only briefly before being appointed a justice on the Tennessee Supreme Court. Serving as a major general in the Tennessee militia during the War of 1812, Jackson won a significant victory over the Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in present-day Alabama in March, 1814. As a reward for this achievement, he was appointed a brigadier general in the US Army. In January 1815, he won a significant victory against the British at the Battle of New Orleans. These military exploits made him a national hero. In 1817, he was recalled to military duty to lead a campaign against the Seminole Indians, who were making raids out of Spanish Florida into Georgia. Jackson’s invasion of Florida almost embroiled the United States in a confrontation with Spain and Britain, and although President James Monroe and much of his Cabinet were ready to censure Jackson, he was defended by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, who persuaded Spain to concede Florida and allow an extension of the Louisiana Territory’s western border to the Pacific. After Florida was annexed to the United States, Jackson served briefly as the territorial governor. He was elected to the US Senate from Tennessee in 1823.
Jackson ran for president in 1824, but because no candidate won a majority of the Electoral College vote, the House of Representatives selected the president. Speaker of the House Henry Clay, who had been a presidential candidate himself, supported John Quincy Adams, who was elected. Adams then made Clay the secretary of state, which had become a stepping stone to the presidency. Jackson’s supporters charged that a “corrupt bargain” had been struck. In 1828, Jackson defeated Adams in a deeply personal, hard-fought campaign. He was reelected in 1832, defeating Henry Clay. After leaving office in 1837, he remained influential in Democratic politics, but primarily retired to the Hermitage, his plantation near Nashville, Tennessee. He died there on June 8, 1845.
In this annual message submitted to Congress in December 1830 (the equivalent of the modern State of the Union address, although not delivered orally) Jackson sought to update Congress on the progress of the program of removing American Indians from the eastern parts of the United States into the “Indian Territory” that had been created in what is now Kansas and Oklahoma. The debate in Congress over the passage of the Indian Removal Act, which Jackson signed on May 28, 1830, had been bitter, so perhaps part of Jackson’s purpose in this message was to assure opponents that the policy was just and beneficial to the American Indians. He notes that relocating them from the eastern parts of the country to lands “beyond the white settlements” had been the policy of the government for nearly thirty years, and he projects that this process was nearing its completion. It is correct to note that many tribes had moved to the West before Jackson’s administration, under terms of individual treaties. Also, in some cases, even without any formal treaties, tribes simply fled westward from the pressure of white settlement. But the Indian Removal Act has made this process a clearly defined policy of the federal government, and the pace of removals picked up dramatically after this legislation was passed. In his prediction that this process was nearing completion, Jackson was somewhat premature, because the last removals from east of the Mississippi would not be completed until the late 1850s.
After the Indian Removal Act was passed, the federal government sent representatives to the central Plains region to negotiate treaties with the American Indians who already lived in this region. The government bought land from these tribes, and promised other treaty benefits. In return the western tribes agreed to give up some of their lands for the resettlement of the tribes being removed out of the East, and promised not to molest the eastern tribes being relocated into the region. What became known as the Indian Territory included most of what is now Oklahoma, Kansas, and part of Nebraska. Including removals that began before Jackson’s administration, eventually about ten thousand American Indians were removed from the Great Lakes and Upper Midwest region; most of these tribes were settled in present-day Kansas. Between 1830 and 1840, about sixty thousand American Indians from the southeast, including the tribes that white people in the nineteenth century referred to as the “Five Civilized Tribes,” were moved into what is now Oklahoma. The Five Civilized Tribes included the Cherokees, the Choctaws, the Creeks or Muskogee people, the Chickasaws, and the Seminoles.
Jackson argued that further progress in relocating American Indians to the West would be beneficial to the federal government, to the individual states from which the tribes were removed, and to the American Indians themselves. For the federal government, there will be “pecuniary advantages” as Jackson phrased it—meaning savings in federal spending. Moving the American Indians away from white settlement should decrease the chances of military conflict, which would save the federal government the funds that would have to be spent on such fighting. But Jackson concedes that these financial benefits are the least significant of the benefits of the removal program. He is also concerned about the wider possibilities for deterring foreign attacks on the United States. While the territory of the Louisiana Purchase had been obtained from France in 1803, the far Southwest, including Texas, was still in Spanish hands. Jackson argued that a “dense and civilized population” in the region that now makes up Alabama and Mississippi would serve as a deterrent to possible Spanish designs on that region, or to any potential threat from foreign nations that might be launched from the Gulf of Mexico. Jackson believed there would be numerous advantages to seeing white settlement take the place of the “few savage hunters” that now inhabited this region. His use of a term like “savage” here, and the later reference to “rude institutions” of the American Indians reflect the racist stereotypes that were common among white Americans at this time. Historians have often pictured Jackson as an Indian hater, but it perhaps is more accurate to suggest his view of the American Indians was paternalistic—they were, to Jackson as to many Americans, a backward people who needed the care and oversight of the federal government. In suggesting that it would be better for extensive white settlement to replace a few nomadic hunters in this region, Jackson is expressing an idea that was very common among white settlers and government policy makers. Many of those who supported American Indian removal had developed a novel argument to support their position. The American Indians had a surplus of land—they often farmed small portions but hunted over large expanses of land that was otherwise unsettled and unused. But since they refused to give up this land, it was the American Indians, as this argument went, who were the greedy or stingy party. They refused to “share” their lands with European American settlers that would actually put it use in farming. This argument ignored the fact that since many of the tribes lived by a mixed economy of agriculture combined with hunting and gathering, the land they hunted on was essential to their ways of life, even though it was not used as white settlers might use it.
Mississippi (admitted to statehood in 1817) and Alabama (made a state in 1819) were relatively new states, and Jackson argues that moving the American Indians out of the boundaries of these states will allow economic and political development there to proceed more quickly. As cotton production expanded into these regions, many Southern politicians argued that the presence of large numbers of American Indians in these new states was hampering the development of plantations and large scale agricultural production.
Another advantage that Jackson sees in removal is that it will “separate the Indians from immediate contact with the settlements of whites.” This might be seen as a defensive argument, suggesting that the white settlers would be less vulnerable to American Indian attacks if the tribes were moved farther away. But Jackson saw it primarily as something that protected the American Indians. Many supporters of removal argued that if American Indians lived too close to white settlements, they tended to pick up bad habits from the settlers (like the use of alcohol). Also, they were often subject to being cheated in business transactions or other types of mistreatment at the hands of white people. Many people who supported removal nevertheless also believed that the American Indians would eventually have to assimilate and be absorbed into the general culture of the nation. But, ironically, they were arguing that it was best for the American Indians, at this point, to be moved away from the white settlements. Frontier white settlers, apparently, were not thought to be particularly good role models of the superiority of European American civilization.
If the American Indians were moved to the West, they would not be within the boundaries of any state, so they would be free from the interference of any state government. Many of the states in the Southeast had been very aggressive in trying to move the American Indians out of their states. Political leaders on the state level did not like having American Indians living in their boundaries who were not subject to the jurisdiction of the state government, as American Indian affairs were supposed to be handled only by the federal government. The Cherokees had taken a legal challenge all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that Georgia had no right to legislate over American Indian lands. But the Supreme Court ruled in the case Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) that the case was outside of the Court’s jurisdiction because the Cherokee nation, like other American Indian nations, was not strictly a “foreign nation” under the US Constitution.
Jackson says that if the American Indians moved to the West, they could continue to live as they wish, according to “their own rude institutions.” Removal would “retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers.” This is another reference to the belief that living too close to white settlements had a deleterious effect on the American Indians, and was a factor in the decline of their populations. While removal would allow the American Indians, at least for a time, to pursue their traditional ways of life, the ultimate goal was still civilization and assimilation—as Jackson indicates when he suggests that gradually, through “the influences of good counsels,” they might abandon their old ways of life and become a “civilized and Christian community.” Under the Indian Removal program, missionaries—who would be one example of the kind of people Jackson had in mind in his reference to “good counsels,” would only be allowed in the American Indian lands with the permission of the tribes. Many missionaries opposed removal as an unjust policy, but some supported it, believing it would ultimately be in the best interest of the Indians. Some missionaries believed that the Indian Territory would be a kind of controlled environment, where missionaries, educators, and other humanitarians could influence the American Indians, but whiskey sellers and dishonest traders would not be allowed to corrupt them . Assimilation and conversion to Christianity would still be the goal, but could be pursued more gradually, without the pressure of white settlement intruding on American Indian communities.
Jackson could not imagine that any person of good will could prefer a situation where a few thousand American Indians roamed and hunted over land that could support a large population of settlers with prosperous farms and industrious towns and cities. As the tide of frontier settlement moved inexorably westward, the Indians were being engulfed. Since this had proven to be destructive to American Indian cultures and a threat to even their very existence, Jackson argued that it was only just to acquire their land by “a fair exchange,” and to move them at government expense to new lands in the West. In those new western lands, they would not be molested, and their very existence as distinct nations and peoples “may be prolonged and perhaps made perpetual.”
Jackson admits it might be painful for American Indians to leave their traditional homelands and the graves of their fathers. But he notes that Europeans coming to America, and American frontier settlers, had been doing this very thing for generations. Jackson believed that rather than grieving at the fact that these European American settlers had left their homelands, humanity rejoiced at the opportunities that migration provided for these immigrants or frontier settlers. These settlers moved at their own expense, and bought their land either from the government or from land dealers. Could it be thought cruel, then, Jackson asks, for the government to exchange lands with American Indians, and to move the tribes at government expense to the West? Jackson argued that many white Americans or European immigrants would “gladly embrace” an opportunity to do precisely what the government is doing for the American Indians. Jackson poses the rhetorical question, “Is it supposed that the wandering savage has a stronger attachment to his home than the settled civilized Christian” does? He seems to believe the answer could only be no, but many anthropologists today would argue that American Indians did indeed have a stronger tie to their homelands and to the places where their ancestors were buried than most European Americans did. Much of their tribal culture was centered on the environment where their people had lived for many generations. Many American Indian religious beliefs were clearly entwined with the environment of the people’s homelands, and would lose some of their meaning or spiritual “power” outside of the context of those lands.
In the concluding statement of this excerpt, Jackson argues that when “rightly considered,” the government’s policy toward the American Indians “is not only liberal, but generous.” Since they were unwilling to mix with non-Indian peoples, and become subject to state jurisdiction, the alternative of moving them west to an area outside the boundaries of any state seemed to be a just solution. This policy, Jackson suggests, might ultimately save the American Indian nations from “utter annihilation.” With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that Indian removal, in the long run, had a disastrous impact on many of the tribes removed. Knowing this, comments like Jackson’s protestations that the government’s policy toward the American Indians was just, beneficial, and even “generous,” tend to be dismissed as simply political rhetoric. To some extent, it may well have been, and some politicians clearly did support removal simply because it opened the eastern lands to white settlement. But one of the great ironies of the US government’s policies toward the American Indians in the early 1800s is that many politicians and policy makers seemed to have genuinely believed that they could deal justly and peacefully with them, and yet at the same time, dispossess them of virtually all of their original lands. The white politicians and policy makers did not seem to see the inherent inconsistency in these goals, and the impossibility of achieving both goals simultaneously. People can be treated justly, or their lands can be taken from them—but it is simply not possible to do both at the same time.
American Indian removal was based on one flawed premise: the idea that European American settlers would never want the land in the Great Plains. Much of the Plains region is dry, treeless, and somewhat barren. Therefore, it was thought the American Indians could be relocated there, and they would be left alone indefinitely. The removal treaties promised that these new western lands would be theirs “forever.” Not only were the Great Plains seen as a somewhat inhospitable environment for European American farmers, the Indian Territory was on the far western edge of US territory. Texas had not yet been annexed, and the American southwest was still under Mexican control. So it seemed the Indians were being moved to an out-of-the way, undesirable land on the extreme edge of the American domain. Therefore, they could be left unmolested, and the so-called “Indian problem” was thought to be solved. But of course, the premise that this land would never be desired by European American settlers was simply not true. Land that could not support crop farming might well be profitable for cattle ranching, and while the typical early European American settler was a corn farmer, wheat farming would eventually boom on the Great Plains. When the government was trying to negotiate removal treaties with some of the eastern tribes, they occasionally organized exploratory expeditions, during which government agents would escort tribal leaders to see the lands in Kansas or Oklahoma, and let them see that it was good land. Therefore, their people should have no fear of moving there. But some of the American Indian leaders seemed to read the handwriting on the wall more clearly than the government’s representatives could. Yes, they admitted, this is good land—but then they posed the question of whether the white man would eventually want it as well.
Although the federal government promised the relocating tribes that the western lands would be theirs forever “forever” as early as 1854, the Indian Territory was under assault from new government policies. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed in 1854, separated what became the states of Kansas and Nebraska from the Indian Territory. Many of the Indians who had been moved to Kansas were moved again, to Oklahoma. Tribes that had been resettled to Oklahoma had to give up some of their lands for the use of these refugees from Kansas. What is now Oklahoma remained the Indian Territory until 1890, when the Oklahoma Territory Organic Act began the process of creating the state of Oklahoma. Under this legislation, Oklahoma Territory encompassed most of the western half of what is now Oklahoma while the eastern half remained the Indian Territory. However, the federal government’s jurisdiction over these American Indian lands was increasing even before Oklahoma statehood, as was settler encroachment on American Indian lands. Finally in 1907, the region became the state of Oklahoma. A large Indian population remained in Oklahoma, as it still does today, but there was no longer a separate American Indian homeland as had been promised in the Indian Removal Act.
Jackson’s explanation of the American Indian removal policy and his arguments justifying it illustrate several major themes in the federal government’s relationship with native peoples in the early nineteenth century. Jackson expresses a firm belief that what the government is doing is just, humane, and even generous. Indians who opposed removal, of course, saw it in no such terms. But European American policy makers in this era were convinced of the superiority of their customs and institutions, so they did not believe it was necessary to take into consideration what the American Indians might have wanted. Because of the widespread racism and ethnocentrism among European American politicians and opinion makers, the American Indians were seen as a backward people, and it was assumed that the government would know what was best for them. The policy of removing the American Indians out of the eastern parts of the United States and relocating them into the Great Plains region west of the Mississippi was based on what white Americans thought was a fair exchange—the Indians would give up some land, and be given other land to replace it. They would be paid for improvements that had been made on the land they were leaving, and the government would pay the costs of relocating them. To government officials and potential settlers, looking only at the value of the land and its potential productivity, this appeared to be a fair policy. In this document, Jackson seems to express amazement that anyone could raise objections to it. But to the American Indians, the lands they were being asked (and eventually forced in some cases) to leave were an important part of their cultural heritage, and it could not simply be “replaced” by other land, even with monetary payments also added into the formula. It is obvious that many white Americans of that era supported removal only because it would clear the American Indian population out of lands that were wanted for farming and settlement. But, ironically, many people who supported removal genuinely believed it would be best for the American Indians, in the long run. Where they lived in the East, they would be engulfed by the tide of white migration and settlement, and this usually had a negative impact on American Indian communities. Since that was the case, many thought it would be preferable to move them to the West, to an area where they would be left alone “forever.” The fatal flaw in this argument, of course, was that there was virtually no place where, ultimately, the Indians would be left alone. The continued growth of the white American population and the demand for land would eventually press into the Indian Territory that had been created in the West, and the policy of removal would generally be seen as a failure that had a tragic impact on American Indian nations.
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