Indian Removal

Florida was an early test case for the Americanization of new lands. Florida held strategic value for the young nation’s growing economic and military interests in the Caribbean. The most important factors that led to the annexation of Florida were Spanish neglect of the region and the defeat of Native American tribes who controlled large portions of the territory until evicted by U.S. troops during three Seminole Wars between 1817 and 1858.

By the second decade of the 1800s, Anglo settlers occupied plantations along the St. Johns River, from the border with Georgia to Lake George 100 miles upstream. Spain began to lose control of the sparsely European-populated Florida amidst a tide of independence movements intent on shaking off the colonial yoke. Creek and Seminole Indians occupied the area from the Apalachicola River to the wet prairies and hammock islands of central Florida. These tribes, known to the Americans collectively as “Seminoles,” migrated into the region over the course of the 18th century and established settlements, tilled fields, and tended herds of cattle in the rich floodplains and grasslands that dominate the northern third of the Florida peninsula.

Violence near the Florida-Georgia border in late 1817 prompted an American invasion of Spanish Florida, commanded by Andrew Jackson. After bitter conflict that often pitted Americans against a collection of Native Americans and former slaves, Spain eventually agreed to transfer the territory to the U.S. in exchange for $5 million and other territorial concessions as part of the Adams-Onís Treaty.

Planters from the Carolinas, Georgia, and Virginia entered Florida. However, the influx of settlers into the Florida territory was temporarily hauled in the mid-1830s by the outbreak of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). Free-blacks and escaped slaves also occupied the Seminole district; a situation that deeply troubled slave owners and constituted one of the major causes, beyond land dispossession, of the three Seminole Wars. Indeed, General Thomas Sidney Jesup, U.S. commander during the early stages of the Second Seminole War, labeled that conflict “a negro, not an Indian War.” As Florida became a state in 1845, settlement expanded into the former Indian lands and settlers reproduced the agricultural and social structures build on African slavery first introduced to north Florida in the 1820s.

Presidents, since at least Thomas Jefferson, had long discussed removal, but President Andrew Jackson took the most dramatic action. Jackson believed, “It [speedy removal] will place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters.” Desires to remove American Indians from valuable farmland motivated state and federal governments to cease trying to assimilate Indians and instead plan for forced removal.

Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, seizing land east of the Mississippi and exchanging it for lands reserved in the west. This law followed the example of many existing state laws, notably ones passed in Georgia concerned the Cherokee nation. Many advocates of removal, including President Jackson, believed it would protect Indian communities from outside influences that jeopardized their chances of becoming “civilized” farmers. Jackson emphasized paternalism—the belief that the government was acting in the best interest of Native peoples— in his 1830 State of the Union Address. “It [removal] will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites…and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.”

Among the various removals, the story of the Cherokee remains particularly brutal. In 1835, a portion of the Cherokee Nation signed the Treaty of New Echota, ceding lands in Georgia for five million dollars. Most of the tribe refused to adhere to the terms. In 1838, President Martin van Buren sent in the army to forcibly remove the Cherokee. Sixteen thousand began the journey, but harsh weather, poor planning, and difficult travel resulted in between 3,000-4,000 deaths on what became known as the Trail of Tears. While some tribes were able to resist removal or move to less desirable regions, many American Indians, whose homelands were east of the Mississippi, had been forcibly moved west by 1850. Over 60,000 Indians were forced west by the opening of the Civil War.

The discovery of gold in Georgia hastened the combined processes involved in dispossession. For example, state and federal governments pressured the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Cherokee nations to sign treaties and surrender land, despite many tribal members adopting some Euro-American ways, including intensified agriculture, slave ownership, and Christianity. Cherokee John Ridge pointed out the government’s hypocrisy. “You asked us to throw off the hunter and warrior state: We did so—you asked us to form a republican government: We did so. Adopting your own as our model. You asked us to cultivate the earth, and learn the mechanic arts. We did so. You asked us to learn to read. We did so. You asked us to cast away our idols and worship your god. We did so. Now you demand we cede to you our lands. That we will not do.”

Indian removal, while a disproportionately southern phenomenon, also took place to a lesser degree in northern lands. In the Northwest, Odawa and Ojibwe communities in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, resisted removal as many lived on land north of desirable farming land. Moreover, some Ojibwe and Odawa individuals purchased land independently. They formed successful alliances with missionaries to help advocate against removal, as well as some traders and merchants who depended on trade with Native peoples. Yet, Indian removal occurred in the North as well—the “Black Hawk War” in 1832, for instance, led to the removal of many Sauks to Kansas.

Tribal nations also used the law in hopes of preventing the seizing of their lands. Most notable among these efforts was the Cherokee Nation’s attempt to prevent the state of Georgia from taking their lands. Beginning In 1828, the Cherokee defended themselves against Georgia’s laws by citing treaties signed with the United States that guaranteed the Cherokee nation both their land and independence. The Cherokee appealed to the Supreme Court against Georgia to prevent dispossession. The Court, while sympathizing with the Cherokees’ plight, ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the case (Cherokee Nation v. Georgia – 1831). In an associated case, Worcester v. Georgia 1832, The Supreme Court ruled that Georgia laws did not apply within Cherokee territory. Regardless of these rulings, the state and federal governments forced Cherokee removal.

After the United States eliminated its European rivals from North America, American traders and settlers accelerated their violent push west. Despite the disaster of removal, tribal nations slowly rebuilt their cultures and in some cases even achieved prosperity in Indian Territory. Tribal nations west of the Mississippi blended traditional cultural practices, including common land systems, with western practices including constitutional governments, common school systems, and an elite slaveholding class.

Beginning in the late eighteenth-century, the Comanche rose to power in the Southern Plains region of what is now the Southwest United States. By quickly adapting to horse culture first introduced by the Spanish, the Comanche transitioned from a foraging economy into a mixed hunting and pastoral society, While the new Mexican nation-state, after 1821, claimed the region as part of the Northern Mexican frontier, they had little control. Instead, Comanches controlled the economy and geopolitics in the Southern Plains. Although politically organized as a loose confederacy, the Comanche shared social, political, legal, cultural, and religious practices that bound them together. This flexible political structure allowed them to dominate other Indian groups as well as Mexican and American settlers.

In the 1830s, the Comanches launched raids into northern Mexico, ending what had been an unprofitable but peaceful diplomatic relationship with Mexico. At the same time, they forged new trading relationships with Anglo-American traders in Texas. Throughout this period, the Comanche and several other independent Native groups, particularly the Kiowas, Apaches, and Navajo engaged in thousands of violent encounters with Northern Mexicans. Collectively, they comprised an ongoing war during the 1830s and 1840s as tribal nations vied for power and wealth. By the 1840s, Comanche power peaked with an empire that controlled a vast territory in the trans-Mississippi west known as Comancheria. By trading in Texas and raiding in Northern Mexico, the Comanche controlled the flow of commodities, including captives, livestock, and trade goods. They practiced a fluid system of captivity and captive trading, rather than a rigid chattel system. Comanches used captives for economic exploitation but also adopted captives into kinship networks. This allowed for the assimilation of diverse peoples in the region into the empire. The ongoing conflict in the region had sweeping consequences on both Mexican and American politics. The U.S.-Mexican War, beginning in 1846, can be seen as a culmination of this violence.

Map of the Plains Indians. Dozens of tribes are spread all over the area.

“Map of the Plains Indians,” undated. Smithsonian Institute.

In the Great Basin region, Mexican Independence also escalated patterns of violence for the diverse tribal groups who inhabited the region. While on the periphery of the Spanish Empire, this region was nonetheless well integrated in the vast commercial trading network of the west. The new Mexican nation struggled to exert control on powerful Indian groups. Simultaneously, Anglo-American traders entered the region with their own imperial designs. New forms of violence spread into the homelands of the Paiutes and Western Shoshones as traders, settlers, and Mormon religious refugees committed daily acts of violence and officials and soldiers laid the groundwork for violent conquest. This expansion of the American state into the Great Basin region meant groups such as the Utes, Cheyenne and Arapahoe had to compete over land, resources, captives, and trade relations with Anglos-Americans. Eventually, white incursion and the envelopment of the west in ongoing Indian Wars resulted in the traumatic dispossession of land and struggle for subsistence for these groups.

The federal government did more than relocate Native Americans. Policies to “civilize” Indians coexisted along with forced removal. Thomas L. McKenney, superintendent of Indian trade from 1816 to 1822 and the Superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1824 to 1830, served as the main architect of the “Civilization policy.”  He asserted that American Indians were morally and intellectually equal to whites and advocated for the establishment of a national Indian school system as an extension of the factory system.

Congress rejected McKenney’s plan but instead passed the Civilization Fund Act in 1819. This act offered a $10,000 annual annuity to be allocated towards societies that funded missionaries to establish schools among Indian tribes. However, providing schooling for Indians under the auspices of the Civilization program also allowed the federal government to further justify taking more land. Treaties, such as the 1820 Treaty of Doak’s Stand made with the Choctaw nation, often included land cessions as requirements for additional education provisions.

After the federal government removed the Five Tribes to Indian Territory during the 1830s, the Cherokees, Choctaws, and Chickasaws began to collaborate with missionaries to build school systems of their own. Leaders hoped that if the citizens of their nations were well educated, they could prevent further threats to their political sovereignty. In 1841, the Cherokee Nation opened a public school system that opened eighteen schools within two years. By 1852 it expanded to include twenty-one schools with a national enrollment of 1,100 pupils. Many of the students educated in these tribally controlled schools later served their nations as teachers, lawyers, physicians, bureaucrats, and politicians.