By the turn of the nineteenth century, the Native American tribes known as the Five Civilized Tribes were living peacefully on their native lands. The process of acculturation proposed by George Washington and his administration was well underway especially among the Cherokee and Choctaw. The Cherokee had established schools and, thanks to the syllabary developed by Sequoyah, were teaching their children in both Cherokee and English. They had a written a constitution similar to the U.S. Constitution, were successful farmers using Euro-American techniques, and the woman were employing Euro-American domestic skills. Many Cherokee farmers owned large cotton plantations and even owned slaves like their U. S. counterparts.
But the U. S. population was growing rapidly with European immigrants flooding the new world in pursuit of the “American Dream”. Many of the new settlers coveted the rich land of the Native Americans and were starting to encroach. States were drawing their state lines to include Native American territory and passing laws that enabled unscrupulous land developers to get rich selling purloined Native American’s land. One of the more well-known of these purloiners was Andrew Jackson.
States like Georgia and developers like Jackson were putting pressure on the U. S. government to remove the Native Americans from the Southeast to make more land available to the new settlers. But there were many, including U.S. Congressman David Crockett of Tennessee, who vehemently opposed these relocation propositions.
When Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1829 and then was able to gain Congressional passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which authorized the government to extinguish Native American title to lands in the Southeast, relocation became a reality and in 1831, the Choctaw were the first Nation to be removed.
In 1834, David Crockett wrote a letter of complaint against President Andrew Jackson’s forced removal of the Cherokees. Crockett opposed the Indian Relocation policy and feared Vice President Martin Van Buren would continue it, if elected president. Crockett writes, “I have almost given up the Ship as lost. I have gone so far as to declare that if he Martin van Buren is elected that I will leave the United States for I never will live under his kingdom. before I will submit to his government I will go to the wildes of Texas. I will consider that government a Paridice to what this will be. In fact at this time our Republican Government has dwindled almost into insignificancy our [boasted] land of liberty have almost Bowed to the yoke of [sic] Bondage.” Crockett, true to his threat, left for Texas before Martin Van Buren was elected president where he died in the Battle of the Alamo on March 6, 1836.
Crockett was not alone, there were many prominent politicians and thoughtful, respected citizens apposed to the travesty of relocation. More than 60 women from Steubenville, Ohio, signed a petition in 1830 begging Congress to reconsider Andrew Jackson’s plan to remove the southern Native Americans beyond the Mississippi. [for more on The Women who opposed Jackson’s Removal Policy, by Rebecca Onion with Slate]
Famed writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote an account of Cherokee assimilation into the American culture, declaring his support of the Worcester decision, “Even in our distant state, some good rumor of their worth and civility has arrived, We have learned with joy their improvement in social arts. We have read their newspapers. We have seen some of them in our schools and colleges. In common with the great body of the American people we have witnessed with sympathy the painful labors of these red men to redeem their own race from the doom of eternal inferiority, and to borrow and domesticate in the tribe, the arts and customs of the caucasion race.”
Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen led the opposition in the Senate against Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. His six-hour speech was delivered over the course of three days, and warned of the dire consequences of the policy, “Let us beware how, by oppressive encroachments upon the sacred privileges of our Indian neighbors, we minister to the agonies of future remorse.”
But the act passed with 28 in favor and 19 opposed in April, 1830. Voting was strictly along party lines, The Republicans in opposition the Democrats in favor.
The Cherokee tried to fight back through the courts. In Worcester v. Georgia, the Court ruled in Worcester’s favor, declaring the Cherokee Nation was its own establishment and was therefore required to adhere only to Cherokee law, not Georgia law. Ultimately, Indian land was free from the law of individual states. Chief Justice Marshall argued, “The Cherokee nation, then, is a distinct community occupying its own territory in which the laws of Georgia can have no force. The whole intercourse between the United States and this nation, is, by our constitution and laws, vested in the government of the United States.”
Jackson defied the ruling stating, “Marshall has made his decision, now let’s see him enforce it!”
Justifying that because the Court had no means of enforcing their mandate, the President had power to do as he chooses. Even congressmen Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, who supported Georgia’s initiative to place state laws on Indian Territory, were outraged by Jackson’s apparent disobedience and self-believed superiority over the federal government.
And so, over the next twenty years, the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, Creek, Seminole and Cherokee peoples were forcibly removed from their homes and traditional lands and relocated to “Indian Territory” west of the Mississippi. Suffereing from exposure, disease, and starvation, many died along the way. Approximately 2,000-6,000 of the 16,543 relocated Cherokee died along what came to be known as “Trail of Tears”.