America's struggle with equality was unacceptably long and bloody. Arguably one of the most tragic episodes in American history was the policy of Indian removal in the early 1800s.
From America's founding, there were political interests that advocated westward expansion and empire. For instance, a group of firebrand leaders from Kentucky along with southern plantation owners clamored for the conquest of Canada and Mexico in order to Americanize the entire continent. Other politicians worried about the presence of Britain and Spain on the border, while white settlers demanded the government do something about Indian raids on the frontier.
As a general, Andrew Jackson led brutal campaigns against Indian nations such as the Creeks in Alabama and Seminoles in Florida. As president, he signed into law the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which empowered the U.S. government to seize all Indian lands east of the Mississippi and forcibly relocate all inhabitants to reservations west of the Mississippi River.
Indians were also victims of fraudulent and broken treaties. From 1816 to 1840, records show that the U.S. government signed several dozen treaties with tribes east of the Mississippi, most of them forcing lands to be ceded with little or no reimbursement.
All native peoples were moved, but the nation that took the brunt of the relocation was the Cherokee, who resided in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee. When gold was discovered on their lands, the U.S. government callously and opportunistically held lotteries for whites wanting access to the riches. As such, the Cherokee sued the government, and the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court sided with the Cherokee, prompting an irate President Jackson to fume "John Marshall [the Chief Justice] has made his decision; let him enforce it now if he can."
It was a temporary victory for the Cherokee but contributed to the growing argument for aggressively relocating them. The Cherokee tried to resist but were double-crossed in December of 1835 when a small, splinter group of Cherokees, which included no major chiefs or elected leaders, signed the Treaty of New Echota. Signed by only 20 members of the nation, it ceded all lands east of the Mississippi for only $5 million.
The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty in 1836 (by a single vote), and the U.S. government immediately undertook the mass, forced removal of the Cherokees and other nations. Roughly 15,000 Creeks were sent west, with nearly one-fourth of them dying during the trip.
A few thousand Cherokee moved west, but the pace was not fast enough. So, in 1838, General Winfield Scott, hero of the War of 1812, was sent to Georgia with 7,000 troops, who proceeded to round up the Cherokee at bayonet point. In 1838, over 16,000 Cherokees were sent west. Cholera, dysentery, typhus and starvation claimed thousands of lives during the journey, which became known as the "Trail of Tears."
In all, more than 100,000 American Indians living in the southeast were relocated to the west. Indian homes and belongings were seized at gunpoint and individuals were given but minutes to collect all their belongings. Families were separated and villages looted. They were transported by rail, in wagons and boats, and on foot, some in chains. By March of 1839, nearly every Indian nation in the southeast had been moved. No one knows exactly how many thousands died in the ordeal.
Robert Watson, Ph.D., is professor and coordinator of American Studies at Lynn University.