Andrew Jackson and his Involvement in the Trail of Tears
Andrew Jackson is remembered as one of the greatest Presidents of the United States. Jackson was a leader of the nation as well as a leader on the battlefield. He is regarded as one the best Presidents because he was known as the first “citizen-president”, representing the beliefs of the common man. He was also a strong proponent of maintaining the Union and keeping too much power out of the hands of the wealthy. Although he has done many great deeds developing our nation into what it is today, he is responsible for one of the most infamous acts in American history, The Indian Removal Act. Jackson’s forced removal of thousands of eastern Indians to west of the Mississippi River is certainly a low point in our country’s history that tends to be overlooked. Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green provide a first-hand account of the ruthlessness of Andrew Jackson, the greed displayed by Americans during the Indian Removal, and the sadness and misery during the Trail of Tears in their book, The Cherokee Removal A Brief History with Documents. Jackson’s policies that he enacted with Indian removal would be very controversial in modern times. Andrew Jackson’s policy of Indian Removal was not only flawed in that it inflicted harsh cruelties on the Indians, but Jackson had no financial plan in place to execute a successful and humane removal. Jackson was completely unprepared to even come close to organizing the political and financial resources needed to avoid the physical pain and suffering that went along with emigration.1
Andrew Jackson amongst the other presidents of the United States was well suited as the main proponent of the Cherokee Indian’s Trail of Tears due to his ruthless and confrontational demeanor. At an early age, Indians had a strong effect on Jackson views towards them. Andrew Jackson grew up fearing and loathing the Native American Indians along with the rest of the frontier settlers. By living on the frontier Jackson gained valuable skills such as learning how to make bow and arrows the way Indians did. He also learned to distinguish the sounds of Indians communicating with each other in the forest as they attempted to imitate the sounds of wild animals or birds. It has been noted that Jackson saved a group of people from possible massacre from the Cherokee Indians when he recognized the sounds of the wilderness were coming from humans, not the forest. Aside from his loathing, fear, and mistrust of the Indians, Jackson developed prejudices about the Indians by the time he was a teenager. These prejudices included the belief that the Indians that he referred to as “savages” were barbaric and that they always violated treaty agreements. Those that lived on the frontier and were faced with problems from the Indians strongly believed in their removal and possibly even the eradication of the Indians from society. This belief was entrenched into Jackson’s mind and would play a role during his presidency.2
Andrew Jackson’s hot-tempered, confrontational, and easily offended personality developed as a child and stayed with him throughout the rest of his life. Jackson served at the age of twelve as a mail courier in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Jackson was captured by British soldiers and ordered to clean mud off an officer’s boots. Jackson refused to do as ordered and was slashed by the officer leaving a permanent scar on his forehead. This scar would be a reminder of his patriotic affliction and devotion to the new nation. Jackson’s relentless and tough demeanor earned him the nickname “Old Hickory” from his fellow soldiers, which possibly came from the “hard-shelled nuts of the trees so plentiful in Tennessee, possibly to the durable wood itself”.3 Aside from being one of the most controversial men to ever serve as the president of the United States, many people speculated that Jackson was unfit for the presidency because of his dueling habits. Jackson was a formidable duelist having participated in 103 duels, many of which were defending his wife’s honor. Andrew Jackson’s reputation as a cutthroat and vigorous leader would prove to be helpful in his dedication to Indian removal.
Andrew Jackson had to take a series of political positions before becoming President of the United States and enacting his Indian removal policy. Jackson started his road towards the presidency by first agreeing to President Monroe’s request to serve as the governor of East and West Florida. After only a few months Jackson performed well in his new position by separating East and West Florida into two separate counties with administrative and judicial offices. When creating the governments he made sure that there would be no distinction between the rich and the poor. Addressing his Indian policy in the Florida Territory, Jackson spoke with the chiefs of the Creek and Seminole tribes. Jackson took action with the Creek and Seminole tribes by saying, “It is necessary that you be brought together either within the bounds of your old Nation, or at some other point, where your Father the President may be enabled to extend to you his fatherly care and assistance. Those who fled from their Nation and joined in the War against us, must return to their country…for they cannot be permitted to settle all over the Floridas and on her Sea Coast. Your White brethren must be settled there, to keep from you bad men and bad talks.”4 Jackson resigned from his position as governor on November 13, 1821, saying that he had fulfilled what he had set out to do. Two years after Jackson’s resignation, the Florida government finally came to an agreement on a treaty with the Seminoles. The treaty with the Seminole Indians was very unethical from the American side. Robert Remini, a biographer of Andrew Jackson writes, “As it turned out the Seminoles were coaxed, bribed, and forced into accepting a reservation in central Florida that was swampy and infertile, although Jackson was told it was ‘valuable as hunting grounds’.”5 The conditions on the Seminoles’ new land were so horrible that many of the Indians moved back home near the Apalachicola, where they were accused of setting fire to houses of white owners and stealing their cattle.6
After Jackson’s short career in governing Florida, many of his Tennessean politicians and friends suggested him as a possible successor to President Monroe. In order to increase Jackson’s image as a political figure, Jackson’s friends chose to run him for the office of U.S. senator. He then was elected to the Senate on October 1, 1823. Old Hickory spent the first several months as a senator trying to build a strong political reputation in Washington for himself rather than focusing on his new responsibilities. Due to his military experience he was made chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs. When Jackson first arrived in Washington the people had the common belief that they would meet an uncivilized frontiersman that was ready to start some act of violence. People even thought Jackson would, “behave like Sam Houston and dress in Indian clothes and carry a tomahawk, always ready to knock down, and scalp any and every person who differed with me in opinion.”7 The people had misconceptions. Instead of a pro-violence barbarian they “found a man of even temper, firm in his opinions advanced, and always allowing others to enjoy theirs.”8 Jackson ran in the election of 1824 but lost to John Quincy Adams. Jackson immediately resigned his Senate seat and returned to Tennessee.
Jackson finally became president four years later in 1828 in what was arguably one of the most scandalous elections in American history and quickly began to push forward his first piece of legislation, Indian removal.
President Jackson gave his first inaugural speech on March 4, 1829 before a crowd of approximately twenty thousand and set forth his administration’s goals. During this speech he addressed the issue of the Indians but he hid his real intent on this issue. Jackson proposed, “It will be my sincere and constant desire to observe toward the Indian tribes within our limits a just and liberal policy, and to give that humane and considerate attention to their rights and their wants which is consistent with the habits of our Government and the feelings of our people.”9Andrew Jackson tried to make this plan sound as beneficial as possible for the Indians but the citizens that voted for Jackson knew what he was really planning which was the removal of the remaining southern tribes to the west of the Mississippi River.
President Jackson knew that new legislation regarding Indian removal was of great importance. The greed of white Americans for Indian land grew larger and Jackson also knew that the two races would not coexist and live together. Perdue and Green note that American society would not coexist with Indian life because “Indian ‘deficiencies’ were caused by racial, not cultural, characteristics. This new pattern of racist thought rejected the idea that Indians could ever be fully ‘civilized’ and insisted that one cannot change through education characteristics determined by race.”10 This racist attitude towards the Indians justified removal by the Americans because a policy aimed at equal rights where Americans and the natives could live together was considered an impossible goal with the amount of Indian racism.11 Therefore Jackson believed that removal was the only way to prevent conflict and Indian extinction. A main component of Jackson’s reasoning for Indian removal was the matter of national security. Jackson was obsessed with national security, understandably due to his experiences with Spain and Britain’s involvement with unrelenting southern natives.12 Spain and Britain provided the natives with weapons and military support. These actions by Britain and Spain were seen by Jackson as a potential threat to national security. Jackson’s reasoning for Indian removal based upon national security could be traced back to his childhood years where “there were always conflicts between Indians and settlers, usually over horse-stealing or unpaid bills, to settle which white frontiersmen seized land in lieu of money. These disputes frequently resulted in violence and influenced his urgency to pass Indian removal legislation.13
There were several factors that made Andrew Jackson’s legislation of Indian removal of urgent importance. One of the reasons Jackson had to hurry with this new legislation was the mounting opposition from church groups against any attempt to relocate the southern tribes. If Jackson did not take immediate action he knew he would be facing a major political issue that could get out of control. Another reason for Jackson’s rush to have new Indian removal legislation passed had to do with the discovery of gold in northeastern Georgia in the summer of 1829. This area belonged to the Cherokee. The discovery of gold increased the greed and desire amongst whites for Indian removal.14
The Indian Removal Act was signed by President Jackson on May 28, 1830. The Act itself did not remove any Indians at all. The Act simply gave the President power to exchange “unorganized public land in the trans-Mississippi west for land held by the Indians in the east.”15 It also gave the Indians that moved compensation for improvements on their old land. The Indian Removal Act allowed Indians to refuse to move and stay where they were but if they stayed they would be forced to abide by the state’s laws and jurisdiction. These laws were white laws and therefore it was only inevitable that the Indians were inclined to move in order to preserve their way of life.16 Jackson lacked a great deal of patience during this time and proceeded to commit harsh cruelties against the innocent natives.
After the Indian Removal Act had passed, Andrew Jackson gave his second State of the Union message which he presented on December 6, 1830. During this State of the Union speech he assured the people that he predicted success. He also encouraged everyone to try to convince the Indians that refused to retreat that it was in their best interests to do so. Andrew Jackson’s second State of the Union Address is so full of false statements that the entire speech is a farce. There are countless parts in the speech that attempt to describe the act of removing Indians from their land as a compassionate gesture. An example of this duplicity occurred in the first sentence. Jackson said, “It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation.”17 It is a travesty when Jackson uses the words “benevolent policy” and “approaching to a happy consummation” when discussing the Indian Removal Act. There was nothing in the policy during this period that the Indians regarded as “benevolent.”
Perdue and Green include a letter from Evan Jones, a Baptist missionary who denounced both state and federal authorities during the Indian removal and accompanied the Cherokee during their suffering. The letter that was written near Cleveland, Ohio at Camp Hetzel on June 16, 1838 describes the “benevolent policy” that Jackson enforced on the removal of the Cherokee Indians. Jones wrote:
The Cherokees are nearly all prisoners. They have been dragged from their houses, and encamped at the forts and military posts, all over the nation …multitudes were allowed no time to take any thing with them, except the clothes they had on. Well-furnished houses were left a prey to plunderers, who, like hungry wolves, follow in the train of the captors. Females, who have been habituated to comforts and comparative affluence, are driven on foot before the bayonets of brutal men…Their property has been taken, and sold before their eyes for almost nothing.18
Jones also denied how Indian removal is coming to a “happy consummation when he wrote, “The poor captive, in a state of distressing agitation, his weeping wife almost frantic with terror, surrounded by a group of crying, terrified children without a friend to speak a consoling word, is in a poor condition to make a good disposition of his property and is in most cases stripped of the whole.”19 This first-hand account of the miserable state of the Cherokee displays the inhumanity of the policies put forth by the Jackson administration.
Jackson again falsifies the reality of the act when he states in his address, “The waves of population and civilization are rolling to the westward, and 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 a land where their existence may be prolonged and perhaps made perpetual.”20 After the two year grace period provided in the Treaty of New Echota, one can easily see that in no way was the Indian removal a “fair exchange.”
The Treaty of New Echota stipulated that the Cherokee tribe would surrender all of their land east of the Mississippi and they would receive $5 million dollars in exchange. The removal of the Indians was to take place two years from the day of the treaty’s approval.21 These conditions are set forth in Article 1 of the Treaty of New Echota as it is written, “The Cherokee nation hereby cede relinquish and convey to the United States all the lands owned claimed or possessed by them east of the Mississippi River.”22 The Treaty of New Echota also makes promises of a safe and comfortable removal which is absolutely absurd because the exact opposite actions took place. Article 8 stipulated that there would be sufficient number of steamboats and baggage-wagons furnished so that they could be removed comfortably and that there would also be a physician present during their removal so that their health would not be endangered.23
When a vast majority of the Cherokee Indians decided to remain on their land after the two-year grace period ended, they were treated harshly. After the two-year grace period Jackson was out of office and his successor Martin Van Buren commenced the removal. Militia men forcefully entered cabins and houses with rifles and bayonets, rounding up Indians and placing them in prison stockades. As the Cherokee tried to take a last glance at their home, many of them saw their houses burned down, set aflame by the ruthless crowd that followed the soldiers scavenging what they could find. The unrelenting, unethical crowd of people stole the Indians’ cattle. They also dug up graves in the Indian village to steal any type of silver pendants and valuables that they could find. Whites looting and pillaging the Indian village as Indians were taken away was a horrific scene.24 A Georgian volunteer who later served in the Confederate Army even said, “I fought through the Civil War and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by thousands, but the Cherokee Removal was the cruelest I ever saw.”25 This forced removal westward led to what is known as the Trail of Tears.
In a matter of one week, approximately seventeen thousand Cherokee Indians were taken and gathered into what was in essence a concentration camp. Many of these Cherokee prisoners that were taken because they remained on their land died in the prison camps.26 The living conditions in the camps became overcrowded and very unsanitary. Sicknesses such as cholera, measles, whooping cough, typhus, dysentery, and lack of sufficient food and water greatly affected the amount of suffering and number of deaths.27 An American man from this era describes his first-hand account of the sicknesses when he said, “Sir, I have witnessed entire families prostrated with sickness-not one able to give help to the other; and these poor people were made the instruments of enriching a few unprincipled and wicked contractors.”28 In June, the first group of about one thousand Indians was placed on a steamboat to sail down the Tennessee River on the first leg of their journey. They were then crowded into railroad cars where many died because of the intense heat conditions in the cars. The last part of the journey the Cherokee walked. This dreadful expedition then became known as the Trail of Tears.29
Andrew Jackson’s policies that led to the Trail of Tears were described by Remini: “at every step of their long journey to the Indian Territory, the Cherokees were robbed and cheated by contractors, lawyers, agents, speculators, and anyone wielding local police power. Food provided by the government disappeared or arrived in short supply.”30
Andrew Jackson may be seen as one of our nation’s most prominent figures yet his legacy is tarnished by his actions during Indian removal. Remini recognizes that many people believe Andrew Jackson’s legacy should not be diminished because he was not the president at the time of the Trail of Tears and that he never intended the result of his policy to succumb to the horrors of what it became.31 This point of view does not excuse Jackson. Jackson’s insistence on the fast removal of Indians was a major factor contributing to the misery of what became the Trail of Tears. From the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s home outside of Nashville, Tennessee he regularly demanded that Van Buren enforce the treaty that would remove the Indians from their land.32 Few Cherokees escaped the terrible Trail of Tears by hiding away in the highest parts of the North Carolinian mountains making it difficult to be captured and dragged into the stockades. Many of the descendants of these Cherokee still live in these mountains today. Today, the Cherokees still have a living language and at least three governing bodies to supply their needs.33 Many Americans today are either unaware or have turned a blind eye to Jackson’s infamous Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears. When viewing the horrific and cruel obscenities that took place in Jackson’s “benevolent policy” of Indian removal, one can see that his policy was a complete hypocrisy.
"Cherokee Indian Removal." Encyclopedia of Alabama. Web. 05 Apr. 2010. .
Perdue, Theda, and Michael D. Green. The Cherokee Removal A Brief History With Documents. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford, 2005.
Remini, Robert Vincent. Andrew Jackson & His Indian Wars. New York: Viking, 2001.
Wilentz, Sean. Andrew Jackson. New York: Times. 2005.
1 Sean Wilentz, Andrew Jackson, (New York: Times Books, 2005), 142.
2 Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson & His Indian Wars, (New York: Penguin Group, 2001), 206.
3 Wilentz, 23.
4 Remini, 209.
5 Remini, 211.
6 Remini, 211.
7 Remini, 218.
8 Remini, 298.
9 Remini, 226.
10Theda Perdue, Michael D. Green, The Cherokee Removal A Brief History with Documents, (Boston: Bedford, 2005), 15.
11 Perdue, Green, 15.
12 Remini 228.
13 Remini, 13.
14 Remini, 229.
15 Remini, 236.
16 Remini, 237.
17 Perdue, Green, 127.
18 Perdue, Green 172.
19 Perdue, Green 172.
20 Perdue, Green, 127.
21 Perdue, Green, 148.
22 Perdue, Green, 148.
23 Perdue, Green, 149.
24 Remini, 269.
25 Remini, 269.
26 Remini , 269.
27 Cherokee Indian Removal, The Encyclopedia of Alabama, http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Article.jsp?id=h-1433 (Feb. 8, 2010).