“With the economy, tariffs, the Bank of the United States, Jackson either did not have settled views or if he did, those changed,” Feller said. “Indian removal was the thing that he came in to the White House knowing that he wanted to do.”
Born somewhere in the Carolinas in 1767, Jackson was 13 when he joined the Continental Army and fought in the Revolutionary War. Captured by the British, Jackson was held as a prisoner of war, where he contracted smallpox and was permanently scarred by a British officer’s blade.
After the war, Jackson studied law and quickly climbed the ranks of the legal and political systems, earning his first elected position as congressman for the state of Tennessee in 1796. In 1797, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, but he stepped down to become a member of the Tennessee Supreme Court. During the same time, Jackson earned the rank of officer in the state militia.
Jackson, a member of the Democratic Party, was elected president in 1828, but he negotiated treaties with Indian nations long before he got to the White House. After defeating the Red Stick Creeks in March 1814, Jackson dictated the terms of the Treaty of Fort Jackson, forcing the Creek to surrender more than 20 million acres of land. During the following decade, he negotiated treaties with the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Seminole.
As president, Jackson faced escalating tensions between southern states and tribes that began to assert their autonomy. The Creeks had already annulled a land-cession treaty and the Cherokee had established a sovereign nation within the state of Georgia.
Jackson’s solution was the Indian Removal Act, which passed through Congress in May 1830 and gave the president authority to negotiate treaties that swapped Indian lands in the east for reservations west of the Mississippi River. The act, which came with a $500,000 appropriation, was the only major piece of policy legislation passed during Jackson’s eight years in office.
“It came at his personal behest,” Feller said. “Everyone understood that what mattered with the act was not the provisions, the wording, but the fact that the administration was going to take this as authorization to pursue Indian removal hard and fast.”
During his second message to Congress, in December 1830, Jackson spoke of the “philanthropy” of Indian removal. “True philanthropy,” he said, reconciles the mind “to the extinction of one generation to make room for another.” Tribes in the Southeast already “were annihilated, or have melted away, to make room for the whites,” he said, yet “philanthropy could not wish to see this continent restored to the condition in which it was found by our forefathers.
“The consequences of a speedy removal will be important to the United States, to individual states and to Indians themselves,” Jackson told Congress. He promised the act would extend to Indians the freedom to “pursue happiness in their own way” and, gradually, “to ease off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized and Christian community.”
In September 1830, four months after the act passed, the Choctaw Nation ceded all its land west of the Mississippi in exchange for land in present-day Oklahoma. The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, the first negotiated under the Indian Removal Act, served as a template for treaties to come—including the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, in which the Cherokee relinquished all their land east of the Mississippi. The treaty, though fraudulently negotiated, became the legal basis for the Trail of Tears.
Jackson utterly failed to uphold his end of the treaties, Feller said. In exchange for land east of the Mississippi, the U.S. promised to provide for tribes once they moved west.
“One thing I think Jackson can, without question, be held personally responsible for is that those promises weren’t kept,” Feller said. “I can find no evidence that Jackson particularly cared that they weren’t kept. Indian removal was a logistical disaster almost from the beginning. It happened under Jackson’s watch and he didn’t care.”
During Jackson’s presidency, the U.S. negotiated 70 treaties and traded 100 million acres of Native land for $68 million and 32 million acres of reservation land in Indian Territory. It then relocated 46,000 Indians west of the Mississippi River.
Jackson left office in 1837 and was succeeded by Martin Van Buren. He died in 1845 at age 78.*
By Alysa Landry