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The Treatment of the Native Americans

By: Isabella Kim

While the rapidly expanding United States pushed into the lower South in the early nineteenth century, white settlers encountered what they saw as an impediment. The Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole nations called this region home. However, the settlers and many other white Americans believed these Native nations were hindering their progress. As a result, the settlers pressured the federal government to take over Native territory because they were eager for land to grow cotton.

Andrew Jackson of Tennessee was a firm supporter of Indian removal. He led the American armed forces that overpowered a group of the Creek nation in 1814. The Creeks lost 22 million acres of territory in southern Georgia and central Alabama due to their loss. Then in 1818, the United States claimed even more land after Jackson’s troops invaded Spanish Florida, wanting to punish the Seminoles for harboring fugitive slaves. Jackson had a crucial role in nine of the eleven treaties that traded the southern tribes’ eastern territories for areas in the west. The tribes approved the treaties because they sought to satisfy the government to keep some of their territories and shield themselves from harassment by white people. The treaties gave the US power over most of Florida and Alabama and portions of Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky, and North Carolina.

The five Indian tribes had resisted in the past, but many of their methods were non-violent. Adopting Anglo-American practices like industrial farming, Western education, and slavery was one strategy. They pursued this assimilation method to coexist with settlers and avoid conflict. Yet it enraged and irritated the white people. Although many of the Native American’s strategies were non-violent, the Creeks and Seminoles went to war to protect their territory. The Seminole Wars were a series of three military conflicts between the United States and the Seminoles. In the first Seminole War from 1817 to 1818, under the order of Jackson, the United States invaded the area burning towns and capturing Spaniard territory.

The Cherokee sought to protect their rights through legal means. They adopted a written constitution in 1827 that declared themselves as a sovereign nation. Previously  Indian countries had been recognized as sovereign and therefore could legally cede their lands. Georgia, on the other hand, did not acknowledge their status as sovereigns and instead saw them as tenants living on state land. After hearing the Cherokee’s case, the Supreme Court rejected the Cherokee’s appeal. The Cherokee went to the Supreme Court again in 1831. This time the court ruled in favor of the Cherokee, stating that the Cherokee had the right to self-govern. Jackson pushed a new piece of legislation known as the “Indian Removal Act” through both houses of Congress just a year after taking office. It gave the president the authority to negotiate removal treaties with Indian tribes east of the Mississippi. The Indians were supposed to surrender their lands east of the Mississippi in exchange for lands to the west. However, those who choose to stay in the east will become citizens of their home state.

The Choctaws were the first to sign a removal treaty in September 1830. Those who chose to stay in Mississippi under the terms of the Removal Act suffered from constant harassment from the white people who squatted on their territory or stole their belongings. Although the War Department attempted to protect those who stayed, many grew tired of the mistreatment, sold their land, and moved west.

For the next 28 years, the United States government struggled to force the relocation of the southeastern nations. Most of the Creeks and Chickasaws migrated west from 1837 to 1838 due to the failure of the government to maintain its promise of protecting the tribes from the harassment of the white people. By the third Seminole War, the United States paid the remaining resisting Seminoles to move west. On the other hand, the Cherokee were tricked with a false treaty. A tiny fraction of the tribe agreed to sign the removal agreement, the Treaty of New Echota. Over 15,000 members decided to sign a protest but were ignored by the Supreme Court, which ratified the treaty in 1836. The group was given two years to migrate until they would be forcibly removed. When the deadline came, only 2,000 members had migrated, leaving around 16,000 still on their land. Seven thousand troops were sent by the U.S. government, forcing the Cherokees into stockades at bayonet point. They were allowed no time to gather their belongings. This march west became known as the Trail of Tears, in which 4,000 Cherokee people died of cold, hunger, and disease. As they left, the white people looted their belongings from their homes.


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