Alternative History: The Indian Removal Act Revisited

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This picture is a cartoon showing the Europeans kicking the Indians out of their land.

The Indian Removal Act was a policy in the 1830s with the goal of relocating five Native American tribes living on the east side of the Mississippi to the western territories across the river. Signed by President Andrew Jackson, it was rationalized by stereotyping the people of the tribes as uncivilized savages, despite their desire to acculturate. They were seen as obstacles to settlement progress of America, and their relocation was inevitable. Using trickery, bribery, and intimidation, the US government coaxed the Native American Indians into signing this act (for example: using a common member of the tribes without authority to agree to this act). As a result, the tribes marched for about two years on what is commonly known as the Trail of Tears. Conditions were extremely harsh, with many of the 70, 000 Indians dying from starvation and illness. This result was not inevitable; they were many of alternatives that presented a compromise that would satisfy both groups. However, the selfish European settlers had to justify their greed by degrading and mistreating the Indians terribly. If we could reverse the result of one of the most shameful acts in American history, it might go a little something like this.

Picture this: It is a beautiful spring day in May of 1830. The debates over the proposed Indian Removal Policy continue on in the legislative branch. Delegates go on and on about how the removal is inevitable, and we need to move America’s progress forward. However, the opponents to the act seem to really strike the hearts of those in the audience with their moving speeches. Chief John Ross, the 1/8th Cherokee Principal Chief in the bicameral government of the Cherokee, opened with this statement:

“Let us now for a moment, seriously reflect on the true causes which have universally produced the extinction of Indian tribes….their land having been swept from under their feet by the ingenuity of the whitemen, and being left destitute of a home, ignorant of the arts and sciences and possessing no experience in the employment of a laborious and industrious life…”

He made the other delegates feel as though they were in the Cherokee’s shoes. This wasn’t an inevitable march towards progress for them—it was the most recent shot fired that threatened damage on their people and their way of life. Ross, among others like Crockett and Evarts, tell the story of the Cherokee’s and how their life was being destroyed by European invasions on their land. It brought them increased fighting, foreign disease epidemics, and economic dislocation. They used evidence to persuade them not to see the Indians as barbarian savages, showing them the mansions, farms, and societies that the Indians had made on their own. They convinced the legislature of the desire of the Indians to acculturate. Their decisions were made after the session of debate. On May 26, 1830, with a majority vote from Congress, the Indian Removal Act failed and was not passed.

Instead, a new policy was put in place later that year: the Indian Equality Act. It alluded back to the fundamental ideas of our founding fathers: equal rights for all men.  Native Americans were offered citizenship, and if they took up the offer, they were treated just the same as any white citizen. No white man could go on his property. Indians could participate in government, and they could legally own property. Despite controversy, the Act forced non-Indians to respect the rights of the Indians and coexist peacefully, and it does not force an interracial way of life. President Jackson and the chiefs of each of the Five Tribes that would’ve been affected by the Indian Removal Act signed it and made it official.

There was much opposition to the resolution, including protest from President Jackson himself. Many people argued with the rationalization of the Indian’s removal: they were stopping American progress and their removal was inevitable. However, the supporters of the act fought back. They presented clear evidence, convincing many opponents to believe in the fair and equal treatment of the Native Americans. Eventually, even Andrew Jackson began to see from their point of view as well. We realized as a nation how this went against all that our nation was founded on. There would always be opponents to the act, but the supporters of equality for Indians won the struggle. Many Indians were very happy with this result, and they were eager to acculturate. Many became citizens as soon as possible. While they still faced some inevitable opposition and disrespect, they were able to coexist among Europeans. Many communities of Indians and Europeans did intermix, however. The Indians prospered, and the fruits of their labor benefitted our country. The two groups of people were able to live in the same country and the Indians eventually became common citizens.

However, this is not what happened. The Indians migrated in the Trail of Tears, and their culture gradually completely disappeared from our country. They were treated unfairly. Greedy Americans moved them out of the way because they wanted to make progress on their settlements, justifying their wrongdoing by calling it “inevitable.” It wasn’t inevitable; there were several alternatives. The solutions ranged from coexistence, as described above, to creating a separate state for the Native Americans within the country. However, that was all overlooked as our greedy desire won. It was one of the most shameful acts of American history.

George William, Goss. “The Debate over Indian Removal in the 1830’s.” Scholar Works. N.p., 1 June 2011. Web. 23 Oct. 2012. <scholarworks.umb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1045&context=masters_theses&seiredir=1&referer=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2Furl%3Fsa%3Dt%26rct%3Dj%26q%3Dopponents%2520of%2520indian%2520removal%2520act%26source%3Dweb%26cd%3D5%26ved%3D0CDsQFjAE%26url%3Dh>.

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