Why did Indian Removal cause the Trail of Tears

Map showing the trails that Native Americans were forced to follow during Indian Removal

The Trail of Tears was a series of forced Indian removals by the United States government. Still, the Cherokee nation's removal from Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama are the most famous of these forced marches. While the Cherokee removal is the relocation that is most often associated with the Trail of Tears, it was not the only one. The Seminoles (1832), the Choctaw (1830), the Chickasaw (1832), the Creek (1832), the Fox (1832), the Sauk, and the Cherokee (1835) were all removed from their ancestral lands. Each of these removals resulted in an appalling loss of life.

US Treaties with Native Americans

The U.S. Government used treaties to displace Indians from their tribal lands, a mechanism that was strengthened with the Removal Act of 1830. In cases where this failed, the government sometimes violated both treaties and Supreme Court rulings to facilitate European Americans' spread westward across the continent.

As the 19th century began, land-hungry Americans poured into the backcountry of the coastal South. They began moving toward and into what would later become the states of Alabama and Mississippi. Since Indian tribes living there appeared to be the main obstacle to westward expansion, white settlers petitioned the federal government to remove them. Although Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe argued that the Indian tribes in the Southeast should exchange their land for lands west of the Mississippi River, they did not take steps to make this happen. Indeed, the first major transfer of land occurred only as a result of the war.

Native Americans faced increasing pressure from Western Expansion

In 1814, Major General Andrew Jackson led an expedition against the Creek Indians, climaxing in the Battle of Horse Shoe Bend (in present-day Alabama near the Georgia border). Jackson’s force soundly defeated the Creeks and destroyed their military power. He then forced upon the Indians a treaty whereby they surrendered to the United States over twenty-million acres of their traditional land—about one-half of present-day Alabama and one-fifth of Georgia. Over the next decade, Jackson led the Indian removal campaign, helping to negotiate nine of the eleven major treaties to remove Indians.

Under this kind of pressure, Native American tribes—specifically the Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw—realized that they could not defeat the Americans in war. The settlers' appetite for land would not abate, so the Indians adopted a strategy of appeasement. They hoped that if they gave up a good deal of their land, they could keep at least some a part of it. The Seminole tribe in Florida resisted in the Second Seminole War (1835–1842) and the Third Seminole War (1855–1858). However, neither appeasement nor resistance worked.

From a legal standpoint, the United States Constitution empowered Congress to “regulate commerce with foreign nations, among the several States, and with the Indian tribes.” In early treaties negotiated between the federal government and the Indian tribes, the latter typically acknowledged themselves “to be under the protection of the United States of America, and no other sovereign whosoever.” When Andrew Jackson became president (1829–1837), he systematically approached Indian removal based on these legal precedents.

Why Remove Native Americans?

Andrew Jackson (1837) by Ralph E. W. Earl

Why was Jackson so committed to removal? Jackson fundamentally believed that Native Americans represented a serious security risk to the United States. Jackson had taken part in the United States campaign against members of the Creek nation who followed Tecumseh in 1814. Tecumseh believed that the United States represented an existential threat to the Creek tribe and all Native Americans in the United States. Tecumseh lead a revolt against the United States to push back the advance of American settlers. Tecumseh's revolted was defeated at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, but Jackson had already decided that Native Americans and US settlers could not live together peacefully. As a result, the Tecumseh's defeat, Jackson imposed terms on the entire Creek nation that removed them from their ancestral lands.

Native Americans also held some of the farmlands in the Southeast United States. Several of these tribes had already begun to farm these lands and earnest and make them productive. Both states and settlers wanted to seize these agricultural lands from the Native Americans. The states, such as Georgia, cared little that Native Americans had placed farms on these lands, purchased slaves, or built homes. The tribes did not recognize the state's authority over their lands because they viewed themselves as independent nations.

Andrew Jackson and The Removal Act 0f 1830

Jackson strongly favored removing the 60,000 Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek and Seminole (the Civilized Tribes) from North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi. Indian Removal was one of Andrew Jackson's most important goals. It was so important that during Jackson’s first message to Congress, he asked for a bill and funds to move these tribes west of the Mississippi. Jackson's message was clear, Indians needed to be permanently removed west of Louisiana.

In Jackson's 1830 message to Congress, he stated:

"The consequences of a speedy removal will be important to the United States, to individual States, and the Indians themselves. The pecuniary advantages which it promises to the Government are the least of its recommendations. It puts an end to all possible danger of collision between the authorities of the General and State Governments on account of the Indians. It will place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters...Rightly considered, the General Government's policy toward the red man is not only liberal but generous. He is unwilling to submit to the laws of the States and mingle with their population. To save him from this alternative, or perhaps utter annihilation, the General Government kindly offers him a new home. It proposes to pay the whole expense of his removal and settlement."

The first piece of legislation passed after Jackson took office was the 1830 Indian Removal Act. The 1830 Act was just a first step in a long process that forced Native Americans off their land to make way for white settlers.

Cherokee Legal Opposition

The Cherokee Nation resisted, however, challenging in court the Georgia laws that restricted their freedoms on tribal lands. In his 1831 ruling on Cherokee Nation v. the State of Georgia, Chief Justice John Marshall declared that “the Indian territory is admitted to compose a part of the United States.” He affirmed that the tribes were “domestic dependent nations” and “their relation to the United States resembles that of a ward to his guardian.” However, the following year the Supreme Court reversed itself and ruled that Indian tribes were indeed sovereign and immune from Georgia laws. President Jackson nonetheless refused to heed the Court’s decision.

The Treaty of New Echota Splits the Cherokee Nation

A minority faction of the Cherokee nation led by John Ridge realized little they could do to prevent removal from their lands. Instead of fighting it, they decided to negotiate a treaty with the United States to get the best terms possible. The Cherokee Nation divided on between Ridge's Treaty Party and John Ross's National Party. A delegation was sent to negotiate a Treaty, and they ultimately were promised $5 million and the right to hold the lands in modern-day Oklahoma in perpetuity. Ridge's group agreed to the terms and received approval from the Treaty Party in New Echota. Congress then ratified against the protests of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay in 1835. The Cherokee signing party represented only a fraction of the Cherokee, and the majority followed Principal Chief John Ross in a desperate attempt to hold onto their land. This attempt faltered in 1838, when, under the guns of federal troops and Georgia state militia, the Cherokee tribe were forced to the dry plains across the Mississippi.

Cherokee Removal and the Trail of Tears

Cherokees had split on the issue of removal. Some members of the tribe left early and cherry-picked some of the best lands in Oklahoma, while others resisted forced removal. Chief John Ross supported passive resistance, but it accomplished little. Martin Van Buren organized the removal of 18,000 Native Americans between 1838 and 1839. Anyone who resisted removal was imprisoned and then forcibly removed. Due to the lack of preparation and funding by the United States government, 4,000 Cherokees died from exposure, starvation, and disease on their way to Oklahoma. The Cherokees named this forced march "the trail on which we cried," aka the Trail of Tears.

The Trail of Tears is one of the most devastating disasters in American history. More people died on the Trail of Tears than from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, or the 1906 San Francisco fire.


To achieve his purpose, Jackson encouraged Congress to adopt the Removal Act of 1830. The Act established a process whereby the President could grant land west of the Mississippi River to Indian tribes that agreed to give up their homelands. As incentives, the law allowed the Indians financial and material assistance to travel to their new locations and start new lives and guaranteed that the Indians would live on their new property under the United States Government's protection forever. With the Act in place, Jackson and his followers were free to persuade, bribe, and threaten tribes to sign removal treaties and leave the Southeast. Except for a small number of Seminoles still resisting removal in Florida, by the 1840s, no Indian tribes resided in the American South from the Atlantic to the Mississippi.

In general terms, Jackson’s government succeeded at removing Native Americans from their lands. By the end of his presidency, he had signed into law almost seventy removal treaties, the result of which was to move nearly 50,000 eastern Indians to Indian Territory—defined as the region belonging to the United States west of the Mississippi River but excluding the states of Missouri and Iowa as well as the Territory of Arkansas—and open millions of acres of rich land east of the Mississippi to white settlers. Despite the Indian Territory's vastness, the government intended that the Indians’ destination would be a more confined area—what later became eastern Oklahoma. Through a combination of coerced treaties and the contravention of treaties and judicial determination, the United States Government succeeded in paving the way for the westward expansion and incorporating new territories as part of the United States.