1820s - 1840s First Indian Removal Era

The first Indian Removal period lasted for more than 20 years and forced tens of thousands of Indians to abandon their treaty-protected homelands in the south and east.

         Indian removal was a simple idea in the minds of southerners, but the practicalities of relocating that many tribes to homelands thousands of miles away was daunting and fraught with unintended consequences. 

         In many cases, the land set aside for specific tribes was already occupied and settled by whites.  The local Indians had to agree to accept reduced territories, and, in some cases, relocation, once again.  This was work that fell to Indian Superintendent William Clark, in St. Louis, who was pushed by events beyond his control to negotiate new treaties with the Kansas, Osages, Quapaws, and others at the same time he was opening land west of Missouri and Arkansas for eastern tribes.

Trail Of Tears Map

        The First Removal Era in the east flowed without interruption into the Second Removal Era, which displaced western tribes from treaty protected homelands.  The Third Removal Era began in the 1950s, when Congress attempted to force Indians off their home reservations with threats of terminating tribal governments, with forced relocation programs, and by condemning their homelands under eminent domain in order to build massive flood control dams on the Missouri River.  it is important to note that each of these removal eras was eventually ruled unlawful by the U.S. Supreme Court, or by Congress itself.  These repeated and devastating forced relocations have left deep scars of resentment and distrust in the relations between tribal governments and non-Indian people.


Indian Removal Cartoon

        But many of the eastern tribes were still very reluctant to move.    Congress and President Jackson ignored imperatives of nature (not to mention their legal obligations), and the Indians opposition.  Tribal leaders urged Jackson to obey the dictates of the high court, which ruled against removal, but knowing that Justice Marshall had no way to enforce his decisions, Jackson pressed ahead with removal over the court's objections.   At this point, Jackson's failure, ne, his refusal to fulfill his constitutional obligations to the tribes destroyed what resolve they had left.  Now, many Indians abandoned their resolve to stand and fight and began moving West.

          Factions of Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole's refused to emigrate.  Despite Jackson's empty words to Congress that emigration "should be voluntary for it would be as cruel as it was unjust to compel the aborigines to abandon the graves of their fathers," he sent federal and state troops to round up the recalcitrant Indians and set them off on forced marches under military guards. 

          The resulting 'trails of tears' rank with the great tragedies of the ages.  Although federal officials were responsible for supervising the removal, private contractors were hired to supply rations and transportation, with disastrous results.  The Cherokee, for example, were caught on the overland trail in midwinter, enduring freezing temperatures, snow, ice storms, and sudden thaws that bogged down the pack trains in knee-deep mud.  If these conditions weren't enough misery, add to them rations of spoiled meat, corn, and flour supplied by the disreputable contractors.   The tribes on the trail lost one fourth of their people.

         The survivors claimed that the suffering and deaths were due to the callousness of the contractors, whom, they said, had used the plight of the Indians to line their own coffers.   The anger over charges of profiteering and fraud was so fierce that officials in Washington hired Major Ethan Allen Hitchcock to investigate the complaints.  An investigator for the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Technology, John R. Swanton, applauded the appointment: "Since…the national administration was willing to look the other way while this criminal operation was in progress, it made a curious blunder in permitting the injection into such a situation of an investigator as little disposed to whitewash as was Ethan Allen Hitchcock."

         Hitchcocks's investigation commenced in November, 1841.  Soon, the cautious but fearless Hitchcock found that "bribery, perjury, and forgery, short weights, issues of spoiled meat and grain, and every conceivable subterfuge, was employed by designing white men on ignorant Indians."

         Hitchcock's report, along with one hundred exhibits, was filed with the secretary of war.  Committees of Congress demanded the right to review the material, but the findings in the report were so scandalous, said Swanton, that the secretary of war refused to make it public, and  "…its mysterious disappearance from all official files proves at one and the same time the honesty of the report and the dishonesty of the national administration of the period."