Was Indian Removal Genocidal?

Jeffrey Ostler

Valjean Hessing, Jackson Must Go. Courtesy of The Five Civilized Tribes Museum and Center for the Study of Indian Territory.

In his paper, “Andrew Jackson in the Age of Trump,” the centerpiece of the much-discussed SHEAR2020 plenary session, Daniel Feller dismissed the perspective that Andrew Jackson’s “Indian removal policy was deliberately vicious and inhuman, if not overtly genocidal.” Several historians, commenting on Twitter, pushed back against Feller’s contention, claiming that Indian removal was indeed a genocidal policy. Interestingly, however, most recent scholarship on Indian removal, while supporting the view that the policy was vicious and inhuman, has not addressed the question of genocide. Historians have indicted the policy as “ethnic cleansing,” a serious allegation since ethnic cleansing is a crime against humanity under current international law. They have also called for replacing “removal” with terms like “expulsion” and “deportation” on the theory that these terms more accurately convey the coerciveness of the policy.1 But specialists have not argued that the policy was genocidal. Was it?

Addressing this question requires considering the intent of Indian removal and its consequences. The stated intention of the policy was the opposite of genocide—to save Native people from an otherwise inevitable extinction. Speaking before Congress, President Jackson asserted that instead of “utter annihilation” should Indians remain in the East, removal “kindly offers . . . a new home.”2 To the extent that U.S. presidents are capable of inflicting catastrophic destruction while claiming to be benevolent, however, we should be cautious about accepting Jackson’s claims at face value. A more realistic assessment of the policy’s intentions requires an evaluation of its consequences and Jackson’s response to these consequences.

From the signing of the Indian Removal Act in May 1830 through the end of Jackson’s presidency in March 1837, the United States forcibly removed portions of at least nine Native nations (Choctaws; Creeks; Seminoles; Ohio Senecas, Sauks and Mesquakies; Shawnees; Ottawas; Ho-Chunks; Kickapoos; and Potawatomis). These removals resulted in substantial loss of life and unfathomable suffering. While at Memphis in December 1830, Alexis de Tocqueville provided a glimpse into the horrors of removal when he witnessed a party of Choctaws crossing the Mississippi and described an old woman “naked save for a covering which left visible . . . the most emaciated figure imaginable.”3 Year after year as the death toll mounted, Jackson had a choice. He could have acknowledged the destructiveness of Indian removal and ended it. Instead, he continued the policy, focusing with particular intensity on uprooting the Cherokees from their already reduced homelands. Jackson’s response to an unfolding catastrophe casts serious doubt on his initial claim to benevolence. It also opens him to a charge, in the language of the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, of an “intent to destroy.”4 Although continuing to pursue a policy with genocidal consequences is not exactly the same as formulating a policy for the explicit purpose of genocide, using this distinction to acquit Jackson gets him off on a technicality. In the end, the burden of proof is on Andrew Jackson. He could have avoided an allegation of genocide by reversing his policy, but he did not.

It is also crucial to recognize that implementing the policy of Indian removal required the threat of genocidal violence and that this threat was sometimes actualized. If they refused to sign a removal treaty, Jackson’s Secretary of War John Eaton told the Choctaws, “the President . . . would march an army into their country.” Should Choctaws resist, it would “be the ruin of the tribe.”5 Choctaws complied, but Creeks, Seminoles, and Sauks and Mesquakies did not, and when they resisted, they faced the prospect that Jackson’s armies would annihilate them. In the Bad Axe massacre of August 1832 U.S. troops slaughtered 250 Sauks and Mesquakies, part of Black Hawk’s band who had resisted removal and were trying to cross the Mississippi River. Three years later the United States launched a seven years’ war to try to pry the Seminoles out of Florida into Oklahoma. Although troops did not annihilate Seminoles, this was not because they had no intention of doing so. Instead, Seminoles skillfully avoided being slaughtered, though starvation and the gnawing fear of catastrophic violence eventually led most Seminoles to yield to removal (at great cost of life). Resisting Creeks were unable to avoid massacre. In 1837, a federally authorized Alabama militia surprised an encampment of Creeks on the Pea River, cutting down men, women, and children alike, fifty in all.

Part of Feller’s defense of Jackson is that he did not invent the idea of Indian removal and cannot be considered solely responsible for it. This much is correct. In fact, a singular focus on Jackson as a uniquely pernicious figure can have the effect of absolving other presidents of responsibility. Thomas Jefferson, for example, gave substantial weight to removal as a policy option by arguing that the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase would be a place to relocate eastern Native nations. Jackson’s successors are also culpable for continuing a massively destructive policy. It was Martin Van Buren who oversaw the catastrophic Cherokee Trail of Tears in 1838‒39 as well as the lesser-known but equally disastrous Potawatomi Trail of Death in 1838. James K. Polk was president in 1846 when close to 40 percent of a group of two hundred Haudenosaunees perished as they were forced from New York and then returned home because of abysmal conditions in Kansas.

A singular focus on Jackson, a Tennessee enslaver, can also reinforce the all-too common error of thinking that the policy of Indian removal applied only to the South.6 Although many northerners (especially Whigs) opposed the Indian Removal Act, this was not because they opposed removal as that they objected to Jackson’s method of leveraging removal by allowing states (especially Georgia) to undermine treaties. Northerners eagerly sought the removal of Native nations from New York, Ohio, Indiana, southern Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

In the end, although Andrew Jackson deserves condemnation as the primary architect of Indian removal, the problem is not so much the Seventh President as it America as a whole. Founded on the principle of the liberty to convert Native lands into private property for white men, the United States—its citizenry and its leaders—bears responsibility for this and other genocidal policies.


1 For removal as “ethnic cleansing,” see Theda Perdue and Michael Green, The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears(New York, 2007), 42; for expulsion and deportation as alternatives to removal, see Claudio Saunt, Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory (New York, 2020), xiii‒xiv. Saunt also uses the term “extermination” to describe certain phases of removal. Gary Clayton Anderson, Ethnic Cleansing and the Indian: The Crime That Should Haunt America (Norman, OK, 2014), argues that removal should be characterized as ethnic cleansing and explicitly not genocide.

In pointing out that most recent scholarship on removal in the Jacksonian era hasn’t addressed the question of genocide, I am by no means being critical of these works on this count. Recent scholarship has provided rich new perspectives on the varieties of experiences of tribal nations before, during, and after removal and opened up new perspectives on nation-building and rebuilding and various forms of Indigenous resistance and agency. In addition to the works by Perdue and Green and Saunt cited above, see Julie L. Reed, Serving the Nation: Cherokee Sovereignty and Social Welfare, 1800‒1907 (Norman, OK, 2016); John P. Bowes, Land Too Good for Indians: Northern Indian Removal(Norman, OK, 2016); Christina Snyder, Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in the Age of Jackson (New York, 2017).

2 Andrew Jackson, “Second Annual Message to Congress,” in Edwin Williams, comp., The Addresses and Messages of the Presidents of the United States (2 vols.; New York, 1849): 2: 747.

3 Quoted in George Wilson Pierson, Tocqueville and Beaumont in America (New York, 1938), 598.

4 For the UN Convention definition of genocide, see https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/documents/atrocity-crimes/Doc.1_Convention%20on%20the%20Prevention%20and%20Punishment%20of%20the%20Crime%20of%20Genocide.pdf.

5 Anthony Winston Dillard, “The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek between the United States and the Choctaw Indians in 1830,” Transactions of the Alabama Historical Society 3 (1899), 103‒104.

6 See, for example, Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States (New York, 2018), 212, which flatly states that Jackson’s policy of Indian removal “applied only to the South.”

4 August 2020

About the Author

Jeffrey Ostler is Beekman Professor of Northwest and Pacific History at the University of Oregon.

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