A critical event in the history of the United States was the signing of the Indian Removal Act by President Andrew Jackson in 1830. This event was significant because it paved the way for the American government to force the Native Americans off of their traditional lands. It had a number of negative consequences in the short term, such as conflicts between Native American tribes and the United States government, as well as the Trail of Tears. It also had negative effects in the long term, because it put the Native American tribes in a vulnerable position and created tension that still exists today. Therefore, the signing of the Indian Removal Act ultimately changed history for the worse.
Leading up to the passage of the Indian Removal Act, in the first few decades of the nineteenth century, white Americans became increasingly interested in expanding their land holdings in the southeastern United States, particularly for the purpose of growing cotton. However, those lands were occupied by several Native American tribes, including the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chicasaw and Seminole tribes. Before 1830, eleven treaties were negotiated with the tribes, but Indian migration was voluntary, and only a few Native Americans left. To protect their rights, some Native American tribes engaged in violent conflict with settlers, while the Cherokee tribe tried and failed to win their rights in the American courts.
Andrew Jackson was instrumental in treaty negotiation in the early years of the 19th century, so when he became president, he convinced Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Under the terms of this law, the President would be able to give Native American tribes land west of the Mississippi River, known as “Indian Territory,” if they agreed to leave their land in the southeast. Although the Native Americans were supposed to be able to choose whether or not to accept the government’s author, the implementation of the Indian Removal Act was highly exploitative. Instead of negotiating amenably with the tribes, President Jackson and other government officials used coercion, bribery, and threats to force Native American tribes to leave their land in the southeast and move to Indian Territory.
As with previous attempts to remove Indians from their land, the Indian Removal Act led to military and legal conflict between the United States government and the Native American tribes. For example, the refusals of members of the Seminole tribe to comply with government demands to move to new lands led to the Second Seminole War from 1835 to 1842 and the Third Seminole War from 1858. Together, the wars cost thousands of lives and millions of dollars for the American government before the last of the Seminoles were finally removed.
Although there were no major wars with the other tribes in the area, they were also poorly treated. The Cherokee attempted to assert their rights by taking their case to the Supreme Court in 1831, and although they initially won the case, the decision was later reversed. Then, in 1833, American government officials signed a treaty with a fringe faction of the tribe, and although the main tribal leaders protested, they were given until 1838 to leave their land or be removed by force. In 1838, sixteen thousand Cherokee remained, so the United States government sent in troops and forced them out. This forced migration to eastern Oklahoma, during which four thousand tribe members died of exposure and disease, came to be known as the Trail of Tears.
Overall, the signing of the Indian Removal Act was historically significant because it opened up new territory for white settlers looking for agricultural land, and because it significantly reduced the Native American population in the southeast. By legalizing the exploitation of Native American tribes, the Indian Removal also contributed to tensions between the tribal peoples and the American government. The historical memory of this exploitation continues to hamper negotiations between Native American tribes and the U.S. government over issues like land rights.