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Presentation Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History

Removing Native Americans from their Land

Ohio land cessions

In 1786, the United States established its first Native American reservation and approached each tribe as an independent nation. This policy remained intact for more than one hundred years. But as President James Monroe noted in his second inaugural address in 1821, treating Native Americans this way "flattered their pride, retarded their improvement, and in many instances paved the way to their destruction."

In addition, Monroe observed that America's westward growth "has constantly driven them back, with almost the total sacrifice of the lands which they have been compelled to abandon. They have claims on the magnanimity and . . . on the justice of this nation which we must all feel." Despite Monroe's concern for the plight of Native Americans, his administration successfully removed them from states north of the Ohio River.

President Andrew Jackson offered similar rhetoric in his first inaugural address in 1829, when he emphasized his desire "to observe toward the Indian tribes within our limits a just and liberal policy, and to give that humane and considerate attention to their rights and their wants which is consistent with the habits of our Government and the feelings of our people." Yet, only fourteen months later, Jackson prompted Congress to pass the Removal Act, a bill that forced Native Americans to leave the United States and settle in the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River.

Many Cherokee tribes banded together as an independent nation, and challenged this legislation in U.S. courts. In 1832, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Cherokees, but some tribes still signed treaties giving the federal government the legal authority to "assist" them in their move to the Indian Territory.

In 1838, as the deadline for removal approached, thousands of federal soldiers and Georgia volunteers entered the territory and forcibly relocated the Cherokees, some hunting, imprisoning, assaulting, and murdering Cherokees during the process. Cherokees who survived the onslaught were forced on a 1,000-mile march to the established Indian Territory with few provisions. Approximately 4,000 Cherokees died on this "Trail of Tears."

U.S. Indian land cessions, Florida

An audio recording of a Native American song commemorating this tragedy is available in the Library's online collections. A description of how some Cherokees settled in West Virginia can be heard in the audio recording Plateau Region as Unofficial Refuge for Cherokee.

The expansion of the United States that encroached upon Native American lands occurred faster than many policymakers had predicted, with events such as the Mexican-American War in 1848 placing new territories and tribes under federal jurisdiction. A government report, The Indians of Southern California in 1852, explained that many Californians believed "destiny had awarded California to the Americans to develop" and that if the Indians "interfered with progress they should be pushed aside."

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