Trails of Tears (1817-1842). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

Trails of Tears (1817-1842). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

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In This Chapter

The Nullification Crisis.

Wars with the Seminoles and with Black Hawk.

Indian “removal” to the West.

 Democracy seems logical and sounds simple—a matter of giving the people what they want. But just who are the American people? In Andrew Jackson’s time, they were rich, poor, easterners, westerners, northerners, southerners, whites and blacks, slaves and masters, Indians, and everyone else. All, of course, are people, but most of them wanted entirely different things.

The “Age of Jackson,” like Jackson the man, was full of contradiction and Paradox. Bringing to the United States its first full measure of true democracy, “Old Hickory” was also derided as “King Andrew,” a tyrant. A believer in individual rights, Jackson made the federal government more powerful than ever. A frontier southerner, he didn’t want to disturb the institution of slavery, yet he turned against the South when that region threatened the authority of his government. A military hero who had built his reputation in large part by killing Indians, he espoused what was considered, in his day, the most enlightened approach to the so-called “Indian problem”—relocation from the East (“removal”) to new lands in the West. Enlightened? The great “removal” opened the darkest chapter of Indian-white relations in the United States and forever stained the administration of Andrew Jackson.

Liberty and Union, Now and Forever. In 1828, as the administration of John Quincy Adams drew to a close, Congress passed the latest in a long series of tariff laws designed to foster American manufacturing industries by levying a hefty duty on manufactured goods imported from abroad. These laws were warmly embraced by the rapidly industrializing Northeast, but they were deeply resented in the South. The southern economy thrived on trade in raw materials, such as rice, indigo, and cotton. Among the South’s best customers were the nations of Europe, especially England, which would buy the raw goods, turn them into manufactured products (such as fine fabric), and export them to the United States. If tariffs made it too costly for Americans to buy European goods, then Europe would have reduced need for the South’s raw materials, and the region’s export business would dry up.

Southerners called the 1828 measure the “Tariff of Abominations.” Led by John C. Calhoun, U.S. Senator from South Carolina, Southerners charged that the act was both discriminatory in economic terms and unconstitutional. Calhoun wrote the South Carolina Exposition and Protest in 1828, arguing that the federal tariff could be declared “null and void” by any state that deemed it unconstitutional.

Calhoun could point to an impressive precedent for his bold position. Two founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, had introduced the concept of nullification when they wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798, which declared that the Alien and Sedition Acts violated the Bill of Rights. But a major showdown over the Tariff of Abominations was temporarily deferred by the 1828 election of Andrew Jackson, who pledged tariff reform. Southerners, however, were soon disappointed by the limited scope of Jackson’s reforms, and when the Tariff Act of 1832 was signed into law, South Carolina called a convention. On November 24, 1832, the convention passed an Ordinance of Nullification forbidding collection of tariff duties in the state.

Calhoun gambled that Jackson’s loyalty as a “son of the South” would prompt him to back down on the tariff. But Jackson responded on December 10 with a declaration upholding the constitutionality of the tariff, denying the power of any state to block enforcement of a federal law, and threatening armed intervention to collect duties. To show that he meant business, Jackson secured from Congress passage of a Force Act, which might well have ignited a civil war right then and there. However, the same year that the Force Act was passed, 1833, also saw passage of a compromise tariff. Although Calhoun’s South Carolina stubbornly nullified the Force Act, it did accept the new tariff, which rendered nullification moot. Civil war was averted—for the time being—but the theory of nullification remained a profound influence on Southern political thought and provided a key rationale for the breakup of the Union less than three decades later.

War with the Seminoles. The political fabric was not the only aspect of the Union showing signs of wear during the Age of Jackson. Violence between settlers and Indians had reached epidemic proportions during the War of 1812 and never really subsided thereafter. During the war, General Jackson had scored a major triumph against the “Red Stick” Creeks in the lower Southeast, extorting from them the cession of vast tracts of tribal lands. Closely allied with the Creeks were the Seminoles, who lived in Florida and Alabama. The Creek land cessions made the Seminoles all the more determined to hold their own homelands. When the British withdrew in 1815 from the fort they had built at Prospect Bluff, Florida, it was taken over by a band of Seminoles and a group of fugitive slaves. Now known as “‘Negro Fort,” it posed a military threat to navigation on key water routes in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Moreover, slaveholders were angered that the fort sheltered their escaped “property.”

In 1816, General Jackson ordered Brigadier General Edmund P. Gaines to build Fort Scott on the Flint River fork of the Apalachicola in Georgia, In July of that year, Jackson dispatched Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Lamont Clinch, with 116 army regulars and 150 white-allied Coweta Creeks, to attack Negro Fort. Ordered to recover as many fugitive slaves as possible, Clinch attacked the fort on July 27 and was supported by a pair of riverborne gunboats. The skipper of one of these vessels decided that bombardment would be most effective if he heated the cannonballs red hot and fired them with an extra-heavy charge. The first projectile launched in this way landed in the fort’s powder magazine, setting off a spectacular explosion that has been described as the biggest bang produced on the North American continent to that date. Three hundred fugitive slaves and 30 Seminoles were blown to bits, and the Indian tribe was propelled to the brink of war.

Late in 1817, a Seminole chief named Neamathla warned General Gaines to keep whites out of his village, Fowl Town. In response, Gaines sent a force of 250 to arrest Neamathla. The chief escaped, but the troops attacked the town, and the First Seminole War was underway.

Andrew Jackson led 800 regulars, 900 Georgia militiamen, and a large contingent of friendly Creeks through northern Florida, bringing destruction to the Seminole villages he encountered and high-handedly capturing Spanish outposts in the process. The taking of Pensacola on May 26, 1818, created a diplomatic crisis, which was resolved, however, when Spain decided to abandon Florida and cede the territory to the United States. With that, many more settlers rushed into the region, overwhelming the battered Seminoles and their remaining Creek allies. A minority of these tribes signed treaties in 1821, 1823, and 1825, turning over 25 million acres to the United States. The Seminoles were ordered to a reservation inland from Tampa Bay; few actually went to it. A majority of the Creeks repudiated the land cessions but were mercilessly persecuted under the policies of Georgia governor George Troup. When the Creeks appealed to Andrew Jackson (now president) for help, he advised them to move to “Indian Territory” west of the Mississippi. Ultimately they did just that.

The Rise and Fall of Black Hawk. In the meantime, the so-called Old Northwest was racked with violence as well. The end of the War of 1812 and the death of Tecumseh failed to bring peace as white settlement pushed farther and farther west, through present-day Ohio and Indiana, and into Illinois. A group of determined Indian militants rallied behind Black Hawk (1767-1838), charismatic chief of the closely allied Sac and Fox tribes.

Black Hawk had fought at the side of Tecumseh during the War of 1812, after a minority of Sac and Fox warriors signed away tribal lands in Illinois to William Henry Harrison. After the war, a flood of settlers rushed onto the now-disputed Sac and Fox lands. Tensions mounted, but the government managed to persuade Black Hawk to move to Iowa, across the Mississippi. However, the winter hunt proved meager, and in desperation, Black Hawk and the British Band moved back into Illinois, where officials responded with militia and army regulars. Black Hawk bested the troops during the early encounters but was soon betrayed by English traders in the region and by the Winnebagos, both of which failed to deliver promised aid. Worse, a Sac and Fox chief named Keokuk, believing that the Indians’ best hope for the future lay in cooperating with the whites, tipped off an Indian agent to Black Hawk’s whereabouts. Keokuk also dissuaded a large number of Sac and Fox from participating in what had come to be called Black Hawk’s War.

On August 1, 1832, Black Hawk tried to persuade his band to travel up the Mississippi to seek refuge among the Winnebagos. Only a minority agreed; the rest started cobbling together makeshift rafts and canoes for a dash westward across the river. A few had made it across when the steamboat Warrior hove into sight, bearing troops and a six-pounder cannon. The boat anchored, and the British Band raised a white flag of truce, but a nervous commander opened fire with the six-pounder. Twenty-three of the British Band were slain, and the others were stranded on the east bank of the river. Black Hawk himself, together with his closest followers, had escaped northward and were on their way to Wisconsin.

On August 3, 1,300 more troops arrived and began slaughtering men, women, and children indiscriminately. The Warrior returned as well and again opened fire. About 200 Sac and Fox Indians made it through the general chaos to the west bank of the Mississippi, only to be intercepted and killed there by white-allied Sioux.

Black Hawk did find the Winnebagos in Wisconsin, but in exchange for a $100 reward and 20 horses, they betrayed the chief to the authorities. He was captured and imprisoned. The surviving Sac and Foxes signed a new treaty, ceding many more millions of acres to the United States, and they agreed to “remove” to lands west of the Mississippi River. In the meantime, Black Hawk was paroled to be taken on a tour of the nation as a kind of battle trophy. To the surprise and dismay of his keepers, the chief was honored in most places as a noble adversary.

The Indian Removal Act. As seen by later generations, Andrew Jackson is one of our most controversial chief executives. However, even his most enthusiastic admirers have difficulty justifying his role in the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This law effectively evicted the major Indian tribes from land east of the Mississippi and consigned them to “Indian Territory” in the West. In fairness to Jackson and Congress, it was reasonably enlightened legislation by the standards of the time. The act, passed on May 28, 1830, did not propose to rob the Indians of their land, but to exchange western for eastern territory and to make additional compensation, including payment of tribal annuities.

A Hollow Victory in the Supreme Court. In theory, and by law, Indian “removal” was a voluntary exchange of eastern lands for western lands. In practice, however, Indians were most often coerced or duped into making the exchange. Typically, government officials would secure the agreement of some Indian leaders deemed—by the government—to speak for the tribe, make the exchange, and declare that exchange binding to all members of tribe. Whether or not a majority of the tribe acknowledged the authority of these leaders hardly mattered. After an agreement was concluded, the government claimed the right to move all the Indians off the land, by force if necessary.

Some individuals and tribes went quietly; others, such as the Seminoles, fought. Still others, including numbers of Cherokees, holed up in the mountains to evade removal. The Cherokees, a politically sophisticated tribe, also took legal action. The tribe’s majority party, called the Nationalist party, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1832 to protest state-sanctioned seizures of property and prejudicial treatment in state and local courts, all intended to pressure the Indians into accepting the “exchanges” mandated by the Removal Act. In Worcester v. Georgia (1832), Chief Justice John Marshall declared Georgia’s persecution of the Indians unconstitutional. But this judgment proved a hollow victory, because President Jackson refused to use federal power to enforce the high court’s decision. The chief executive, who had shown himself quite capable of threatening South Carolina with armed intervention during the Nullification Crisis, now claimed that the federal government was powerless to interfere in the affairs of a state. Jackson advised the Indians to resolve their difficulties by accepting removal.

In the meantime, Jackson’s officials were directed to negotiate a removal treaty with the compliant minority faction of the Cherokees (called the Treaty party), representing perhaps 1,000 out of 17,000 Cherokees living in the South. On December 29, 1835, the Jackson administration concluded the Treaty of New Echota, binding all of the Cherokees to remove. To crush resistance, Jackson barred the Cherokee National party from holding meetings to discuss the treaty or alternative courses of action. Nevertheless, under the leadership of John Ross, the Nationalists managed to delay the major phase of the removal operation until the fall and winter of 1838-39.

A Man Called Osceola. While the Cherokees were being subdued and removed, federal authorities turned their attention to the always troublesome Seminoles. Like the Cherokees, the Seminoles suffered abuse from state and local governments; their suffering was compounded in 1831 by a devastating drought. Faced with annihilation, Seminole leaders signed a provisional treaty on May 9, 1832, agreeing to removal pending tribal approval of the site designated for resettlement. Accordingly, a party of seven Seminoles traveled westward. But before they returned, an Indian agent named John Phagan coerced tribal representatives into signing a final treaty, binding the Seminoles to leave Florida by 1837. Not only did the tribe rescind the signatures as fraudulent, but even the government acknowledged the wrongdoing by removing Phagan from office. Nevertheless—and despite the fact that the Seminoles’ report on the proposed new homeland was negative—President Jackson sent the treaty to the Senate for ratification. With the treaty secured, troops were sent into Florida to begin organizing the removal.

By early in the winter of 1835, the increasing troop strength made it clear to Seminole leaders that war was in the offing. During this period, Osceola (1803-1838)—called Billy Powell by the whites—emerged as a charismatic Seminole leader. He negotiated with federal Indian agents to put off removal until January 15, 1836, hoping to buy sufficient time to prepare for the coming combat. Osceola set about organizing Seminole and “Red Stick” Creek resistance.

Beginning in December 1835, Osceola initiated guerrilla warfare, taking special pains to attack bridges critical for transporting troops and artillery. In every respect, Osceola proved a formidable adversary, a brilliant tactician who made extensive use of effective reconnaissance, and a fierce warrior. Generals Edmund Gaines, Duncan Clinch, Winfield Scott, Robert Call, Thomas Jesup, and Zachary Taylor all failed to bring the Second Seminole War to a conclusion. Osceola himself was finally captured, on October 21, 1837, not through the military skill of the federal troops, but by deception. General Jesup requested a “truce” conference in Osceola’s camp; Osceola complied—and was treacherously taken captive. Consigned to a prison cell at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, Osceola contracted “acute quinsy” and died on January 30, 1838.

Despite Osceola’s capture and death, the war continued from 1835 to 1842, a period during which 3,000 Seminoles did submit to removal, but at the average cost of one soldier killed for every two Indians “removed.” The Second Seminole War never really ended, but petered out, only to become reactivated during 1855-58 as the Third Seminole War. The last Seminole holdouts refused to sign treaties with the United States until 1934.

“The Cruelest Work I Ever Knew”. During the summer of 1838, Major General Winfield Scott began a massive roundup of Cherokees. In accordance with the terms of the fraudulent Treaty of New Echota, the Cherokees were to be removed to “Indian Territory,” an area encompassing present-day Oklahoma and parts of Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakotas. Those few Indians who did not successfully find refuge in the Blue Ridge Mountains were herded into concentration camps, where they endured the misery of a long, hot, disease-plagued summer.

During the fall and winter of 1838-39, the Indians were marched under armed escort along the 1,200-mile route to Indian Territory. Cold, short of food, subject to the abuse of their military guards (including theft, rape, and murder), 4,000 of the 15,000 who made the journey perished. Many years later, a Georgia soldier recalled: “I fought through the Civil War and have seen, men shot to pieces and slaughtered by thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest work I ever saw.” The Cherokees forever afterward called the experience the “Trail of Tears.”

Indian Territory. What awaited the Cherokees and other Native peoples removed from the East was a vast tract of relatively barren western land. Whereas their eastern homelands had been lush and green, the Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Dakota region was arid. Much of the stubborn soil was resistant to cultivation and certainly unsuited to the type of agriculture the Indians had pursued in the East. The hardships of soil and climate, combined with the callous inefficiency and general corruption of the federal system that was obligated by treaty to aid and support the “resettled” Indians, killed many. Others, certainly, died of nothing more or less than broken hearts. Yet, over time, many among the removed tribes made the best of their grim situation and, in varying degrees, even prospered.

Contrary to treaty agreements, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 reduced the area of Indian Territory. During the Civil War, many Cherokee, Creeks, and others allied themselves with the Confederates. The victorious Union forces punished these Indians in 1866 by further reducing the size of Indian Territory, confining it to the area encompassed by present-day Oklahoma.

The Least You Need to Know

In the Nullification Crisis, “states’ rights” confronted federal authority in a prelude to civil war.

 The Indian Removal Act was an attempt to separate Indians and whites by means of land exchanges. In practice, the act authorized the brutal exile of Cherokee, Semi-nole. Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek Indians (the “Five Civilized Tribes”) to and Indian Territory concentrated in present-day Oklahoma.

Word for the Day. To cede land is to give it up, usually as a condition of surrender or in exchange for something of value (money or other land). Cession is the noun form of the word and is not to be confused with secession, which refers specifically to the breakaway of 11 Southern states that precipitated the Civil War.

Voice from the Past

As was true of all white-Indian wars, much time was consumed in fruitless pursuit without encountering the enemy. A young Abraham Lincoln was a member of the Illinois militia in 1832. He later recalled:

 “If General Cass [Michigan’s territorial governor, who later became Andrew Jackson’s secretary of war] went in advance of me in picking whortleberries, I guess I surpassed him in charges upon wild onions. If he saw any live fighting Indians, it was more than I did, but I had a good many bloody experiences with the mosquitoes; and although I never fainted from loss of blood, I can truly say I was often very hungry.”


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