If there were one act of history I could undo, the Indian Removal Act would be at the top of my list. This incident is one of the darkest moments of American history and created inequities and tensions that still exist today. The Act, signed into law in 1830 by President Andrew Jackson, was a betrayal of an earlier agreement between George Washington and several of the predominant Indian tribes of the American Southeast, which granted them permission to stay on their native lands as long as they lived in a civilized manner.
Although the Indian Removal Act was termed a voluntary measure, it created new pressures on Native American tribes and pushed many to reconsider staying in their native region. It seemed likely at the time that a resistance to voluntarily moving further out west to a designated Native American territory could ultimately lead to conflict and deaths among the native peoples. There was a refusal by some tribes, as well as supportive slaves, to relocate as requested, and that culminated in the Second Seminole War, which lasted between 1835 and 1842 and resulted in 3,000 deaths. The rest of the native peoples reluctantly marched west in a migration now known as the “Trail of Tears.”
Walking the Trail of Tears
The Trail of Tears is the name given to the great migration of Native Americans forced out of the American Southeast. The tribes most affected by this migration were the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek, and Seminole tribes. In total, nearly 125,000 Native Americans were forced to relocate, and almost half of them died in making the long, difficult walk to present-day Oklahoma.
Through the migration, the United States Southeast saw 25 million acres of land opened up for the taking, including large sections of actively farmed land. Native Americans had already been farming and working as integral members of the Southern economy. Their removal was only a slight disruption, as the lands were quickly taken over by other Southern plantation owners. Meanwhile, Native Americans suffered from starvation, disease, exposure and exhaustion on their brutal trek. It wasn’t until 1987 that the federal government established a trail system running through the Southeast to honor the difficult and regrettable journey native peoples were forced to make.
Undoing the Indian Removal Act
I believe that undoing the Indian Removal Act could have changed the course of history regarding American relations with Native American tribes. Several major tribes could have peacefully carried on in a society built around agriculture. They would have been productive members of America and would not have suffered from the emotional collective strife and despair of being dispossessed of their lives. Successful incorporation of Native American societies into American society could have affected relations as the United States expanded west, resulting in more peaceful negotiations and a greater respect for Native Americans and their ways of life.
Unfortunately, there is no way for history to be undone, and Native American relations with the United States government remain strained to this day. Those lands wrongfully taken from the civilized tribes have never been returned, and those tribes have now accepted reservations in Oklahoma as their new homes. It’s important that Americans today understand how actions even hundreds of years old still have deep-running and long-affecting impacts on our society. Only then can we work toward making amends and rectifying the injustices of the past.
Danielle is a part time student at The Kelley School of Business studying marketing and supply chain management. Her fascination with history, particularly Native American cultural studies, is a time-consuming hobby that’s led her on many travels and caused her personal library to grow in excess of 250 books. Contact her on Twitter to discuss logistics and transportation, history, or cat videos.