How Indigenous Groups Can Reclaim Stolen Property
The Fight for Repatriation
In his first annual message to the U.S. Congress, in 1829, U.S. President Andrew Jackson—a slave-owning real estate speculator already famous for burning down Creek settlements and hounding the survivors of the Creek War of 1813–14—called for the “voluntary” migration of Native Americans to lands west of the Mississippi River. Six months later, in the spring of 1830, he signed the Indian Removal Act into law. This measure gave the president the authority to negotiate with Native American tribes for their fertile lands. The statute set off waves of litigation, mineral prospecting, and land speculation—not to mention waves of violence committed by nonnative settlers against Native Americans.
As the historian Claudio Saunt shows in his new book, Unworthy Republic, U.S. administrators and politicians gradually turned the voluntary removal into compulsory expulsion using a mix of legal and extralegal measures. State and federal militias hunted, killed, and often scalped Native Americans. Squatters and opportunists moved onto Native American lands both before and after tribes officially relocated. And the government gave banks and other lenders the power to force Native Americans into punitive sales and forfeitures, rendering tens of thousands of Native Americans homeless in their own lands. Thousands of Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, Delawares, Hurons, Potawatomis, Sauks, Seminoles, and Senecas died in the process of removal. The myriad relocations and displacements are now commonly referred to by a single name: the Trail of Tears.
By the end of this decadelong process, the federal government had spent $75 million to eject Native Americans from the eastern United States. That is the equivalent of over $1 trillion today, or $12.5 million for each Native American removed. In 1836, 40 percent of every dollar the U.S. federal government spent went toward enforcing the Indian Removal Act. In 2019, by contrast, only 17 percent of the federal budget went to national security and defense.
But the economic returns on this massive project of ethnic cleansing and displacement were also considerable. In the 1830s—the decade of removal—the federal government made nearly $80 million selling Native American lands to private citizens, around $5 million more than it spent. And in the 1840s, those lands produced 160 million pounds of ginned cotton, 16 percent of the national crop. The real winners, then, were southern slaveholding landowners and their investors in New York.
Today, migration—both forced and voluntary—looms large once again. And the lessons from this nineteenth-century history have a renewed relevance. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that in 2018, there were 70.8 million displaced people worldwide. The UN has similarly noted that around 272 million—a full 3.5 percent of the world population—are migrants. Many of their lives and stories parallel those of the Native Americans who lived through the Trail of Tears.
At the dawn of the nineteenth century, life for the roughly 100,000 Native Americans living east of the Mississippi was pretty good. It in no way resembled the savagery that European American settlers imagined. None of the scores of tribes in the eastern third of the country was made up of nomadic hunter-gatherers: they hadn’t been for hundreds of years. Nearly all lived in settled villages; they farmed and gathered edibles in the woods and shellfish along the coast. The Cherokees had developed a syllabary and published their own newspaper. They had also begun to create their own form of representational democracy. Other tribes, such as the Chickasaws and the Choctaws, had adopted Christianity, built schools, and even selectively embraced slave ownership.
But no matter how many European American practices Native Americans adopted, settlers remained suspicious of them and their ways of life. Isaac McCoy—a preacher who evangelized among the Miami, Odawa, and Potawatomi tribes of the Great Lakes—believed that “the Indian problem” was one of proximity. McCoy concluded that, on the whole, Native Americans were hard to save. “How grossly mistaken are those writers who would have the world believe that the Indians are quite a virtuous people,” he complained. This was even truer for the Native Americans who were constantly exposed to the derelict fringe of American society on the frontier. “The great mass,” he wrote, “have become more and more corrupt in morals, have sunk deeper and deeper in wretchedness, and have dwindled down to insignificance or to nothing.”
McCoy imagined an “asylum” to the west. He shared this idea with Lewis Cass, governor of the Michigan Territory. And Cass brought the notion with him to Washington when he became Jackson’s secretary of war. Of course, the idea that there was an “Indian problem” was already widespread. Previous presidents and state governors had tried to solve it in myriad ways. George Washington, for instance, burned so many Native American villages in the Northeast that it earned him the Seneca name “Town Destroyer.” And Thomas Jefferson proposed luring Native Americans into debt and obligating them to sell their lands in lieu of payment. But never before had the country’s chief executive so explicitly endorsed segregationist removal policies on this scale.
Power brokers and land speculators on the eastern seaboard knew that the best weapon they had to gain access to tribal lands was the states themselves, which felt that they could pass whatever legislation they wanted and subject everyone within their borders, including Native Americans, to their own laws. In 1832, the Supreme Court ruled that the individual states had no authority in Native American affairs. But Jackson felt strongly that the federal government should stay out of tribal matters. The drama of states’ rights versus the federal government was staged at the expense of the Native American nations.
The Indian Removal Act provided for an exchange of lands and fair compensation. What is more, the statute explicitly stated that its provisions should not be construed in a way that violated any existing treaties with Native American groups. But the act was vague. How would compensation work? Who exactly would be compensated, and how? How would land in the West be chosen? And how would the Native American migrants get there? In the end, the results were neither fair nor in accordance with existing treaties. State representatives and assorted business interests immediately seized on the law’s ambiguity, formulating a disjointed and confusing array of methods that were, in Jackson’s words, “calculated to induce . . . a voluntary departure.” Saunt notes that “the phrase perfectly captured the bad faith that underlay the policy.”
In the meantime, the federal government assigned clerks to deal with the day-to-day logistics of the removal, appointed commissioners to negotiate land cessions, and mobilized thousands of soldiers to make the deportations a reality on the ground. Jackson even invited his friend General George Gibson to oversee the operation.
By 1830, roughly 20,000 Native Americans remained in the eastern third of the continental United States.
Some Native American tribes did leave voluntarily; many of them, however, were transported by private contractors who kept the cost of moving people as low as possible by denying them any medical care and by forcing the old and infirm to march on foot, resulting in untold suffering and death. Other Native Americans stayed despite orders to leave. In time, voluntary deportation became compulsory. Many Native Americans in the East were persecuted and killed as individuals. Consider, for instance, a nineteen-year-old Creek man who was captured by slave hunters. When they realized that the youth wasn’t an escaped slave, and thus had no value, they shot him and scalped him. Still others were hunted as groups. The Seminoles effectively fought off the U.S. government for years, suffering thousands of casualties in the course of the Second Seminole War.
The Seminoles ultimately remained in their ancestral lands in central Florida. But they were the exception rather than the rule. By 1830, roughly 20,000 Native Americans remained in the eastern third of the continental United States. Many of them were engulfed by settlers and forced to live on mountainous and agriculturally unproductive land, separated from their kinfolk who had migrated, with their cultural and political systems in a shambles. Those who left were rarely better off. The land set aside for Native American settlement in what is now Oklahoma lacked water for irrigation; the terrain was rocky, and the soil thin. What is more, the boundaries were unclear and often overlapped. Many Native American people who ventured to the territory in advance of settlement noted that it was completely unsuitable for agriculture. The government, however, persisted in referring to it as “fine country.”
Meanwhile, landowners in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North and South Carolina quickly expanded the plantation system—and, by extension, chattel slavery—onto Native American lands. Saunt does an incredible job of linking northern financiers to southern slave owners and both to the process of Indian removal. Over the course of the 1830s, Saunt notes, “the enslaved population in Alabama more than doubled to 253,000. By the end of the decade, nearly one out of four slaves worked on land that only a few years earlier had belonged to the Creeks.” This was largely financed by northern bankers—such as Joseph Beers, the president of the North American Trust and Banking Company—who skimmed handsome profits off the cotton planted, picked, and processed by the enslaved.
Unworthy Republic is a study in power. It describes, in detail, the coming together of money, rhetoric, political ambition, and white-supremacist idealism. Saunt shows his readers the cost of a racial caste system in the United States. The immoral and illegal ethnic cleansing of the eastern third of the country via Native American removal was not merely a historical crime in its own right; it also abetted another such crime, by solidifying and extending slavery and its attendant racial hierarchy, which would only be partially overturned in the 1860s, with the end of the American Civil War.
Despite the magnitude of the social and political forces involved, however, Native American removal was in no way necessary or inevitable. It didn’t just happen: a thousand small decisions and a few big ones made it so. At the heart of this process was the nation’s first populist president, Jackson. “Old Hickory,” as he was known, first made his name as a military commander in the Indian Wars, but his private fortune came from real estate speculation. He premised his worldview—one of limited federal control and vocal support for “the common man”—on his status as a political outsider and his personal experience as a landowner.
Native American removal was in no way necessary or inevitable.
The parallels with the present are eerie. Contemporary Americans, much like their counterparts in the 1830s, have a president who is a real estate developer of dubious character—a man for whom the rhetoric of success hides a disregard for the most vulnerable and for whom corporate profit is more important than the public good.
U.S. President Donald Trump openly admires Jackson. Before an audience at Jackson’s estate in Tennessee, Trump noted that Jackson “confronted and defied an arrogant elite” and asked, “Does that sound familiar to you? I wonder why they keep talking about Trump and Jackson, Jackson and Trump.” In 2017, he selected a portrait of Jackson to hang just behind his desk in the Oval Office. More important, Trump echoes the ethnonationalist xenophobia that drove Native American removal. Last year, for instance, he wrote a series of posts on Twitter warning that the “bad ‘hombres’” from Mexico and Central America “will be removed from our Country . . . as we build up our removal forces.”
Saunt’s book thus serves as a cautionary tale in the modern age of mass migration. The complicated process of Indian removal reminds readers that consent and willful action are shaped by economics, policy, and the culture of rule. Ultimately, the story of the Trail of Tears is not a happy one. But it would be false to assume that the government won. It did not. Native people persisted despite the odds. They rebuilt their tribes and their lives, their farms and their schools, their families and their traditions. That, after all, is the American way.