In the early years of the republic, the US government adopted an Indian policy that emphasized education for native people and the cultivation of family-sized farms. In this period the United States did not mandate that tribes move west across the Mississippi River. In 1817 secretary of war John C. Calhoun of South Carolina added to current policy the statement that the national goal was to preserve Indians and that they should never be forced to abandon ancestral lands. In 1828, however, the nation elected Andrew Jackson to the presidency. The westerners who assumed control of the government wanted Indians removed across the Mississippi River, allowing rich eastern lands finally to become farms and plantations for white encroachers without fear of raids or legal objections.
Jackson tended to be a pragmatist, shifting from nationalistic to states’ rights stances without missing a beat. On removing Indians to the West, Jackson was clearly a states’ rights advocate. On 30 July 1829 his secretary of war issued a directive declaring that individual states had dominion over their resident Native Americans, and on 19 January 1830 both houses of the Mississippi legislature extended the state’s laws “over the persons and property of the Indians resident within its limits.” With the governor’s signature, Indians could no longer claim special privileges. Violations of the measure would result in fines of up to one thousand dollars and as many as twelve months in prison. The only way that Indians could retain their heritage and uniqueness, according to supporters of Removal, was to move west of the Mississippi River.
The controversy in Mississippi spread across the country and led to one of the most bitter congressional battles during the Jacksonian era. Northern liberals opposed Removal, while frontiersmen backed the policy. On 6 April 1830 the Senate began to discuss a bill to move Indians to the West. Sen. Hugh L. White of Tennessee headed the supporters, while opponents were led by Sen. Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, who requested the passage of a resolution perpetually guaranteeing Indians sovereignty over all their current lands and a resolution declaring that Indian land could be acquired only through a negotiated treaty acceptable to both sides. On 10 April both resolutions were defeated in close votes.
Those votes sealed the fate of native people on ancestral lands in Mississippi and other southern states. Later that day Jacksonian senators offered a bill “to provide for an exchange of . . . lands with the Indians residing in any of the states or territories and for their removal west of the river Mississippi.” Opponents could only revisit the policies in place since George Washington’s presidential days, which required coexistence with Indians. The Removal bill passed the Senate by a 28–19 vote and was sent to the House of Representatives for concurrence.
In the House, Rep. William R. Storrs of Connecticut introduced the two Frelinghuysen resolutions on 7 April. The debate was every bit as fierce as that in the Senate, and western expansionists won the day only through the personal involvement of Pres. Jackson. He met individually with northern Democrats, using the bully pulpit and congressional pork to secure their votes. On 29 May the House voted 103–97 in favor of a measure that had only minor differences from the Senate bill. The two houses ironed out the inconsistencies during the following month, and on 30 June Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 into law.
The act led to Mississippi’s Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek on 27 September 1830 and the emoval of all but a few of Mississippi’s Choctaw Indians between 1831 and 1833. Other tribes followed. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was the most important piece of legislation affecting US-Indian relations.
- Thomas Hart Benton, Thirty Years View; or, A History of the Workings of the American Government for Thirty Years from 1820 to 1850 (1856)
- Arthur H. DeRosier Jr., The Removal of the Choctaw Indians (1970)
- A. Hutchinson, ed., Code of Mississippi, Being an Analytical Compilation of the Public and General Statutes of the Territory and State with Tabular References to the Local and Private Acts, from 1789 to 1848 (1848)
- Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Mississippi, at Their 1830 Session Held in the Town of Jackson (1830)