19th Century US History

Andrew Jackson and his Role in the Genocide of the Native Americans

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He is seen everywhere: represented by statues, paintings, history books and even in our wallets. He is Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States. Although he is gloriously represented in our culture, he has a much darker and shameful history. This history is often omitted from history books, which desire to cast a favorable light on the (often tragic) beginnings of our country. During his administration, he oversaw the removal of 46,000 Native Americans from their ancestral lands (PBS). This was the largest systematic removal of Indians in American history. His representation in our culture is unjust to those who were negatively effected by his political agenda.
Borne in Waxhaw, South Carolina in 1767, Jackson was not granted a formal education. Despite his early set backs, he read law books in his late teens in order to become an "outstanding young lawyer" in Tennessee ("Biography of Andrew Jackson"). During the War of 1812, he was a major general, who received his fame after defeating the British at New Orleans in 1815. Armed with only 5000 tired troops, he took the British and the remaining Creeks that fought with them. The newspapers hailed it as an "Almost Incredible Victory!" that "eloquently rounded off the war" (Ward 5). The public loved him. As a handsome young figure, who was fighting to preserve the American republic, this was not his first battle.
Three years earlier, in the Battle at Horseshoe Bend, Jackson took on the renegade Creek Indians. They were apparently harassing the local settlers and being instigated by the British. Armed with his Tennessee troops and other Indian alliances (the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Cherokee), he invaded Creek territory of Northern Alabama. Although the Creeks anticipated victory, Jackson and his troops crushed them (35). Stannard writes in his book, The American Holocaust, that after the defeat, Andrew Jackson "supervised the mutilation of 800 or so Creek Indian corpses [...] cutting off their noses to count and preserve a record of the dead, slicing long strips of flesh from their bodies to tan and turn into bridle reins" (121). The atrocities did not stop there. They also burned Creek homes with warriors still trapped inside. In his book, Stolen Continents, Wright describes how the troops burned a dwelling down with forty-six people still inside. Once the fire stopped, the troops ate potatoes from a cellar basted in human fat (211). After the Creeks were defeated and mutilated, Jackson took more than two million acres of their once sacred land in Alabama. These grotesque acts do not deserve representation on the twenty dollar bill, nor do they deserve even a small painting. However, Jackson still had many more horrible acts to commit, even before his election to presidency.
It was an ambush by the Seminoles in 1817 that sparked the "need" for military action in Florida. Not only were they known for harboring fugitive slaves, but also for having boarder conflicts with the neighboring settlements (Ward 58). The government desired the acquisition of Florida, and suggested that the Seminoles join the Creeks as one tribe. The Seminoles did not favor this plan, and stood firm. Before the approval of the government or congress, Jackson gathered up his old officers (from the War of 1812) and decided to invade the Seminole territory (59). He was under the assumption that Congress would approve his actions, given the circumstances, and they did. With his troops, he crushed the natives. In a similar fashion to the Battle at Horseshoe Bend, he set fire to more than 100 houses and their neighboring villages, while kidnaping 300 Seminole women and children to use as slaves (Giddings 43). In Ward's book, Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age, he describes how Jackson "seemed to violate nearly every standard of justice" (59). He also states that although most of the nation was glad to gain Florida, those who opposed him wondered about the legality of the seizure. The Battle at Suwanee (1818) closed out the first Seminole war with devastation and despair. The war had a hidden agenda; it wasn't fought to punish the Seminoles for harboring slaves, but it was fought to continue the oppression of America's native peoples (Giddings 119). It accomplished what the war had set out to do and the oppression continued, even after Jackson's election.
Jackson was elected by the popular vote in 1828. Giddings writes in his book, Florida Exiles, that "Andrew Jackson was a warrior, and had more faith in the bayonet than in moral truths. He trusted much to physical power but had little confidence in kindness or in justice" (71). This proved true as he continued to force the Natives from their homes and made that the basis for his entire political agenda. He believed that the new white settlements would be weakened by the Indian presence (98), and that could not be tolerated.
Under the Jackson administration in 1828, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee formed laws that abolished the functioning of Indian governments. In The American Indian Experience, Weeks writes how the laws threatened to arrest or imprison any chief that attempted to govern his tribe. Purposefully attempting to make life miserable for the Native tribes, the laws only allowed other chiefs to get together if they were planning to discuss the release of their land (191).
Jackson gave the Indians of these states an ultimatum: they could either deal with the discriminatory laws, or move westward and preserve their way of life (109). This is how Jackson justified the removal of Indians to the American people. He told them that the tribes would much prefer being separated from their lands due to the encroaching settlers. By removing them from civilization, he would be saving them and aiding them to keep their currant way of life. However, "the plan for removal of the Indians [...] ran counter to the idea that the role of the United States was to redeem the Indians from benighted savagery" (Ward 40). Therefore he was forced to be tactfully deceptive.
Throughout this time, five "civilized" tribes attempted to please the government by abandoning their heritage and emulating the Anglo way of life. Among those five tribes were the Seminole, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek. Some tribes went even as far as to own African slaves! Welcoming missionaries, not only for religious reasons but for teaching as well, they became literate and even more learned than some southern settlements (Weeks 190). This cultural assimilation did not please the government or the surrounding settlements at all. In fact, some settlers became jealous of the prosperous Indians and were more hellbent on oppressing them. In 1829, Congress encouraged settlers to go further south into the Cherokee territory. Once they did, they took their land, forced them into the woods, killed off their game and destroyed their crops. Cultural assimilation had done no good for the Cherokee people, who faced mass starvation once exiled into the wilderness (Stannard 111). It was the drafting of the "Indian Removal Act" in 1830 which gave way to a full scale removal of America's Native peoples. The government gave $500,000 for the implementation of the treaty that was meant to "compensate emigrants for improvement (such as houses, cleared and fenced fields, barns, orchards, ferries) and assist them in their journey west" (Weeks 109). Jackson told the public that once the Indians were removed from their territory, it would mean an end to the clashing of cultures. The Choctaws were the first tribe to sign the treaty. They wanted to finally be left alone by the government, and they believed that would occur if they relocated (PBS). However, they often failed to receive the rations due them because of the government's corruption. By 1834, thirteen to fifteen thousand had been removed (Weeks 121). The Seminoles were next to feel the effects of the Indian Removal Act. The government had not fully gained Florida, and some Seminoles were still present. Again, Jackson suggested they join the Creeks further west, and again they refused. The second Seminole war broke out in 1835, and cost the Jackson Administration $30,000, to $40,000, and to commit forty thousand men to the cause (132). It wasn't until the Trail of Tears that the Seminoles and the Cherokee were almost completely removed.
Rather than using force, like the Seminoles, the Cherokee relied on legal means to try and hold firm to their land. Strictland's article, "Native American Removal," describes how in 1831 they presented The Cherokee Nation v. Georgia to the Supreme Court, which would have made it possible for the Cherokee land to become a sovereign nation. Supreme Court justice John Marshall dismissed the case, saying the Indians should not turn to the Supreme Court. Marshall believed they should confer with the state. The Cherokees attempted again in 1832 with Worcester v. Georgia which would void the state's laws over the Cherokee people. Marshall ruled in favor of the Natives in this trial (meaning the state of Georgia would have no jurisdiction on Indian affairs), and the decision raised the hopes of the tribe. They felt as if they finally had a victory. This victory was short lived, however, because the newly reelected Jackson refused to enforce the law. He proclaimed that he was powerless to help them and their only hope was to "accept their fate, cede their eastern territory and move west" (Weeks 192).
Utterly defeated, the Cherokees signed a treaty ceding their lands to the government. Although the Trail of Tears was not during the Jackson administration, there is no denying that he paved the way for such a terrible trek. In May of 1838, seventeen thousand Native Americans were gathered together and held in detention camps, awaiting their expulsion. The troops took them from their work or play, and placed them in the holding cells where they would be confined for months. The Trail of Tears began in autumn and lasted six months. During that time, their escorts routinely took the Natives through places where epidemic diseases were rampant, and had them walking through the bitter cold. Feeding them rancid meat and spoiled flour, it was more of a death march than a "relocation." Because of these horrible conditions, they only averaged ten miles a day, and buried approximately fourteen to fifteen bodies wherever they stopped (Stannard 125). Once they had reached their destination in Oklahoma, four thousand had died on their 1000 mile trip, a quarter of their population. Once they arrived at their destination, they discovered that much of the land was unfertile and could barely sustain them, (Kinney 70). This was all part of Jackson's Removal Act; he did not simply mean removal from the territory, but removal from existence as well.
The Encyclopedia of Genocide states that "Genocide is neither accidental nor an unintended result of the actions of the states, armies, private companies, or development agencies" (351). The removal of the Native Americans was never directly called a "Genocide," but it is clear that the government intended it to be. Considered a "developmental genocide," the Native Americans were forced out for the "good of the country" because they could never fully culturally assimilate. Their involuntary settlement is viewed as "genocide-at-law" (Strickland 2), and those words don't even begin to capture the atrocities under the direction of Jackson. It is because of these reasons, because of his war crimes ranging from tanning human hides, to burning down houses, that he does not deserve the recognition the present American culture affords him.

Works Cited

"Biography of Andrew Jackson." The Presidents of the United States. 2 April 05.

Giddings, John. The Exiles of Florida. Gainsville: University of Florida Press, 1964.

Hitchcock, Robert K. "Genocide of Indigenous Populations." Encyclopedia of Genocide. Vol 2. 1999.

"Indian Removal 1814-1858 ." 1 April 05.

Kinney, J.P. A Continent Lost, a Civilization Won. New York: John Wiley and Sons Inc, 1937.

Stannard, David, E. The American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Strickland, Rennard. "Native American Removal."The Oxford Companion to American Law. Kermit L. Hall, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Ward, John William. Andrew Jackson- Symbol for an Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Weeks, Phillip. The American Indian Experience. Arlington Heights: Forum Press Inc. 1988.

Wright, Ronald. Stolen Continents. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992.

More about this author: Rebecca Palmer

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