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Jackson's Dark History

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USCL lecture takes on president’s Indian Removal Act of 1830

By Reece Murphy

Organizers of this year’s eighth annual Native American Studies Week at the University of South Carolina Lancaster took on the complex legacy of Lancaster County’s most famous son Thursday, March 28.

Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, was born March 15, 1767, in the “Waxhaws of South Carolina,” a geographical area that is now part of the Lancaster County Panhandle.

In keeping with the week’s theme of “Law and Justice for Native Americans,” visiting University of North Carolina Chapel Hill professor Dr. Harry Watson spoke about Jackson and the forced removal of Native Americans from their homelands in the Southeast under the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

USCL history professor and Native American Studies Week Committee member Michael Bonnor acknowledged Jackson’s status as a local hero, but said the forced removal of Native Americans was a stain on Jackson’s presidency that should be understood.

“It’s controversial; it’s emotional; it’s very sad,” Bonnor said. “Students ask me today, how could we do this? And for Native Americans, some look at it as a portion of genocide."

“This topic is one that I think confronts historians from this area, and it’s hard to talk about it without letting your emotions get ahold of you, which is why I wanted to get (Watson); he’s the consummate professional.”
 

History
In the southeastern United States before the removal, Watson said, the largest groups of Native Americans were the Seminoles, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Cherokee.

The “Five Civilized Tribes’” traditional lands stretched from Florida west through Mississippi and north through Alabama and Georgia to Tennessee and western North Carolina.

Watson said Southeastern Native Americans in the early 1800s were not the animal-hide, tent-living cultures that many imagine, but wore European-style cloth clothing and most often lived in log cabins in agricultural communities akin to towns.

By then, whites and Indians in the Southeast had been in contact for about 250 years, during which time the Native American population had been reduced from several million to about 100,000 because of European diseases, such as smallpox and typhoid, among others.

The Catawba of this region were hit especially hard by such diseases, so that by the time Jackson took office, their numbers had been reduced to the hundreds.

It was a factor that would also eventually save them from being removed since their populations and homelands by then were too small to be considered a concern, Watson said.

Watson said significant inter-tribal fighting also took its toll on Native American cultures of the times. But the growing demand for cotton cloth, and the Native American lands that were prime for growing cotton, laid the foundation for the removals Jackson would later oversee.

“The combination of all those factors wrecked havoc on the Native Americans of the area, but they still held title to their land,” Watson said. “And white people wanted those lands.”

Jackson’s role
Jackson’s role in the removals began to take shape much earlier with his defeat of the “Red Stick,” or Upper Creek Indians, of northern Alabama and Georgia during the Creek Civil War of 1814.

The subsequent Treaty of Fort Jackson forced both the Upper Creek Red Sticks and Jackson’s allies, the Lower Creek, to give up nearly 20 million acres of ancestral lands in Alabama and Georgia as a “security measure.”
Four years later, Jackson would help the United States acquire more land with military actions against the Seminoles in Florida for harboring fugitive slaves and treaties with Southeastern tribes in exchange for their lands.

A gold strike in Georgia in 1820, and jurisdictional disputes between Georgia and the Cherokee stripping the latter of their rights in the state, hastened the desire among whites for the federal government to “do something” about the Southeastern Indians, Watson said.

In 1823, a landmark decision by the Supreme Court changed the prevailing attitude   that Native Americans had a “right of occupancy” to their ancestral lands, making it subordinate to the “law of discovery” benefiting white settlers.

In essence, the ruling meant Native Americans could not hold title to their ancestral lands.
Through it all was white dissatisfaction with the policy of Native American “acculturation” established by George Washington, a policy that in effect sought to erase tribal identity through “civilization” of the tribes.
Many whites felt the policy wasn’t working “fast enough,” Watson said.

“So the United States needed any hero it could get and it was Jackson who fit the need,” Watson said. “And he had a reputation as an Indian fighter.”

Indian Removal Act
Jackson took office in March 1828 and signed the Indian Removal Act into law May 28, 1830. The act allowed him to negotiate with Native Americans to trade their homelands for federal land west of the Mississippi River in modern-day Oklahoma.

While ostensibly voluntary, the Removal Act laid the groundwork for Native Americans to be forced off their lands by rigged laws and oppressive white encroachment as tribal leaders sought to protect their people.
The exodus, called the “Trail of Tears,” followed over the course of 28 years, resulting in tens of thousands of Native Americans suffering and dying from harsh weather, disease and starvation during the trek.

“So why?” Watson asked rhetorically of Jackson’s motivations. “He understandably wanted the Southeast to be populated by people who would defend it (from the British and Spanish).

“And he was aware of the value of land; in fact, he bought large tracts of land for himself,” Watson said. “So he had a national defense reason, but he also had a personal stake in it: He knew that Indian removal would be popular with what we would today call ‘his (political) base.’”

Watson said Jackson also maintained until his death that he had another, more noble motivation in the forcible removal of Native Americans – to save them and preserve their heritage.

“The States which had so long been retarded in their improvement by the Indian tribes residing in the midst of them are at length relieved from the evil,” Watson read from Jackson’s 1837 farewell address, “And this unhappy race – the original dwellers in our land – are now placed in a situation where we may well hope that they will share in the blessings of civilization and be saved from that degradation and destruction to which they were rapidly hastening while they remained in the States...”

In closing, Watson tied the lecture to his original point, that the story of the Native American removals were, ultimately, an “uplifting story of survival under a very difficult situation” since Eastern tribes still live on ancestral lands from New York to Mississippi.

“And they remain as the testimony to the endurance of Native American people and the determination to remain in the country of their ancestors.”
 

Audience reaction
In response to audience questions following the lecture, Watson said he and other scholars believe that, while hypothetical, the removals would have occurred in one form or another anyway, had Jackson not been elected.
He also acknowledged Jackson’s stature as one of the nation’s most influential presidents, namely due to his empowerment of the “average man” in the electoral process and other accomplishments.
Follwing the meeting, USCL freshman Arnold Roman, 18, said he thought the lecture was interesting and he learned a lot about a historical figure he’d grown up hearing about all his life.
Roman said he still felt a fair amount of pride that Jackson was from Lancaster County, even though he was torn by his policies toward the Southeastern Indian tribes.
“I understand him better because of the times he was in,” Roman said. “I think he was doing what he thought was best for the nation, but I don’t really care for how he went about it.”
Beckee Garris, a member of the Catawba Indian Nation, said she had mixed feelings about what she learned, centered on her minority-held belief that Jackson did what he did out of a desire to help Native Americans.
Garris said she felt, in many ways, that Jackson was vindicated in his motivations to “save” the Southeastern Indians since the Southwestern and other tribes who were moved have retained their identities over the years.
“It’s the Southern tribes who stayed who are the ones constantly having to prove who they are,” Garris said.
Another factor Garris said she learned was that though Jackson “finished it,” he wasn’t the one who started federal policies that worked toward Native American removal.
“I thoroughly enjoyed it,” Garris said. “I started out kind of sympathetic about Jackson, then after a while, I kind of got angry. I bounded back and forth about him, but in the end I kind of sympathized with him.”

u Contact reporter Reece Murphy at (803) 283-1151