Indian Removal



Memorial from the ladies of Steubenville, Ohio, protesting Indian removal, 2/15/1830

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by Stephanie Wood, University of Oregon, Honoring Tribal Legacies

This document is hosted by DocsTeach, a program providing primary-source, educational resources created by the National Archives and Records Administration.  It offers a non-Native view of what was called “Indian Removal,” as it was practiced in Ohio in 1830.  Dispossession would be a term used by historians today, such as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, who describes this as one of the terms that “drill to the core of US history, to the very source of the country’s existence,” as a key feature of settler colonialism and genocide. The latter, as explained by the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, includes “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Because “land is necessary for life,” the removal of a people form their land is a genocidal act.

The process of “removal” involved relocating indigenous communities away from lands that settler colonists wished to take over. Grants to settlers in such areas, once Native peoples were forcibly relocated or induced through treaties to relocate, were “legalized” through the Indian Removal Act, passed in Congress and signed by then-President Andrew Jackson on 5/28/1830. Thus, our primary source under study here was produced in the midst of the discussions around the legislation regarding Indian Removal, but the act was codified nevertheless.  This is why the protest/petition is addressed to the Senate and House. The signers were hoping to persuade Congress not to support the legislation.

This situation was exacerbated during the final months of the War of 1812, a conflict between the U.S. and the British, who had important indigenous allies, such as Tecumseh, a Shawnee who was born in Ohio Country. Some of this conflict took place in Canada. When Tecumseh was killed in 1813, the indigenous alliance or confederacy fell apart.  Thereafter, the position of the Shawnee and other tribes (Delaware, Seneca, Ottawa, and Wyandot or Huron) was weakened in the face of the U.S. government, as Britain tried unsuccessfully to secure a permanent homeland for them in Ohio. They would eventually be relocated to Kansas and Oklahoma and lose their remaining territories in Ohio, as described in a book by Mary Stockwell, The Other Trail of Tears: The Removal of the Ohio Indians (2014).

Pressure mounted over the 18-teens and 1820s for a widening of Indian Removal. According to Teach Us History, President James Monroe had declared in 1824 that all Native people should be moved west of the Mississippi. The idea caught fire with increasing numbers of settlers, hungry to push westward in search of more or better farmland.

The Library of Congress provides a number of documents surrounding this historic legislation about Indian Removal as it was debated. These documents are valuable for expanding a close study of this topic.  For example, the Library of Congress web page quotes President Jackson’s speech of 1830:

“It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation. Two important tribes have accepted the provision made for their removal at the last session of Congress, and it is believed that their example will induce the remaining tribes also to seek the same obvious advantages.”  (italics added here)

This quote makes it clear that the relatively young, colonizing nation had convinced itself that relocating Native communities would benefit those tribes, and they found two tribes that were willing to relocate without resisting. Jackson spoke of the “liberal appropriations” of other territories beyond the westward movement of settlers, that would be provided to tribes. It should be noted that some tribes resisted relocation, and their points of view do not receive adequate attention in government sources. The point of view of the settlers was taken for granted.

President Jackson, known as an “Indian fighter,” was elected in 1828 partly as a result of his pledge to move indigenous peoples out of the way of the territories coveted by settlers. His election emboldened state legislators in Georgia, who “passed laws that abolished the Cherokee government, invalidated Cherokee laws, and created a lottery system by which white Georgians could legally take Cherokee homes and land,” as explained in the Trail of Tears website. In response, according to Teach Us History, the Supreme Court ruled in 1834 that federal law outweighed state legislation such as this. But President Jackson was furious with the court and went ahead with removal against the will of many.

The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Choctaw, and Seminole were among the tribes especially affected in the lead up to and the execution of the Trail of Tears. According to Teach Us History, settlers referred to these five tribes as the “Five Civilized Tribes,” given that they negotiated about thirty treaties with the settlers between 1789 and 1825. But everything did not always go smoothly, far from it. In 1818 Cherokee chiefs and warriors protested the choices they were given, which were either to move farther west or become U.S. citizens but be confined within reservations. (This document is written in cursive handwriting, and students may require assistance to be able to read it.)

Vine Deloria, Jr., writes: “Whether five died or five thousand, the removal program was a nightmare without end, forcing affected tribes to begin life anew in a strange country. The trek and resettlement were horrors for every person who experienced them, and a scar on America’s honor. Indeed, for many of these heartbroken refugees, their problems were only beginning, because the United States did not own the western lands it had given them.  Indeed, the Osage and Pawnee who already lived there viewed their easter brethren as legitimate targets of plunder…. As a result, government officials scrambled to make treaties with western nations to cede lands upon which the Five Civilized Tribes could settle.”

The “Trail of Tears,” ranging from about 1831 to 1850, saw thousands of people forced to relocate from the Eastern Woodlands to what is now Oklahoma succumb to hunger, disease, and exhaustion. This experience is substantiated by another considerable digital collection of primary sources and by a website created by the Cherokee Nation. Additionally, the Trail of Tears is also now commemorated as a part of the National Park system, recognized by the U.S. government today as a “Journey of Injustice,” marked by racial injustice, intolerance, and suffering, but also survival. What is more, the National Park Service financed the gathering of Native testimonials, including stories on the topic of “Removal.”  The Tribal Legacy video collection includes many such testimonials about other trails of tears and removal stories, which we urge you to preview and possibly share with your students.

The whole philosophy that removal would benefit both Native communities and settler-colonists fed into the saga of reservation formation and the long history of encroachments, expropriations, denial of Native territorial rights, reductions of sovereignty, and limitations on self-determination.

As we shall see, some people of Euro-American heritage were concerned about the dispossession of indigenous communities. The authors and signers of the document under focus here were, in many cases, Quaker women and abolitionists.  Author Rebecca Onion has written about the role of these women, who were getting involved in politics on the national scene for the first time (citing historian Mary Hershberger). Their activism stands as a testimony to the occasional allies the tribes had within Euro-American society, people who were willing to take action to try to prevent or reverse injustices, even if they might fail.

Sample “entry” questions:

What were the principal arguments of these Ohio women, as they protested Indian Removal?

Sample “essential” questions:

What were the pros and cons to Indian Removal from Native points of view? (Answers to this question will require our providing students with some additional information, such as the letter signed by more than 40 chiefs and warriors of the Cherokee Nation and directed to the Tennessee governor in 1818.)

Sample “big idea”:

Legal developments in our shared national history often come at the end of long discussions and debates.  Involved citizens have the potential to influence the outcomes of these debates, even if, in a democracy, it will take a majority of citizens to attain a legislative victory that favors their point of view.

Sample “enduring understandings”:

It was not just Native people who might protest the Indian Removal Act. The women who created this petition, aware of the potential annihilation of Native communities, were asking for a more humanitarian approach from the government.

Place-based considerations:

It is important to note that this primary source comes from people living in Ohio. Ohio was still part of the western frontier at that time. This document helps us understand a moment in Native history that lay a foundation for patterns and attitudes that would be repeated by settler colonists as they continued to push westward.

Here’s a map showing how far east Ohio appears to be today. Even now, Ohio is considered “midwest,” despite its location so far east; this way of thinking about Ohio as western is owing to these historical circumstances.

A journey of healing:

At many contentious moments in this long history of human rights abuses, it might provide some consolation to realize that it was not just Native voices that protested. Allies, such as these Ohio women, were doing what they could to influence the outcome, even if, in this case, their pleas were ignored. This is an example of ways people, Native and non-Native can share co-responsibility* for working to prevent social injustice.

*The term “co-responsibility” was shared with me in a personal communication by Robin Butterfield (Winnebago and Ojibwa), President of the National Indian Education Association, in 2019.


Please also take a look at:

STUDY GUIDE to the Memorial from the ladies of Steubenville, Ohio, protesting Indian Removal, 2/15/1830.  Prepared by Stephanie Wood, University of Oregon, Honoring Tribal Legacies.

Additional Resources

Deloria, Jr., Vine, “Promises Made, Promises Broken.” In Native Universe: Voices of Indian America, eds. Gerald McMaster (Plain Cree and Siksika Nation) and Clifford E. Trafzer (Wyandot), Washington D.C.: National Museum of the American Indian Smithsonian Institution and National Geographic, 2004, 12.

Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014), xiii and see pp. 2, 8.

Jackson, Andrew, “President Andrew Jackson’s Case for the Removal Act,” (his message to Congress in 1829). Primary source hosted by Mt. Holyoke College.

Zinn Education Project, “Cherokee/Seminole Removal Role Play,”   Click the download button (must register first).