CHEROKEE, N.C. – The removal of Native tribes from their southeastern lands was not inevitable. 

At one point, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief John Ross believed there was a real chance for Indigenous peoples to retain at least a part of their homelands east of the Mississippi River.

In a recent presentation to the Trail of Tears Association, Dr. Claudio Saunt, a Richard B. Russell professor in American history and co-director of the Center for Virtual History at the University of Georgia, asked this question: If removal wasn’t inevitable, then why did it happen? And, why specifically, did politicians and Georgia politicians target Cherokees so directly in the 1830s? Saunt has written a book on the subject titled “Unworthy Republic – The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory.” 

Saunt began with an overview of the situation around 1830 when there were between 80,000 and 100,000 indigenous people living in the United States. Of the so-called five tribes, the Seminoles still retained a large part of Central Florida and the Muscogee (Creek) remained in Alabama and the Cherokee homelands still covered northern Georgia, northeast Alabama, western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. The Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes still had half of what is now the present-day state of Mississippi. 

“So, these are vast areas of land. And there are at least 60,000, perhaps as many as 80,000 Indigenous Americans living in this part of the country. Politicians, speculators, planters, slave owners were especially interested in dispossessing Native peoples in this part of the country,” Saunt said. “Native Americans stretching from the Great Lakes down to Florida are extraordinarily diverse. There were hunters, farmers, beggars, drunks, tee-totalers, Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, some of them lived in traditional wattle and daub housing. Others lived in log cabins, like their white neighbors, some dressed in deer skins, some are better dressed than their white neighbors, some lived in plantation houses.” 

Saunt also emphasized that U.S. politicians had been talking about expelling Native Americans west since the beginning of the 19th century. But until passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830, there was no official state-sponsored, systematic operation to eliminate Native Americans living west of the Mississippi River. Thomas Jefferson had famously suggested after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 that Native peoples maybe could be moved out onto this land, but efforts to expel tribes were “makeshift” until 1830. 

Planter politicians in the southern states had long been eyeing southern lands, Saunt added, and when Andrew Jackson entered the White House, they seized the opportunity. 

“Jackson, of course, was himself a southerner. He was a slave owner, and he had a long history of making war against Native Americans. So, the southern politicians pushed to make the systematic expulsion of Native peoples a national policy,” he explained. “Why did they do this? Well, these operators of slave labor camps were transfixed by visions of an expansive slave empire that would be presided over by themselves.”

Saunt said leaders in Georgia believed it would become the largest and most powerful state in the nation, larger than even the Empire State of New York, if Indigenous land were extinguished. 

“Even more ambitiously, if Native peoples could be eliminated from Alabama and Mississippi, then this slave empire would march westward, and the beneficiaries of this would amass tremendous wealth. But why stop there? The southern planners had visions of expanding all the way to the Pacific Coast, and then down into Mexico,” he said. 

Cretaceous Era, ‘extraordinarily’ fertile lands

Saunt also explained there was an underlying geological reason why slave owners wanted these southern lands that dates back 70-80 million years ago to the Cretaceous era. During that time, the waters were far higher, and there was this coastal region, which is now in central Georgia and arcs across Alabama and Mississippi. As the waters receded, “extraordinarily” fertile lands were left behind. 

“So, today, there’s still this crescent of very dark fertile soil that arcs across Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi that we call the Black Belt or the Black Prairie. What’s essential here is that it cuts straight through the Creek Nation, arcs through central Alabama, then cuts through the Choctaw Nation and up through the Chickasaw Nation,” Saunt said. “These are some of the most valuable agricultural lands in the entire world in the 1830s. And then there’s this far larger swath of land, which is also suitable for producing cotton. And you can see it beginning in South Carolina and cutting through Georgia and then also through the heart of the Creek Nation, and then passing through the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations.”

One speculator marveled at the quality of the soil; it was rich and black, he said more than three feet deep, with giant oaks and ancient oyster shells indicating, he said, the best cotton lands, Saunt explained. These were the deposits left over from that vast ocean 70-80 million years ago, and that was important to making this soil suitable for growing cotton because the deposition of all of these marine creatures over millions of years led to soil that was very high in calcium, which cotton takes up in large quantities. So, it was perfect for growing cotton. 

Discussion on Native expulsion causes outrage

“So, these politicians began to argue that it was time to expel Native Americans. They said that this was the best thing for Native Americans – for the victims of the policy. So, the legislation to make deportation a national policy, that is to make the United States free of Native peoples, was hotly debated in Congress, and in fact, it was the single most contentious issue to come before Congress since the birth of the Republic up to 1830,” Saunt said. “A great deal of this anger and fury that it generated among American Americans, of course, originated with Native peoples themselves who were outraged by this policy.” 

Cherokee leader John Ridge said, “Our national existence is threatened. We are in the paw of a lion.” White Americans, especially in the northern states, spoke in the same spirit. A group from Portage County, Ohio, wrote that expulsion was not a trivial local matter. Instead, they said the honor and reputation of the United States depended on it. And the world was watching. 

“One resident from Vermont insisted that the United States was founded in his words as ‘a refuge from the oppression and injustice of the old world.’ And yet, he continued, ‘well, it prates about justice and human rights. It was disposing of thousands of human beings like cattle,’” Saunt said. “In fact, this legislation generated the first mass petition campaign to Congress ever in the history of the country. Some of these petitions were written on a single page and signed by a dozen people. Others went on for pages and pages.” 

When it was time to vote on removal legislation, it passed in the House by only five votes out of 199 votes. “And this was in a House that was overwhelmingly Jacksonian,” Saunt explained. “The vote came down to the final day. It … wasn’t really clear whether or not it would pass. Almost all of the south, with a few exceptions, voted in favor of Indian removal. So, clearly, this is a southern act.”

Expulsions of Native tribes begins

The law itself passed by Congress merely gave the president the authority to negotiate to exchange federal lands in the west with Native lands in the east, and Native peoples were not willing to leave their homes. “And so, Andrew Jackson threatened and coerced Native leaders to sign treaties ceding lands, often by making the situation so untenable. They could remain where they were – risked starving to death – or take a chance, walking hundreds of miles through hostile communities to distant and unknown lands in the west. But even after the formal settlement of these treaties, individual families had to be forced out of their homes,” Saunt said. “An army of federal officers, unscrupulous speculators and eventually actual soldiers did the job. The dispossession was swift and it was brutal. Creek people were impersonated to obtain title, and if that didn’t work, speculators resorted to violence. They chained Creeks in a house and beat them until they put their marks on paper. Vast quantities of land changed hands in this way, in fact, some 2 million acres in the Creek Nation alone.”

In Mississippi, a similar sort of story unfolded. A 75-year-old Choctaw man named Oka Larcherhobbie was described in the records as an old, gray-headed man having but one eye. He had a similar experience. A white man put a fence around his land and ordered him out. When the elderly Choctaw refused, the white man took up a whip and gave him 30 lashes. 

The dispossessed were not willing participants, and in the Creek and Seminole nations residents took up arms. In 1836, the U.S. Army invaded the Creek Nation, captured and chained the so-called hostiles and then forced them aboard transport steamboats to ship them west, Saunt said. 

“Refugees from the Creek Nation fled south through Georgia,” he added. “They were hoping to find refuge among the Seminoles, but there they were rounded up or shot down by state militia.”  

Removal of tribes by the government was a ‘disaster’

The transportation of dispossessed Native women, children and men after the passage of the Indian Removal Act was not something the government was equipped to do, and it was a disaster, Saunt said. Instead of letting the Office of Indian Affairs, what became the Bureau of Indian Affairs, supervise this operation, President Jackson instead put his friend, George Gibson, in charge. Gibson supervised a small team of accountants in the War Department. These accountants were mostly used to monitoring federal funds for the purchase of beef and pork, and supplying soldiers and forts. They had no experience conducting an operation of this magnitude.  

“First of all, there’s simply the matter of the logistics. This is hard for us to believe today, but the entire federal government in 1830 numbered 10,000 employees. That’s the entire federal government. And 8,000 of those employees delivered the mail. They were of no use in deporting families west of the Mississippi. Only 600 employees in the executive department actually were stationed in Washington, D.C., and then there was a much smaller number, half a dozen in George Gibson’s office, who were in charge of this operation,” Saunt explained. “So, they were overwhelmed with the logistics. They had no experience transporting families, the elderly, sick people, pregnant women, infants, toddlers, who were all unwilling to move in the first place and were not really likely to cooperate. And then they had to figure out how to supply them.”

Gibson and his staff had to contract the work and help the contractors do their job while crossing their fingers that the supplies would be there at the right time and the right place.

“And then of course there are the inevitable delays. Native peoples don’t congregate when and where they’re supposed to because they don’t want to move. The weather doesn’t cooperate. There are terrible storms in the winter months. There are no roads in most of this region, and knowledge of rivers is very general. They don’t really know where the rivers go. And they don’t really know how to get people out west as they have to build some of these roads. They have to build bridges across rivers, and in the low lying muddy areas, they have to construct causeways,” Saunt said. “So, it is a massive operation. It overwhelms the commissary general. And it is not surprisingly a disaster.” 

Saunt said another reason the removals were a disaster was because of the disregard for the people being moved. 

“Joseph Carr, who was an Army officer who had retired to Lake Providence, Louisiana, west of the Mississippi River, witnessed one scene that conveys the criminal incompetence. When a party of Choctaw refugees passed by his house in the fall of 1831, he said they were starving. Heavy sleet had covered the trees, and elderly women and young children were walking by barefoot and with nothing to cover their legs. He gave them permission to enter his pumpkin patch and they ate the frozen produce raw. And this was one of numerous such scenes,” Saunt said. “Other refugees were struck down by cholera. In fact, the very first cholera epidemic to ever hit North America struck in 1830 to 1833. Cholera does especially well in unsanitary environments where people are crowded together like on steamboats, which transported so many Native Americans west.” 

Another example of the disregard for Native lives was the voyage of the Thomas Yeatman, which carried a party of approximately 500 Cherokees down the Tennessee River, up into the Ohio then down to the Mississippi River and down to the mouth of the Arkansas and up as far as it could travel. In central Arkansas, the Cherokees had to disembark and walk the final 200 miles by foot. 

“So, when this voyage took place, they left in the middle of March 1834. So, this is before the vast majority of Cherokees move westwards,” Saunt said. “What’s interesting about this is that we can follow the voyage by reading through the journal of the federal officer who is in charge of this particular contingent.” 

Saunt read some of the officer’s journal. 

“April 5, buried here the girl child of a Scottish Cherokee; April 6, Stephen Spaniards girl child died this morning of measles; April 7, bear paw’s boy child died this morning of dysentery; April 9, Henson’s child died today of the worms; April 10, Richardson’s child died this morning.”

“It got worse in the space of two days. Over one three-day period 23 people died. By the time the party reached present-day Oklahoma, one out of every six people had died, including 45 children under the age of 10. So, this particular party of deportees suffered more than many others, but their experience is nonetheless indicative of the disregard that most white Americans held for their Indigenous neighbors.” But of all of these stories, Saunt said, the one that sticks with him the most occurred on the Tennessee River not far from Chattanooga, Tennessee. There, a Cherokee man was separated from his young child as he and a large crowd were forced at gunpoint onto a transport on the Tennessee River.

“He asked a soldier if he could wait for his child to catch up, if he could find his child amidst this chaos. The soldier simply lowered his bayonet and forced the man aboard. This story strikes me because I have two children of my own, and I think it encapsulates the casual cruelty that pervaded this operation from start to finish,” he said.

Why did the forced removals happen?

At the heart of why the removals happened was to expand slavery and cotton production across the south. Speculators spoke ecstatically about the potential for profits from growing cotton. In Mississippi, one speculator estimated slaves could produce 15,000 pounds of cotton per acre in the nutrient-rich soil. 

“In 1850, 230,000 enslaved people toiled in Mississippi and Alabama on lands that barely a decade earlier had belonged to Indigenous peoples,” Saunt said. “Likewise, 40% of Mississippi and Alabama’s agricultural profits came from crops grown on (former) Choctaw and Chickasaw lands.”

Saunt asked the question of why the white population advocated so strongly for Cherokee people to leave the mountains of North Carolina and northern Georgia when the land was not prime growing land for crops like cotton. 

So, why persist to the point of threatening a civil war? That’s what Georgia representatives did in Congress in spring of 1838. They said if the Cherokees were not kicked out at gunpoint that Georgia was willing to go to war with the federal government.

“So, why persist? The answer I think is white supremacy. White southerners wanted to be absolute masters of every single square foot of land in their states, but they also wanted to be absolute masters of every single person who lives in those states. Masters of their wives, their children and their enslaved people who labored on their lands,” he said. “In short, the cause of white supremacy and Indigenous dispossession (of their lands) were deeply and inextricably intertwined.”