Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, an act that legalized ethnic cleansing, on May 28, 1830; 187 years later the hand-written document is finally on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Being able to visit the archives and see the document in the Rubenstein Gallery is important from a historical standpoint.
“That’s where we put documents that we feel have been major landmarks and milestones in U.S. history, and this document certainly qualifies,” Michael Hussey, display curator and National Archives museum program manager, told Hyperallergic. “Its impact on the Native American tribes living in the American Southeast was profound and devastating.”
Andrew Jackson didn’t see it that way. During his second message to Congress, in December 1830, he spoke of the “philanthropy” of Indian removal. “True philanthropy,” he said, reconciles the mind “to the extinction of one generation to make room for another.” Tribes in the Southeast already “were annihilated, or have melted away, to make room for the whites,” he said, yet “philanthropy could not wish to see this continent restored to the condition in which it was found by our forefathers.
“The consequences of a speedy removal will be important to the United States, to individual states and to Indians themselves,” Jackson told Congress. He promised the act would extend to Indians the freedom to “pursue happiness in their own way” and, gradually, “to ease off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized and Christian community.”
Four months after Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, the Choctaw Nation ceded all its land west of the Mississippi in exchange for land in what is now Oklahoma with the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, the first treaty negotiated under the act. It would serve as a template for treaties to come, including the Treaty of New Echota, in which the Cherokee relinquished all its land east of the Mississippi. Though fraudulently negotiated, that treaty would become the legal basis for the Trail of Tears.
During the fall and winter of 1838, the Cherokee people were forced along the Trail of Tears; some 4,000 died of cold, hunger and disease on the way. Martin Van Buren, who took office in 1837, defended the removal of the Cherokee in his second message to Congress in December 1838 claiming “that a mixed occupancy of the same territory by the white and red man is incompatible with the safety or happiness of either.” He also told Congress the Cherokee had “emigrated without any apparent reluctance.”
This just isn’t true though, when Cherokees refused to leave, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott was ordered to push them out. “He was given 3,000 troops and the authority to raise additional state militia and volunteer troops to force removal,” reads a blog from the National Archives.
Cherokees today still commemorate all that was sacrificed on the Trail of Tears. “We will remember and honor the sacrifices made by our ancestors. The Cherokees on the trip gave up so much—homes, lands and local family traditions. They endured unfathomable hardships and tragedy,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker in 2014 during a remembrance event. “Collectively, they never gave up and never relinquished the fortitude to continue another day’s travel, one step at a time, on the trail to modern-day Oklahoma.”
By the end of his presidency, Andrew Jackson had negotiated almost 70 removal treaties leading to the removal of some 50,000 indigenous people to Indian Territory. By the 1840s, nearly all tribes had been driven west, which is what the Indian Removal Act intended to accomplish.
“You can hear about the Trail of Tears and the Removal Act in your history classes, but I think seeing the document is a way of connecting with the experience,” Hussey told Hyperallergic. “It’s by no means an adequate connection, but I think there’s this really intangible connection that is formed if you really pay attention, and if you look and read the document and see what it’s about. It’s more than just seeing Andrew Jackson’s signature — you can realize that this isn’t just another law that Congress passed. I think there’s something about seeing the actual document that brings you a little bit closer to understanding.”
Visit the special document display about the Indian Removal Act in the Rubenstein Gallery of the National Archives Gallery in Washington, D.C. from March 23 to June 14.