Everyone knows that Andrew Jackson wanted American Indians annihilated, defied the Supreme Court in a famous challenge to Chief Justice John Marshall, and forcibly removed the Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeast to lands west of the Mississippi River. What everyone knows is not true.
Once a venerated American hero, Andrew Jackson has been attacked mercilessly during the last several decades by the cultural Marxists in academe and in the mainstream media, who want his iconic image on the $20 bill removed. Students today are taught he was the vilest of human beings, who not only held blacks in bondage but lusted for the blood of Indians, whom he considered savages incapable of assimilation and worthy only of extinction. That America has revered him for generations is, according to this view, emblematic of our racist and imperialistic core.
A look at the real Andrew Jackson reveals a far different man. He certainly fought Indians from his childhood to nearly the time he was President, but he fought them because they were attacking his family and country. Once the Indian threat was neutralized, he had no interest in pursuing and killing them. William Weatherford was a chief who led the Red Stick Creeks in attacks on Americans during the War of 1812, including the attack that resulted in the horrific slaughter of Americans at Fort Mims. When he surrendered to Jackson, he said:
I am Bill Weatherford. I am in your power. Do with me as you please. I am a soldier. I have done the white people all the harm I could; I have fought them, and fought them bravely; if I had an army, I would yet fight, and contend to the last…
You are not in my power. I had ordered you brought to me in chains.…But you have come of your own accord…I would gladly save you and your nation, but you do not even ask to be saved. If you think you can contend against me in battle, go and head your warriors.
Weatherford walked out of camp a free man and never fought again.
Jackson was not nearly so forgiving when he captured British. In the First Seminole War in Florida, British agents were captured and found guilty by a military court for inciting the Indians to war, supplying them with arms, and spying. Jackson hanged one from the yardarm of his own ship and ordered another shot. He said he hoped the executions would “convince the Government of Great Britain…that certain, if slow, retribution awaits those unchristian wretches who…excite a Indian tribe [sic] to all the horrid deeds of savage war.”
After the Battle of Tallushatchee, American militiamen found an infant next to the body of his dead Indian mother. The militiamen took the boy to General Jackson, who asked the Indian women of the Red Stick village to care for the child. They refused, saying it was his fate to die along with his parents. Jackson cuddled the boy and gave him sugared water to sip. He adopted the child, who he named Lyncoya, reared him at his home in Nashville, and gave him a fine education. He planned on getting him into West Point, but Lyncoya contracted tuberculosis and died at age 17.
Jackson began thinking the only way to end continual conflicts with the Five Civilized Tribes—the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Cherokee—was to have them relocate west of the Mississippi. If they stayed where they were, disease, alcoholism, conflicts with white settlers, and war with the United States would surely annihilate them. Jackson had far greater empathy for American pioneers than for the Indians—the Scotch-Irish frontiersmen of the Old Southwest were his tribe—but he sincerely thought the only way for the Indians to survive as tribal societies was to relocate in the West. He was not alone in this thought. Long before Jackson became president, various Indian tribes had ceded land in return for goods and money and had moved westward. This was not Jackson’s Indian policy—it was America’s.
In 1830, the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, strongly supported by President Jackson. Contrary to how it’s depicted, the act did not authorize forced removal, but only gave the president the power to initiate voluntary land exchanges.
One by one the various tribal councils signed treaties. The Choctaw were the first and nearly all had resettled in Oklahoma by the end of 1831. The Chickasaw and Creeks followed. The Seminole signed removal treaties and were supposed to begin moving by 1835. By that time, however, several of the chiefs who had signed the treaties had fallen into disfavor and Osceola, a young dissident chief, had gained a following. Intratribal warfare erupted, which later led to the Second Seminole War with the U.S. Most of the action was over by 1837, but Osceola fled into the Everglades of southern Florida with a small band of warriors and continued the fight for several more years before he finally capitulated.
Meanwhile, the Cherokee were having their problems with the state of Georgia. In 1830, a law went into effect declaring all persons within Georgia’s borders subject to state laws. Several thousand Cherokee living in the hills of northern Georgia thought their tribal way of life would end, and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled the Cherokee did not constitute a foreign nation as defined in the U.S. Constitution, but were instead, in Chief Justice John Marshall’s words, a “domestic dependent nation.” Marshall did not define such an entity and there was no such thing recognized by the Constitution. Most importantly, since the Cherokee were not a foreign nation and not U.S. citizens, they had no standing in the court.
The Cherokee turned to the Christian missionaries working among them. Samuel Worcester was among a group of missionaries who claimed they were not subject to the laws of Georgia when on tribal lands, and refused to abide by a law that required them to secure a state permit to reside among the Cherokee. The missionaries were tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison, though the Georgia governor issued a pardon to the group.
Worcester rejected the pardon and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in Worcester v. Georgia. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Marshall contradicted his earlier opinion, declaring the Cherokee Nation a foreign nation and not subject to the laws of the state of Georgia. The decision confused the Cherokee Nation’s legal status, because the Nation was not truly foreign, although in some respects the federal government had treated it as such. What it meant for the Cherokee to be a “Nation” remained undefined.
It was at this point that President Jackson supposedly said defiantly, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!” However, the only source for the quotation is journalist and politician Horace Greeley, who included it in his book The American Conflict, published more than 30 years later. Greeley said he’d heard the Jackson quote secondhand from a Whig congressman. There is no documentation for any of this. Nonetheless, most historians have used the putative quote ever since—probably because they thought it summed up Jackson’s attitude.
Yet this also misrepresents Jackson. He simply thought Marshall’s direction to treat the Cherokee as a foreign nation was preposterous and entirely impractical. Jackson’s subsequent actions show he wanted to avoid confrontation and crisis. It was he who had worked quietly behind the scenes to get the governor of Georgia to pardon the imprisoned missionaries and to get the Cherokee to sign a removal treaty. Both came to pass. In 1833 Worcester was freed from prison, and in 1835 the U.S. gave the Cherokee $5.6 million—hundreds of millions in today’s dollars—and a 7-million-acre reservation in Oklahoma.
The next three years saw more than 2,000 Cherokee move to Oklahoma. However, the majority denounced the treaty and refused to budge, saying the chiefs who signed it didn’t represent them. In 1837 they petitioned the new president, Martin Van Buren, asking him to allow them to stay. Instead, during the summer of 1838 the Trail of Tears began, a tragic event that saw some 3,000 of the 15,000 Cherokee die en route. Jackson has had responsibility for this tragedy pinned on him by later-day historians, even though he had been out of office for nearly a year and a half by the time the Cherokee hit the trail.
Most descriptions of the Trail of Tears fail to mention that the Cherokee dragged more than 2,000 of their black slaves along with them, and some of those slaves contributed to the number of dead. Moreover, it’s generally not mentioned that the Cherokee prospered in Oklahoma and that when the Civil War erupted, the slaveholding Cherokee supported the Confederacy. The Cherokee fought in several major Civil War battles and Cherokee chief and Confederate general Stand Watie was the last Confederate general to surrender.
Was the relocation of the Cherokee, and of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole, who also received money and land when they signed removal treaties, the worst thing that could have happened to them? These were Indians who, for the most part, had fought against Americans again and again, who had sided with America’s enemy, Britain, during the American Revolution and the War of 1812. For most peoples in history, the consequence of losing a war was enslavement, slaughter, or exile—not money and land.
The late Vine Deloria, Jr., a Standing Rock Sioux, Indian activist, professor, and prolific author best known for his book Custer Died for Your Sins, said, “American Indians have actually been treated considerably better than any other aboriginal group on any other continent.”
Image Credit: above: Andrew Jackson takes in the orphaned native child Lyncoya following the Battle of Tallushatchee in 1813 (from The Pictorial Life of Andrew Jackson by John Frost, Belknap and Hamersley, 1847)