The Extermination of Native Americans

Trail of Tears. By: Max D. Stanley.

Under President Andrew Jackson, and his successor President Martin Van Buren, there was mass removal of Native Americans westward across America.


In May 1838, the United States Army rounded up the Cherokees and put them into detention camps pending their removal westward. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 416. These unsanitary detention camps were followed by a long march along the notorious “Trail of Tears” in the fall and winter of 1838-39, which killed approximately 4,000 of the 12,000 Native Americans. Id. The forced migration had effectively cleansed the South of the Cherokees, displacing them in Oklahoma. See id.

By this time, the Creeks and Chickasaws were forcibly removed from Alabama and Mississippi respectively. Id. Their lands were quickly overran by whites, eager to begin speculation on the land and claim their own piece. See id.

Earlier, in 1832, in the Northwest, Black Hawk had attempted to return to land in Illinois that was disputed. Id. at 419. Secretary of War Lewis Cass summoned troops and the Illinois militia to fight back Black Hawk, and the resulting skirmish would be called Black Hawk’s War. Id. Meeting the call for arms were future presidents Abraham Lincoln, Zachary Taylor, and Jefferson Davis. Id. Of the one to two thousand that Black Hawk originally brought with him to Illinois, only 150 survived, and the government would exhibit the prisoner Black Hawk around the country. Id. Despite the charades, Black Hawk “won the lasting admiration of the American public.” Id. citing Black Hawk: An Autobiography, ed. Donald Jackson (Urbana, Ill., 1955).

By the end of President Jackson’s two terms, his racial cleansing policies had resulted in 46,000 Native Americans being displaced, and President Van Buren would displace approximately the same number. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 420. The government obtained 100 million acres of land, “much of it prime farmland, at a cost of 30 million acres in Oklahoma and Kansas plus $70 million ($1.21 billion in 2005 . . .).” Id. citing Donald Cole, The Presidency of Andrew Jackson (Lawrence, Kans., 1993), 116.

A few themes emerge from these policies: racism, imperialism, and disregard for the rule of law. Americans were eager to expand their land and to achieve the prosperity that they dreamed of, and skirting laws to accomplish their goals was not out of the question. In fact, with President Jackson, it was nearly encouraged. President Jackson embodied the cavalier, maverick mentality that many Americans found appealing. While his was cultivated growing up in the mountains of the Carolinas and had served him well to bring him to the presidency, it also set an example for Americans to engage in similar behavior.

The imperialistic nature of early Americans would lead to tremendous prosperity for future generations. America was exponentially expanding its borders and stockpiling resources that would facilitate economic growth. However, Americans must remember that these gains came at significant cost to the Native Americans. The targeting of Native Americans, and deprivation of their lives, would be deemed nothing short of genocide in the modern world. Reparations for this have never truly been made, as nothing can fully redress the atrocities that occurred. However, remembering and admiring the Native Americans is fundamental because as they left their homes to languish on reservations (where many still languish), they empowered America to achieve the success it dreamt of. As a result, Americans are very much indebted to the Native Americans.

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