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Andrew Jackson
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Andrew Jackson’s Trails of Tears

By James Donahue

Looking back in American history, no one can say President Andrew Jackson was the sole instigator of the Indian Removal Act and its deadly effect on the five Native American tribes living in the Southeastern Territories, but his name was clearly inscribed on the branding iron.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the forced relocation of an estimated 125,000 Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek and Cherokee people from their homes in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and Florida to "Indian Territory" west of the Mississippi, now known as the State of Oklahoma, is a dark and bloody blot in the nation’s history.

Jackson, the seventh President of the United States, held office from 1829 to 1837. Before his election he served as a general in the army during the War of 1812, and later the First Seminole War in 1817 against the Seminole and Creek Indians. These campaigns led to the forced acquisition of Florida from Spain.

Even when he ran for the Presidential office, Jackson advocated a plan for removal of the Indians located in the Southeastern states to the "Indian Territory," a part of the newly Louisiana Purchase from France, completed in 1803. It was a popular idea shared by a lot of Americans eager to move west and settle the land, so Jackson was elected by a broad margin.

Soon after he took office Congress passed the Indian Removal Act and Jackson signed it into law in 1830. Thus began the forced removal of thousands of reluctant tribes, many of them on long marches on foot, over thousands of miles with little food or help. Naturally the weaker people died from sickness, hunger and the weather. They did this, often at gunpoint. Some remembered them as death marches. The Cherokee marked their march as a "Trail of Tears."

The act also affected tribes in the North as well, including the Black Hawk, Sauk, Fox, Chippewa, Ottawa and Potawatomi. Many of the tribes refused to go peacefully so military force was used. This led to warfare. Most notable were the Black Hawk War of 1832, the Second Seminole War of 1835 and the Second Creek War of 1836. Some tribal members never surrendered and remained hidden and living in the area to this day.

The Choctaw was the first nation to be removed. The Seminoles began their march in 1832, the Creeks in 1834 and the Chickasaw in 1837. The last to go were the Cherokee in 1838.

While he served as President, Jackson negotiated an estimated 70 different Indian treaties and was instrumental in establishing the reservation system still being used today throughout territories mostly located west of the Mississippi River.

While he never formally authorized the forced death marches that cost the lives of so many Indians, Jackson appointed the people who did. He must also have been informed of what was happening. Thus he and Martin Van Buren, the man who succeeded him in office while the Cherokee march was in progress, must share the blame for the horrors that occurred.

Jackson's slaughter of the American Indians wasn't confined to the death marches. He devoted his energy as a military leader and general as such a brutal Indian killer he earned a nickname among the tribes as "Sharp Knife." In combat, Jackson's troops killed not only the male warriors, but the women and children of the various villages.

Jackson's forces pillaged the tribal villages, burned the buildings and stole millions of acres of their land during his campaigns. He mocked a Supreme Court ruling that declared the Indian Removal Act and his treatment of the tribes unconstitutional. His response to the court decision: "(Justice) John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it."

U.S. history books mark President Jackson as an American hero. And his life, which involved actions beginning with the Revolutionary War to the annexations of much of the land that is the United States today, makes him an important historical figure. Yet the treatment and literal murder of an estimated 10,000 Native Americans, plus the untold number of people killed in the wars he fought, also marks Andrew Jackson as one of history’s mass killers.

Jackson died at his plantation in Tennessee on June 8, 1845 at the age of 78 of heart failure. He also was suffering from tuberculosis.