Nineteenth century United States policy regarding Native Americans was both a reflection of earlier British methods and of the attitudes of white Americans towards Indians. Thomas Jefferson believed in a policy of separate spheres between white and native culture which meant that if the Indians would not assimilate into American society that the best course of action would be for them to be kept separate from whites for their own good. Another attitude prevalent throughout the nineteenth century was the belief that whites were the dominate race, a belief later centered on the Social Darwinist belief that it was western culture’s responsibility to bring civilization to the rest of the world, including Native Americans. Many early American leaders believed that Indian removal would be beneficial to both groups, Americans and Indians, but no official policy of removal was enacted until Andrew Jackson became president. Jackson, a popular war hero from the War of 1812 and avid Indian fighter, served two terms as United States president from 1829 through 1837.
In 1830, the Indian Removal Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Jackson amidst bitter debate. The Removal Act gave the president the right to negotiate the removal of Indians on an individual basis without going through Congress for separate legislation each time. Although Removal was supposed to be voluntary, many Native Americans were forced from their ancestral homes to lands west of the Mississippi River. Indian groups affected by this legislation included the Five Civilized Tribes from the Southeast, which included the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Muskogee or Creek. The Choctaws were the first group removed from their homes in Mississippi and the first Native American group that would make the arduous trek to Indian Territory.
Most associate the Trail of Tears to the experiences of the Cherokee who were forced across the southern part of the United States beginning in 1838 to Indian Territory. Nearly 15,000 Cherokee were forcibly removed from their homes in Georgia, eastern Tennessee, Alabama, and North Carolina to land set aside by the Federal government in what is now Oklahoma. Some Cherokee traveled part of the distance by boat, but many were forced to make their way west on foot escorted by U.S. Army troops. Many of these Cherokee who were forced to march westward dealt with harsh winter conditions, a small-pox epidemic, food shortages and the hardships of walking over 2000 miles as they had few wagons. After crossing major river ways such as the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, marching thousands of miles and dealing with many other difficult situations, the Cherokee arrived in their new home. The trek from their lands in the east to Indian Territory cost the relocated Cherokee around 4000 lives, about one third of those removed.