The Indian Removal Act was a law passed by the United States Congress in 1830, and signed into law by President Andrew Jackson. Under the terms of the act, Native Americans in the southeastern United States were encouraged to trade their lands for land in the West, thereby freeing up land in the Southeast for settlement. The act included terms of compensation for improvements made on tribal land, such as homes, with the government being directed to pay compensation to Native Americans who relocated.
While the terms of the act may sound relatively benign on the surface, it was part of a larger government policy known informally as Indian Removal, which was designed to push Native Americans off their tribal lands. Indian Removal catered to the demands of white settlers who wanted to take over desirable tribal lands, including the fertile farmlands controlled by Native American nations in the American Southeast. While the act was theoretically voluntary, many Native Americans were coerced, forced, and manipulated into giving up their land.
President Jackson was a proponent of Indian Removal long before his presidency, and he used the power of the White House to support the policy even further. The primary target of the law were the so-called “five civilized tribes” — the Cherokee, Muscogee, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chicasaw — who controlled huge swaths of land in areas like Florida and Georgia. These tribes had tried a variety of tactics to hold on to their land, including assimilating and adopting European habits, which is why they were known as “civilized.”
Some tribes did voluntary give up their lands under the Indian Removal Act, only to find that when they relocated to the West, the land they received in exchange was of poor quality and was not comparable to the rich, fertile land they had been living on for centuries. Other tribes were subjected to coercion and manipulation by government officials who forced them to give up their land. Tens of thousands of Native Americans, most notably members of the Cherokee Nation, were forcibly removed and marched to regions like Oklahoma in the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, and many died along the way.
Under this and similar laws, many Native American nations were stripped of their land, heritage, and culture. In the 20th century, the government recognized that considerable harm had occurred as a result of policies like Indian Removal, and some attempts were made to protect Native American nations and their history, although it would have been impossible to repair the damage done in previous centuries.