historic indian reservation in foothills

Indian Reservations: A Look Back at the Relocation of Native Americans

In the early 19th century, a dark chapter unfolded in America’s history – the forced relocation of Native American tribes living east of the Mississippi River to lands westward. This massive displacement, justified by ideals of progress and civilization, would come to be known as Indian Removal.

For the native peoples torn from their ancestral homelands, it was a period of turmoil, injustice and unspeakable suffering. But for ambitious settlers and land-hungry states, it opened a vast frontier for expansion, cotton and slavery.

This is the story of broken treaties, betrayed promises and the trail of tears that Native Americans endured at the hands of a young nation infected with notions of racial superiority and manifest destiny.

The Uneasy Meeting of Two Worlds

Early relations were marked by curiosity and trade
Early relations were marked by curiosity and trade

In the beginning, they came upon each other like actors stumbling onto a strange new stage, unsure of the other’s purpose or intentions. The natives had roamed these lands for centuries, following the rhythms of the seasons and the migrations of the beasts.

Their world was a web of spirits, rituals and myths tying them to the mountains, forests and plains they called home. But to the pale colonists who arrived by ship with their muskets and bibles, this land was a fresh canvas upon which to create a more “civilized” society in their image.

The natives were savages to be tamed, wilds to be tilled – inconvenient obstacles on the path to progress. Yet cooperation was first attempted. Jesuit missionaries in New France preached salvation through baptism to those they saw as heathens lost in darkness.

English imperialists pushed “civilization programs” to mold the natives into semi-Europeans – converts to Christianity who spoke English, farmed for surplus and embraced private property. Marital traditions were recast by colonizers as lewd and “pagan.”

Only Christian monogamy could save these souls. But rivers can never flow upstream.

Centuries of wisdom, ritual and belonging could not be cast off like an old coat. The natives took on the outward trappings of Anglo society while their hearts still beat to the rhythm of the land and ancestors.

In time, uneasy coexistence decayed into open contempt. The colonists’ creed of racial superiority only hardened, stoked by greed for native hunting grounds and resentment of tribes blocking access to lands they coveted as their divine right.

Reform gave way to removal. The two cultures would collide, but only one would prevail intact.

The Reluctant Shepherd

Fate cast John Ross as shepherd, though he never sought the staff or mantle. As Principal Chief of the Cherokee, he was guardian to thousands – a duty he did not shirk, though the burden grew heavier with time.

Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross
Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross

When murmurs of Indian removal reached Ross’s ears, he became a man possessed. In impassioned letters and petitions, he pleaded for mercy from the architects of his people’s destruction. But his protests fell on deaf ears.

Even as truth and justice abandoned his cause, Ross persevered. He tenaciously challenged false treaties in court, buying precious time before the inevitable.

For he knew once the Cherokee were torn from their land, only their collective memory would remain. And he would defend that with his last breath.

But American greed cannot be deterred, only delayed. When at last the Cherokee were forced from their homes, it was Ross who led the mournful exodus. He walked every agonizing mile, eyes fixed on some distant promised land only he could see.

For every child lost to sickness, Ross wept. But he did not waver, keeping solemn pace even as spirits flagged. Like a shepherd guiding his flock through flood and shadowed valley, he gave them courage as the journey consumed all else.

In the end, they stumbled broken into Indian Territory, a people transformed. And Ross wondered: for all his devotion, did he lead them to salvation – or exile?

The False Promise of Indian Removal

With the bang of a gavel, their fate was sealed. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act passed Congress, granting the president power to forcibly relocate all native tribes east of the Mississippi to the wilderness tracts of the West.

Jackson claimed Native Americans would thrive free from white harassment in these new territories. But his flowery promises cloaked a crusade of conquest. The Removal Act was a legislative land grab, allowing unchecked seizure of the resource-rich Southeast.

The tribes saw their doom in this policy’s name. Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross immediately petitioned Congress, pleading for his people’s right to remain on ancestral lands they had cultivated for centuries.

But his cries fell on indifferent ears. Jackson had made his decree, and the greedy tide of manifest destiny could not be stemmed. Through vile deception and coercion, the government secured removal treaty by treaty with once-sovereign peoples rendered subjects.

In 1831, the Choctaw were the first ripped from home, driven out on the “Trail of Tears” to barren Oklahoma lands. The proud Seminole waged war to resist, but were crushed by the army’s merciless might. Other tribes reluctantly followed, preferring exile over extinction.

But the cruelest removal was yet to come. In 1838, the Cherokee Nation were forcibly marched at gunpoint 1,200 miles west. Over 4,000 men, women and children perished along the way from exposure, starvation and disease. Their suffering defies comprehension.

The Trail of Tears remains one of the darkest chapters in American history. But it was the inevitable result of Jackson’s Indian Removal Act and the false promise of a “better” future it engendered.

The Broken Promises of Indian Territory

The survivors stumbled into Indian Territory broken, destitute, trembling with rage. The journey had ravaged their bodies, but not their spirit. They dreamed of rebuilding, finally free from persecution.

But safety proved yet another false promise. The same government that tore them from their eastward lands now turned a blind eye to white squatters flooding Indian Territory, hungry for more Native land to usurp.

Resources were scarce, the soil stubborn. Many perished from malnutrition and disease. But cultural bonds survived the terror, keeping heritage alive through story, song and ceremony. They would not be erased by cruelty or neglect.

The Lion Who Would Not Roar

Davy Crockett stalked the halls of Congress like a caged lion, unleashing roars of outrage that echoed nationwide. The Indian Removal Act was a travesty that stained America’s honor – he would not bite his tongue as injustice was legislated.

vintage sketch of pioneer Davy Crockett
Davy Crockett fiercely opposed Indian Removal

While Southern greed propelled removal’s passage, Crockett stood firm. “It is a wicked, unjust measure,” he protested. “We have no right to force them from their homes.”

His impassioned dissent was futile. But Davy’s conscience would not be silent, even as he doomed his prospects for reelection. “I would rather be beaten and be a man than to be elected and be a little puppy dog,” Crockett boldly declared.

He lost his seat, but not his integrity. The Lion of the West remained a lone voice crying out against tyranny amidst a cowardly chorus of concession.

Defeat only steeled his conviction. “I bark at no man’s bid. I will never come and go, and fetch and carry, at the whistle of…any party, whether in power or out of power,” Davy roared.

Alone in his stand, Crockett displayed the fiery courage of a true American. For only by confronting injustice do we honor our highest ideals. Unlike the vocal lions who later fell silent, Davy refused to compromise with wrong when conscience called – though it may cost him everything.

In the coming decades, the great land seizures continued. Native holdings were steadily whittled, treaties dishonored, lies told without shame. The Dawes Act of 1887 partitioned tribal lands, carving up the last vestiges of sovereignty. But the people remained, bloodied but unbowed.

Over five million in America still proudly proclaim their Native lineage today. The story endures, passed down to generations who lift their voices as one to declare “We are still here. We will always be here.” For Native identity lives not on parchment or deeds, but in hearts that will never yield.