Focus on Treaties for Native American Heritage Month
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Alabama and Indian Removal

When Alabama became a state in 1819, four tribes had lands within its boundaries: Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Cherokee. By that time, the southern states strongly supported President Thomas Jefferson's proposal to use the Louisiana Purchase as a place to relocate tribes from the South and elsewhere. During the next decade, especially during the Monroe administration, the federal government made great headway in formulating a removal policy and achieved some success in persuading members of some tribes to remove voluntarily. It was only after the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 that removal became official Indian policy. As president, Jackson pressed for passage of what became the Indian Removal Act (1830) and supported the efforts of the states to force Native groups out.

Alabama officials and other citizens, like those in Georgia and Mississippi, were heartened by Jackson's election. Between the election in 1828 and his inauguration in early 1829, all three states passed legislation asserting that state civil and criminal laws applied to Native Americans, assuming that Native groups would rather remove than submit. In addition to piecemeal legislation between 1827 and 1829, Alabama lawmakers passed a broader extension bill in 1832 that brought the Indigenous population further under Alabama law. The new bill was designed to usurp the Creek and Cherokee governments and prohibit Native groups from passing laws that violated the Alabama constitution or state laws. Alabama also asserted its legal jurisdiction over the Choctaw and Chickasaw, which effectively undermined the efficacy of their governments and the authority of their headmen inside the boundaries of the state.

The Choctaw were first to remove from Alabama. They held only a relatively small tract of land in extreme west-central Alabama, having ceded their other lands within the state in 1803, 1805, and 1816. The strongest movement for Choctaw removal came from Mississippi, not Alabama. However, the states worked in concert for a common good. The extension of state law, though not applied immediately, was unsettling to the Choctaw. Passage of the Indian Removal Act in May 1830 was followed by an influx of American intruders into Choctaw land. These events and the political machinations of a few prominent Choctaw led to the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek (1830) in the following September, providing for Choctaw removal. It ceded all Choctaw land in exchange for land between the Arkansas and Red Rivers west of Arkansas Territory.

The treaty also allotted Choctaw land to heads of households to provide a home for the Choctaw until they removed. Immediately, land speculation began as land dealers used extended credit and other techniques to obtain purchase agreements for allotments at the time of removal. A number of speculators were based in Alabama, and much of the land went into their hands. However, the speculators fell to wrangling among themselves, causing long delays in clearing titles and thus defeating one of Jackson's prime goals: to put Indian land into the hands of American farmers as soon as possible.

The Choctaw began removing soon after the Dancing Rabbit Creek Treaty was signed. The people marched overland primarily to Natchez and Vicksburg, where they boarded steamboats to take them to points west or traveled through the Chickasaw Nation to Memphis. By late 1833, most of the Choctaw had left for the West. Among those who remained were the ancestors of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians of today.

Creek (Muscogee) removal was the primary focus of Alabamans because of the large land mass occupied by the Creek and the quality of the land for cotton culture. Whites had been pressing upon their borders and intruding in their lands for years. The condition of the Creek at the time the Indian Removal Act was passed was the most desperate of any of the tribes in the Southeast. Although they were removed a few years later, they were the only tribe in the Southeast to remove without having signed a removal treaty.

Early voluntary removals had followed the Treaty of Indian Springs (1825). In 1825, the Coweta chief, William McIntosh, signed the treaty, which ceded all Creek land in Georgia and a large portion of Creek land in Alabama in exchange for an equal amount of land west of Arkansas Territory. McIntosh was executed by order of the Creek National Council, and approximately 700 members of the McIntosh party and their slaves emigrated to the West in 1827. This commenced the Creek voluntary removal period. While the group prepared for their journey west, delegations of Creek worked tirelessly to overturn the treaty. Although they were successful in nullifying the Indian Springs Treaty and signing a revised version in 1826, the Creek were ultimately unable to recoup their Georgia lands. As a result, approximately 7,000 Lower Creek living in Georgia were forced from the state into Alabama on January 1, 1827.

Loss of their Georgia lands created incredible hardships for the Creek forced into Alabama. Many appear to have been unable to find suitable land and began a decade-long period of decline. In the years following the treaty, many Lower Creek were reduced to receiving government-provided rations at Fort Mitchell and eating roots, the bark of trees, or the carcasses of dead, diseased animals. Some Lower Creek towns or villages, formerly located in Georgia, dissolved and were never reconstituted within Alabama.

For the Lower Creek who were unable to establish their lifeways within Alabama, voluntary removal west offered a way to avoid the hardships. Creek leaders countered U.S. encouragement of voluntary removal by attempting to force all Creek to remain within the Creek Nation. The National Council passed laws prohibiting Creek from enrolling, or advising others to enroll, for emigration, and death threats were issued to those caught trying to leave the Nation. However, small emigrating parties consisting primarily of friends and followers of McIntosh left Alabama in 1827 and 1828, and in 1829 a large party of almost 1,400 departed for the West.

Despite the large number of Creek that voluntarily emigrated, Andrew Jackson was unhappy with the progress of removal. In 1830, he stopped all government-sponsored emigrations until the entire Creek Nation agreed to remove. Whereas this decision had little effect on the Creek opposed to emigration, it had broad implications for those who had enrolled to move west. Many had not planted crops that year in anticipation of receiving government rations. To make matters worse, Creek headmen ordered the slaughter of the emigrants' livestock as punishment for leaving the Creek Nation. With no crops and livestock, many Creek lived on the edge of starvation. Their problems were compounded by the influx of white squatters who illegally settled in the Creek Nation. Many whites simply cleared a plot of Creek land, while the most brazen forcibly evicted the Creek from their houses. Other whites traded alcohol to the Creek or established grog shops on Creek land. Many Creek contracted diseases, such as smallpox, and died as a result. When the Creek complained to Washington, Jackson told them that the only solution was emigration.

The Creek's decision to negotiate the Treaty of Cusseta (1832) was, in part, a desperate attempt to save their Nation from being overrun by white squatters. Creek heads of family received a 320-acre reserve of land while 90 headmen received a tract of 640 acres. Whites continued to be a problem after 1832, however, because land speculators based primarily in Alabama and Georgia cheated many of the Creek out of their reserves by various means of fraud. With the promise of the treaty unfulfilled, removal of the entire Creek population appeared to be inevitable. Amidst the land fraud controversy, two more voluntary emigrating parties numbering about 500 left Alabama in 1834 and 1835. Others wished to emigrate but wanted to settle their land fraud cases before leaving.

By 1834 and 1835, the Creek were divided over removal. Most favored remaining on their ancestral homeland. Among the latter was a band of Lower Creek who lashed out against white encroachment in the spring of 1836. In response to the Second Creek War, as it was called, Andrew Jackson decided to forcibly remove the remaining Creek. The Creek who participated in the war were shackled and marched to Montgomery, where they were placed on steamboats for their journey west. Civilian agents overseen by military officers then removed the remaining "friendly" Creek by organizing them into five detachments from camps at Wetumpka and Tallassee and two camps near Talladega. A sixth detachment, composed of family members of Creek fighting the Seminole, remained in Alabama until the Florida campaign was over. These Creek were persecuted by local whites as they waited in three emigration camps and were subsequently removed to Mobile Point and later Pass Christian, Mississippi, before continuing west to Fort Gibson in 1837.

Small detachments of Creek, consisting of individuals or families, continued emigrating from Alabama to the Indian Territory during the 1840s and 1850s. Other Creek remained with authorization under the first article of the Treaty of Fort Jackson (1814). Their descendants constitute the Poarch Band of Creek Indians currently residing near Atmore, Alabama.

The Chickasaw were the third tribe to remove from Alabama. Their Alabama landholdings when the Indian Removal Act became law consisted of not quite 500,000 acres along the Mississippi border in the northwestern part of the state. They had ceded their other lands in Alabama in 1805 and 1816. In the Treaty of  Pontotoc Creek (October 20, 1832), adjusted by Articles of Agreement in 1834 in Washington, the Chickasaw ceded their remaining lands in Alabama and Mississippi in exchange for lands in the West.

Like the Choctaw and Creek, the Chickasaw were beset by a number of problems. Extension of Mississippi and Alabama civil and criminal laws over their lands, followed quickly by passage of the Indian Removal Act, demoralized the people. Intruders moved onto their land, their society was disrupted, they became indebted to local merchants, and they were preyed upon in the state court systems. Also like the Choctaw, they received land allotments to ensure them a place of residence until they removed and the allotments could be sold. Their lands were laid off into counties in 1835, the land was surveyed, and sales began in 1836. The lion's share of Chickasaw land became the property of land speculators, including some of the same Alabamans who had engaged in speculation in the Choctaw Nation. Many, however, lost in their ventures because of the Panic of 1837 in the banking system. Unlike the Choctaw, most Chickasaw received the market value for their allotments.

Unlike other removals, Chickasaw removal was contingent upon the Chickasaw finding land that suited them in the West. It was not until early 1837 that they reached an agreement with the Choctaw to occupy the western district of the Choctaw Nation. Removal began in the summer of 1837 and continued under a federal superintendent until 1839. However, the Chickasaw Nation paid commutation expenses for any Chickasaw who wished to remove thereafter. Chickasaw continued to remove as late as 1850. They were the only southeastern tribe who left no remnant east of the Mississippi.

Cherokee removal was the last major Indian removal from Alabama. Land cessions in 1806, 1817, and 1819 had shrunk the Cherokee land base so that by the removal period their Alabama lands consisted of an area in the northeastern corner of the state between the Tennessee River and the Creek Nation. This land was highly desirable to Alabamans because of the extensive orchards maintained by the Cherokee and because of its strategic location in regard to transportation. The Cherokee blocked access to an important segment of the Tennessee River and maintained and controlled an efficient system of toll roads and ferries along important routes from northern Georgia, eastern Tennessee, and the Carolinas. In 1835, some 1,424 Cherokee, 299 slaves, and 32 whites married to Cherokee resided in the Alabama lands.

By that time, Cherokee removal from Alabama had been going on for years. A large number had voluntarily removed following the treaties of 1817 and 1819 and had become part of the Western Cherokee Nation in Arkansas. Gunter's Landing had been the point of departure for captured Creek who had sought refuge among the Cherokee and for groups of Cherokee who chose to voluntarily remove. Still, the Cherokee for the most part resisted removal. Many who had taken reservations under the treaties of 1817 and 1819 were beset by whites intent on stealing their property, forcing them to move south of the Tennessee, only to face the same problems a few years later. Following Alabama's further extension of its laws over Native Americans in 1832, many of the ferry owners and turnpike regulators had their business enterprises confiscated and turned over to whites. After 1832, large numbers of whites, particularly from Tennessee, Georgia, and the Carolinas, flocked to the region, squatting on Cherokee lands and stealing their crops, slaves, livestock, and other property.

As the deadline for removal set by the Treaty of New Echota (1835) approached, the Cherokee made little preparation. Andrew Jackson directed the army to remove the Cherokee by force. Beginning in May 1838, Gen. Winfield Scott ordered squads of state militia to round up Cherokee and place them in holding camps until his regular troops arrived. The Cherokee were forcibly rousted from their homes by the Alabama militia and, later, U.S. troops, marched to a camp at Fort Payne, abandoning their homes and other property. The Cherokee's lack of preparation made life harder in the camps, where they suffered from exposure to the sweltering heat, unsanitary conditions, and disease during the summer of 1838 while they were awaiting removal.

The government had begun to remove some Cherokee immediately after the deadline. In late spring, the first four removal groups traveled by wagon, water, and railway across northern Alabama and departed on steamboats from Waterloo. However, low water and disease made the journey west difficult and deadly. As a result, the Cherokee Nation obtained permission to suspend removal until the fall and to conduct the removal itself. Only one of the remaining 13 major Cherokee removal parties organized in Alabama. With John Benge at its head, the group of slightly more than 1,100 Cherokee left Fort Payne on November 1 and exited the state north of Huntsville on its way overland to Indian Territory. A month later, a party that included Chief John Ross and his family traveled down the Tennessee River on flatboats, went through the Muscle Shoals Canal, and reached Tuscumbia, where Ross purchased a steamboat that took them to Indian Territory. His departure officially ended Cherokee removal.

Christopher D. Haveman


Further Reading
Foreman, Grant. Indian Removal: The Emigration of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989; Gibson, Arrell M. The Chickasaws. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971 ; Haveman, Christopher D. “The Removal of the Creek Indians from the Southeast, 1825–1838.” PhD diss., Auburn University, 2009; Hill, Sarah H. "Cherokee Indian Removal," Encyclopedia of Alabama. (http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Article.jsp?id=h-1433).
 

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