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Historical Context

Historical Context and American Policy

  •  Indian Removal

In 1790, the new Congress passed its first Indian Trade and Intercourse Act. It was aimed at regularizing trade relations with the Indians and allowing the federal government to enforce treaty provisions that prohibited encroachment by white settlers and punish whites who committed crimes against Natives in Indian country. It also invalidated the private acquisition of Indian lands and required that all tribal lands be purchased through treaties negotiated between Indian leaders and federal commissioners. It was followed by a new law in 1793 that tried to strengthen Indian protections against attacks by white settlers and better regulate the sale of Indian lands while providing goods-primarily agricultural implements and draft animals-that would "promote civilization" among the Indians. Again, in 1796, the federal government restated its desire to protect Indians from white encroachment by passing another trade and intercourse act, this one establishing a defined line between white settlement and Indian country-provisions that were essentially made permanent under President Thomas Jefferson in 1802.

In passing these acts, the government displayed its desire to create a barrier between Indians and white Americans by removing Indians into western lands and isolating them from the negative influences of white society. The idea-which would become de facto federal policy for roughly the next fifty years-was based on the assumption that, given careful guidance, the Indian populations could be fully assimilated into American society. It was understood that this assimilation process would take time and, until the Indians had learned all the skills they would need to become citizens, it was best to isolate them from the pernicious aspects of white encroachment by moving the Indians westward. Thomas Jefferson and others saw the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which doubled the size of the United States, as a way to provide the Indians with a safe haven to become "civilized." Few, however, could conceive how quickly white Americans would rush into these new territories, each successive wave of settlement creating the same tensions and conflicts-often resulting in violent local "wars" between Indians and whites-that had plagued Native peoples since the arrival of the Europeans. At the same time, the federal government did not allocate the resources needed to effectively enforce these laws protecting Indians or their lands or provide a way to stem westward migration. As a result, the first five decades of the nineteenth century were marked with an increasing number of Indian removals, the most well-known being the Cherokee Removal-with its infamous "Trail of Tears"-in 1838-39.

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