May 28: The U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act on this day in 1830. This proposed, or virtually compelled, the exchange of Indian lands in any state or territory of the eastern United States for lands west of the Mississippi River, and for the removal of the Indians to those lands. Vicki Rozema’s Voices from the Trail of Tears (2003) begins with the following:
In 1828, the Cherokee Phoenix published an editorial titled “Indian’s Sorrow” by Elias Boudinot. It told the story of a dinner hosted by General Henry Knox in New York City in 1789. Knox invited a number of Indians to be his guests. One chief went out on the balcony for a few minutes and returned in a melancholy state. General Knox noticed the change of demeanor and asked his guest what was wrong. The elderly man answered,
I have been looking at your beautiful city—the great water—your fine country—and see how happy you all are. But then I could not help thinking, that this fine country, this great water were once ours. Our ancestors lived here—they enjoyed it as their own in peace—it was the gift of the great spirit to them and their children. At last the white people came in a great canoe. They asked only to let them tie it to a tree, lest the waters should carry it away—we consented. They then said some of their people were sick, and they asked permission to land them and put them under the shade of the trees. The ice then came, and they could not go away. They then begged a piece of land to build wigwams for the winter—we granted it to them. They then asked for some corn to keep them from starving—we kindly furnished it to them, they promising to go away when the ice was gone. When this happened, we told them they must go away with their big canoe; but they pointed to their big guns round their wigwams, and said they would stay there, and we could not make them go away. Afterwards more came. They brought spirituous and intoxicating liquors with them, of which the Indians became very fond. They persuaded us to sell them some land. Finally they drove us back, from time to time, into the wilderness, far from the water, and the fish, and the oysters—they have destroyed the game—our people have wasted away, and now we live miserable and wretched, while you are enjoying our fine and beautiful country. This makes me sorry brother! and I cannot help it.
A prominent Cherokee, Boudinot regarded Indian Removal as inevitable, and he advocated trying to negotiate the best deal possible. He resettled in the western Cherokee Nation in 1837, and in 1839 he was murdered there by an unknown group of Cherokee, who held him partly responsible for the loss of their lands.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.