“Murder is murder whether committed by the villain skulking in the dark or by uniformed men stepping to the strains of martial music. Murder is murder and somebody must answer.” Those are the words of John G Burnett, a translator for the US Army during the forced removal of indigenous Americans that took place between 1830 and 1850. During this “displacement,” tens of thousands of indigenous people lost their lives along what’s commonly referred to as the “Trail of Tears” in an American genocide that got swept under the rug. But did you know, that “somebody” Burnett referred to, the one responsible… Did you know his face is on the $20 bill to this day? Let’s fix that.
Hello I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. In this episode, we’re uncovering the horrifying truth behind Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 which led to the forced relocation of indigenous tribes that had occupied the southeastern United States for thousands of years.
Just a heads up, this story is incredibly sad and heavy. It’s hard to tell and hard to hear. But it needs to be told over and over and over again. This is exactly the type of history we can’t risk repeating and it’s fallen on deaf ears for too long.
If you listened to last week's episode about Vikings, you know I touched on European exploration of the Americas and how, especially the arrival of Columbus in 1492, how it led to the destruction of indigenous civilizations spanning 2 continents. An estimated 60 million people reduced to just 6 million in a relatively short period of time. That’s 90 percent, gone.
In his book “American Holocaust,” historian and professor of American studies at the University of Hawaii, David E. Stannard, claims “the destruction of the Indians of the Americas was far and away the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world.” And what Stannard is referring to here certainly includes Jackson’s Indian Removal Act.
So before we get into the Trail of Tears, let’s talk about the man responsible for a minute. I know you’re familiar. You see his face all the time, it’s on the $20 bill. Andrew Jackson was America’s 7th president. There are 2 very different portrayals of Jackson’s character out there. Jackson fans regard him as an American hero, the people’s president who paid off the national debt and gained new lands for America. Critics might refer to him instead as a violent, power hungry alcoholic who made his fortune selling humans as slaves and gained his fame by mercilessly killing indigenous people and forcing them off their lands. To each his own, I’ll tell you a little about him and you can form your own opinions.
Andrew Jackson was born in 1767 on the border of North Carolina and South Carolina. I think it was technically South Carolina but whatever, doesn’t matter. His parents were poor Irish immigrants who had brought his two older brothers with them from Ireland. Jackson’s father died before he was even born leaving his mother a widow with 3 small boys out in some backcountry mountain land. So, not a good start.
At the age of 13, Jackson volunteered to fight the British in the Revolutionary War, along with his two older brothers. 13. You heard that correctly? Did the army actually enlist 13 year olds? Well apparently you had to be 16 to officially join the army, 15 with parent permission. Which I think is insane but the life expectancy for a white male at this time was, not kidding, 38 years old. So 15 is practically middle aged I guess.
But Jackson is only 13 so he wasn’t in the actual army, he likely joined a local militia which were known to take boys as young as 10. Absolutely no women though. Fully adult woman, nope. 10 year old boy with a gun, we’ll take him. Pretty sure I could beat a 10 year old boy in a fight but whatever.
The oldest brother, Hugh, died of heat stroke and Jackson and his other brother Robert were captured by the British. So it’s not going well, but then again they are just children so, what did you expect? Jackson and Robert are prisoners of war, they both get really sick. They’re mother, this poor woman, secures their release but Robert succumbs to his illness and dies soon after. And then his mother dies of cholera.
So Jackson is 14 years old. He’s an orphan and a war veteran, prisoner of war. I think modern day psychologists would have a lot to say about this based on what we know now about trauma especially at a young age and PTSD. Not that any of that excuses his future actions but it certainly sheds some light.
At 17 Jackson decides he wants to be a lawyer so he just… does it. Cause, you know, 17 year old white boys can do whatever they want. Right? So he’s a lawyer in western North Carolina but he’s a bit of a bad boy. He likes to drink and gamble, he likes prostitutes, loves challenging people to duels. I guess it depends on who you ask though. The Hermitage website (we’ll talk about the Hermitage in a minute, it’s basically Andrew Jackson’s Monticello. Now it’s like an Andrew Jackson themed tourist attraction), They love Andrew Jackson over there. He’s their golden boy. They refer to these shenanigans as “youthful adventure and mischief.” Andrew was a quote “spirited youth” with “a fiery temper, fearlessness, playful personality, and daring spirit” who loved to “dance, entertain, gamble and spend his free time with friends in taverns.” Mmkay. So I feel like the Hermitage folks must subscribe to the whole “boys will be boys” mentality pretty hard. Either that or someone in PR was like “I need you write a bio of Andrew Jackson for the website but, you know, make sure people like him. We want them to actually come here.” Anyway, propaganda y’all…dangerous stuff… plays into this story quite a bit.
Well apparently not everyone was buying it because his reputation in North Carolina goes out the window pretty quickly and he moves to Tennessee. Tennessee was a bit more rough around the edges so they didn’t mind his “spirit” as much. Actually they must have really liked him because he climbs the ladder there fairly quickly: attorney general at age 24, Tennessee House of Representatives at age 29, state senate at age 30, judge on the superior court… they’re drinking the Jackson kool-aid in Tennessee.
The one thing he does that seems to ruffle some feathers though, is marry a woman named Rachel Donelson soon after moving to Tennessee. You see, Rachel is already married. He marries her in 1791 and then she divorces her previous husband in 1793. So, yeah, that doesn’t quite add up. Honestly this is so not a big deal though, compared to what we’ll get into in a minute. I mean he really seemed to love Rachel. But it creates problems for him for the rest of his life. Bigamy and divorce are SO not okay in the 1790s. His enemies love to throw out Rachel insults which really get Jackson fired up. We’ll come back to that.
In 1801 Jackson becomes commander of the Tennessee militia. Then he kills someone in a duel over a gambling argument a few years later but it’s all good cause “boys will be boys.” Right? He also buys a cotton plantation which he calls, you guessed it, the Hermitage. Now he already had 9 enslaved people but he gets a whole bunch more. An estate inventory following his death reported 161. Actually, he makes a bit of a business out of buying and selling enslaved people. He makes his fortune this way. Yeah, ew.
He’s not a very nice enslaver either. He was known to publicly beat enslaved people, you know, just to look tough and stuff. When an enslaved man named Tom, understandably, runs away from the Hermitage Jackson offers a higher reward to anyone who beats him before returning him. But, you know, if you ever want to visit the Hermitage, it’s now a tourist attraction so… fun! No, all sarcasm aside, I’m okay with historical attractions like this for the most part. Education about slavery is super important but, honestly after reading the bio of Jackson on the Hermitage website… I’m not sure they’ve got their priorities straight over there. It’s a little bit like if the Holocaust museum was like “Hitler had a playful personality and a daring spirit…” yeah, just, no. We’re not here for that jerk.
Okay so now it’s 1812. The British are still super sour about losing the Revolutionary War. They want to reclaim some territories over here that are still up for grabs. Another sour group - the Native Americans because they’re being killed, just mercilessly killed. So, yeah understandably upset. Well the British and the Native Americans form an alliance and this really makes America mad so we declare war on the British. Jackson is like “yeah! Let’s go! I’ve been waiting for this moment since I got out of that prisoner of war camp when I was 13!” but the government is like “dude, we don’t need your help right now, simmer down… we’ll let you know when we need you.”
But Jackson got that little taste of war, he’s like a shark, right? Gets that little whiff of blood in the water and it’s on. He needs a fight. So he gets himself involved in the Creek Civil War that was happening in Alabama. Yes, I said civil war. This was a war between the Creeks and the Red Sticks, two indigenous groups. They weren’t messing with white people, but of course white people got involved. They attacked the Red Sticks who then destroyed their town.
Jackson’s like “uh uh,” takes his militia and attacks the Red Stick town of Tallushatchee which he completely destroys. Not just Red Stick warriors, they kill the women and children too. The Red Sticks are disgustingly outnumbered. It’s in no way a fair fight. When it was over, there was said to be up to 10 dead bodies in each cabin. Which to me means they had retreated into their homes and were hiding. They weren’t even defending themselves anymore and Jackson’s men just wiped them all out anyway. One of the generals actually defended the, what he called “unintentional” killing of women and children by blaming the Red Stick warriors for seeking refuge in the houses with their families. Like “they shouldn’t have hid in their houses if they didn’t want us to kill their whole families.” Huh?
So one weird twist here is that Jackson comes away from this battle with an indigenous baby that he names Lyncoya, adopts and raises… well, he doesn’t raise him, I’m sure, but he has him raised as part of his family. You see, Lyncoya had been found in the arms of his dead mother, who died on the battlefield, which, ughhhh. So he was an orphan and no one else was willing to take care of him. So, I don’t know, maybe Jackson just has a soft spot for orphans, since he was one. I want to say this is a redeeming moment for him, saving this orphaned baby but, on the other hand, who was responsible for killing the baby’s parents? I guess that would be the commander of the militia that led the attack. Oh wait… that’s Jackson.
So Jackson helps win the Creek war which he was never even supposed to be part of. Then in 1815 his troops beat the British in the Battle of New Orleans and he is elevated to national war hero status. He graduates from commander of the Tennessee militia to a general in the US army.
So now there’s an issue in Florida and President Monroe asks Jackson to handle it. Florida is not part of the United States yet. It’s a territory of Spain right now. Basically, what’s happening is enslaved people and Native Americans are fleeing to Florida and the Spaniards are leaving them alone and just letting them live free, in peace. And of course Americans are like “um, no.” So Monroe goes to Jackson and he’s like “okay, go fix this but don’t, you know, don’t like start a war with Spain or anything because we just got finished fighting the British and we really don’t need another war right now.”
But Jackson, remember he’s like a shark who smells blood. He only knows war. He goes to Florida and starts attacking Spanish forts to the point that Spain starts evacuating people from their own territory. And Spain goes to Monroe and is like “what the heck?” and Monroe must have been like “gah, what was I thinking sending Andrew Jackson” and Jackson’s like, “yeah, this is how I handle things, sorry.”
Monroe seriously considers denouncing Jackson as a complete lunatic but Secretary of State John Quincy Adams sticks up for him cause Adams and Jackson are like friends or whatever. So the US buys Florida from Spain. That’s how they solve that problem without a war. Annnd then Andrew Jackson gets credit for acquiring Florida for the United States. So now he’s saved New Orleans and won Florida. He’s a hero guys.
He runs for president in 1824 against John Quincy Adams interestingly enough. He wins the popular vote. He is wildly popular. The people love him. But there’s a tie in the electoral college. So it goes to the House of Representatives to decide (cause I guess that’s what happens when there’s a tie) and, although Jackson won the popular vote, they pick John Quincy Adams as the new president.
So of course Jackson is furious. He tells everyone the election was rigged and starts this huge smear campaign against John Quincy Adams even though Adams totally stood up for him after the whole Florida debacle. Rachel gets dragged into it cause, you know, marrying a married woman is way worse than murdering people. Jackson actually blames his political opponents for the death of his wife soon after, claiming the stress was too much for her. It’s been called one of the dirtiest presidential elections in US history. Although, interestingly enough, Jackson supporters did not storm the capitol building. Hmm.
But it doesn’t really matter because he gets elected president in 1829. And then he signs the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and here’s where this story takes a turn for the worse. Oh, you thought it was already bad? Buckle up.
In Jackson’s day there were 5 main indigenous tribes living in the southeastern United States: the Chickasaw, Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, and Choctaw. This had always been a problem for European settlers who wanted the land that these people had inhabited for millennia. They just wanted it and they felt entitled to it for some reason.
The first approach was to try to get the indigenous people to assimilate into white society. Thomas Jefferson had this “Policy of Civilization” with the goal of erasing the cultures and customs of indigenous groups and getting them to convert to Christianity, learn English, dress and act like white people, etc.
In 1823 they took it a step further when the US supreme court ruled that Native Americans could legally occupy land in the United States but they could not actually own the land. Which I find insane. They were there first. The supreme court backed this by claiming that European settlers had a quote “right of discovery” to the land. Once again, the indigenous people were there first. None of this is making any sense.
Then Jackson becomes president and he pretty much immediately signs the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which gave him the power to negotiate removal treaties with indigenous people. Basically, he wanted the land for more cotton plantations but he needed the native people living there to kindly leave. So he has this grand plan to relocate them west of the Mississippi which is basically just wild frontier land at this point.
The Choctaw are the first to sign a removal treaty. You see, their customs and government were completely different than white Americans. They didn’t really understand European style laws and treaties. The concept just didn’t really make sense to them. Plus Jackson’s secretary of war, who handled the negotiation, threatened to come down on them with the full force of the US military if they didn’t sign, so there you go. Most of the Choctaw people opposed the treaty but were forced to sign fearing a war with the United States that they knew they couldn’t win. But of course this was framed as a choice that the people willingly made.
The Chocktaw were relocated in 3 separate migrations, the first during an extremely harsh winter and another during a cholera epidemic. 15,000 Choctaw people were marched west to Oklahoma and an estimated 2,500 died on the way.
In 1937 a Chocktaw woman named Effie Oakes Fleming shared an account of this harrowing experience told to her by her grandmother who was forced to walk to Oklahoma when she was 8 years old. According to her grandmother, any child too large to be carried who couldn’t keep up with the rest was killed by the ox wagon drivers who were employed by the government. They killed them and just left them on the side of the road. And she goes into detail about the horrific way these children were killed but I honestly don’t even want to tell you. I wish I hadn’t read it. So I’ll spare you that detail. She remembered helping her parents carry her 4 year old little brother when he was too tired to walk because they didn’t want him to be killed. Can you imagine? I have a 4 year old little boy. I can’t even imagine. She said she would get so tired carrying him that she thought she was going to die, but she held on to save his life and that boy became a supreme court judge of the Choctaw nation. But what about the children who weren’t so lucky?
The Creek people were next. Their terms were a little different. I think they had to make it seem a bit more enticing after what happened to the Choctaw. They signed a treaty exchanging 5 million acres of Creek land for $350,000 and anyone who wanted to stay behind could and they’d be given a tract of land. Most opposed and stayed behind, since they were given that option. But they dealt with European settlers encroaching and squatting on their land, you know the same old mess, which led to the 2nd Creek war in 1836. After that Jackstion ordered the removal of all Creek people, 20,000 of them forced to walk to Oklahoma, the warriors chained up, and 3,500 of them died.
Now the Seminole who were living on reservation land in Florida given to them in an 1823 treaty. Jackson negotiates a new treaty whereby they have to leave their land they were promised and turn over runaway slaves who had joined the tribe. They were like, um, no, and they refused to sign. A year later, they are coerced into signing a similar treaty, I guess. I mean the Seminole actually deny that they signed any treaty at all and of course there are no written records of the negotiations, no like meeting minutes so it’s their word against the US government. They still refuse to leave and this kicks off a war that lasts for 7 years. The US sends the army, navy, and marine corps. It costs the government 40 million dollars and the lives of 1,500 US troops all just to relocate 3,000 to 5,000 Seminole people. So you know, worth it, right? If captured, the Seminoles were either killed or sent to Oklahoma. In the end around 500 of them managed to survive and remain in part of the everglades in Florida. The US just gave up and left them alone.
Okay onto the Cherokee. The Cherokee people had actually made a great effort to assimilate with white society. They established a written language, many converted to Christianity, they had their own newspaper and their own constitution. But in 1828, gold was discovered in Georgia and the Georgians were suddenly in a hurry to be rid of their Cherokee neighbors.
The Cherokees have a champion though, his name was John Ross. He was mostly Scottish actually but he was one eighth Cherokee, so, that counts. He was an educated man, well versed in US law and the way the whole system worked. He takes the state of Georgia to the US Supreme Court which ruled that it was unconstitutional for Georgia to evict Cherokee people, only the federal government had the power to do that. But Georgia’s like “whatever we’re just gonna keep doing our thing” and they basically ignore the supreme court’s decision.
So the Cherokee people are sort of split into 2 groups. Some are on Ross’s side and refuse to sign removal treaties. Some thought it was in their best interest to sign the treaties and just go. I’m sure they were swayed in that direction after what happened to the Seminoles when they resisted. So of course Jackson goes to the side that’s considering signing and offers them 5 million dollars and they sign. And even though the whole other half of the tribe was not down with this, US troops arrive in 1838 and force 16,000 Cherokee people into a holding camp. Then they march them through the winter, many without shoes, to Oklahoma. If they attempted to flee the camp or during the march they were shot. Around 4,000 Cherokee people died.
The last group is the Chickasaw. They’ve been watching all this go down and they're like, nope. They decide to remove themselves, on their own terms, and not during the dead of winter. They sell their land and go survey the options out west. They decide it’s all terrible and end up purchasing land that used to belong to the Chocktaws in western Arkansas which, what? Okay. So this was the least traumatic of the so called “Indian Removals.”
So if you were doing the math, we’re talking about around 60,000 indigenous Americans forcibly displaced from their ancestral lands and 20,000 dead.
So how does this happen? How did Andrew Jackson have so much support from the people that he became president and was allowed to march 60,000 people out of their lands, many of them to their deaths. How did he end up on the $20 bill? How is he still on the $20 bill? A lot of it has to do with propaganda, as I mentioned earlier. The press loved Jackson. They portrayed him as this tough, all American war hero, the people’s president. And you have to keep in mind historical context here. At the time, slavery was not considered bad or immoral, at least not in the south where Jackson lived. Relocating and even killing indigenous people was not even all that frowned upon, “Manifest Destiny” and all that. European Americans thought they had a right to that land.
But I think, when you really step back and just look at what Jackson did in his lifetime, the actions he took, the choices he made… I think it’s really obvious what type of a person Andrew Jackson was. And yet there are Americans who defend him to this day. These are not bad people. These are people you know. Your family, your friends, your neighbors. I think they just don’t want to consider the reality of the situation. They don’t want to believe that our country was built by people like Jackson. They want to believe that our nation earned everything we have through hard work and determination. We didn’t murder and steal and oppress our way to the top. No. That’s not the American dream. It’s self-preservation, that denial. It’s understandable. It’s human nature. But all it does is perpetuate these same problems it's seeking to defend against.
Can you imagine being an indigenous person in this country, or an African American, pulling a $20 bill out of your pocket to pay for something at the grocery store or whatever and having to look at that face every single time? This man who enslaved your ancestors, beat them, sold them as property, forced them off their ancestral lands, murdered them, murdered their children and now he’s on your money like he’s some grand hero you’re supposed to be proud of. Can you even imagine?
I’ll attempt to end this on a lighter note. The comedian, Dave Chapelle has a funny bit about American money, he says “our money looks like baseball cards with slave owners on them.” And, the man’s a genius, it’s so funny because it’s so true. But at the same time, it’s so not funny because, it’s true. Surely there are Americans more worthy of that honor? Actually, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that. Whose face would you put on our money? Head over to my instagram @historyfixpodcast to weigh in. I have a post about this. Drop your thoughts in the comments.
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I know this week was dark I honestly had a hard time getting the words out. I had a few moments there. But I hope you found this story… I won’t say interesting. I hope you found this story meaningful and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in the episode was sourced from a History Channel article about Andrew Jackson, the Hermitage website, an Encyclopedia of Alabama article about the Battle of Tallushatchee, a bostonteapartyship.com article about the Continental Army, a National Endowment for the Humanities article titled “Hannah, Andrew Jackson’s Slave,” another History Channel article titled “Why Andrew Jackson’s Legacy Is So Controversial,” a dailyhistory.org article about how the US acquired Florida, an American Native Press Archives collection of family stories from the Trail of Tears, a History Uncovered podcast episode about the Trail of Tears, and a Dark History podcast episode about Andrew Jackson.