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An Unsettling Legacy: The War of 1812 and the Removal Treaties of the 1830s

In early September 1838, General Tipton called for a council at Menominee’s village near Twin Lakes in Indiana to discuss the issue of removal with tribal leaders.  General Tipton had been assigned the task of removing the state’s remaining Potawatomi population by Governor David Wallace who believed the Potawatomi couldn’t live alongside a more “civilized” American population.

On the morning of September 4, 1838, a band of 859 Potawatomi, with their leaders restrained in the back of a wagon, set out on a forced march from their homeland in northern Indiana for a small reserve in present-day Kansas. To minimize the temptation for the Potawatomi to try to escape and return home militia members burned both fields and houses as the dejected members of the wagon train departed. 

The journey was a 660-mile trek for which the Potawatomi were not prepared and through terrain to which they were not accustomed. The heat was oppressive and water was often scarce.  They had only a few hundred horses to carry people and supplies, and promised additional wagons did not arrive before their departure; so, even the weak and elderly were forced to walk.  The pace and conditions of the march debilitated the health of the travelers. A day rarely passed that a member of the party did not die, usually a child, forcing their bereft and exhausted families to leave the bodies behind in hastily dug graves. In the end more than forty people died during what the Potawatomi came to call the Trail of Death. 

There is no single, master narrative of Native American removal from the Great Lakes.  Instead, these indigenous peoples endured hundreds of removals, each surrounded by circumstances unique to each tribe, village or geographic area.  This opening account of Indian removal from the Old Northwest is specific to the Potawatomi, but it is the result of a pointed shift in power in U.S./Indian relations that occurred after the War of 1812.  In the years after the defeat of the British and their Indian allies in the war, the nature of the U.S. government’s Indian policy and the goal of treaty making became increasingly hostile toward Native Americans, opening the door for the removals of the 1830s. 

Early European Contact

Before the arrival of Europeans in North America, the Potawatomi and other Neshnabe peoples living around the Great Lakes largely functioned within a social structure that included a strong communal lifestyle in which individuals were bound together through ties of kinship, custom, and mutual necessity. Communities built their villages around clan systems and extended families. Traditionally, individual communities were led by village approved councils and headmen whose power stemmed from their relationship with, and influence over, the people.  Leaders who wielded authority enjoyed the privilege because people respected their opinions enough to heed their advice. Leaders used this authority and power for moral suasion to create alliances and build relationships with councils and headmen of neighboring tribes. The structure of Neshnabe society, the existence of strong warrior societies, the sheer numbers of native peoples in the Great Lakes region and the superior knowledge of the terrain and warfare tactics conducive to fighting in the area meant that, for many years, the colonial powers vying for control of lands in what would become the Old Northwest were forced to deal with tribes on a government-to-government basis. 

While European settlement allowed new alliances and lucrative avenues of trade to develop, it also caused new conflicts over territory and resources that resulted in a diaspora by the native population to avoid the detrimental conditions that accompanied political and social instability.   By the end of the eighteenth century, the foundations for Neshnabe social structure were changed forever.  Consensus traditionally governed Potawatomi village life – a system that worked as long as individuals who dissented were allowed to leave, new villages were free to form, and tribal leaders who disappointed the community could be cast aside.

Infighting, destruction of old alliances, and significant constraints on movement greatly hindered these options and turmoil ensued.
The years of warfare between colonizers further escalated tensions between the tribes of the Great Lakes, their Indian neighbors, and settlers, because European colonial forces pressured native communities to choose sides. The Potawatomi and their Neshnabek brethren were accomplished warriors. As such, during the fighting at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century, colonial military forces sought them out as mercenaries and reached out to village leaders to form alliances.  These village leaders consistently made decisions about alliances based on the potential advantages each colonial entity could provide them and their kinsmen. At this period in history the advantage an ally could provide the leaders in their regional struggle to gain territory and dominance over ancient and new enemies was the most important for survival. 

The friendship of one village with a European power offered no assurance that other Potawatomi villages would not partner with opposing colonial forces. The Potawatomi fought almost exclusively on the side of the French in the Beaver War of the mid-seventeenth century that pitted the British-backed nations of the Iroquois Confederacy against the French-allied Algonquian tribes of the Great Lakes over questions of territory. They also sided with the French in Fox Wars of the early eighteenth century over trade routes and in the French and Indian War.  During the American Revolution and War of 1812 some Potawatomi villages sided with the British because they were valued trading partners, while others sided with the revolutionaries and Americans because they believed it would benefit them in their fight to maintain territory. Many saw it in their best interest to remain neutral.

America’s Policy of Indian Removal

After the defeat of the British and their native allies in the War of 1812, a marked change occurred in the nature of U.S./Indian relations. Throughout early American history, European colonies generally dealt with Native American tribes as separate nations with some legal title or claim to ownership of their lands, though they did not recognize absolute ownership. As a result, most government officials agreed that title could not be extinguished without voluntary cession by members of the tribes. Each European colonial power had its own policy for dealing with Indian nations.
Though the colonial era greatly upset many of the lifeways and social structures of tribes throughout North America, in the eighteenth century most of the tribes in the Great Lakes region still possessed the numbers, military strength, and social structure to encourage the United States to continue treating with them on a government-to-government basis.

The actions of the U.S. government immediately following the American Revolution offered some promise that the practice of recognizing Indian land tenure would continue under the new federal government. The Northwest Ordinance, enacted in 1787 stated, “The utmost good faith shall always be observed toward the Indians; their land and property shall never be taken without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed.”  In 1806 the War Department created the new position of Superintendent of Indian Trade to manage national non-military Indian issues, primarily commerce and diplomacy.
In the decade after the American Revolution the U.S. government used the treaty-making process to satisfy the “consent” clause of the Northwest Ordinance while gaining large land cessions from tribes and furthering the expansionist interests of the new nation.  As unorganized lands became territories and eventually states, and public opinion increasingly leaned toward the removal of native peoples from the land sought by Americans, the Native American inhabitants who refused to conform to new laws clashed with settlers and civil authorities. While acknowledging Native Americans’ unique condition as prior inhabitants of North America, political and cultural elites continued to insist that North America’s original inhabitants could not be “civilized” and were doomed to extinction as American civilization flourished and expanded.   Cession treaties secured lands for the United States that were furiously sought by both settlers and politicians and gave the desired perception of bringing order and security to the frontier.

It should be noted that in some cases the treaties furthered the interests of participating Indian tribes as well.  Though tribes were very reluctant to cede any of their territory, the pursuit of their land through treaties cemented the fact that it was a commodity with a high value.  The pre-War of 1812 treaties also reaffirmed the tribes as distinct political entities with unique and distinct negotiating powers.  Even though the treaties clearly gave the lion’s share of power and authority to the government of the United States, before the War of 1812 no federal officials openly questioned the legitimacy of the treaty-making system or challenged the logic of tribes entering into such agreements.

Post-war Treaties

The War of 1812 was a watershed in U.S./Indian relations, however, and attitudes toward the status quo of Indian policy quickly changed in its aftermath. The United States was now acting from a position of assured dominance and political and public figures began to question the propriety of treaty making with tribes, especially those who had recently sided with the enemy.

The first treaties after the American victory at Thames were fairly mundane agreements and followed a pattern that was common after a military defeat. They were treaties that were meant to establish peace with the tribes of the Old Northwest. On July 22, 1814, General Harrison and Lewis Cass, the Governor of Michigan Territory, met with more than three thousand Indians at Greenville and entered into a treaty that proclaimed peace between the tribes and the United States and promised that the signatory tribes would lend aid to the Americans in their final push against the British. This was the first of many such agreements to be made that summer.  Between July and the middle of September in 1814, commissioners signed thirteen separate peace treaties with tribes from the Great Lakes region.

A few years later, Andrew Jackson was the most vocal public figure to question the practice of treating with American Indians. In 1817 he wrote to President Monroe that he had “long viewed treaties with the Indians an absurdity not to be reconciled with the principles of our Government.” For Jackson, and other government officials of the era, the treaty-making process was no longer necessary. They reasoned that it was a practice that developed out of the need to enforce regulations and keep peace among tribes that were too strong and numerous for the United States to deal with in any other way.  After the war, however, Jackson saw Indians, in their reduced numbers and confined by land cessions, as subjects of the United States.  He urged Congress to “provide for their wants,” but if the government needed it, he reasoned they had the right to “take” and “dispose” of any Indian land they deemed appropriate. 

By 1830, officials at the Office of Indian Affiars, which was established in 1824, and the general public, largely adopted the mentality that all Native Americans should be removed west of the Mississippi River.   Advocates for removal argued that Indians and settlers would have better lives if the Native population was removed, opening new territory for American expansion and distancing the Indians from the corrupting influences of Euro-American society.  When Congress passed Andrew Jackson’s Removal Act in 1830, the legislation had strong political and public support. 

Increased tensions between Indians and settlers in the Great Lakes region, requests by officials from the OIA, and the outbreak of conflicts like the Black Hawk War in 1832 reinforced the urgency of removal. It was not an easy task, however. Despite the military loss experienced by many of the tribes and bands in the region, there was a great deal of resistance to the notion that the Indians of the Great Lakes should leave their homeland.  As a result of these pressures from the public, Congress and the President passed additional legislation appropriating monies to hurry along the removal of the tribes from the Old Northwest. In one case, twenty thousand dollars was set aside for the explicit purpose of negotiating treaties to terminate Potawatomi tribal land titles in Indiana, Illinois, and the Territory of Michigan.  

In 1832, individual Potawatomi bands signed a number of treaties with the government ceding large amounts of land, but these treaties failed to secure the Indians’ removal from the area.  Instead, tribal leaders insisted on small reservations within the ceded lands, ensured the retention of hunting and fishing rights on the land, and insisted on payments of goods and cash for property lost in recent skirmishes. In the months following these treaties non-Indian settlers swarmed the recently ceded lands and tension between Natives and newcomers escalated once again.  The federal government was not willing let the violence escalate to the level of war.

The next year, in 1833, Potawatomi from the St. Joseph River, some from northern Indiana, and the Potawatomi of the Prairie, along with headmen and chiefs from the Ojibwe and Odawa tribes who lived along the coast of the Great Lakes, collectively referred to as the United Nation or United Band in government reports, signed the Treaty of Chicago on September 26 and 27.   The Treaty of Chicago proved to be a watershed agreement in the dealings between these tribes and the U.S. government.  Prior to this treaty, land cessions were relatively small and included land set aside as private reserves for certain signatories.  The Treaty of Chicago, however, ensured a substantial land cession of roughly five million acres that were inhabited by all three groups around the Great Lakes and the removal of a majority of Potawatomi to lands west of the Mississippi River.  Signatory bands were given five million acres along the banks of the Missouri River in what became Iowa and Missouri in exchange. 

Though the Treaty of Chicago secured the largest single cession of Potawatomi land, the stories of the bands that entered into that agreement only tell a portion of the removal experiences of the tribes from the Great Lakes region.  Several hundred Potawatomi lived in Indiana and other areas outside the territory ceded by the 1833 Treaty of Chicago. Some agreed to remove under later treaties and others negotiated with the federal government to stay in their homeland.  The 859 Potawatomi that were remembered in the opening pages of this paper and who were removed on the Trail of Death in 1838 fell into this category, as did dozens of dispersed villages in the Great Lakes region. 
These removals, and the dozens of others that occurred in the 1830s, were the result of a sea change in U.S./Indian relations that occurred after the War of 1812.  For all practical purposes the powerful and belligerent nations of the Old Northwest were neutralized and the federal government treated them as such, so once American settlers and politicians felt that they did not have to deal with tribes as sovereign governments they altered the goal of treaties from peace and alliance to land cessions and removals.