Martin Van Buren: The Force Behind the Trail of Tears
Van Buren admired Andrew Jackson's bloody legacy and built on it
Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.
Tens of thousands of Native Americans were already being removed from their homelands when Martin Van Buren took office as the eighth president of the United States.
Van Buren, who served as secretary of state during Andrew Jackson’s first term in office and vice president during Jackson’s second term, pledged to continue enforcing policies put into place by his predecessor. That included the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which granted the president authority to negotiate treaties that swapped Indian lands east of the Mississippi River for reservations in the West.
In his autobiography, Van Buren praised Jackson’s vision of Indian removal.
“No man ever entered upon the execution of an official duty with purer motives, firmer purpose or better qualifications for its performance,” he wrote. “We were perhaps in the beginning unjustifiable aggressors” toward the Indians, but “we have become the guardians and, as we hope, the benefactors.”
Shortly after Congress approved the Indian Removal Act, Jackson and his War Department began enforcing it, targeting tribes in the Southeast. By Jackson’s second term in office, the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Creek were already being relocated west of the Mississippi.
Jackson’s agents also negotiated the Treaty of New Echota, in which a dissident faction of Cherokee ceded the tribe’s land east of the Mississippi. Signed in December 1835, the treaty required the Cherokee to relinquish their land and depart for Indian Territory within two years.
When Van Buren took office in 1837, he inherited the nation’s bitter battle with the Cherokee. Although the Treaty of New Echota had been fraudulently negotiated, Van Buren sent troops to the Cherokee Nation to round up every member of the tribe and imprison them in internment camps.
In his first message to Congress, in December 1837, Van Buren called removal “the settled policy of the country.”
“The decrease in numbers of the tribes within the limits of the states and territories has been most rapid,” he said. “If they be removed, they can be protected from those associations and evil practices which exert so pernicious and destructive an influence over their destinies.”
During the fall and winter of 1838, the Cherokee people traveled the Trail of Tears to their new lands. Under Van Buren’s watch, an estimated 4,000 Cherokee died and entire Indian nations were relocated, with some losing as much as half their populations.
In his second message to Congress, in December 1838, Van Buren defended the Cherokee removal, claiming “that a mixed occupancy of the same territory by the white and red man is incompatible with the safety or happiness of either.” He also told Congress the Cherokee had “emigrated without any apparent reluctance.”
Born in Kinderhook, New York, in 1782, Van Buren studied law and served as a state senator, governor, secretary of state and vice president before being elected as president. A member of the Democratic-Republican Party, Van Buren served one term in office, from 1837 to 1841.
It was a term tarnished by economic insecurity. Just weeks after Van Buren took the oath of office, the nation was hit by the worst economic crisis in its history. Known as the Panic of 1837, the crisis touched off a depression that lasted into the 1840s.
As Van Buren wrestled with the economy, federal Indian policy took a back seat, said Mark Cheathem, a history professor at Cumberland University and project director for The Papers of Martin Van Buren.
“For Van Buren, fixing the nation’s economic depression and avoiding war with Great Britain over disputed border claims was a higher priority than Indian removal, particularly since the Jackson administration had already outlined and begun the process,” Cheathem said. “His course regarding Native Americans seemed to be simply to finish the process of removing the southeastern Indian tribes and expanding land cessions in other areas of the nation.”
During Van Buren’s four years in office, the U.S. negotiated 19 treaties with Indian nations, including removal agreements with several tribes in the North: the Miami, Winnebago, Potawatomi, Sac and Fox, Chippewa and Dakota Sioux. Van Buren also contended with the Seminole in Florida, who engaged U.S. troops in a seven-year battle.
Known as the Second Seminole War, the battle began in 1835 and spanned Van Buren’s presidency. Unable to peaceably remove the Seminole, Van Buren publicly blamed them, Cheathem said.
“In Jacksonian style, Van Buren clearly blamed the Seminole for the war,” Cheathem said. “He justified the nation’s continued prosecution as necessary to maintain its authority over the Native Americans.”
In his second message to Congress, Van Buren said the Seminole had to be “totally expelled” from Florida because their continued resistance served as an “evil example in our intercourse with other tribes.” In his third message to Congress, he claimed the Seminole had “without any provocation, recommenced their acts of treachery and murder.”
In his final message, having failed for his entire presidency to reconcile with the Seminole, Van Buren blamed the continued fighting on the “wily character of the savages.”
Yet it was also during Van Buren’s presidency that New York writer John O’Sullivan coined the term “manifest destiny.” In an edition of The United States Democratic Review, O’Sullivan asserted that it was America’s “manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”
Van Buren made an unsuccessful bid for re-election in 1840 and was defeated by William Henry Harrison. He died in 1862 at age 79.