The Ethnic Cleansing of Native Americans

Apr 5, 2013 - by David Robb - 1 Comment

From George Washington through Ulysses S. Grant, U.S. presidents followed a relentless policy of removing Native Americans from their lands. President Andrew Jackson codified ethnic cleansing into law when he signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830.

by David Robb

In 1830, it was called “The Indian Removal Act.” Today it’s called “ethnic cleansing,” which is considered a crime against humanity by the International Criminal Court. But for nearly 100 years it was the stated policy of every U.S. presidents from Washington to Grant – including Lincoln.

Ethnic cleansing was codified into U.S. law in 1830 when President Andrew Jackson asked Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act. This allowed him to legally relocate all Native Americans who were then living east of the Mississippi to the west side of the river. The result: The Trail of Tears, in which as many as 10,000 Indians died during the forced march westward.

To this day, many Native Americans will not carry $20 bills.

But Jackson was not alone in his mistreatment of Native Americans. Nearly every president of the 18th and 19th centuries – including Jackson – claimed that they wanted to help the Indians; to civilize the Indians; to Christianize the Indians. But what they really wanted was their land.

America was a growing nation, and it needed living space for white settlers and their slaves.

They had something similar in Nazi Germany – it was called Lebensraum – living space.

Thomas Jefferson

The third President of the United States, the acclaimed proponent of freedom and democracy, and the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson once wrote that American Indians are “merciless savages.”

That Thomas Jefferson wrote this may not be surprising; what is surprising is where he wrote it: It’s in the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of Independence is, in part, an indictment against King George III, the English tyrant against whom the 13 Colonies were then in revolt. At the very end of the list of crimes King George had committed against the Colonies, Jefferson wrote: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

Today, the Declaration of Independence is enshrined and on permanent display, along with the Constitution and Bill of Rights, in the Rotunda of the National Archives.

As the nation’s third President, Jefferson’s Indian policy was to deceive Native Americans into giving up their land, “which they have to spare,” he said, “and we want.”

In 1803, the year of the Louisiana Purchase, President Jefferson wrote a letter to William Henry Harrison, a future U.S. President who was then governor of the Indiana Territory, explaining what should be done with the Native Americans inhabiting the wild frontier.

“Our system,” Jefferson wrote, “is to live in perpetual peace with the Indians, to cultivate an affectionate attachment from them, by everything just and liberal which we can do for them within the bounds of reason, and by giving them effectual protection against wrongs from our own people. The decrease of game rendering their subsistence by hunting insufficient, we wish to draw them to agriculture, to spinning and weaving.”

Those were noble sentiments, but there was an ignoble purpose behind them. In his letter to Harrison, Jefferson went on to explain: “When they (the Indians) withdraw themselves to the culture of a small piece of land, they will perceive how useless to them are their extensive forests, and will be willing to pare them off from time to time in exchange for necessaries for their farms and families. To promote this disposition to exchange lands, which they have to spare and we want, for necessaries, which we have to spare and they want, we shall push our trading uses, and be glad to see the good and influential individuals among them run in debt, because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands.”

And if any Indians make trouble, Jefferson wrote, they would be driven out of their lands.

“Should any tribe be foolhardy enough to take up the hatchet at any time,” he told Harrison, “the seizing the whole country of that tribe, and driving them across the Mississippi, as the only condition of peace, would be an example to others, and a furtherance of our final consolidation.” 

This was the final solution for the Indians – a policy that would result in their being driven from their ancestral lands and shunted onto barren reservations.

Jefferson made this clear four years later when he wrote that if the Indians did not cooperate, the policy of the United States would be “to pursue Indians to extermination, or to drive them to new seats beyond our reach.”

George Washington

George Washington was “the Father of His Country” and the hero of the Revolution. But he was no hero to Native Americans, who Washington described as “wolves and beasts who deserve nothing from the whites but total ruin.”

In 1779, in the middle of the Revolutionary War, General Washington ordered two of his top generals and more than 6,200 men – roughly one-quarter of his entire army – to “destroy” the Iroquois Six Nation Confederacy, which had sided with the British.

These troublesome Indians, Washington told his generals, should “not merely be overrun, but destroyed.”

The language that he used in conveying these orders were eerily similar to the words Jefferson had written three years earlier in the Declaration of Independence, in which Jefferson described the Indians’ “known rule of warfare” as “an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

But now it was General Washington who was calling for the destruction of the troublesome Indians – women and children alike.

In his orders to General John Sullivan, dated May 31, 1779, Washington wrote: “The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents (by pulley). The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more. I would recommend, that some post in the center of the Indian Country, should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provisions whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.”

On these orders, thousands of Indians died in this brutal campaign of annihilation and its aftermath. Some 50 villages were destroyed, 1,200 dwellings burned and nearly 1 million bushels of corn burned in the fields – all on the eve of one of the worst winters in recorded history.

James Madison

In his 1813 State of the Union Address, President Madison referred to Native Americans as “savages” no less than eight times.

In the fall of that same year, he sent General Andrew Jackson to Alabama to put down the Creek Uprising. On March 27, 1814, Jackson wiped out the Indian forces at the Horseshoe Bend of the Tallapoosa River in eastern Alabama, killing 900 warriors, and  taking some 500 women and children as prisoners.

Today, Madison’s portrait adorns the $5,000 bill.


The following are direct quotes from State of the Union Addresses by nine U.S. Presidents. They show a consistent policy, from one administration to the next, to remove Native Americans from their ancestral lands.

James Monroe

First State of the Union Address

December 12, 1817

“The earth was given to mankind to support the greatest number of which it is capable, and no tribe or people have a right to withhold from the wants of others more than is necessary for their own support and comfort.”

“In terminating Indian hostilities, as must soon be done…the emigration, which has heretofore been great, will probably increase, and the demand for land and the augmentation in its value be in like proportion.”

Sixth State of the Union Address

Dec. 3, 1822

“It is essential to the growth and prosperity of the (Florida) Territory, as well as to the interests of the Union, that those Indians should be removed, by special compact with them, to some other position or concentration within narrower limits.”

Eighth State of the Union Address

Dec. 7, 1824

One of the goals of the federal government, he said, was “the extinguishment of the Indian title to large tracts of fertile territory.”

John Quincy Adams

Fourth State of the Union Address

Dec. 2, 1828

“They were, moreover, considered as savages, whom it was our policy and our duty to use our influence in converting to Christianity and in bringing within the pale of civilization.”

Andrew Jackson

Second State of the Union Address

Dec. 6, 1830

“It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly 30 years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation.”

Eighth State of the Union Address

Dec. 5, 1836

 “The national policy, founded alike in interest and in humanity, so long and so steadily pursued by this Government for the removal of the Indian tribes originally settled on this side of the Mississippi to the west of that river, may be said to have been consummated by the conclusion of the late treaty with the Cherokees.”

Martin Van Buren

First State of the Union Address

Dec. 5, 1837

“The system of removing the Indians west of the Mississippi, commenced by Mr. Jefferson in 1804, has been steadily persevered in by every succeeding President, and may be considered the settled policy of the country.”

Second State of the Union Address

Dec. 3, 1838

 “It affords me sincere pleasure to be able to apprise you of the entire removal of the Cherokee Nation of Indians to their new homes west of the Mississippi.”

Fourth State of the Union Address (Dec. 5, 1840

“The removal of the Indians from within our settled borders is nearly completed.”

“Since the spring of 1837 more than 40,000 Indians have been removed to their new homes west of the Mississippi…”

Millard Fillmore

Third State of the Union Address

Dec. 6, 1852

“The removal of the remnant of the tribe of Seminole Indians from Florida has long been a cherished object of the Government, and it is one to which my attention has been steadily directed.”

James K. Polk

First State of the Union Address

Dec. 2, 1845

“Our relations with the Indian tribes are of a favorable character. The policy of removing them to a country designed for their permanent residence west of the Mississippi, and without the limits of the organized States and Territories, is better appreciated by them than it was a few years ago.”

Fourth State of the Union Address

Dec. 5, 1848

“The title to all the Indian lands within the several States of our Union, with the exception of a few small reservations, is now extinguished, and a vast region opened for settlement and cultivation.”

“Within the last four years eight important treaties have been negotiated with different Indian tribes, and at a cost of $1,842,000; Indian lands to the amount of more than 18,500,000 acres have been ceded to the United States, and provision has been made for settling in the country west of the Mississippi the tribes which occupied this large extent of the public domain.”

(The payment amounted to 10¢ an acre.)

“The immediate and only cause of the existing hostility of the Indians of Oregon is represented to have been the long delay of the United States in making to them some trifling compensation, in such articles as they wanted, for the country now occupied by our emigrants, which the Indians claimed and over which they formerly roamed.”

John Tyler

First State of the Union Address

Dec. 7, 1841

“The war with the Indian tribes on the peninsula of Florida has during the last summer and fall been prosecuted with untiring activity and zeal…Numbers have been captured, and still greater numbers have surrendered and have been transported to join their brethren on the lands elsewhere allotted to them by the Government.”

Fourth State of the Union Address

Dec. 3, 1844

“The Executive has abated no effort in carrying into effect the well-established policy of the Government which contemplates a removal of all the tribes residing within the limits of the several States beyond those limits, and it is now enabled to congratulate the country at the prospect of an early consummation of this object.”

Abraham Lincoln

Third State of the Union Address

Dec. 8, 1863

“The measures provided at your last session for the removal of certain Indian tribes have been carried into effect. Sundry treaties have been negotiated, which will in due time be submitted for the constitutional action of the Senate. They contain stipulations for extinguishing the possessory rights of the Indians to large and valuable tracts of lands.”

Ulysses S. Grant

Second State of the Union Address

 Dec. 5, 1870

“I entertain the confident hope that the policy now pursued will in a few years bring all the Indians upon reservations…”

Third State of the Union Address

Dec. 4, 1871

“…by the law of April 10, 1869, many tribes of Indians have been induced to settle upon reservations.”

“Such a course might in time be the means of collecting most of the Indians now between the Missouri and the Pacific and south of the British possessions into one Territory or one State.

Fifth State of the Union Address

Dec.1, 1873

“The Indian Territory south of Kansas and west of Arkansas is sufficient in area and agricultural resources to support all the Indians east of the Rocky Mountains. In time, no doubt, all of them, except a few who may elect to make their homes among white people, will be collected there.”

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1 comment on "The Ethnic Cleansing of Native Americans "

yelobirdy May 23, 2013 · Log in or register to post comments

Americans do not hear enough about our government's terrible treatment of native peoples, so I really appreciate seeing this story here on a website about crime. The staggering consequences of these crimes against humanity - the lost native people and cultures - are probably greater than we will ever know. Robb mentioned Nazi Germany; in fact, many of the Nazis' ideas about race and purifying their people came straight from US eugenicists as well. The campaign to destroy the Indians was definitely part of the white supremacist project that we call the United States of America.

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