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The Indian Removal Act Is on View at the National Archives for the First Time

Visitors can read the handwritten 1830 act that was signed by Andrew Jackson and led to the forced removal of indigenous tribes across the United States.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 (courtesy National Archives)

When Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, passed by Congress on May 28, 1830, it led to the forced relocation of indigenous people from their traditional homes in the United States. For the first time, the National Archives in Washington, DC, is displaying this document, now featured in the rotating Landmark Document Case of the institution’s Rubenstein Gallery.

“That’s where we put documents that we feel have been major landmarks and milestones in US history, and this document certainly qualifies,” Michael Hussey, curator of the display and the National Archives museum program manager, told Hyperallergic. “Its impact on the Native American tribes living in the American Southeast was profound and devastating.”

In association with the display, the National Archives shared information about the act’s legacy and contextual materials on its Pieces of History blog. On December 6, 1830, Jackson used his annual congressional message to proclaim:

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

The post also notes that by “the end of Jackson’s Presidency, his administration had negotiated almost 70 removal treaties.” This included the 1836 Treaty of New Echota, following which troops forcibly removed the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears to Indian Territory, now part of eastern Oklahoma.

Map of 19th-century removal of southeastern tribes in the United States (via Wikimedia)

The installation of the Removal Act at the National Archives features contrasting quotes from Jackson and Cherokee Chief John Ross, who told Congress in 1836: “We are stripped of every attribute of freedom … Our property may be plundered before our eyes … We are denationalized; we are disfranchised … We have neither land nor home, nor resting place that can be called our own.” The display allows National Archives visitors to read the act’s neatly handwritten words themselves.

“You can hear about the Trail of Tears and the Removal Act in your history classes, but I think seeing the document is a way of connecting with the experience,” Hussey said. “It’s by no means an adequate connection, but I think there’s this really intangible connection that is formed if you really pay attention, and if you look and read the document and see what it’s about. It’s more than just seeing Andrew Jackson’s signature — you can realize that this isn’t just another law that Congress passed. I think there’s something about seeing the actual document that brings you a little bit closer to understanding.”

After the display of the Removal Act ends on June 14, the Landmark Document Case will show the Espionage Act of 1917, which continues to be used to charge whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. A century or more after these pieces of legislation were passed, their impact still ripples through the country.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 (courtesy National Archives)

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 is on view at the National Archives (700 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC) through June 14.

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