American Literature Indian Removal
Angela Calcaterra
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0199


“Indian Removal” refers to the forced migration of Indigenous communities from their homelands in what is currently the United States. It is often connected to a particular era (the 1820s and 1830s), federal policy (the Indian Removal Act), or event (the singular Trail of Tears). Yet dispossession from ancestral lands has been persistent and pervasive and is an ongoing, lived reality for many Indigenous people. From the first moments of their arrival in what they would call the Americas, Europeans expelled Native Americans and confiscated their lands for themselves. Natives lost not only land but also familial bonds, historical information, sites of religious significance, and ecological knowledge. Beginning with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, in which the United States acquired a vast territory west of the Mississippi, federal efforts to compel Indians to exchange land holdings in the east for lands west of the Mississippi intensified. This practice developed into a political program of ethnic cleansing during the 1820s and 1830s, particularly under the presidency of Andrew Jackson. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 targeted the large southeastern nations (Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles), but since those nations were forced into western territories its effects spread immediately across the Mississippi to tribes such as the Osages. Removal of western tribes onto reservations continued into the 20th century. Many lesser-known communities in the north, such as the Delawares, experienced multiple removals over centuries. The Delaware Tribe currently resides within the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, a forced positioning that has made it difficult for the Delawares to gain federal recognition. Today, the erasure of Indigenous presences and histories from the United States’ national consciousness contributes to public sentiment supporting ongoing forms of removal. Racist sports mascots, stereotypes in film and television, and societal ignorance of specific Native histories and cultures perpetuate the political and cultural marginalization of Indigenous people. It is thus important to recognize the “removal period” as one of immense suffering for the more well-known tribal nations, while also acknowledging removal’s deeper history and ongoing effects. Equally important, Indigenous communities and individuals have always protested and countered the many forms of removal with their own writings, media, cultural practices, and legal and political actions. As it documents scholarship and creative work on Indian Removal, this bibliography also attends to what Anishinaabe author Gerald Vizenor has termed “Native survivance . . . an active sense of presence over absence, deracination, oblivion.” It highlights the voices and presences of Indigenous authors, scholars, and activists who work to reclaim the past and reimagine the future.

General Overviews

Traditional overviews of Indian removal focus on US federal policy and at times take a sympathetic approach to what they view as a paternalistic government attempting to deal rightly with a difficult “Indian problem.” More recent works present overviews not of removal itself (scholars have long pursued more focused studies to add nuance and depth to removal history), but of the ideologies that supported it and that continue to shape the settler colonial United States. This section includes traditional overviews in Foreman 1932, who focuses on removal in the southeast, Prucha 1986, who surveys centuries of federal Indian policy, and Satz 1975, who studies Jacksonian era policy. It also includes recent theoretical approaches to the historic and ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples. Wolfe 2006 is essential reading in settler colonial studies and has been very influential. The piece has also been criticized by some Indigenous scholars who argue that it does not fully attend to Indigenous resistance. Byrd 2011 (Chickasaw) considers ongoing ways that “Indian” is produced as a category and how this continues to shape Indigenous dispossession. Lyons 2010 (Ojibwe/Dakota) focuses on Native identity, culture, and nations and considers migration as a counterpoint to removal, as well as helpfully defining “removalism” as an ideology. Banner 2005 is a general history of land transactions between Indians and Anglo-Americans that takes a nuanced approach to the historical archive but largely overlooks the settler-colonial ideologies that informed removal. Littlefield and Parins 2011 is the one encyclopedia of Indian removal and thus has been included in this general overview section. The Library of Congress offers a primary-source overview of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and related documents, while The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History introduces and excerpts Pope Alexander VI’s Demarcation Bull, which became the basis for European land claims in the Americas.

  • Banner, Stuart. How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674020535E-mail Citation »

    Counters the consensus among historians and legal scholars that Europeans did not recognize Indian property rights; argues that Anglo-Americans largely (and self-servingly) acknowledged Indian land ownership to protect their own purchases. Banner asserts that federal removal policy, like policies preceding it, operated on a middle ground between contract and conquest and “was structured as a series of voluntary transactions” (p. 191).

  • Byrd, Jodi A. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816676408.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Removal is one trajectory of what Chickasaw scholar Byrd calls the “transit of empire,” which depends upon and produces “Indianness” to support ongoing colonialist violence and dispossession. Byrd views removal through a theoretical and transhistorical lens, tracing its ramifications in recent phenomena such as the Cherokee Freedmen controversy and the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act and linking these events to broader problems in theoretical approaches to colonialism and indigeneity.

  • Foreman, Grant. Indian Removal: The Emigrations of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1932.

    E-mail Citation »

    Detailed yet dated account of the Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seminole removals. Foreman makes problematic statements such as that the “weaker and more primitive” northern tribes “yielded” to removal “with comparatively small resistance” (p. 13). Nonetheless, he allows his source material, including many eyewitness accounts of removals, to shine in powerful, informative ways.

  • The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The Doctrine of Discovery 1493. In History Now.

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    Pope Alexander VI’s Papal Bull “Inter Caetera” of May 4, 1493 declared that Christians could “discover” and take possession of lands not inhabited by other Christians. This “Doctrine of Discovery” laid the foundation for all European land claims in the Americas and for US expansion. It was cited by Chief Justice John Marshall in Johnson v. McIntosh (1823), in which he argued that Native Americans could not sell land because they held only a right of occupancy, which could be extinguished.

  • Library of Congress. Primary Documents in American History: Indian Removal Act. In The Library of Congress Virtual Services Digital Reference Section. Edited by Ken Drexler. Washington, DC: Library of Congress.

    E-mail Citation »

    Includes links to the full text of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, published congressional debates, congressional voting results, and President Andrew Jackson’s Second Annual Message to Congress. Also links to the Andrew Jackson papers, “Correspondence on the Emigration of the Indians,” maps, exhibitions, and various external websites related to Indian Removal.

  • Littlefield, Daniel F., Jr. and James W. Parins, eds. Encyclopedia of American Indian Removal. 2 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    Focused on the decades following the 1830 Removal Act, the first volume comprises 125 entries on events, issues, and people, plus a timeline and annotated bibliography. The second volume assembles thirty-eight primary documents, including congressional acts, editorials, and eyewitness accounts. Expands removal history beyond the southeast; Volume 1 includes entries on Ho-Chunk, Kickapoo, and Wyandot removals, for example. The authors note that theirs is a representative, not comprehensive, encyclopedia of removal.

  • Lyons, Scott Richard. X-Marks: Native Signatures of Assent. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816666768.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Ojibwe/Dakota scholar Lyons theorizes “x-marks” historically used by Native leaders to sign treaties as an “assent to the new” (p. 33) under coercive circumstances and applies this concept to ongoing debates about Native identity. Defines “removalism,” one situation of coercion, as an “underlying ideology” that “justified and encouraged the systematic losses of Indian life: the removal of livelihood and language, the removal of security and self-esteem, the removal of religion and respect” (p. 8).

  • Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Abridged ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

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    Survey of federal American Indian policy in the United States from the Revolutionary War to 1980. Three chapters focus directly on removal policy, emigration, and the aftermath of removal. Prucha presents a benevolent “great father” who could not control what happened on the frontier; he does not trace the effects of federal policies on the ground, nor does he consider the ways Indigenous people shaped Indian policy.

  • Satz, Ronald N. American Indian Policy in the Jacksonian Era. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1975.

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    Historical study of removal and federal policy under the Jackson administration. Useful to get a sense of the congressional debates, public opinions, and political parties. Gives very little attention to Native leaders and Native opposition to removal, and does not take into account racism and settler colonial ideologies.

  • Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research 8.4 (2006): 387–409.

    DOI: 10.1080/14623520601056240E-mail Citation »

    Famously argues that “Territoriality is settler colonialism’s specific, irreducible element” (p. 388) and “settler colonizers come to stay: invasion is a structure, not an event” (p. 388). Wolfe’s theorization of settler colonialism takes up the important question of why “ostensibly sovereign nations, residing in territory solemnly guaranteed to them by treaties” (p. 391) would decide to leave their lands. Views removal as part of the settler colonialism’s logic of elimination. Available online by subscription or purchase.

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