Manifest Destiny and Indian Removal – 19th Century

‘Manifest Destiny’ has at its core the assertion that not only were the European people of America right in their beliefs, but that they also had the divine right to force these beliefs on other, usually unwilling, peoples. Although the term did not appear in print until the late 1830s, it had long been a guiding principle for post-revolutionary America. Taking its lead from the Enlightenment in Europe, it sought to evangelize the basic belief systems that had so successfully thrown off the yoke of British rule. It was used as the rationale for furthering the expansion of the United States northwards into Canada and southwards into Mexico, but its main impact was the drive westwards into the lands of the First Nation ‘Indian’ Peoples.

It was argued that if the hunter First Nation bands could be encouraged to settle and farm like the Europeans, there would be enough land for everyone. This in reality was a smoke screen for a land-grab on a massive scale. In 1814 Andrew Jackson led a force which defeated the Creek Nation and seized great swathes of what is now Georgia. In 1818 an invasion of Spanish Florida was ordered under the pretext of recapturing fleeing slaves. Faced with overwhelming military might, several native bands saw no alternative but to sign peace deals that would at least give them some land. Liberal thinkers among the European Americans thought that indigenous people would do better if they lived apart; hardliners saw them as little more than savages and an obstacle to progress.

In 1823 the Supreme Court ruled that the European’s ‘right of discovery’ was paramount over the native peoples’ ‘right of occupancy’ – in effect their country now no longer belonged to them.

In 1830, the Indian Removal Act was passed, imposing internal exile on the native people.

When: 19th century

Where: USA

Death toll: The true figure is hotly debated. Some argue that the effect of European settlement on the native peoples was genocide without parallel in history. The best estimates are that between ten million and 100 million deaths can be linked to colonization.

You should know: Wars, disease and forced migration took a heavy toll on the native people throughout the 19th century. While some small bands are now successful, the vast majority of First Nations have not fared so well. For some bands unemployment is over 80 per cent and life expectancy is under 50 years.

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