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Indian (Native American) Removal

The term Indian Removal is generally associated with President Andrew Jackson's forced relocation of the Cherokee Nation west of the Mississippi River.

Indian (Native American) Removal

Courtesy of Louisiana State University Libraries, Special Collections.

This Choctaw man was photographed in 1924.

The term “Indian removal” is generally associated with President Andrew Jackson’s forced relocation of the Cherokee Nation west of the Mississippi River in a process that culminated in 1839. Yet it was the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 that brought the issue of Indian sovereignty into question and initiated an era of court decisions removing many tribes from their established lands east of the Mississippi River. Therefore, 1803–1840 is considered the era of removal. The region that would become the state of Louisiana was at the geographic and geopolitical fulcrum of the negotiations over the purchase. Louisiana’s long tenure under French and then Spanish rule provided well-established and codified regulations between colonial rulers and Indigenous tribes. More significantly, as the details of the Louisiana Purchase were negotiated, the French government insisted that the United States recognize preexisting Spanish treaties and policies with native peoples. The Spanish tenure had become increasingly providential for many indigenous tribes, including the Caddo and Choctaw in Louisiana. While the Louisiana Purchase made the United States the de facto power in Louisiana, Spain remained a neighbor and influence until 1821. It was only after 1821 that tribes like the Caddo and Choctaw found themselves unprepared for the ramifications of US  supremacy.

Article VI of the Louisiana Purchase states, “The United States promise to execute Such treaties and articles as may have been agreed between Spain and the tribes and nations of Indians until by mutual consent of the United States and the said tribes or nations other Suitable articles Shall have been agreed upon.” What preexisted were the French government’s established tradition of Indian Congresses at New Orleans and Manchac in Louisiana. There were ritual gift exchanges and medals to symbolically affirm diplomatic relationships between chiefs and the French king. The French also licensed private traders to manage commerce with the Indians. All of these activities were maintained under the Spanish rule. Furthermore, the Spanish implemented the Las Recópilaciones de los Indios during their tenure in Louisiana. These policies included the recognition of tribal law and the supremacy of the chief to enforce these laws. In addition, they provided tribal settlement on the king’s lands, including a square league around villages for tribal use. These were all to remain as the US Congress ratified articles of the Louisiana Purchase. All of these practices continued until the 1820s.

The Caddo tribe of Louisiana initially used the ambiguity left by the Louisiana Purchase to its advantage. The boundary between Spanish Texas and American Louisiana was not defined in the treaty. Representatives of France, Spain, and the United States continued to debate these lines after 1803. Chief Dehahuit of the Caddo tribe endorsed the Spanish and American compromise of the Neutral Ground, or a strip of land “that would be off-limits to soldiers from either nation pending a final diplomatic settlement.” The Caddo helped maintain peace in the Neutral Ground and were able to carve out diplomatic agency in this role. However, this political influence was threatened with Louisiana statehood in 1812, the annexation of Florida, and the repulsion of the British from New Orleans in 1815. While some negotiating of Neutral Ground remained, by the time of the Transcontinental Treaty and Mexican independence in 1821, the Caddo had lost their favored role as Spain withdrew. They found themselves without power or agency with the US government. In the treaties that followed, the Caddo nation gave up nearly one million acres of ancestral land to the United States by 1835. After that date, the Caddos were forced from their land and into Oklahoma.

Louisiana also served as a haven for many other indigenous peoples under the Spanish. In 1794, Governor Carondelet freed all enslaved Indians in Louisiana (save the Natchez, who had to buy their freedom as punishment for their 1729 uprising against the French). This freedom, however, was circumscribed. To maintain any sense of freedom, the emancipated slaves had to remain on tribal land. Many chose to ally with the prosperous Choctaw, who had been invited to Louisiana by the Spanish to serve as a buffer against the English. Their prosperity, numerical strength, affiliation with the Spanish, and their absorption of smaller groups onto their tribal lands all cost the Choctaw dearly when Spain was ejected from Florida and Texas. Diplomatically isolated within the United States, the Choctaw too were forced to vacate tribal lands and move to Oklahoma through the Treaty of Choctaw Removal of 1828.

The era of Indian removal transferred tribal land and irrevocably altered the lives of many Louisiana native peoples. The Quapaw, for example, wanted to stay in Louisiana. They agreed to a reduction in their land in 1824 and sought to merge with the Caddo, only to find the latter unwilling to accept them. Their nascent villages on the Red River were then wiped out by flood, leaving the diminished population to suffer starvation. Other groups retreated into the margins of Louisiana’s landscape. Some, like groups of Biloxi, Chitimacha, Choctaw, and possibly Apache, made homes in the swamps, marshes, and piney woods far from the more lucrative and sought-after bottomlands. Many of these individuals, estranged from their tribes of origin, formed new communities such as Pointe-au-Chenes and Biloxi-Chitimacha Confederation of Muskogees. Others continued to intermarry with other ethnic populations while remaining culturally tied to their native traditions. These groups continued to hunt and trade.

While the Spanish presence persisted in and around Louisiana, indigenous peoples were able to stave off the effects felt in areas taken over by the United States. However, the loss of Spanish influence in Louisiana after 1821 brought irrevocable changes to the fortunes of many indigenous groups. Furthermore, in 1823, Johnson v. M’Intosh stated that “Through the Revolutionary War and the treaties that followed, the United States earned the ‘exclusive right…to extinguish [the Indians’] title, and to grant the soil.’ This ended any chance that the empirical precedents could hold any residual power. Some tribes, like the Caddo and Choctaw, were forced to relocate outside of the state in the 1830s. Many of the other Native Americans who stayed yielded to the pressures of the U.S. government and either chose or were forced to move into the margins of Louisiana’s geography and economy.