The story of westward expansion by European Americans is a basic theme of the American experience, but it also is a history of Indian removal from their traditional lands. Indians lost their lands by purchase and through war, disease, and even extermination, but many transfers of Indian land were formalized by treaty. The Constitution of 1789 empowered Congress to "regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes. Federal policy regarded each tribe as a sovereign entity capable of signing binding treaties with the U.S. Government. In the first 40 years of the new republic, the United States signed multiple treaties with Indian tribes, which usually followed a basic pattern: the signatory tribe withdrew to a prescribed reservation and in return the federal government promised to provide supplies, food, and often an annuity. In 1830, Congress chose to disregard Indian treaty guarantees when it passed the Indian Removal Act, a bill engineered by President Andrew Jackson. Despite its language suggesting a voluntary and fair "exchange" of lands, the act opened the door for the militias of trans-Appalachian and Southern States to simply drive the Indians across the Mississippi by force. The Indians' destination was to be an "Indian Territory" set aside west of Iowa, Missouri, and Arkansas.
The Cherokee nation resisted, however, challenging in court the Georgia laws that restricted their freedoms on tribal lands. In its 1831 ruling on Cherokee Nation v. the State of Georgia, the Supreme Court addressed the question of whether native tribes could be treated as "foreign nations." It decided that they should be counted rather as wards of the federal government but the following year ruled that they were, indeed, sovereign and immune from Georgia laws. President Jackson, famous from his "Seminole Wars" against the Indians in Georgia and Florida and an ardent defender of States' rights, nonetheless, refused to heed the court's decision. He obtained the signature of a Cherokee chief agreeing to relocation in the Treaty of New Enchola, which Congress ratified against the protests of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay in 1835. The Cherokee signing party did not represent the vast majority of Cherokees. When the followers of Principal Chief John Ross tried desperately to hold onto their land, Jackson ordered military action in 1838. Under the guns of federal troops and Georgia State militia, the Cherokee tribe made their trek to the dry plains across the Mississippi. Thousands died en route from the brutal conditions of the "Trail of Tears."
The U.S. Government's inability and unwillingness to abide by its treaty obligations with Indian tribes was clearly related to an insatiable demand for cheap land for European settlers. To make matter more difficult, Indians generally had a different concept of land ownership than Europeans, emphasizing land use for hunting, farming, or dwelling for the tribe, but not recognizing the concept of individual ownership. Indian society was loose, decentralized, democratic, and nonauthoritarian where "chiefs" were often men of respect and informal authority but not designated by the tribe to make decisions. The result was that treaties were often signed with Indian leaders who did not have the authority of the tribe. Whether the system of Indian treaties were ever meant to work is a matter of debate, but in reality, most Indian treaties were broken.