The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump called Andrew Jackson ‘a swashbuckler.’ The Cherokees called him ‘Indian killer.’

A portrait of Andrew Jackson hangs on a wall behind President Trump and Vice President in the Oval Office. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Placeholder while article actions load

Donald Trump has a portrait of Andrew Jackson hanging by his desk in the Oval Office. On Monday, in an interview with Salena Zito, the 45th president lauded the seventh president, calling Jackson “a swashbuckler” who could have prevented the Civil War.

The Cherokees had a different name for Jackson. They called him “Indian killer.” The Creek called him “Sharp Knife.”

On May 28, 1830, Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which Native Americans say was a form of legalized ethnic cleansing.

The act forced more than 60,000 Native Americans from their lands in the Southeast United States, clearing the way for white pioneers. Native Americans were forced to walk hundreds of miles to resettle west of the Mississippi River. Historians believe more than 15,000 died on the difficult journey.

After Jackson left the White House in 1837, Cherokees were pushed off their land during the winter of 1838 and 1839. More than 4,000 Cherokees died from hunger, exposure and disease on their march west, which became known as the “Trail of Tears.”

Jackson, who was 61 when he became president in 1829, was considered a military hero who had defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. By then, “Old Hickory,” as Jackson was nicknamed, had already used troops against warring factions of the Creek Nation and imposed harsh terms during peace negotiations, according to the National Park Service, which operates a historic “Trail of Tears” route. 

The film "Trail of Tears" tells of how President Jackson defied the Supreme Court to force Native Americans off their ancestral homelands in the Southeast. (Video: National Park Service)

“His treaty punished both the Red Sticks and the Creek who had fought by his side with a cession of 23 million acres — nearly half of the Creek land,” according to the park service account. “His terms and unwillingness to negotiate earned him the Creek nickname of ‘Sharp Knife.’ ”

Jackson was born in South Carolina in 1767. His father, Andrew, an immigrant from northern Ireland, had died just days earlier. When he was 14, Jackson fought against the British in the Revolutionary War. According to historians, Jackson was taken prisoner by the British, and a soldier cut him with a sword when Jackson refused to polish his boots.

Hunting down runaway slaves: The cruel ads of Andrew Jackson and ‘the master class’

Jackson was tall, with a narrow head and piercing eyes — a slave owner with cruel streak. He had killed a man in a duel in Kentucky, in  1806, after the man made rude comments about Jackson’s wife, Rachel.

His assessment of the Cherokee? “Established in the midst of a superior race,” Jackson said, “they must disappear.”

A year after becoming the country’s first populist president, he laid out his Indian removal strategy in his Second Annual Message to Congress.

Gold had been discovered in northern Georgia, which was the territory of the Cherokee. The Indian Removal Act cleared the way for white gold prospectors to seize the land.

The U.S. Supreme Court had issued a ruling, attempting to prevent Georgia from removing the Cherokees. But Jackson. , whose visage appears on the $20 bill, ignored the decision.

On Dec. 6, 1830, Jackson predicted in his written address to Congress that removal would relieve Mississippi and Alabama “of Indian occupancy and enable those States to advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power.”

Jackson said he believed that pushing Native Americans from their homelands would “enable them to pursue happiness in their own way, and under their own rude institutions.”

The Native Americans, under the “protection of the Government,”  would be compelled “through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized and Christian community,” Jackson said. “These consequences, some of them so certain, and the rest so probable, make the complete execution of the plan sanctioned by Congress at their last session an object of much solicitude.”

Tribes including the Creek, Seminole, Choctaw and Chickasaw were marched hundreds of miles to what the government called “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma.

In 1836, Cherokee Chief John Ross, who led his people west, wrote in a letter that they had been stripped of their freedom.

“Our property may be plundered before our eyes; violence may be committed on our persons; even our lives may be taken away, and there is none to regard our complaints,” Ross wrote.

He added the Cherokee had been stripped of their humanity.

“Our hearts are sickened, our utterance is paralized, when we reflect on the condition in which we are placed, by the audacious practices of unprincipled men, who have managed their stratagems with so much dexterity as to impose on the Government of the United States, in the face of our earnest, solemn, and reiterated protestations.”

Read more Retropolis:

Hunting down runaway slaves: The cruel ads of Andrew Jackson and ‘the master class’

A young photographer took this harrowing image of the Vietnam War. He didn’t live to see it published.

The U.S. has invaded Britain just once. It didn’t go well.

‘Great God, he is alive!” The first man executed by electric chair died slower than Thomas Edison expected.

Gen. George Patton’s wife put a Hawaiian curse on his ex-mistress. She was dead within days.