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Indian Removal

Several years ago, I inherited a cache of papers from my grandfather, Zoltán. He escaped from Sátoraljaújhely, a small town in northeastern Hungary, in December 1937. After arriving in Cleveland, Ohio, he began corresponding with his parents, sister, brother and friends who had remained behind. The letters run through to the end of 1943. In January 1945, after a year of silence from his family, he sent a telegram: ‘anxious to hear about you and about all relatives. How could we assist you?’ He was unaware that they had been deported to Auschwitz. None survived.

Reading the correspondence, I couldn’t help but think about the deportation that occurred near my current home in Athens, Georgia, a little more than a century earlier. In May 1830, the United States Congress passed "an Act to provide for an exchange of lands with the Indians," authorising the US federal government to uproot and transport 80,000 people from their homes east of the Mississippi. By river and road, the federal government intended to deport them to a newly segregated region called ‘Indian Territory’, land that would be absorbed later into the states of Oklahoma and Kansas. Some of the main streets in Athens, Georgia – Lumpkin, Clayton, Dearing – bear the names of local figures who played significant roles in this earlier deportation, known today as ‘Indian Removal’.

The 80,000 victims of this state-sponsored forced relocation make up only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of Indigenous Americans dispossessed since Europeans arrived in the Americas. But they represent nearly the entire native population then remaining in the US, excluding the nation’s unorganised western territories. By the end of the decade-long operation, only a few thousand Native Americans remained east of the Mississippi. The federal government deported the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, Cherokees and Seminoles from the country’s South, and the Delawares, Miamis, Odawas, Shawnees, Wyandots, Potawatomis and others from the North. In 1838, one recent immigrant to the Choctaws’ and Chickasaws’ Mississippi homelands rejoiced that ‘An Indian is now a rare sight.’ The secretary of war Lewis Cass celebrated that it was now possible to draw a line down the continent. ‘Indians’ lived on one side, he said, ‘our citizens’ on the other.