Opposing the Indian Removal Act
The first time white women in the US took collective action, it was anonymous.
Four women in Hartford, Conn. wrote a petition opposing the Indian Removal Act. They swore the printer to secrecy, and mailed the first batch of petitions from four other cities. Thread.
Why so secretive? They were scared.
White women—especially upper-class women like them—didn’t take public action in 1829.
The ringleaders were Catherine Beecher and Lydia Sigourney. Beecher ran a school for girls, the Hartford Female Seminary, and she was trying to keep it afloat. Sigourney was a popular poet, but her husband insisted she publish under a pseudonym.
Though they acted anonymously, their petition was emphatically a public action. They didn’t pretend to be men. They wrote expressly as women, asking other women to tell Congress what to do. The petition began:
“The present crisis in the affairs of the Indian Nations in the United States, demands the immediate and interested attention of all who make any claims to benevolence or humanity.”
After making the case in detail for why “Indian Removal” was wrong, the petition concluded with a statement of urgency:
“A few weeks must decide this interesting and important question, and after that time, sympathy and regret will all be in vain.”
Native women had been advocating on their own behalf for a long time -- read yesterday’s post for a glimpse of the work Cherokee women did to fight removal a decade earlier.
Historian Tiya Miles found that Lydia Sigourney—probably the primary author of the petition— was directly inspired by a Cherokee activist named Margaret Scott. Scott and Sigourney’s correspondence links the white women’s petition to Cherokee women’s own opposition to removal.
So what happened?
The petition garnered thousands of signatures, which shocked Congress. Pittsburgh women delivered the largest single batch—670 names. Nationwide, it fueled widespread public opposition. Andrew Jackson and his VP Martin Van Buren were surprised and annoyed.
But women had no votes. Southern white men did, and there were extra of them in Congress due to the ⅗ clause. Outside the South, Congressmen voted against the Indian Removal Act by a 2-1 margin. But they were outvoted by enslavers. The Indian Removal Act passed in the spring of 1830.
Having lost in Congress, the Cherokee nation went to the Supreme Court to argue for their sovereignty. They WON. But Andrew Jackson ignored the Court, stole the land, and sent Cherokee and other southeastern nations to concentration camps.
There’s so much more to tell. One place to start is @RebeccaNagle’s podcast This Land, for a gripping explanation of where Cherokee Nation’s land rights stand today.