York County has a long history of conflicts between Native Americans and Colonists but the Town of Kennebunk spoke in a unified voice protesting the 1830 Indian Removal Act before the United States Legislature.
Thomas Jefferson professed to be a proponent of “Indians assimilating into American culture and Democracy.” He proposed that those Choctaw, Cherokee and Creek tribes not so inclined might retain their right to land occupancy if they traded their cultivated farms and orchards east of the Mississippi River for wilderness lots on his new Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson first introduced the idea of “Indian Removal” in an 1803 Draft of Constitutional Amendment Incorporating Louisiana Territory into the United States. The document is part of the digitized Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress.
It reads, in part, “The legislature of the Union shall have the authority to exchange the right of occupancy in portions where the U.S. have full rights, for land possessed by Indians within the U.S. on the East side of the Mississippi, to exchange lands on the East side of the river for those of the White Inhabitants on the West side thereof.”
Jefferson hoped to finance the Louisiana Purchase from the proceeds of selling eastern Indian lands to wealthy plantationers. At a special session of Congress the Louisiana Purchase was ratified but did not incorporate Jefferson’s plan for “Indian Removal.”
President James Monroe proposed the idea to Congress again in 1825 but it didn’t have broad support until Andrew Jackson became President in 1829. At his first possible Presidential opportunity Jackson spoke to Congress making clear his support of the plan as a way to preserve the endangered Indian culture.
“Surrounded by the whites with their arts of civilization, which by destroying the resources of the savage doom him to weakness and decay,” he said. The Cherokee Nation was participating in the “arts of civilization” by anyone’s standards in 1829. They had a Constitution and a newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix, in which every column was printed in English and in Cherokee. They also had fertile, gold rich land that the United States wanted.
The town of Kennebunk responded to President Jackson’s support of the bill with a memorial to the United States Legislature praying that the Indians be protected in their rights, and in the possession of their lands.
It read, “That your memorialists feel constrained to come before the National Legislature with an earnest request that the public faith may be preserved inviolate in all the transactions of the Government with the Indians; that these dependent allies, some of whom have been models of good faith and good neighborhood, may be treated with kindness and generosity, as well as with justice; that no encroachment may be made upon their right of territory, or right of self-government, as guaranteed by numerous treaties; and that they may be secure in their possessions which they derived from their ancestors, of which they are now in peaceable enjoyment, and to the continued occupancy of which they have, in the language of the Chief Justice of the United States, ‘a legal and just claim,’ independently of any guarantee from the United States. And your memorialists, as duty bound, will ever pray. Kennebunk, March 10, 1830.”
There was further opposition to the Indian Removal Act.
Maine Senator Peleg Sprague made an impassioned plea to Congress to honor the 15 treaties the U. S. Government had made with the Cherokee Nation between 1775 and 1819 promising that they could live unmolested in Georgia forever. Sprague reminded his audience that the treaties had not been signed out of generosity but in exchange for the maintenance of peace and cessions of territory. Ladies groups, Quakers and seven towns in the United States filed memorials in support of honoring the treaties. Two of those towns were in Maine; Brunswick and Kennebunk.
The Indian Removal Act passed in both houses of Congress by a narrow margin. President Jackson, who had signed the bill into law, opened his first annual message to Congress, December 8, 1830 with the following statement. “It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation.” The Indian Removal Act was, in reality, only the first shameful step on the “Trail of Tears,” the forcible eviction of the Native Americans living east of the Mississippi began in 1838.