Summary Objective 8

Students will examine how the expanding cotton economy spurred Indian Removal and the domestic slave trade. Maps to Key Concepts 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 & 10


What else should my students know?

8.A The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 had a dramatic effect on the profitability of short-staple cotton. The cotton gin allowed two enslaved laborers to remove the seeds from 50 pounds of cotton in a single day. Before its invention, a single enslaved laborer could clean an average of only one pound of cotton each day.

8.B Motivated by a desire for cotton-rich lands, many white people supported the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Others, including many clergy and members of the Whig Party, opposed it. And many disenfranchised people publicly spoke out against it even though they lacked political power. Andrew Jackson made Indian Removal the cornerstone of his presidency and enforced it in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling (Worcester v. Georgia, 1832). The federal government, joined by states and troops, used this act to force about 100,000 Indigenous people to move west of the Mississippi River. More than 4,000 African Americans, who were held in slavery among Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws and Creeks, were also forced west. Thousands of people died in these migrations, which many remember as the “Trail of Tears” or the “Trail of Death.”

8.C Although Congress banned participation in the international slave trade in 1808, geographic and economic expansion allowed by Removal dramatically increased the domestic trade in enslaved people of African descent. Enslavers wanted to use the labor of enslaved African Americans to maximize profits and expand the plantation system. During the first half of the 19th century, more than a million African Americans were forced to move to parts of the Deep South. This separated and traumatized many families. So many enslaved people were forced to make this journey that it came to be known as “The Second Middle Passage.”

8.D Indigenous land dispossession and the domestic slave trade led to large profits for land speculators, removal agents and enslavers. Complex economic structures emerged to support the domestic slave trade, including insurance companies that insured enslaved people as property, traders and auction houses that served as middlemen and clearinghouses, and banks that provided credit for the purchase of enslaved laborers or allowed the capital represented in the bodies of enslaved people to be used as collateral for loans.


How can I teach this?

  • The University of Oregon’s website Mapping History provides a useful model comparing the growth of cotton production and the expansion of slavery between 1790 and 1860.
  • To teach about Removal, see the following digital resources from Native Knowledge 360° at the National Museum of the American Indian. They tell many stories of removal and resistance.
  • The online resources for the PBS series Africans in America include a letter from Henry Tayloe to his brother. Tayloe proposes selling the people his brother enslaved in Virginia for a profit in Alabama. Although it was not written until 1835, the letter allows for a discussion of the decline of the Virginia tobacco economy and the profitability of trading enslaved persons from the Upper South to the Deep South. This practice of transporting enslaved people from the Upper South to the cotton-producing states of the Deep South was ongoing from the early Republic until the Civil War.
  • In a short video from Learning for Justice, Dr. Adam Rothman discusses how enslaved labor in the South fueled a global economic system during the 19th century.
  • In another short video from Learning for Justice, Dr. Edward Ayers shows how the domestic slave trade affected the lives of enslaved people.
  • “Scientific” theories about race evolved to support white supremacy and enslavement. In the mid-18th century, Carolus Linnaeus classified Homo sapiens into several different varieties, named according to their geographic location. Linnaeus’ classifications reflected popular stereotypes of different cultures.
  • In the 19th century, the scientific debate about race focused on whether different human races represented entirely different species with different origins (polygenesis) or different varieties of the same species (monogenesis). Polygenism could be used to justify enslaving “inferior” races.
  • Scientific racism was also used to justify the seizure of Indigenous land. Lewis Cass (who later implemented Andrew Jackson’s policies toward Indigenous people as a member of Jackson's cabinet) used theories drawn from scientific racism to rationalize Removal. The National Humanities Center has archived an 1830 article by Cass outlining these arguments.
  • In 1825, Cherokee leader David Brown argued that the 1,277 “African slaves” enslaved by the Cherokee Nation were a sign of Cherokee adoption of “civilization” as defined by white settlers. The Native nations of the Southeast that adopted European-style enslavement did so in part to prove to Europeans that they, too, were “civilized”―that they, too, used the tools of white settlers’ economic growth. 
  • Slate published an interactive map by Rebecca Onion and Claudio Saunt showing Indigenous land loss from 1776 to 1887.  
  • The papers of Z.B. Oakes, a slaver in Charleston, South Carolina, are available through the Boston Public Library. (Correspondence can be accessed through the Digital Commonwealth online collections by searching “Oakes,” along with the date and sender of the letter.) The frank language of the documents underscores the commodification of enslaved people, the inhumanity of the slave trade and the trauma that those affected by the domestic slave trade experienced.
  • Portions of the book Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup, describe the domestic slave trade. Students might read his account of an auction and the separation of Eliza from her two children. 
  • In her essay “Cherokee Slaveholders and Radical Abolitionists,” historian Natalie Joy argues that abolitionists were willing to look past Cherokee enslavers—or even see slavery as a sign of “civilization”―because abolitionists viewed the removal of Cherokees as part of the expansion of the slaveholding South.


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