John Tyler: Squatting Advocate and White Supremacist

Whitehouse.gov / John Tyler signed the Preemption Act of 1841, which granted purchasing rights to squatters living on federal lands, and established Manifest Destiny.

Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States.

This is the tenth in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.

Five months after he took office as the 10th president of the United States, John Tyler signed the Preemption Act of 1841, granting purchasing rights to squatters already living on federal lands.

The act permitted squatters to buy up to 160 acres of “public land” for as little as $1.25 per acre before it was surveyed and offered for sale. To qualify, squatters had to be U.S. citizens, heads of household, single men over 21 or widows, and they must have lived on the land for at least 14 months.

Ten percent of the proceeds from land sales were granted to states to “be faithfully applied to objects of internal improvement,” including roads, railways, bridges, canals and draining of swamps. The act applied to land in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, Louisiana, Arkansas and Michigan—and to any other states admitted into the Union. It helped establish the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and led to the settlement of the Kansas and Nebraska territories.

In a special message to Congress in June 1841, Tyler wrote that preemption laws were “necessary” and he supported them “for the benefit of actual settlers.” He also wrote of a population of 17 million Americans and his vision for continued expansion.

“The old states contain a territory sufficient in itself to maintain a population of additional millions, and the most populous of the new states may even yet be regarded as but partially settled,” he said. “While of the new lands on this side of the Rocky Mountains, to say nothing of the immense region which stretches from the base of those mountains to the mouth of the Columbia River, about 770,000,000 acres, ceded and unceded, still remain to be brought into market.”

Born in Virginia in 1790, Tyler studied law and worked as an attorney before entering the political arena. He served as governor of Virginia and as a member of Congress. He was elected as vice president in 1840.

Called the “accidental president,” Tyler took office in April 1841 when his predecessor, William Henry Harrison, died after serving only one month. A member of the Whig Party, Tyler completed Harrison’s term—and some of Harrison’s unfinished business, including Indian removal treaties.

One month after taking the oath of office, Tyler signed a treaty with the Wyandot Nation, calling for the cession of all their remaining lands in Ohio, or about 109,000 acres. In exchange, the Wyandot received 148,000 acres west of the Mississippi River and $17,500 per year. He also signed land cession treaties with the Seneca, Chippewa and Sac and Fox.

Tyler was the fourth president to contend with the Seminole in Florida during the Second Seminole War, which began in 1835 and is regarded as one of the most costly Indian conflicts in U.S. history. By the end of the war in 1842, the U.S. had spent more than $40 million and transported more than 3,000 Seminoles to the West.

In his first annual message to Congress, in December 1841, Tyler outlined his policy on the Seminole. He pushed for “untiring activity and zeal” in the war and stated that the Seminole “have been captured, and still greater numbers have surrendered and have been transported to join their brethren on the lands elsewhere allotted to them by the government.”

The war ended in August 1842, and all but about 300 Indians were removed from Florida. Four months later, Tyler reported that the “vexatious, harassing and expensive war” against the Florida tribes “has happily been terminated.” In his second message to Congress, Tyler also called for “parental vigilance” in helping the remaining Indians become civilized.

Eager to prevent further conflict between white settlers and remaining Indians in Florida, Congress passed another act aimed at getting settlers to populate the land—and build up a militia against the Seminole. The Armed Occupation Act of 1842 granted 160 acres of Florida land to settlers who were “able to bear arms” and agreed to cultivate land located within two miles of a permanent military post.

As the U.S. annexed more land, Tyler also contended with the issue of slavery, said Edward Crapol, author of “John Tyler, the Accidental President.” Tyler favored westward expansion and pushed for the annexation of Texas, which joined the Union as a slave state in 1845.

“Tyler believed in white supremacy and viewed both Indians and blacks as being inferior to whites,” Crapol said. He “was a proponent of Manifest Destiny and believed that territorial aggrandizement would preserve the institution of slavery and save the Union.”

Yet Tyler also inherited the Panic of 1837, the worst economic depression in the nation’s short history, and his term was plagued with economic and political insecurity, said Christopher Leahy, a history professor at Keuka College and author of an upcoming biography of Tyler. After he vetoed bills that would have created a third national bank, the Whig Party banished him from its ranks, ultimately costing him re-election in 1845.

“Tyler made the annexation of Texas—so, to some extent, westward expansion—his top priority,” Leahy said. “He was able to accomplish this by a joint resolution with Congress right before he left office.”

Even in his last months as president, Tyler continued to lobby for the removal of Indians from the southeast. Five months before he left office, Tyler wrote a letter imploring the military to “resort to all peaceful means to get the Indians remaining in Florida to migrate.”

Tyler left office in 1845 and was succeeded by James K. Polk. He died in 1862 at age 71.

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