On this day in 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, a vaguely written piece of legislation later used as a pretext by state and federal authorities to dispossess the few remaining tribes in the southeastern United States — “removing” them to lands west of the Mississippi.

Beginning in the summer of 1829, following the discovery of gold on Cherokee lands, the State of Georgia’s longstanding desire to rid itself of the tribe became more urgent than ever. In December of that year, the state legislature ruled that the Cherokee constitution and laws would be meaningless come the following June. Georgia’s lawmakers implied that it would be open season on the Cherokees and their landholdings at that time. The federal government, then, had just a few months to avert what surely would have been another horrifying chapter in the already-grim story of Native-white relations in the United States. Andrew Jackson, who had long favored removal, seized the chance to advance his pet policy.

It wouldn’t be easy. By that time, Protestant evangelicals had taken an interest in the Cherokees, holding them up as the most civilized of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes (along with the Creeks, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Seminoles). The Cherokees had “civilized” themselves by adopting sedentary agriculture, a tribal constitution modeled on the U.S.’s, a written alphabet (see above), and, in some cases, Christianity. Reformers — including Catherine Beecher, who rallied women to the cause — organized a huge petition drive to counter President Jackson’s lobbying.

Jackson responded by casting support for removal as humanitarian and paternalistic. Observing the mistreatment of Native people throughout the nation’s history, Jackson claimed to want “to preserve this much-injured race.” At the same time, he packed the House and Senate committees that would write the removal bill with his loyalists. On this day in 1830, Jackson had his law, sealing the fate of the eastern tribes.

Jackson had promised that removal would be voluntary, that those Indians who wished to remain in the east would be able to do so, and that those who moved would be compensated for their property. In fact, the pressure to leave was intense, often accompanied by the threat of violence, and Native people who got paid for their land typically only received a fraction of its value. At the same time, Jackson compounded his crimes by setting the precedent of trying to remove tribes on the cheap. Underfunding and federal neglect ultimately led, after Jackson left office, to tragedies like the Trail of Tears, when, in 1838, thousands of Cherokees died en route to Indian Territory, present-day Oklahoma. In the end, Jackson only forestalled the bloodletting that he claimed to want to avoid in 1830, putting off the carnage and relocating it to the West, where relatively few whites had to confront the horror.

In the Congressional debates surrounding removal, Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, who opposed the measure, had asked: “Do the obligations of justice change with the color of the skin?” For Andrew Jackson the answer was yes.