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Trail of Tears

Trail of Tears

The Trail of Tears was a series of forced relocations of Native Americans in the United States from their ancestral homelands in the Southeastern United States, to areas to the west of the Mississippi River that had been designated as Indian Territory. The forced relocations were carried out by government authorities following the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830. The relocated peoples suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while en route to their new designated reserve, and many died before reaching their destinations. The forced removals included members of the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations, as well as their African slaves. The phrase "Trail of Tears" originates from a description of the removal of many Native American tribes, including the Cherokee Nation relocation in 1838.[1][2][3]

Between 1830 and 1850, the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee people (including mixed-race and black slaves who lived among them) were forcibly removed from their traditional lands in the Southeastern United States, and later relocated farther west.[4] State and local militias forced Native Americans who were relocated to march to their destinations.[5] The Cherokee removal in 1838 (the last forced removal east of the Mississippi) was brought on by the discovery of gold near Dahlonega, Georgia in 1828, resulting in the Georgia Gold Rush.[6] Approximately 2,000–8,000 of the 16,543 relocated Cherokee perished along the way.[7][8][9][10][11][12]

Trail of Tears
LocationSoutheastern United States and Indian Territory
Attack type
Population Transfer
DeathsCherokee (4,000)
Seminole (3,000 in Second Seminole War – 1835–1842)
Chickasaw (3,500)
Choctaw (2,500–6,000)
Ponca (200)
VictimsFive Civilized Tribes of Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Ponca and Ho-Chunk/Winnebago nations
PerpetratorsU.S. Government, U.S. Army, state militias
MotiveAcquisition of Native American land east of the Mississippi River.

Historical context

Map of United States Indian Removal, 1830–1838. Oklahoma is depicted in light yellow-green.

Map of United States Indian Removal, 1830–1838. Oklahoma is depicted in light yellow-green.

In 1830, a group of Indians collectively referred to as the Five Civilized Tribes (the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole tribes) were living as autonomous nations in what would be later called the American Deep South. The process of cultural transformation, as proposed by George Washington and Henry Knox, was gaining momentum, especially among the Cherokee and Choctaw.[13]

American settlers had been pressuring the federal government to remove Indians from the Southeast; many settlers were encroaching on Indian lands, while others wanted more land made available to European settlers. Although the effort was vehemently opposed by some, including U.S. Congressman Davy Crockett of Tennessee, President Andrew Jackson was able to gain Congressional passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which authorized the government to extinguish Indian title to lands in the Southeast.

In 1831, the Choctaw became the first Nation to be removed, and their removal served as the model for all future relocations. After two wars, many Seminoles were removed in 1832. The Creek removal followed in 1834, the Chickasaw in 1837, and lastly the Cherokee in 1838.[14] Some managed to evade the removals, however, and remained in their ancestral homelands; some Choctaw are living in Mississippi, Creek in Alabama and Florida, Cherokee in North Carolina, and Seminole in Florida. A small group of Seminole, fewer than 500, evaded forced removal; the modern Seminole Tribe of Florida is descended from these individuals.[15] A small number of non-Native Americans who lived with the tribes, including some of African descent (including over 4,000 slaves, and others as spouses or freedmen), also accompanied the Indians on the trek westward.[14] By 1837, 46,000 Indians from the southeastern states had been removed from their homelands, thereby opening 25 million acres (100,000 km2) for predominantly European settlement.[14]

Prior to 1838, the fixed boundaries of these autonomous tribal nations, comprising large areas of the United States, were subject to continual cession and annexation, in part due to pressure from squatters and the threat of military force in the newly declared U.S. territories—federally administered regions whose boundaries supervened upon the Native treaty claims. As these territories became U.S. states, state governments sought to dissolve the boundaries of the Indian nations within their borders, which were independent of state jurisdiction, and to expropriate the land therein. These pressures were exacerbated by U.S. population growth and the expansion of slavery in the South, with the rapid development of cotton cultivation in the uplands following the invention of the cotton gin.[16]

Jackson's role

Andrew Jackson's support for removal of Native Americans began at least a decade before his presidency.[17] Indian removal was Jackson's top legislative priority upon taking office.[18] The removals, conducted under both Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, followed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which provided the president with powers to exchange land with Native tribes and provide infrastructure improvements on the existing lands. The law also gave the president power to pay for transportation costs to the West, should tribes choose to relocate. The law did not, however, allow the president to force tribes to move west without a mutually agreed-upon treaty.[19] Referring to the Indian Removal Act, Martin Van Buren, Jackson's vice president and successor is quoted as saying "There was no measure, in the whole course of [Jackson's] administration, of which he was more exclusively the author than this."[18]

In the years following the Act, the Cherokee filed several lawsuits regarding conflicts with the state of Georgia. Some of these cases reached the Supreme Court, the most influential being Worcester v. Georgia (1832). Samuel Worcester and other non-Indians were convicted by Georgia law for residing in Cherokee territory in the state of Georgia without a license. Worcester was sentenced to prison for four years and appealed the ruling, arguing that this sentence violated treaties made between Indian nations and the United States federal government by imposing state laws on Cherokee lands. The Court ruled in Worcester's favor, declaring that the Cherokee Nation was subject only to federal law and that the Supremacy Clause barred legislative interference by the state of Georgia. Chief Justice Marshall argued, "The Cherokee nation, then, is a distinct community occupying its own territory in which the laws of Georgia can have no force. The whole intercourse between the United States and this Nation, is, by our constitution and laws, vested in the government of the United States."[20]

Andrew Jackson did not listen to the Supreme Court mandate barring Georgia from intruding on Cherokee lands. He feared that enforcement would lead to open warfare between federal troops and the Georgia militia, which would compound the ongoing crisis in South Carolina and lead to a broader civil war. Instead, he vigorously negotiated a land exchange treaty with the Cherokee.[21] Political opponents Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, who supported the Worcester decision, were outraged by Jackson's refusal to uphold Cherokee claims against the state of Georgia.[22] Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an account of Cherokee assimilation into the American culture, declaring his support of the Worcester decision.[23]

Jackson chose to continue with Indian removal, and negotiated the Treaty of New Echota, on December 29, 1835, which granted Cherokee two years to move to Indian Territory (modern Oklahoma). Only a fraction of the Cherokees left voluntarily. The U.S. government, with assistance from state militias, forced most of the remaining Cherokees west in 1838.[24] The Cherokees were temporarily remanded in camps in eastern Tennessee. In November, the Cherokee were broken into groups of around 1,000 each and began the journey west. They endured heavy rains, snow, and freezing temperatures.

When the Cherokee negotiated the Treaty of New Echota, they exchanged all their land east of the Mississippi for land in modern Oklahoma and a $5 million payment from the federal government. Many Cherokee felt betrayed that their leadership accepted the deal, and over 16,000 Cherokee signed a petition to prevent the passage of the treaty. By the end of the decade in 1840, tens of thousands of Cherokee and other tribes had been removed from their land east of the Mississippi River. The Creek, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chicksaw were also relocated under the Indian Removal Act of 1830. One Choctaw leader portrayed the removal as "A Trail of Tears and Deaths", a devastating event that removed most of the Native population of the southeastern United States from their traditional homelands.[25]


The latter forced relocations have sometimes been referred to as "death marches", in particular with reference to the Cherokee march across the Midwest in 1838, which occurred on a predominantly land route.[16]

Native Americans who had the means initially provided for their own removal. Contingents that were led by conductors from the U.S. Army included those led by Edward Deas, who was claimed to be a sympathizer for the Cherokee plight. The largest death toll from the Cherokee forced relocation comes from the period after the May 23, 1838 deadline. This was at the point when the remaining Cherokee were rounded into camps and pressed into oversized detachments, often over 700 in size (larger than the populations of Little Rock or Memphis at that time). Communicable diseases spread quickly through these closely quartered groups, killing many. These contingents were among the last to move, but following the same routes the others had taken; the areas they were going through had been depleted of supplies due to the vast numbers that had gone before them. The marchers were subject to extortion and violence along the route. In addition, these final contingents were forced to set out during the hottest and coldest months of the year, killing many. Exposure to the elements, disease and starvation, harassment by local frontiersmen, and insufficient rations similarly killed up to one-third of the Choctaw and other nations on the march.[26]

There exists some debate among historians and the affected tribes as to whether the term "Trail of Tears" should be used to refer to the entire history of forced relocations from the United States east of the Mississippi into Indian Territory (as was the stated U.S. policy), or to the Five Tribes described above, to the route of the land march specifically, or to specific marches in which the remaining holdouts from each area were rounded up.

The territorial boundaries claimed as sovereign and controlled by the Indian nations living in what were then known as the Indian Territories—the portion of the early United States west of the Mississippi River not yet claimed or allotted to become Oklahoma—were fixed and determined by national treaties with the United States federal government. These recognized the tribal governments as dependent but internally sovereign, or autonomous nations under the sole jurisdiction of the federal government.

While retaining their tribal governance, which included a constitution or official council in tribes such as the Iroquois and Cherokee, many portions of the southeastern Indian nations had become partially or completely economically integrated into the economy of the region. This included the plantation economy in states such as Georgia, and the possession of slaves. These slaves were also forcibly relocated during the process of removal.[16] A similar process had occurred earlier in the territories controlled by the Confederacy of the Six Nations in what is now upstate New York prior to the British invasion and subsequent U.S. annexation of the Iroquois nation.

Under the history of U.S. treaty law, the territorial boundaries claimed by federally recognized tribes received the same status under which the Southeastern tribal claims were recognized; until the following establishment of reservations of land, determined by the federal government, which were ceded to the remaining tribes by de jure treaty, in a process that often entailed forced relocation. The establishment of the Indian Territory and the extinguishment of Indian land claims east of the Mississippi anticipated the establishment of the U.S. Indian reservation system. It was imposed on remaining Indian lands later in the 19th century.

The statutory argument for Indian sovereignty persisted until the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), that (e.g.) the Cherokee were not a sovereign and independent nation, and therefore not entitled to a hearing before the court. However, in Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the court re-established limited internal sovereignty under the sole jurisdiction of the federal government, in a ruling that both opposed the subsequent forced relocation and set the basis for modern U.S. case law.

While the latter ruling was defied by Jackson,[27] the actions of the Jackson administration were not isolated because state and federal officials had violated treaties without consequence, often attributed to military exigency, as the members of individual Indian nations were not automatically United States citizens and were rarely given standing in any U.S. court.

Jackson's involvement in what became known as the Trail of Tears cannot be ignored. In a speech regarding Indian removal, Jackson said, "It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community." According to Jackson, the move would be nothing but beneficial for all parties. His point of view garnered support from many Americans, many of whom would benefit economically from the removal.

This was compounded by the fact that while citizenship tests existed for Indians living in newly annexed areas before and after forced relocation, individual U.S. states did not recognize tribal land claims, only individual title under State law, and distinguished between the rights of white and non-white citizens, who often had limited standing in court; and Indian removal was carried out under U.S. military jurisdiction, often by state militias. As a result, individual Indians who could prove U.S. citizenship were nevertheless displaced from newly annexed areas.[16] The military actions and subsequent treaties enacted by Jackson's and Martin Van Buren's administrations pursuant to the 1830 law, which Tennessee Congressman Davy Crockett had unsuccessfully voted against,[28] are widely considered to have directly caused the expulsion or death of a substantial part of the Indian population then living in the southeastern United States.

Choctaw removal

George W. Harkins, Choctaw chief

George W. Harkins, Choctaw chief

Alexis de Tocqueville, French political thinker and historian

Alexis de Tocqueville, French political thinker and historian

The Choctaw nation occupied large portions of what are now the U.S. states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. After a series of treaties starting in 1801, the Choctaw nation was reduced to 11,000,000 acres (45,000 km2). The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek ceded the remaining country to the United States and was ratified in early 1831. The removals were only agreed to after a provision in the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek allowed some Choctaw to remain. The chief of the Choctaw tribe, George W. Harkins, wrote to the citizens of the United States before the removals were to commence:

It is with considerable diffidence that I attempt to address the American people, knowing and feeling sensibly my incompetency; and believing that your highly and well improved minds would not be well entertained by the address of a Choctaw. But having determined to emigrate west of the Mississippi river this fall, I have thought proper in bidding you farewell to make a few remarks expressive of my views, and the feelings that actuate me on the subject of our removal.... We as Choctaws rather chose to suffer and be free, than live under the degrading influence of laws, which our voice could not be heard in their formation.— George W. Harkins, George W. Harkins to the American People[29]

United States Secretary of War Lewis Cass appointed George Gaines to manage the removals. Gaines decided to remove Choctaws in three phases starting in 1831 and ending in 1833. The first was to begin on November 1, 1831 with groups meeting at Memphis and Vicksburg. A harsh winter would batter the emigrants with flash floods, sleet, and snow. Initially the Choctaws were to be transported by wagon but floods halted them. With food running out, the residents of Vicksburg and Memphis were concerned. Five steamboats (the Walter Scott, the Brandywine, the Reindeer, the Talma, and the Cleopatra) would ferry Choctaws to their river-based destinations. The Memphis group traveled up the Arkansas for about 60 miles (100 km) to Arkansas Post. There the temperature stayed below freezing for almost a week with the rivers clogged with ice, so there could be no travel for weeks. Food rationing consisted of a handful of boiled corn, one turnip, and two cups of heated water per day. Forty government wagons were sent to Arkansas Post to transport them to Little Rock. When they reached Little Rock, a Choctaw chief referred to their trek as a "trail of tears and death".[30] The Vicksburg group was led by an incompetent guide and was lost in the Lake Providence swamps.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French philosopher, witnessed the Choctaw removals while in Memphis, Tennessee in 1831:

In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn't watch without feeling one's heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but sombre and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas were leaving their country. "To be free," he answered, could never get any other reason out of him. We ... watch the expulsion ... of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples.— Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America[31]

Nearly 17,000 Choctaws made the move to what would be called Indian Territory and then later Oklahoma.[32] About 2,500–6,000 died along the trail of tears. Approximately 5,000–6,000 Choctaws remained in Mississippi in 1831 after the initial removal efforts.[26][33] The Choctaws who chose to remain in newly formed Mississippi were subject to legal conflict, harassment, and intimidation. The Choctaws "have had our habitations torn down and burned, our fences destroyed, cattle turned into our fields and we ourselves have been scourged, manacled, fettered and otherwise personally abused, until by such treatment some of our best men have died".[33] The Choctaws in Mississippi were later reformed as the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and the removed Choctaws became the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. The Choctaws were the first to sign a removal treaty presented by the federal government. President Andrew Jackson wanted strong negotiations with the Choctaws in Mississippi, and the Choctaws seemed much more cooperative than Andrew Jackson had imagined. When commissioners and Choctaws came to negotiation agreements it was said the United States would bear the expense of moving their homes and that they had to be removed within two and a half years of the signed treaty.[34]

Seminole resistance

Seminole warrior Tuko-see-mathla, 1834

Seminole warrior Tuko-see-mathla, 1834

The U.S. acquired Florida from Spain via the Adams–Onís Treaty and took possession in 1821. In 1832 the Seminoles were called to a meeting at Payne's Landing on the Ocklawaha River. The treaty negotiated called for the Seminoles to move west, if the land were found to be suitable. They were to be settled on the Creek reservation and become part of the Creek tribe, who considered them deserters; some of the Seminoles had been derived from Creek bands but also from other tribes. Those among the tribe who once were members of Creek bands did not wish to move west to where they were certain that they would meet death for leaving the main band of Creek Indians. The delegation of seven chiefs who were to inspect the new reservation did not leave Florida until October 1832. After touring the area for several months and conferring with the Creeks who had already settled there, the seven chiefs signed a statement on March 28, 1833 that the new land was acceptable. Upon their return to Florida, however, most of the chiefs renounced the statement, claiming that they had not signed it, or that they had been forced to sign it, and in any case, that they did not have the power to decide for all the tribes and bands that resided on the reservation. The villages in the area of the Apalachicola River were more easily persuaded, however, and went west in 1834.[35] On December 28, 1835 a group of Seminoles and blacks ambushed a U.S. Army company marching from Fort Brooke in Tampa to Fort King in Ocala, killing all but three of the 110 army troops. This came to be known as the Dade Massacre.

As the realization that the Seminoles would resist relocation sank in, Florida began preparing for war. The St. Augustine Militia asked the War Department for the loan of 500 muskets. Five hundred volunteers were mobilized under Brig. Gen. Richard K. Call. Indian war parties raided farms and settlements, and families fled to forts, large towns, or out of the territory altogether. A war party led by Osceola captured a Florida militia supply train, killing eight of its guards and wounding six others. Most of the goods taken were recovered by the militia in another fight a few days later. Sugar plantations along the Atlantic coast south of St. Augustine were destroyed, with many of the slaves on the plantations joining the Seminoles.[36]

Other warchiefs such as Halleck Tustenuggee, Jumper, and Black Seminoles Abraham and John Horse continued the Seminole resistance against the army. The war ended, after a full decade of fighting, in 1842. The U.S. government is estimated to have spent about $20,000,000 on the war, at the time an astronomical sum, and equal to $519,241,379 today. Many Indians were forcibly exiled to Creek lands west of the Mississippi; others retreated into the Everglades. In the end, the government gave up trying to subjugate the Seminole in their Everglades redoubts and left fewer than 500 Seminoles in peace. Other scholars state that at least several hundred Seminoles remained in the Everglades after the Seminole Wars.[37]

As a result of the Seminole Wars, the surviving Seminole band of the Everglades claims to be the only federally recognized tribe which never relinquished sovereignty or signed a peace treaty with the United States.

In general the American people tended to view the Indian resistance as unwarranted. An article published by the Virginia Enquirer on January 26, 1836, called the "Hostilities of the Seminoles", assigned all the blame for the violence that came from the Seminole's resistance to the Seminoles themselves. The article accuses the Indians of not staying true to their word—the promises they supposedly made in the treaties and negotiations from the Indian Removal Act.[38]

Creek dissolution

Selocta (or Shelocta) was a Muscogee chief who appealed to Andrew Jackson to reduce the demands for Creek lands at the signing of the Treaty of Fort Jackson.

Selocta (or Shelocta) was a Muscogee chief who appealed to Andrew Jackson to reduce the demands for Creek lands at the signing of the Treaty of Fort Jackson.

After the War of 1812, some Muscogee leaders such as William McIntosh signed treaties that ceded more land to Georgia. The 1814 signing of the Treaty of Fort Jackson signaled the end for the Creek Nation and for all Indians in the South.[39] Friendly Creek leaders, like Selocta and Big Warrior, addressed Sharp Knife (the Indian nickname for Andrew Jackson) and reminded him that they keep the peace. Nevertheless, Jackson retorted that they did not "cut (Tecumseh's) throat" when they had the chance, so they must now cede Creek lands. Jackson also ignored Article 9 of the Treaty of Ghent that restored sovereignty to Indians and their nations.

Jackson opened this first peace session by faintly acknowledging the help of the friendly Creeks. That done, he turned to the Red Sticks and admonished them for listening to evil counsel. For their crime, he said, the entire Creek Nation must pay. He demanded the equivalent of all expenses incurred by the United States in prosecuting the war, which by his calculation came to 23,000,000 acres (93,000 km2) of land.— Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson[39]

Eventually, the Creek Confederacy enacted a law that made further land cessions a capital offense. Nevertheless, on February 12, 1825, McIntosh and other chiefs signed the Treaty of Indian Springs, which gave up most of the remaining Creek lands in Georgia.[40] After the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty, McIntosh was assassinated on April 30, 1825, by Creeks led by Menawa.

The Creek National Council, led by Opothle Yohola, protested to the United States that the Treaty of Indian Springs was fraudulent. President John Quincy Adams was sympathetic, and eventually the treaty was nullified in a new agreement, the Treaty of Washington (1826).[41] The historian R. Douglas Hurt wrote: "The Creeks had accomplished what no Indian nation had ever done or would do again — achieve the annulment of a ratified treaty."[42] However, Governor Troup of Georgia ignored the new treaty and began to forcibly remove the Indians under the terms of the earlier treaty. At first, President Adams attempted to intervene with federal troops, but Troup called out the militia, and Adams, fearful of a civil war, conceded. As he explained to his intimates, "The Indians are not worth going to war over."

Although the Creeks had been forced from Georgia, with many Lower Creeks moving to the Indian Territory, there were still about 20,000 Upper Creeks living in Alabama. However, the state moved to abolish tribal governments and extend state laws over the Creeks. Opothle Yohola appealed to the administration of President Andrew Jackson for protection from Alabama; when none was forthcoming, the Treaty of Cusseta was signed on March 24, 1832, which divided up Creek lands into individual allotments.[43] Creeks could either sell their allotments and receive funds to remove to the west, or stay in Alabama and submit to state laws. The Creeks were never given a fair chance to comply with the terms of the treaty, however. Rampant illegal settlement of their lands by Americans continued unabated with federal and state authorities unable or unwilling to do much to halt it. Further, as recently detailed by historian Billy Winn in his thorough chronicle of the events leading to removal, a variety of fraudulent schemes designed to cheat the Creeks out of their allotments, many of them organized by speculators operating out of Columbus, Georgia and Montgomery, Alabama, were perpetrated after the signing of the Treaty of Cusseta.[44] A portion of the beleaguered Creeks, many desperately poor and feeling abused and oppressed by their American neighbors, struck back by carrying out occasional raids on area farms and committing other isolated acts of violence. Escalating tensions erupted into open war with the United States following the destruction of the village of Roanoke, Georgia, located along the Chattahoochee River on the boundary between Creek and American territory, in May 1836. During the so-called "Creek War of 1836" Secretary of War Lewis Cass dispatched General Winfield Scott to end the violence by forcibly removing the Creeks to the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. With the Indian Removal Act of 1830 it continued into 1835 and after as in 1836 over 15,000 Creeks were driven from their land for the last time. 3,500 of those 15,000 Creeks did not survive the trip to Oklahoma where they eventually settled.[25]

Chickasaw monetary removal

Historic Marker in Marion, Arkansas, for the Trail of Tears

Historic Marker in Marion, Arkansas, for the Trail of Tears

Fragment of the Trail of Tears still intact at Village Creek State Park, Arkansas (2010)

Fragment of the Trail of Tears still intact at Village Creek State Park, Arkansas (2010)

The Chickasaw received financial compensation from the United States for their lands east of the Mississippi River. In 1836, the Chickasaws had reached an agreement to purchase land from the previously removed Choctaws after a bitter five-year debate. They paid the Choctaws $530,000 (equal to $12,092,030 today) for the westernmost part of the Choctaw land. The first group of Chickasaws moved in 1836 and was led by John M. Millard. The Chickasaws gathered at Memphis on July 4, 1836, with all of their assets—belongings, livestock, and slaves. Once across the Mississippi River, they followed routes previously established by the Choctaws and the Creeks. Once in Indian Territory, the Chickasaws merged with the Choctaw nation.

Cherokee forced relocation

Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross, photographed before his death in 1866

Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross, photographed before his death in 1866

Elizabeth "Betsy" Brown Stephens (1903), a Cherokee Indian who walked the Trail of Tears in 1838

Elizabeth "Betsy" Brown Stephens (1903), a Cherokee Indian who walked the Trail of Tears in 1838

A Trail of Tears map of Southern Illinois from the USDA – U.S. Forest Service

A Trail of Tears map of Southern Illinois from the USDA – U.S. Forest Service

By 1838, about 2,000 Cherokee had voluntarily relocated from Georgia to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). Forcible removals began in May 1838 when General Winfield Scott received a final order from President Martin Van Buren to relocate the remaining Cherokees.[25] Approximately 4,000 Cherokees died in the ensuing trek to Oklahoma.[45] In the Cherokee language, the event is called nu na da ul tsun yi ("the place where they cried") or nu na hi du na tlo hi lu i (the trail where they cried). The Cherokee Trail of Tears resulted from the enforcement of the Treaty of New Echota, an agreement signed under the provisions of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which exchanged Indian land in the East for lands west of the Mississippi River, but which was never accepted by the elected tribal leadership or a majority of the Cherokee people.[46]

The sparsely inhabited Cherokee lands were highly attractive to Georgian farmers experiencing population pressure, and illegal settlements resulted. Long-simmering tensions between Georgia and the Cherokee Nation were brought to a crisis by the discovery of gold near Dahlonega, Georgia, in 1829, resulting in the Georgia Gold Rush, the second gold rush in U.S. history. Hopeful gold speculators began trespassing on Cherokee lands, and pressure mounted to fulfill the Compact of 1802 in which the US Government promised to extinguish Indian land claims in the state of Georgia.

When Georgia moved to extend state laws over Cherokee lands in 1830, the matter went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), the Marshall court ruled that the Cherokee Nation was not a sovereign and independent nation, and therefore refused to hear the case. However, in Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the Court ruled that Georgia could not impose laws in Cherokee territory, since only the national government — not state governments — had authority in Indian affairs. Worcester v Georgia is associated with Andrew Jackson's famous, though apocryphal, quote "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!" In reality, this quote did not appear until 30 years after the incident and was first printed in a textbook authored by Jackson critic Horace Greeley.[21]

Fearing open warfare between federal troops and the Georgia militia, Jackson decided not to enforce Cherokee claims against the state of Georgia. He was already embroiled in a constitutional crisis with South Carolina (i.e. the nullification crisis) and favored Cherokee relocation over civil war.[21] With the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the U.S. Congress had given Jackson authority to negotiate removal treaties, exchanging Indian land in the East for land west of the Mississippi River. Jackson used the dispute with Georgia to put pressure on the Cherokees to sign a removal treaty.[47]

The final treaty, passed in Congress by a single vote, and signed by President Andrew Jackson, was imposed by his successor President Martin Van Buren. Van Buren allowed Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama an armed force of 7,000 militiamen, army regulars, and volunteers under General Winfield Scott to relocate about 13,000 Cherokees to Cleveland, Tennessee. After the initial roundup, the U.S. military oversaw the emigration to Oklahoma. Former Cherokee lands were immediately opened to settlement. Most of the deaths during the journey were caused by disease, malnutrition, and exposure during an unusually cold winter.[48]

In the winter of 1838 the Cherokee began the 1,000-mile (1,600 km) march with scant clothing and most on foot without shoes or moccasins. The march began in Red Clay, Tennessee, the location of the last Eastern capital of the Cherokee Nation. Because of the diseases, the Indians were not allowed to go into any towns or villages along the way; many times this meant traveling much farther to go around them.[49] After crossing Tennessee and Kentucky, they arrived at the Ohio River across from Golconda in southern Illinois about the 3rd of December 1838. Here the starving Indians were charged a dollar a head (equal to $23.53 today) to cross the river on "Berry's Ferry" which typically charged twelve cents, equal to $2.82 today. They were not allowed passage until the ferry had serviced all others wishing to cross and were forced to take shelter under "Mantle Rock", a shelter bluff on the Kentucky side, until "Berry had nothing better to do". Many died huddled together at Mantle Rock waiting to cross. Several Cherokee were murdered by locals. The Cherokee filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Government through the courthouse in Vienna, suing the government for $35 a head (equal to $823.48 today) to bury the murdered Cherokee.[49]

As they crossed southern Illinois, on December 26, Martin Davis, Commissary Agent for Moses Daniel's detachment, wrote:

There is the coldest weather in Illinois I ever experienced anywhere. The streams are all frozen over something like 8 or 12 inches [20 or 30 cm] thick. We are compelled to cut through the ice to get water for ourselves and animals. It snows here every two or three days at the fartherest. We are now camped in Mississippi [River] swamp 4 miles (6 km) from the river, and there is no possible chance of crossing the river for the numerous quantity of ice that comes floating down the river every day. We have only traveled 65 miles (105 km) on the last month, including the time spent at this place, which has been about three weeks. It is unknown when we shall cross the river....[50]

A volunteer soldier from Georgia who participated in the removal recounted:

I fought through the civil war and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.[51]

It eventually took almost three months to cross the 60 miles (97 kilometres) on land between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.[52] The trek through southern Illinois is where the Cherokee suffered most of their deaths. However a few years before forced removal, some Cherokee who opted to leave their homes voluntarily chose a water-based route through the Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi rivers. It took only 21 days, but the Cherokee who were forcibly relocated were weary of water travel.[53]

Removed Cherokees initially settled near Tahlequah, Oklahoma. When signing the Treaty of New Echota in 1835 Major Ridge said "I have signed my death warrant." The resulting political turmoil led to the killings of Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot; of the leaders of the Treaty Party, only Stand Watie escaped death.[54] The population of the Cherokee Nation eventually rebounded, and today the Cherokees are the largest American Indian group in the United States.[55]

There were some exceptions to removal. Approximately 100 Cherokees evaded the U.S. soldiers and lived off the land in Georgia and other states. Those Cherokees who lived on private, individually owned lands (rather than communally owned tribal land) were not subject to removal. In North Carolina, about 400 Cherokees, sometimes referred to as the Oconaluftee Cherokee due to their settlement near to the river of the same name, lived on land in the Great Smoky Mountains owned by a white man named William Holland Thomas (who had been adopted by Cherokees as a boy), and were thus not subject to removal. Added to this were some 200 Cherokee from the Nantahala area allowed to stay in the Qualla Boundary after assisting the U.S. Army in hunting down and capturing the family of the old prophet, Tsali (who faced a firing squad after capture). These North Carolina Cherokees became the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation.

A local newspaper, the Highland Messenger, said July 24, 1840, “that between nine hundred and a thousand of these deluded beings … are still hovering about the homes of their fathers, in the counties of Macon and Cherokee" and "that they are a great annoyance to the citizens" who wanted to buy land there believing the Cherokee were gone; the newspaper reported that President Jackson said "they … are, in his opinion, free to go or stay.’ [56]

Eastern Cherokee Restitution

The United States Court of Claims ruled in favor of the Eastern Cherokee Tribe's claim against the U.S. on May 18, 1905. This resulted in the appropriation of $1 million (equal to $27,438,023.04 today) to the Tribe's eligible individuals and families. Interior Department employee Guion Miller created a list using several rolls and applications to verify tribal enrollment for the distribution of funds, known as the Guion Miller Roll. The applications received documented over 125,000 individuals; the court approved more than 30,000 individuals to share in the funds.[57]


NationPopulation east of the Mississippi before removal treatyRemoval treaty
& year signed
Years of major emigrationTotal number emigrated or forcibly removedNumber stayed in SoutheastDeaths during removalDeaths from warfare
Choctaw19,554[58] + white citizens of the Choctaw Nation + 500 black slavesDancing Rabbit Creek (1830)1831–183612,5007,000[59]2,000–4,000+ (Cholera)none
Creek22,700 + 900 black slaves[60]Cusseta (1832)1834–183719,600[61]100s3,500 (disease after removal)[62]? (Second Creek War)
Chickasaw4,914 + 1,156 black slavesPontotoc Creek (1832)1837–1847over 4,000100s500–800none
  • 2,000 black slaves
New Echota (1835)1836–183820,000 + 2,000 slaves1,0002,000–8,000
Seminole5,000 + fugitive slavesPayne's Landing (1832)1832–18422,833[63]250[63]
700 (Second Seminole War)

Landmarks and commemorations

Map of National Historic trails

Map of National Historic trails

In 1987, about 2,200 miles (3,500 km) of trails were authorized by federal law to mark the removal of 17 detachments of the Cherokee people.[66] Called the "Trail of Tears National Historic Trail", it traverses portions of nine states and includes land and water routes.[67]

Trail of Tears outdoor historical drama, Unto These Hills

A historical drama based on the Trail of Tears, Unto These Hills written by Kermit Hunter, has sold over five million tickets for its performances since its opening on July 1, 1950, both touring and at the outdoor Mountainside Theater of the Cherokee Historical Association in Cherokee, North Carolina.[68][69]

Commemorative medallion

Cherokee artist Troy Anderson was commissioned to design the Cherokee Trail of Tears Sesquicentennial Commemorative Medallion. The falling-tear medallion shows a seven-pointed star, the symbol of the seven clans of the Cherokees.[70]

In literature and oral history

  • Family Stories From the Trail of Tears is a collection edited by Lorrie Montiero and transcribed by Grant Foreman, taken from the Indian-Pioneer History Collection[71]

  • Walking the Trail (1991) is a book by Jerry Ellis describing his 900-mile walk retracing of the Trail of Tears in reverse

See also

  • Ethnic cleansing and forced migration, modern terms for the forced relocation of a people

  • Expulsion of the Acadians

  • Hopkinsville, Kentucky

  • Long Walk of the Navajo, a later forced removal

  • Native American genocide

  • Native American slaves

  • Population transfer

  • Potawatomi Trail of Death

  • Timeline of Cherokee removal


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