Trail of Tears

Trail of Tears
The Trail of Tears memorial monument at the New Echota Historic Site in New Echota, Georgia which honors the 4,000 Cherokees who died on the Trail of Tears
Date 1831-1850
Location Southeastern United States and Indian Territory, present-day Oklahoma
Participants U.S. Government, U.S. Army, state militias, Five Civilized Tribes of Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations
Outcome The forced relocation of most of the Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeastern United States to Indian Territory under the Indian Removal Act of 1830 signed by U.S. president Andrew Jackson clearing former Native American lands for white settlement.

Cherokee (4,000)
Seminole (3,000 in Second Seminole War - 1835-1842)
Chickasaw (3,500)

Choctaw (2,500–6,000)

The Trail of Tears was a series of forced removals of Native American nations from their ancestral homelands in the Southeastern United States to an area west of the Mississippi River that had been designated as Indian Territory. The forced relocations were carried out by various government authorities following the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830. The relocated people suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while en route, and more than four thousand died before reaching their various destinations. The removal included members of the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations. The phrase "Trail of Tears" originated from a description of the removal of the Cherokee Nation in 1838. [1]

Between 1830 and 1850, the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee people (including mixed-race and black freedmen and slaves who lived among them) were forcibly removed from their traditional lands in the Southeastern United States, and relocated farther west. [2] Those Native Americans that were relocated were forced to march to their destinations by state and local militias. [3]

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. [4] Approximately 2,000-6,000 of the 16,543 relocated Cherokee perished along the way. [5] [6]

Historical context

Map of United States Indian Removal, 1830-1835. 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, 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. [7]

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 white settlers. Although the effort was vehemently opposed by many, 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. [8] Many Indians remained in their ancestral homelands; some Choctaw are found in Mississippi, Creek in Alabama and Florida, Cherokee in North Carolina, and Seminole in Florida; a small group had moved to the Everglades and were never defeated by the United States government. A limited number of non-Indians, including some of African descent (some as slaves, and others as spouses or freedmen), also accompanied the Indians on the trek westward. [8] 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 white settlement. [8]

Prior to 1830, 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. [9]

Jackson's role

The removals, conducted under Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, followed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The Act 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. [10]

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." [11]

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. [12] 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. [13] Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an account of Cherokee assimilation into the American culture, declaring his support of the Worcester decision. [14]

Jackson chose to continue with Indian removal, and negotiated The Treaty of New Echota, on December 29, 1835, which granted Cherokee Indians 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. [15] 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. [16]


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. [9]

Indians 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.[ citation needed] 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. [17]

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.

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