Trail of Tears

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It is estimated that the Cherokees inhabited the land now known as the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama for hundreds or even thousands of years prior to European contact. For the most part women farmed, and men hunted. The Cherokees governed themselves through consensus and allowed both men and women to join in debates. It was not until European settlers arrived that the ownership of land became an issue and the Cherokees found it necessary to create laws and treaties to protect their homeland.


On 28 November 1785 the Cherokees signed the first of such treaties, the Treaty of Hopewell. This served as a peace treaty between European settlers and the Cherokees intended to ensure protection of Cherokee land. Yet Georgia refused to acknowledge the treaty; in 1828 Georgia outlawed the Cherokee national government, which by 1827 consisted of a constitution that allowed for a bicameral legislature, a chief executive, and a judicial system. The state of Georgia required a loyalty oath for whites living within the Cherokee Nation and created the Georgia Guard to enforce state law. The fate of the Cherokees' land was ultimately determined once gold was discovered in Dahlonega, Georgia, in 1829. As a result President Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) signed the Indian Removal Act on 28 May 1830.

The Cherokee Nation fought removal by taking their case to the Supreme Court in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia in 1831. The Court had to choose whether to uphold the laws of the Cherokee national government or those of the state of Georgia. Chief Justice John Marshall (1755–1835), while declining to rule on the validity of Cherokee law, declared the Cherokee Nation a "domestic dependent nation" that would not be affected by the laws of individual states even though it was considered part of the United States and so was subject to federal rule.

In late December 1830 Georgia passed a law requiring white men to acquire a license from the state before entering Indian country. After the law took effect on 1 March 1831, eleven missionaries were arrested because they had not sought licenses, and nine received pardons from the governor in exchange for a promise that they would obey Georgia law in the future. Samuel A. Worcester and Elizur Butler, who refused the pardon, were sentenced to prison for four years. Their challenge to the verdict came before the Supreme Court in March 1832 as Worcester v. Georgia. The court ruled in favor of the Cherokees and claimed that Georgia law was not valid within the Cherokee Nation. The Georgia Guard continued to enforce state law in the Cherokee Nation in spite of this verdict. When President Jackson did nothing to prevent the guard's attacks on the Cherokee people, some Cherokees began to question the feasibility and success of a continued resistance against removal.

In the midst of Georgia's refusal to recognize the Cherokee Nation, several Cherokees began to lose faith in the idea of resistance. One such figure was Elias Boudinot (1740–1821), who had been educated in a missionary school. Previously Boudinot held the position of editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, the national newspaper printed in English and the Cherokee syllabary. The first issue appeared on 21 February 1828 and was widely read by Native Americans and settlers. Initially Boudinot chose to run articles and editorials that championed the idea of resistance to removal from Georgia. In 1832 his views on resistance began to change in light of Georgia's refusal to recognize the decision in Worcester v. Georgia and President Jackson's refusal to force the state to comply with the federal ruling. At this point Boudinot opened the issue of Indian removal up for debate. Despite his efforts to garner editorials from both sides, the Cherokee Council refused to allow Boudinot to publish articles questioning the feasibility of resistance. As a result he resigned as editor. Perhaps the most notable pieces of resistance literature were the Cherokee Memorials, documents that held the status of petitions in the nineteenth century. These memorials were written by members of the Cherokee Council and citizens to protest the impending Indian Removal Act of 1830.

The majority of Cherokees sided with John Ross (1790–1866), the chief of their tribe, and his efforts to resist removal. However, Boudinot, Major Ridge (1771–1839), and several other Cherokee leaders chose to negotiate with the U.S. Senate and formed what would be known as the Treaty Party. In December 1835 the Treaty Party signed the Treaty of New Echota despite the absence of John Ross and the Cherokee Council. Out of twenty thousand, only two hundred Cherokees met and ratified the treaty that called for their removal west of the Mississippi. The treaty gave the Cherokees two years to prepare for the removal. General Winfield Scott (1786–1866) was placed in charge of the forced removal that later came to be known as the Trail of Tears. The removal began in the summer of 1838, and many Cherokees died from exhaustion, hunger, and disease. In the winter of 1838–1839 fourteen thousand Cherokees marched twelve hundred miles into what is now Oklahoma. It is estimated that four thousand died. On 22 June 1839 a band of Cherokee assassins killed Major Ridge, his son John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot for signing the Treaty of New Echota.


The violent "removal" that came to be known as the Trail of Tears evoked varied responses from the general public and literary world alike. But it was a group of writers who would come to be known as the transcendentalists who seemed to evince the most ardent response. The transcendentalists were drawn to the Cherokees because they perceived them as children of nature and celebrated their primitive connection to the earth. They also found within the Cherokee a character indigenous to American literature. Yet ironically these same authors stressed that the Cherokees should abandon their "primitivism" and assimilate into Western culture if they hoped to escape extinction. The Cherokees' "primitive" nature made for a good read, but in reality this behavior was unacceptable. Many transcendentalists also wrote about the removal of the Cherokees from their homeland. While Ralph Waldo Emerson's (1803–1882) letter to President Martin Van Buren (1782–1862) proves the most direct in his criticism of the Cherokee removals, other transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) and Margaret Fuller (1810–1850) briefly address the Trail of Tears while exploring the impending fate of the Cherokees through their journals and travel writings.

Emerson's letter to President Van Buren was most likely a tribute to his late brother Charles Emerson. Charles wrote several letters to his brothers encouraging them to take a stand on the removals. In 1832 Emerson encountered Major Ridge at Federal Street Church and was captivated by his powerful oratorical abilities (Emerson, "To Charles Chauncy Emerson," p. 346). He wrote Charles informing him that Ridge, in his oratory, took full advantage of the "romance" surrounding the plight of the Indians. In his 1837 lecture "Manners," Emerson romanticizes the "infantile simplicity" of the "Indian in the woods" (p. 135). He also appears to embrace the archetype of the noble savage, a hero who possesses the simplicity of a child. After pressure from his friends and family, Emerson wrote a letter in defense of the Cherokees to President Van Buren on 23 April 1838. In his diary Emerson complains about having to write the letter. He states: "Then is this disaster of Cherokees brought to me by a sad friend to blacken my days & nights. I can do nothing. Why shriek? Why strike ineffectual blows?" (Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks 5:475). Several of Emerson's friends debated the idea of civilizing the noble savage through education and, most importantly, religion. Emerson himself praised the "Apostle" John Eliot, a widely respected missionary responsible for converting many Cherokees to Christianity. Yet in the end the author begins to doubt the Cherokees' ability to assimilate into Western culture based on their own "eternal inferiority." Once Emerson decides to write the letter out of guilt and a sense of duty to his brother, he declares, "I stir in it for the sad reason that no other mortal will move & if I do not, why it is left undone" (Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks 5:477).

In the letter Emerson appeals to the moral sentiment of President Van Buren. He writes in regard to the "sinister rumors" concerning the Cherokees. Emerson acknowledges the achievements of the Cherokees and expresses a sense of indignation at the ratification of the Treaty of New Echota. He refers to it as a "sham treaty" and exposes the egregious circumstances under which it was ratified. Additionally he openly accuses the president and his government of ignoring the crisis of the Cherokee people and shipping them out west. After this declaration, Emerson retreats a bit rhetorically and incredulously asks, "In the name of God, sir, we ask you if this be so?" (p. 543). In addition to appealing to the president's sense of morality, Emerson also introduces the idea of ethics. He claims that never before was there such a "gross misrepresentation" and "denial of justice" (p. 543). Emerson refers to the removals as a crime and suggests that the president will debase his own office and nation if he does not reconsider the removal debate. He claims that he argues on behalf of the people and their sense of duty to civilize the Cherokees. Finally, he warns the president that the citizens have begun to doubt the moral character of their government and have grown despondent. He urges the president in all of his wisdom and authority to adhere to the will of the people and put an end to injustice.

Despite his attempt to alter the fate of the Cherokee, Emerson romanticizes them as a children of nature who merely need to adopt the ways of civilization in order to survive. Similar to Emerson, Thoreau depicted the Native American as possessing a lost innocence. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and selected portions of Walden, Thoreau celebrates the Native American's primitivism and animal nature. In his Journal dated 1837–1846 he suggests that the Cherokees' primitive role as hunters is what will seal their doomed fate. Thoreau suggests that the Cherokee should "forsake the hunter's life and enter into the agricultural, the second, state of man" (p. 444). Here the author expresses frustration over the Cherokees' refusal to evolve as farmers. He claims that "if they had grasped their [plow] handles more firmly, they would never have been driven beyond the Mississippi" (p. 446). Thoreau explains that white farmers would not think twice about taking land that is hunted as opposed to land that is farmed. Thoreau, who spent much of his life as a surveyor in the Concord area, aptly notes that the hunting field lacks clear property boundaries, unlike those around a farm. According to Thoreau, the land is "property not held by the hunter so much as by the game which roams it, and was never well secured by warranty deeds" (p. 446). Thus, according to the author, the Cherokees' refusal to assimilate into an agricultural-based economy that stresses landownership is what led to their removal.

Margaret Fuller, like Emerson and Thoreau, felt pressed to address the plight of the Cherokees. In her 1844 memoir Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 she comments on the Indian's unique, spiritual appreciation of nature. She also compares him to a Greek tragic hero of sorts. Throughout most of the work, Fuller is most invested in unearthing the plight of the Native American woman and comparing and contrasting her fate to that of the European woman. Fuller also ponders the fate of the Native Americans as a whole and at one point offers amalgamation as the answer. She quickly decides that this is not an option because "those of mixed blood fade early, and are not generally a fine race" (p. 96). Her final suggestion is to allow the Native Americans to govern themselves, yet she questions rather fatalistically that "the designs of such [plans] will not always be frustrated by barbarous selfishness, as they were in Georgia" (p. 101). Here Fuller suggests that even if the Cherokees did have competent leaders to act on their behalf, they would still be confronted with Georgia's oppressive state laws.

Retrospectively Fuller's comments about the future of the Cherokees proved rather prophetic. She felt, as did the members of the Treaty Party, that resistance against the state laws of Georgia would prove futile. Thoreau as well somewhat echoed her sentiments. He felt that the answer to the Cherokee's success could be found in agriculture, yet he still considered them a doomed race. Emerson's letter to President Van Buren and the Cherokee Memorials pose the most convincing arguments for resistance to removal. Ironically the majority of the Cherokees were against removal, yet the few men who signed the Treaty of New Echota ultimately determined the fate of the Cherokee people.

See alsoCherokee Memorials; Ethnology; Indians; Indian Wars and Dispossession; Oratory; Romanticism; Transcendentalism


Primary Works

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Journals and MiscellaneousNotebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Vol. 5, 1835–1838, edited by Merton M. Sealts Jr. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Manners." In The Early Lectures ofRalph Waldo Emerson, vol. 2, 1836–1838, edited by Stephen E. Whicher, Robert E. Spiller, and Wallace E. Williams. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1964.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "To Charles Chauncy Emerson, Boston, March 4, 1832." In The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Ralph L. Rusk, pp. 345–347. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "To Martin Van Buren, Concord, April 23, 1838." In Emerson's Prose and Poetry, edited by Joel Porte and Saundra Morris. New York: Norton, 2001.

Fuller, Margaret. Summer on the Lakes. 1844. 2nd ed. Edited by Arthur B. Fuller. New York: Haskell House, 1970.

Marshall, John. Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. 1831. Edited by Nathan Aaseng. San Diego, Calif.: Lucent Books, 2000.

Marshall, John. Worcester v. Georgia. 1832. In The CherokeeRemoval: A Brief History with Documents, edited by Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1995.

Thoreau, Henry D. The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau,1837–1846. 1906. Edited by Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949.

Secondary Works

Alexander, Floyce. "Emerson and the Cherokee Removal." ESQ 29, no. 3 (1983): 127–137.

Bellin, Joshua David. "Apostle of Removal: John Eliot in the Nineteenth Century." New England Quarterly 69, no. 1 (1996): 3–32.

Ehle, John. Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

Foreman, Grant. Indian Removal: The Emigration of theFive Civilized Tribes of Indians. 1932. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953.

Garvey, Gregory T. "Mediating Citizenship: Emerson, the Cherokee Removals, and the Rhetoric of Nationalism." Centennial Review (1997): 461–469.

Johoda, Gloria. The Trail of Tears. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1975.

Maddox, Lucy. Removals: Nineteenth-Century AmericanLiterature and the Politics of Indian Affairs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

McLoughlin, William G. Cherokees and Missionaries,1789–1839. 1984. Foreword by William L. Anderson. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.

Perdue, Theda, ed. Cherokee Editor: The Writings of Elias Boudinot. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983.

Perdue, Theda, and Michael D. Green, eds. The CherokeeRemoval: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1995.

Remini, Robert V. Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars. New York: Viking, 2001.

Rozema, Vicki. Cherokee Voices: Early Accounts of Cherokee Life in the East. Winston-Salem, N.C.: J. F. Blair, 2002.

Jennifer M. Wing

Trail of Tears

views updated May 21 2018


By the 1780s war, disease, and starvation had killed most American Indians living along the eastern seaboard of North America. As white settlers pressed further inland in the early 1800s, many of the indigenous groups resisted further encroachment. Some seized on the opportunity to side with Britain in the American Revolutionary War (17751783) and again in the War of 1812 (18121814). But the Native Americans had picked the losing side, and after the latter war, General Andrew Jackson (17671845) devastated the settlements of the Creeks and other hostile Indian groups.

In contrast to the Creeks, the Cherokee had earlier accepted the U.S. presence as inevitable and adopted a peaceful policy of accommodation and coexistence. On the basis of a treaty signed with the United States in 1791, the Cherokee continued to live on their traditional lands in the hills of northwest Georgia and western North Carolina. During the early 1800s the Cherokee went through a remarkable period of cultural change. They adopted an agrarian economy in place of traditional hunting and gathering. Some Cherokee even became owners of plantations with slaves. Others became involved in commerce, managing stores, mills, and other businesses. Impressed with the benefits of reading and writing, a Cherokee silversmith, Sequoia, created a Cherokee alphabet that was quickly adopted. By the 1820s the Cherokee had established written laws and a constitution.

Between 1819 and 1829 the Cherokees developed an independent nation within U.S. boundaries. They adopted a constitution. As the Cherokees flourished, the white settlers grew resentful. The Georgia statehouse pressed the Cherokees to sell their land, which the Cherokee were reluctant to do. With the discovery of gold in Cherokee country in 1829 the State of Georgia increased the pressure on the Cherokee. President Andrew Jackson (18291837) signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that provided funds for removal of eastern Indians beyond the Mississippi River. The State of Georgia annulled the Cherokee constitution and ordered their lands seized.

The Cherokee hired a lawyer who argued the case all the way to the Supreme Court. In his ruling, Chief Justice John Marshall agreed that the State of Georgia had no right to enter Cherokee lands and to displace the indigenous people. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Cherokee v. Georgia (1831), acknowledging Cherokee's right to their lands and their sovereignty as a nation, Jackson continued to support Georgia's efforts at their removal. After Marshall's ruling Jackson remarked, "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it."

Jackson persuaded Congress to grant the funds for the relocation of the Cherokee. Finally in 1835, after years of harassment and antagonism, a small group of Cherokee ceded by treaty all lands occupied by the Cherokee east of the Mississippi. The Cherokee peoples were given two years to vacate the transferred lands and move to a special Indian territory created by Congress in 1834 in what latter became Oklahoma.

Many Cherokee resisted removal. As the deadline approached in 1837, President Martin Van Buren (18371841) ordered federal authorities to force the Cherokee from their homes and place them in temporary detention camps. The Cherokee remained in the camps through the typically hot sweltering southeast summer and diseases began to spread. Suffering from dysentery, measles, and whooping cough, some two thousand died. Finally that October over fifteen thousand men, women, and children began a six-month, thousand-mile journey to the very unfamiliar country of Oklahoma. Most went overland from northwest Georgia, across central Tennessee, western Kentucky, southern Illinois, southern Missouri, and northern Arkansas, to Ft. Gibson in eastern Oklahoma. A smaller number were taken by flatboat down the Tennessee River to the Mississippi River and then up the Arkansas River. While en route, lacking adequate food, shelter, and clothing, another two thousand died from exposure, disease, and exhaustion. The Cherokee buried their dead along the route that became known as the "Trail of Tears." The forced march became one of the most tragic and dishonorable chapters in U.S.-Indian relations.

The Cherokee reestablished their agrarian society in the hills of northeastern Oklahoma. They soon setup a new government and signed a constitution in 1839. Tahlequah, Oklahoma became the capital for the displaced population. During the 1837 roundup, rather than leave for Oklahoma, a thousand or more Cherokee had fled into remote areas of the East including the Great Smoky Mountains. They later received federal recognition, also, as the Cherokee of the North Carolina Qualla Reservation.

Departure of the Cherokee population left only scattered indigenous groups in the Southeast. By 1842 most of the Five Civilized Tribesthe Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminolehad been removed from their prosperous farms and plantations and resettled on the southeast to government-assigned lands in Oklahoma. The last of the Seminoles of Florida were removed in 1858.

The Cherokee's forced removal dramatized the fate of indigenous populations in the face of U.S. agricultural expansion. The tide of U.S. expansion eventually overwhelmed even those tribes with peaceful policies and firmly established economies. The Trail of Tears was later designated a National Historic Trail by Congress.

See also: Georgia, Andrew Jackson, Oklahoma


Anderson, William L., ed. Cherokee Removal: Before and After. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1991.

Gilbert, Joan. The Trail of Tears Across Missouri. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1996.

Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler. Old Hickory's War: Andrew Jackson and the Quest for Empire. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1996.

McLoughlin, William G. After the Trail of Tears: The Cherokees' Struggle for Sovereignty, 18391880. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Remini, Robert V. The Legacy of Andrew Jackson: Essays on Democracy, Indian Removal, and Slavery. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.

Rice, Horace R. The Buffalo Ridge Cherokee: A Remnant of a Great Nation Divided. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1995.

Wilkins, Thurman. Cherokee Tragedy: The Ridge Family and the Decimation of a People, 2nd ed. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986.

despite the u.s. supreme court decision in cherokee v. georgia (1831), acknowledging cherokee's right to their lands and their sovereignty as a nation, jackson continued to support georgia's efforts at their removal. after marshall's ruling jackson remarked, "john marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it."

Trail of Tears

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Trail of Tears

At the time of European entry into North America, the Cherokee Nation included a large portion of the southern United States. Over the years, however, treaties and military actions reduced the Cherokee lands to an area comprised of western North Carolina, southeastern Tennessee, northern Georgia, and northeastern Alabama. Even here, the Cherokee, a number of whom were educated and literate, lived under the legislative control of whites without recourse to personal legal protection.

As early as 1810 a group known as the Western Cherokee had migrated to Arkansas Territory. Over the years others followed, including the illustrious Sequoyah, inventor of the world-famous Cherokee Syllabary (or Cherokee alphabet). During 1828 these Cherokee traded their Arkansas lands for others in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).

Two events in 1828 exacerbated the situation for the Cherokee Nation: the election of Andrew Jackson as president of the United States and the discovery of gold on the Cherokee lands of northern Georgia, spawning state laws that annexed the lands for gold-mining and stripped the Cherokee of legal redress from whites. Despite the determined opposition of Cherokee chief John Ross, in 1830 Jackson was able to push through Congress an Indian Removal Bill that would remove, on a so-called voluntary basis, all Eastern Indian tribes to west of the Mississippi River. His administration further supported the power of the states, in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court, to usurp solemn treaties made with the Cherokee and other tribes. During the winter of 1831–1832 Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that U.S. treaties overrode the laws of the state of Georgia. Jackson supposedly replied, "John Marshall has rendered his decision; now let him enforce it" (Woodward, 1963, p. 171).

When Ross, backed by the Cherokee full-blood majority, stubbornly refused to accede to Jackson's demands, Jackson subverted the accepted Cherokee form of governance and conspired with a group of Cherokee intellectuals who were amenable to removal. Through his representative, the Reverend John F. Schermerhorn, Jackson was able to negotiate the 1835 Treaty of New Echota with the ad hoc group. By this treaty the Cherokee Nation ceded all its lands east of the Mississippi to the United States for a sum of $3.25 million and agreed to relocate to new lands in Indian Territory. A U.S. officer who witnessed the treaty signing opined that if placed before the Cherokee people, the treaty would have been rejected by nine-tenths of them. Former president John Quincy Adams called the treaty "an eternal disgrace upon the country" (Eaton, 1914, p. 55).

Once the Treaty of New Echota was ratified by Congress, Jackson issued a proclamation decreeing that the United States no longer recognized the existing Cherokee governance. U.S. troops commenced rounding up Cherokee and herding them to collection camps at U.S. military posts during 1837 and 1838. Without prior notice terrified families were forced from their homes and driven off their lands, leaving behind all they owned. At times wives, husbands, and children were separated from one another. Often they were abused and degraded by the troops (Jones, 1838, p. 236).

During 1837 and the spring of 1838 over two thousand Cherokee were rounded up by the army and removed forcibly to the West. Traveling both by river and overland, some of these parties suffered cholera and other illnesses, many dying en route. Another twenty-three hundred of the Pro-Treaty Party departed voluntarily, taking an overland wagon route by way of Memphis. A number of Cherokee escaped troops by hiding out in the mountains of western North Carolina.

With a severe drought delaying removal through the summer and fall of 1838, some twelve thousand Cherokee remained imprisoned in the cramped, disease-ridden stockade pens without bedding, cooking utensils, spare clothing, sanitation facilities, fresh drinking water, adequate food, medical attention, or shelter from the blazing sun. Official records indicate that 353 Cherokee died in the camps, but most historians believe the number was much larger.

Eventually, the surviving Cherokee were moved to collection points for their forced march to Indian Territory. Fort Payne, Alabama, served as one point of debarkation for a party that, lacking tents, blankets, and even shoes, took a middle route through northern Arkansas. Another group was formed at Ross's Landing near Chattanooga. By far the greatest number of Cherokee were herded into camps at Calhoun Agency's Rattlesnake Springs near present-day Charleston, Tennessee.

Here, principally, began the infamous Cherokee Trail of Tears, which followed a winter-imperiled, 800-mile route through Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri. Detachments of overland wagon caravans organized and departed through October and November 1838 on their fateful three-month journey. Each of these was under the control of Cherokee Nation captains and light-horse police, Ross having convinced General Winfield Scott that the Cherokee themselves could best manage their own removal.

As the first dazed contingent pushed off from Rattlesnake Springs on October 1, the mixed-blood scholar William Shorey Coodey expressed his deep pathos. "Pangs of parting," he observed, "are tearing the hearts of our bravest men at this forced abandonment of their dear lov'd country" (Hoig, 1996, p. 3).

Even at the start of the foreboding three months on the trail, there were problems. Children, the elderly, and those weak with illnesses contracted in the camps were loaded into the few wagons available. Many others were forced to walk and carry whatever goods they possessed. Once on the move, they suffered from billowing trail dust or, when the rains came, wheel-clogging mud that once dried, left deep, travel-impeding ruts. But worse problems developed when severe weather arrived. By the time the lead caravans reached Kentucky, an early blizzard struck, bringing punishing temperatures along with blowing snow and icy roads that made travel even more difficult. Canvas wagon covers provided scant protection at night.

Members of the caravan had already begun to die, among them proud elderly Chief White Path, who in 1827 led a rebellion against white influence on his people. He was buried along the trail near Hopkinsville, Kentucky; his grave is marked by a long pole and linen flag.

A traveler from Maine, who encountered the Cherokee exodus in early December, observed the wagons loaded with the sick, feeble, and dying as the majority of the Cherokee struggled forth against the fleshnumbing winds. One young Cherokee mother "could only carry her dying child a few miles further, and then she must stop in a stranger land and consign her much loved babe to the cold ground and pass on with the multitude" (New York Observer, 1839).

The Cherokee agony grew even worse upon reaching the ice-clogged Ohio River and beyond. Blasts of snow and freezing rain plagued the march; dysentery, whooping cough, and other diseases decimated the doctorless caravans. Funerals were conducted at almost every camping place, leaving a pathetic line of gravesites to mark the route across southern Illinois and Missouri. "For what crime," missionary David Butrick moaned, "was this whole nation doomed?" (Kutsche, 1986).

The death toll for the Cherokee removal and Trail of Tears has been estimated to be as high as four thousand. This does not include fatalities that occurred during the tribe's painful resettlement in the wilds of Indian Territory. Nor was even the loss of homes and property in their former Nation as disastrous as the intense rancor and divisiveness that the removal had caused among the Cherokee themselves. It would wrench their Nation apart and lead to years of factional bloodshed.

SEE ALSO Forcible Transfer; Indigenous Peoples; Native Americans


Eaton, Rachel Caroline (1914). John Ross and the Cherokee Indians. Menasha, Wis.: George Banta Publishing.

Hoig, Stanley W. (1998). The Cherokees and Their Chiefs: In the Wake of Empire. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.

Hoig, Stan (1996). Night of the Cruel Moon: Cherokee Removal and the Trail of Tears. New York: Facts on File.

Jones, Evans (1838). Baptist Missionary Magazine (September)18:236.

Kutsche, Paul (1986). "Butrick Journal." In ABC Documents 4519, 18.3.3, vol. 4, dating to October 1838.

New York Observer, January 26, 1839.

Woodward, Grace Steele (1963). The Cherokees. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press

Stan Hoig

Trail of Tears

views updated Jun 08 2018

Trail of Tears


Andrew Jacksons 1828 election as U.S. president presaged congressional approval of the Indian Removal Act, which initiated processes that led in the mid- and late 1830s to the notorious Trail of Tears. Although Jackson justified his actions in compelling relocation of southeastern Indian tribes to plains west of the Mississippi River as a just, humane, liberal policy, implementation led to widespread suffering, cruel deprivation, and painful deaths for many. All told, perhaps 60,000 Choctaws, Chickasaws, Cherokees, Creeks, and Seminoles found themselves uprooted from traditional homes; the ordeal experienced by Cherokees stands out as emblematic of the policys inhumanity.

Understanding of the Trail of Tears and its impact requires recognition of circumstances then prevalent in the United States and of the targets of Jacksons policy other than Native Americans. For example, beginning with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase certain national leaders including Thomas Jefferson and, later, John C. Calhoun had argued for relocation as the only permanent solution to the Indian problem. Controversy greeted such calls, but national policy by the time of the Jackson presidency offered Native Americans a strictly limited number of options: acculturation, relocation, or extermination.

Meanwhile, egalitarian and antislavery tides of the American Revolutionary period had subsided in the wake of profound changes in American life. First, a rising tide of immigration had begun to swell the nations northern cities. This created competition for livelihoods between the new arrivals, particularly the Irish, and free blacks at a time when Jackson and his allies courted the white immigrant vote. Extension of the Cotton Kingdom in the South coincidentally created huge demands for new lands and slave labor, as well as for enhanced governmental protections for chattel slavery. Further accelerating the processes at play were European intellectuals who formulated supposedly scientific theories regarding race, racial superiority, and racial inferiority. As a result, the nation found itself accepting new racist concepts that countenanced harsh and arbitrary treatment of Indians and black Americans.

Finally, Jacksons personal experiences contributed to the implementation of racist policy. He repeatedly had invaded Spanish Florida to suppress challenges to southern expansion posed by the defiance of Upper (or Red Stick) Creek warriors and of maroon fighters later called Black Seminoles. His troops had destroyed the Apalachicola River Negro Fort in 1816; battled maroons at the Suwannee River in 1818; and, through the agency of Lower Creek raiders, obliterated the Tampa Bay area sanctuary known as Angola in 1821. Having failed to subdue his nemeses, Jackson aimed early implementation of the removal policy at Florida. By 1835 his actions led to the outbreak of the Second Seminole War, the longest Indian war and, arguably, the largest slave uprising in U.S. history. As noted by General Thomas Jesup, [This is] a negro and not an Indian War. Eventually, the Black Seminoles accepted western relocation but mostly after negotiated surrender rather than by military defeat. Thus, the Trail of Tears saw African Americans, as well as Native Americans, paying dearly for political and social changes that had placed the nation on the road to Civil War.

SEE ALSO American Indian Movement; Native Americans; Tribalism; Tribe


Brown, Canter, Jr. 2005. Tales of Angola: Free Blacks, Red Stick Creeks, and International Intrigue in Spanish Southwest Florida, 18121821. In Go Sound the Trumpet! Selections in Floridas African American History, eds. David H. Jackson Jr. and Canter Brown Jr., 521. Tampa, FL: University of Tampa Press.

Ehle, John. 1988. Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation. New York: Doubleday.

Landers, Jane. 1999. Black Society in Spanish Florida. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Porter, Kenneth W. 1996. The Black Seminoles: History of a Freedom-Seeking People. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Rivers, Larry Eugene. 2000. Slavery in Florida, Territorial Days to Emancipation. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Larry Eugene Rivers

Trail of Tears

views updated May 18 2018

Trail of Tears

Most Native Americans living along the eastern seaboard of North America were dead by the 1780s. Those who had managed to survive war, disease, and starvation were focused on resisting further encroachment by white settlers. Some sided with Britain to fight America in the American Revolution (1775–83) and the War of 1812 (1812–15). Britain was the losing side both times, however, and after the War of 1812, General Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; served 1829–37) destroyed the settlements of the Creeks and other hostile Native American groups.

Unlike the Creeks, the Cherokee had already accepted the presence of white settlers as inevitable and had adopted a peaceful policy of coexistence. According to a treaty signed with the United States government in 1791, the Cherokee continued to live on their traditional lands in the hills of northwest Georgia and western North Carolina . The early 1800s brought about tremendous cultural change as the Cherokee adopted an agrarian (agricultural) economy in place of their traditional hunting and gathering. Some became plantation owners with slaves while others became involved in business. By the 1820s, the Cherokee had established written laws and a constitution by which they lived.


As the Cherokee nation thrived, white settlers grew resentful. The state of Georgia wanted them to sell their land, which they were hesitant to do. When gold was discovered in Cherokee country in 1829, the state increased its pressure to sell, but the Cherokee refused. The Indian Removal Act of 1839 provided funds for the removal of eastern Native Americans beyond the Mississippi River, and the state of George declared the Cherokee constitution invalid. The state government ordered the seizure of all Cherokee land.

The Cherokee had willingly worked with the government all along, but they were not about to let them take what legally belonged to them. They hired a lawyer who argued their case to the Supreme Court . In 1831, Chief Justice John Marshall (1755–1835) agreed with the Cherokee nation and ruled in their favor. U.S. president Andrew Jackson, however, continued to support Georgia's efforts to remove the Cherokee. He persuaded Congress to grant funding for the relocation of the Cherokee. In 1835, a small group of Cherokee, worn out by years of antagonism, gave the government all lands occupied by them east of the Mississippi River. They were given two years to vacate the lands and move to a special Indian Territory created by Congress in 1834. This land would later become Oklahoma .

Aside from that small group, the Cherokee resisted their forced removal. As 1837 approached, President Martin Van Buren (1782–1862; served 1837–41) ordered federal authorities to force the Cherokee to leave. They would live in temporary detention camps.

They remained in these camps throughout the sweltering southern summer months, and soon their numbers were decimated by disease. More than two thousand died from measles, whooping cough, and other illnesses. In October, more than fifteen thousand men, women, and children began a six-month, thousand-mile journey to the unfamiliar territory that would be their new home.

Most Cherokee went on foot from Georgia, across central Tennessee , western Kentucky , southern Illinois , southern Missouri , and northern Arkansas , to Fort Gibson in eastern Oklahoma. A smaller number were taken by boat. Those on foot lacked adequate food, shelter, and clothing. Around two thousand Cherokee died from disease, exposure, and exhaustion. The proud Cherokee buried their dead along the route that eventually became known as the “Trail of Tears.” This dark event is one of the most tragic in U.S.-Native American relations.

A dying breed

The Cherokee reestablished their agrarian society, and by 1839 had a new government and constitution in place. By 1842, most of what were known as the Five Civilized Tribes—Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole—had been forcibly relocated to government-assigned land in Oklahoma. In 1858, the last of the Seminoles were removed from Florida .

Trail of Tears

views updated May 21 2018


TRAIL OF TEARS, most closely associated with the Cherokees, is perhaps the most well known injustice done to Native Americans during the removal period of the 1830s. Historically, the Cherokees occupied lands in several southeastern states including North Carolina and Georgia. Acting under the Removal Act of 1830, federal authorities sought to win the tribe's agreement to exchange tribal lands for a reservation in the West. In 1835, approximately 500 Cherokees, none of them elected officials of the Cherokee nation, gathered in New Echota, Georgia, and signed a treaty ceding all Cherokee territory east of the Mississippi to the United States in exchange for $5 million and new homelands in Indian Territory (modern Oklahoma). Though a majority of the tribe protested this illegal treaty, it was ratified—by a single vote—by the U.S. Senate on 23 May 1836.

In May 1838, federal troops and state militia units supervised by General Winfield Scott rounded up the Cherokees who refused to accept the New Echota agreement and held them in concentration camps until they were sent west in groups of approximately 1,000 each. Three groups left that summer, traveling 800 miles from Chattanooga by rail, boat, and wagon, primarily on the water route. In November, with river levels too low for navigation and with inadequate clothing and supplies, twelve more groups traveled overland, under close military supervision and primarily on foot, in spite of roads rendered impassable by autumn rains and the subsequent onset of winter. By March 1839, all survivors had arrived in their new home. Of the 15,000 Cherokees who began the journey, about 4,000—a fifth of the total Cherokee population—perished along the route.

Though local and state governments along with private organizations and individuals made some efforts to recognize this tragic event in American history, it was not until 1987 that Congress designated the Trail of Tears as a National Historic Trail under the supervision of the National Park Service.


Anderson, William L., ed. Cherokee Removal: Before and After. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991.

Hoig, Stan. Night of the Cruel Moon: Cherokee Removal and the Trail of Tears. New York: Facts on File, 1996.

National Park Service. Certification Guide: Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. Santa Fe, N. Mex.: National Park Service, 1994.

Perdue, Theda, and Michael D. Green, eds. The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1995.


See alsoCherokee ; Cherokee Nation Cases ; Indian Land Cessions ; Indian Removal ; Indian Territory ; Removal Act of 1830 .

Trail of Tears

views updated May 09 2018

Trail of Tears (1838–39).In the late eighteenth century, the Cherokees led all other tribes in responding to George Washington's policy of assimilation, establishing a written constitution, a bicameral legislature, and a supreme court. White Americans, however, sought their removal in order to use their land “more efficiently,” and President Andrew Jackson asked Congress to remove them west of the Mississippi. The Removal Bill and the failure to enforce the Worcester v. Georgia (1832) decision sealed the Cherokees' doom. A few unauthorized headmen signed away the nation's remaining land at New Echota, in present day Georgia, in December 1835, and the government gave them two years to remove themselves.

By May 1838, only 2,000 of approximately 16,000 Cherokees had moved, and Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott entered Cherokee territory with about 2,200 federal troops and nearly 5,000 state volunteers from Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, and Tennessee. They herded the Cherokees into stockades, and then, in June, forced three groups—approximately 2,745 men, women, and children—to begin the 850‐mile march from Tennessee to Indian territory. Sickness and death in the stockades led Chief John Ross to request a delay until cooler weather. The remainder were removed, in thirteen detachments, between 23 August and 5 December 1838. Approximately 4,000 died as a result of their ordeal, most not on the trail itself.

Cherokee removal—the Trail of Tears—remains one of the greatest tragedies that the United States has inflicted upon a minority population. Removal and assimilation, however, remained incomplete. Remnants of the tribe comprise the Eastern Bank of Cherokees today, and many preserve traditional culture.
[See also Native Americans, U.S. Military Relations with.]


William L. Anderson, ed., Cherokee Removal Before and After, 1991.
Theda Perdue and and Michael D. Green , Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents, 1994.

William L. Anderson