Trail of Tears, A Brief History

From the time Europeans arrived in the New World, they wrestled with how to live alongside native people in peace. In 1803, Thomas Jefferson was the first president to publicly support the removal of Indians and for the next 25 years eastern tribes were forced west. Some of the Cherokee moved west on their own to put distance between themselves and the expanding American republic. But most were forcibly moved to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Removal actions accelerated with the election of President Andrew Jackson in 1828 and then in 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, providing “for an exchange of lands with the Indians residing in any of the states or territories, and for their removal west of the river Mississippi.” During this time, the state of Georgia, home of the Cherokee, also passed laws prohibiting them from conducting tribal business, testifying against whites and mining for gold. The Cherokee Nation responded however, with leaders who had studied and learned the US legal system and were determined to fight for their land and people. In 1832, in Worcester vs. Georgia, the US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Cherokee held sovereign land rights. However, President Jackson openly dismissed the ruling and demanded that one by one, tribes be removed.

In 1835, a minority of Cherokee leaders, acting outside the authority of the Cherokee government, signed the Treaty of New Echota. This treaty set the conditions for removal: In exchange for $5 million, the tribe would relocate to the West. Most Cherokee protested the treaty, but in 1838, in an event known as the Trail of Tears, over 15,000 Cherokee were forced from their homes, many at the hands of federal troops and state militia.

Between the years 1837-1839 the Cherokee, Creek and even enslaved African Americans were removed to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) via multiple routes across the country.

The removal included members of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw 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 “Round Up” routes were used by the US government starting on May 24, 1838. The Cherokee were forced off their land and out of their homes by gunpoint and sometimes even in chains. Many were separated from their family members, never to be reunited again. They were forcibly placed in removal camps, also known as “emigrating depots,” where they then awaited the start of their 800-mile journey. Many of these detention camps were in very poor condition, which lead to the rapid outbreak of disease. The Water, Northern, Taylor, Benge and Bell routes were used by different removal detachments during this time period to escort thousands of Cherokee to the land designated for them in the West. It took sixx and a half to eight months for the Cherokee to travel the designated routes. Many Cherokee perished along each of these routes as harsh weather conditions, poor food supplies and the spread of sickness persisted. The last detachment to arrive in the Indian Territory occurred on March 24, 1839. Hundreds of Cherokee lives were lost along the Trail of Tears. The phrase “Trail of Tears” originated from a description of the removal of the Choctaw Nation in 1831.

Some Additional Resources about the Trail of Tears:

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