The Trail of Tears

American schoolchildren are presented with history books that attempt to sugarcoat the United States role in the Trail of Tears. This is because, to win approval for school distribution, textbook authors and editors regularly water down chapters that would cast the government in a negative light.

You can blame this on patriotism, but it is still a dangerous way to teach. As George Santayana famously said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” and I believe that constitutes a direct shot at revisionist textbooks.

I have studied the Trail of Tears extensively, and what you will read here is unbiased. To properly appreciate the horrors the event, we need to travel back in time to understand the pressure that was building for centuries before.

Colonialism Arrives in the New World

We can start with the settlement of Jamestown in 1607. It began innocently enough, with the English there struggling mightily to sustain the foothold for several years.

During that time, the English met the surrounding Native Americans. Both parties were fascinated by the other, and the English actively traded things they’d brought from Europe for a combination of provisions and knowledge.

The English, much like the European settlers to follow throughout the rest of the 17th century, relied on the native for survival. Not surprisingly, they adopted Indian methods for vital skills such as hunting and agriculture.

But Europeans considered Native Americans to be little more than savages. The peaceful relations served the need to sustain the settlement, of course, but England (and other European countries) saw colonization as the pathway to growth.

Remember that Europe was, by this time, fully established. The only way to expand on their home continent was through war, but the New World offered expansion with far less bloodshed.

In fact, Queen Elizabeth was led to believe that there’d be little, if any, fight from the Indians around Jamestown. She pushed for more expansion as reports came back to England of the marvelous bounty of resources discovered by her colonists.

I’ll spare you the blow by blow account of the next 100+ years, but only because the story remains the same. European settlers were captivated by the race to claim and colonize these resource-laden lands.

The English Settlers Meet the Cherokee Indians

There’s debate about exactly when the English settlers first encountered the Cherokee Indians, but a simple geography lesson tells us that it was inevitable. The original Jamestown settlers had been reinforced by tens of thousands more English who set about expanding the Virginia colony.

cherokee meet european settlers
Courtesy – Museum of the Cherokee Indian

Concurrently, the Cherokee Indians had settled throughout the southern end of what would come to be known as the Great Appalachian Valley. So the top of the Cherokee homeland stretched into the western part of what we now call the State of Virginia. With the colonists pushing inland from the east, it was inevitable that the two would meet.

By the time this happened in 1673, the Cherokee had developed some experience trading deerskins to settlers in South Carolina. The Indians needed tools that Europeans crafted from both steel and iron, so it was a friendship of convenience.

The Anglo-Cherokee War

For the most part, Anglo-Cherokee relations were peaceful until the middle of the 18th century. To be sure, it was a period of continued expansion for the colonists, but the Cherokee found it advantageous to ally until British territorial aggressiveness finally shattered the relationship in 1758.

The Anglo-Cherokee war began over a dispute regarding horse theft, but deeper issues of sovereignty and territorial encroachment were at the heart of it. When hostilities ended three years later, there was still a great deal of contention between both sides.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the End of British Colonial Rule

In 1763, King George III used royal proclamation to place a moratorium on the British settlements west of the Appalachian mountains, but it proved nearly impossible to enforce and it did little to repair the damaged relationship.

The Cherokee held on to most of their homeland successfully until the War of Independence officially ended British rule. This was made easier by the general belief that Appalachian land was relatively unattractive from a resource standpoint, not to mention colder in Winter and less attractive for farming.

The United States Policy on American Indian Relations

Britain’s defeat in the American Revolutionary War was not a positive outcome for Indians. Most tribes, including the Cherokee, had allied with the Crown. There was general consensus that independence would result in even more aggressive expansion.

Not surprisingly, America’s fledgling federal government did very little to quell those fears. It was, after all, a government formed to disperse power rather than consolidate it.

The States were left to create their own Native American policy and many were determined to punish the tribes for their siding with Britain. It would still be more than fifty years before the term “Manifest Destiny” would be coined by newspaper editor John O’Sullivan, but Americans were already convinced that westward expansion was their entitlement.

It would still be decades before settler expansion would trigger forced relocation of large tribes. But lawmakers and courts made certain that Indian tribes could do little more than argue for a place to go when such a dispute arose.

The Lust for Gold Comes to Georgia

With the discovery of gold in Georgia in 1829, a land rush developed instantly. Much of where the gold was found happened to be on Cherokee land. The white men of the area began to immediately look for a way to remove the Native Americans from the land and claim it as their own.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was the first step toward accomplishing that. Backed by then President Andrew Jackson, it permitted the US government to negotiate with the Native Americans for their land and offer them substitute land west of the Mississippi.

According to the terms of the Act, tribes were to be compensated for their trouble and all migration costs were to be covered by the government. The Indians were also to be provided assistance in moving their families and belongings to these new lands.

Many skeptical natives began to move to Mexico. But the Mexican government became alarmed at how many were immigrating and imposed restrictions.

chief justice John Marshall
The Supreme Court, under the leadership of chief justice John Marshall ruled that Indian tribes were independent nations and not protected by federal law.

Things came to a head in 1831 when the state of Georgia moved to impose jurisdiction over the Cherokee people. The Cherokee Nation v. State of Georgia brought the problem to national prominence.

The chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, declared that Native American tribes were independent nations that should be capable of taking care of their own affairs.

In 1833, the Choctaw Nation was forcibly removed and “escorted” by armed guard to western territories. This set a precedent for things to come. Two years later, the Seminoles defied any attempts at forced removal of their people and started a war that would last for seven years.

Meanwhile, the Cherokee had been under extreme pressure by the state of Georgia to remove from their lands and relocate. This included both state-sanctioned and unsanctioned harassment of the Cherokee people on a regular basis.

Finally, in 1835, weary of their mistreatment by the state of Georgia and hoping to avoid a war like the Seminole and Choctaw were experiencing, the Cherokee signed a treaty that would have them give up their Georgia lands and relocate 2,200 miles away.

The preparation and negotiation would stretch out over a period of nearly three years. But the delay pushed Government patience and conflict began to appear inevitable.

A Journey of Death – Into the Cruel Woods

On May 1838, 7,000 US soldiers entered the Cherokee lands in Georgia and forced the Native Americans from their homes. The men were led to the stockades, arrested while working in the fields for no other crime than being born a Native American.

The women and children were corralled into wagons with whatever belongings they had on them at the time. Very few had blankets with them for the cold and rainy nights ahead. Many were not given time to put on shoes and had to walk barefoot for the length of the journey. Grieving parents were not even given time to bury their dead properly.

The Indian Removal Act forced relocation from Georgia to Oklahoma
This sign marks the path of the infamous Trail of Tears stretching from Georgia to Oklahoma

The Trail of Tears is a term used to describe the forced relocation of the Cherokee Nation from Georgia to the Indian Territory in the western United States. Actually, there were two main paths, one known as the Northern Route and the other as the Water Route.

Each trail was over 2,000 miles long, crossing nine states combined, and along the way more than a third of all Cherokee people died. For the Cherokee Nation, this incident is known as the “The Trail Where They Cried.”

Under orders from General Winfield Scott, the Cherokee were pushed along the trail at a merciless pace, only stopping when their “escorts” allowed it. Many of the soldiers, 3,000 in fact were volunteers. Many of them sympathized with the natives’ plight and some even tried to stop the numerous beatings and mistreatment of the natives along the way. But they were quickly punished by their superiors and locked in stockades for their compassion.

Death was a regular occurrence on the trail, and it wasn’t unusual to lose 20 Cherokee in a single night to pneumonia and mistreatment. Very few of them had ample protection against the elements, so the old and very young tended to die first. Many mothers gave up their blankets for their children, allowing the little ones to make it through the journey when their parents did not.

By November, the procession of soldiers and natives had only reached about halfway to their destination. They were met by terrible sleet and snowstorms that killed off Cherokee by the droves. They were buried in unmarked, shallow graves far from their homes and families.

trail of tears indian removal map

The Cherokee Arrive at Their New Oklahoma Territory

In March of 1839, after almost a year of riding in wagons, walking across dirt trails and knowing nothing but suffering for as long as they could remember, the remaining two thirds of the Cherokee arrived at their new lands.

They weren’t greeted by ready-built structures and new homes to live in. The vast, open land lay before them, untamed and as tough as any they had encountered yet.

Many of those that arrived in the new Indian Territory were children whose parents had perished along the way. They were homeless and without families, and they had to find someone to care for them or try to fend for themselves.

Even though their relocation was over, the battle for survival had just begun. Many of them would not survive the following months in this new land, as there was no food prepared for them and growing crops was an uncertain prospect in these wild lands.

This Trail of Tears and the mistreatment of the Cherokee were all approved by Andrew Jackson. He openly defied the Supreme Court to make it happen, but was still using the Indian Removal Act as his reasoning for the forced relocation.

This law was, of course, intentionally misused during the Trail of Tears, and its concession for assistance with migration became an excuse for armed soldiers to force the Native Americans out and march them to their destination, harassing and hurrying them along at every opportunity, pushing the old and feeble harder than they could tolerate and making the journey as miserable as possible for the Cherokee.

The Trail of Tears Aftermath – A Permanent Stain

In 1835, President Andrew Jackson addressed Congress with a message about the Indian Removal Act. He promised that the Native Americans would be treated fairly, that they would be amply provided for and that the removal would be for their physical and moral improvement.

Even if Andrew Jackson had good intentions at the time (which is doubtful, looking at his indifference toward Native Americans), the reality is that the removal of thousands of Cherokee and other natives from their homes was anything but beneficial to them. It wasn’t simply the massive number that died on the trail that suffered. The relocating had numerous long-term effects that are still being felt today.

The post-removal death and illness rates were extremely high for the Cherokee. People were dealing with the grief and stress of not knowing where their loved ones were. Many of their family members were still back in Georgia, incarcerated and awaiting an unknown fate. Families had been divided, never to be rejoined again.

Difficult Times Settling in Oklahoma

The Cherokee leaders did what they could to care for those who had lost parents. They established laws to fund the education and welfare of orphaned children in 1841. By that time, many who made it to the new territory in Oklahoma had already died, but the Cherokee government was trying to recover as well.

There was little food to be had there, and the Native Americans had to resort to hunting and gathering for most of their food as opposed to the lives of farming and cultivating they had enjoyed back in Georgia. This meant there was less food to go around and many died of starvation as the people slowly recovered.

Over the long term, physical recovery finally took place. The Cherokee repopulated, they established homes and a nation for their people once more and they began to thrive and ensure their culture lived on in their descendants. But the tragedy they had lived through continues to define them today.

It bred a deep distrust of outsiders and government in particular. It also created tension that is still evident today between all native peoples and the whites. The idea that the Supreme Court can be defied by a president and government that wants gold is not something that is easily forgotten.

A Stolen History

But perhaps the most egregious crime committed against the Cherokee was that of attempting to rewrite history. The government informed the people of the United States about the relocation, but they made it sound as though the Cherokee were agreeable to it.

Propaganda about the journey itself depicted it as more of a nature walk than any sort of grueling trek under armed force and perilous conditions. The number of dead was also glossed over and the American people, for the most part, were not even aware of the great atrocity that had been committed.

It was a perfect example of the victors writing the history books in their favor, and it wouldn’t be until years later that some of the truth would start to come out and become public knowledge. That was little consolation to the Cherokee who had suffered, losing homes and families to a gold-hungry government.

It was a dark and shameful period for the U.S. government, marked by cruel treatment of the American Indian tribes. Tears is certainly not a powerful enough term to describe the devastation of this American policy stance and its impact on the Cherokee people but it’s written about here with no bias.

We invite you to decide for yourself. It created wounds that are still healing to this day and scars that can be seen quite clearly.

The genesis of the ToT is highly complex, but it boils down to a ‘land grab’ that saw white men in Northern Georgia convince the U.S. Government to put the Indian Removal Act of 1930 in place.

This legislation, forced through by then-U.S. President Andrew Jackson, resulted in the forced relocation of more than 20,000 American Indians. Nearly all of them were of the Cherokee tribe.

The official path for the Trail runs through nine states, ending in Oklahoma after more than 2,200 miles. The route passes over numerous bodies of water, some quite dangerous, and plenty of unforgiving terrain.

Officially it started in Georgia and ended in Oklahoma. In reality, Native Americans were also pushed from other Eastern states such as North Carolina and not all settled formally in Oklahoma

Absolutely not. The Creek Indian tribe was forcibly removed from North Georgia even earlier. This occurred in the 1820s, and by 1827, the Creek tribe was gone from these lands.

The ‘gold rush’ triggered by Hernando DeSoto’s discoveries made access to the Indian land a priority. Speculators bribed the government to remove the tribes so that they could mine for the precious metal.