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History of the Trail of Tears Removal of the Cherokee
Cherokee Land Lotteries of 1832
In 1832, to solidify their claim to Cherokee land, the state of Georgia held two land lotteries that divided the Cherokee Nation into 160 acre lots. They gave these lots to any Georgian who had four dollars in their pocket and won a chance to buy the land.
However, the Cherokee never ceded the land to either the state or Federal Government. Therefore in 1835 the Supreme Court ruled that the state did not have the power to make a treaty with a sovereign nation. (Worcester v. Georgia)
John Ross 1790 - 1866
John Ross Proposal
John Ross represented most of the Cherokee and with settlers moving into the Cherokee Nation, Ross knew that, since he was at risk of losing the entire nation to the state of Georgia, his best option was to make a deal for the land with the United States.
In 1835, Ross and his group wanted to deed a portion of the land to the United States for an amount of money to be determined by Congress with the remainder of the property deed to the Cherokee owner. However, the problem that arose was that in order for Congress to make this deal, they required that the United States and the state of Georgia recognize Cherokee citizenship. This would include the right to vote and hold political office. Neither Georgia nor the United States would agree to recognize Cherokee citizenship.
Ross, in order to compensate the Cherokee for their loss without retaining some land and living a normal life, came up with the figure of 20 million dollars. This was about 25% of the true value of the land if it sold separately to the settlers. For this, 17,000 men, women and children would leave voluntarily to relocate in Indian territory in the state of Oklahoma. This amounted to slightly under $1200 per person or roughly $4.34 per acre. The rate for similar land in Georgia in 1835 was $18 to $20 per acre.
Ross acquired the backing of the Cherokee Nation and both the original proposal of 4.5 million dollars, land and citizenship, as well as the second proposal of 20 million dollars had been approved by the Cherokee council.
Treaty of New Echota
A small radical group which was led by John Ridge and his cousin, Elias Boudinot, negotiated a corrupt Treaty of New Echota. This gave up Cherokee land for pennies on the dollar ( $1.085 per acre or 5% of the actual land value). This proposal had been specifically declined by the Cherokee council. The Ridge Party members filed to sign the document on December 29, 1835. Major Ridge referred to this document as his death warrant.
The government was now the only hope for the Cherokee. However, Andrew Jackson's forces in the United States Senate, which was required to ratify all treaties, were too strong. The Treaty of New Echota was ratified the next year.
Ross, after the ratification, attempted to petition the United States government with no success. The forcible removal of the Cherokee Nation began in May 1838.
The Cherokee Council also filed a petition opposing the Treaty of New Echota and filed it with the United States government.
The Forced Removal
General Winfield Scott was in command of government troops and was, at times, supported by the brutal Georgia Guard. They moved across the state, taking the helpless Cherokee from their homes. Within the next two weeks, every Cherokee in North Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee had been killed, captured, overlooked or had fled.
The Cherokee were contained in holding areas until they could be moved further north to one of the specially constructed forts. The forts, with minimum facilities were basically rat-infested prisons for the Cherokee.
For many reasons, nothing seemed to go right during the removal. Some Cherokee were forced to live in these conditions for up to five months before the start of the journey. The Cherokee called the journey "Nunna daul Tsuny" (Trail Where We Cried). As many as one third of the deaths as a direct result of the removal can be attributed to conditions in the prisons.
Eventually, they began the move to one of the two embarkation points. Rattlesnake Springs was located near the Cherokee Agency in Tennessee. Ross' Landing, which, today is Chattanooga, Tennessee, was another embarkation point.
Death rates were very high on the forced march. Ross went to Scott and requested that the Cherokee be allowed to lead the parties west later in the year. Scott granted his request and the first parties under Ross left under a dual command in October. Scott rode with one of the parties to Nashville.
The groups of Cherokee would leave by steamship from the port on the Tennessee River, across a short distance of the Ohio River, then south on the Mississippi River to the Arkansas River. This route brought them to Fort Smith on the border between Arkansas and Indian Territory.
There were roughly ten individual routes. Some would overlap between each of them. The route that is technically called the Trail of Tearsbegan at the Cherokee Agency near Rattlesnake Springs and continued northwest to the Nashville, Tennessee vicinity, then to Hopkinsville, Kentucky. The Cherokee then headed to a crossing of the Ohio River just northeast of the confluence of the Tennessee River.
They then moved northwest, crossing the Mississippi River near Cape Girardeau, Missouri. From here, they headed south-southwest across the Ozark Plateau to the Oklahoma Territory.
Along the Trail of Tears
Most settlers who witnessed the Cherokee moving west were indifferent to their plight, therefore very few offered any assistance. In several cases, the settlers did not want the Cherokee in their towns and forced the group to change their route. Cape Girardeau, Missouri was one of them.
While Cherokee had been fording the Mississippi River at a point near downtown, city fathers, who were unhappy with the long line of Indians passing through town, forced them to cross two miles north at a more difficult crossing known as Moccasin Springs. Today, a state park commemorates the site where Rev. Jesse Bushyhead lost his sister after crossing an ice-covered river.
Divisions Within the Tribes
The Cherokee from Georgia were not the only people relocated to Tallequah, Oklahoma. A Cherokee group from Arkansas, known as the Old Settlers had moved there in the late 1820's. They had an established nation but the influx of 13,000 Cherokee from Georgia created friction.
When the Cherokee from Georgia completed their journey, they immediately made up the majority of the tribe. Therefore, issues of administration caused major divisions within the tribe, especially as the Cherokee from Georgia gained control of the nation. As Ross was returned to power, the tribe's attention turned to those who had betrayed the Cherokee in Georgia.
Ridge Family Execution
A new constitution was ratified and Ross' position as Principal Chief was reaffirmed. The night of Ross' success, his men spread out to carry out the final act of the Trail of Tears. This would be the execution of the Ridge family.
Major Ridge would die on a roadway as John Ridge is dragged from his home and stabbed to death in front of his wife and children.
Elias Boudinot is surrounded after leaving Samuel Worcester's home.
Stand Watie's life was saved by Worcester when he sent a messenger to warn him. Although marked for execution, Watie barely escaped. He was the only leader of the treaty party to survive the political vendetta, and members of the group turned to him for leadership. Before the killings Watie, tended to stay out of the realm of tribal politics, but blamed John Ross for the slaying and opposed in practically every facet of tribal politics causing a real rivalry. The feud ended in 1866 with the death of John Ross.
Cherokee Nation Returns
While many Cherokee lost their lives on the journey, it is important to remember that several thousands of members of the tribe survived and the Cherokee Nation continues to thrive today.
The Cherokee Nation has 170,000 members worldwide. Many of them reside in designated territory in northeast Oklahoma. A small number of members of the Cherokee Nation live in Indiana, Kentucky and Southern Illinois.
The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears Association continue to work together on many projects preserving the history of the Trail of Tears and its significance to American History.