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The Trail of Tears

Updated on August 19, 2012

The Trail of Tears: The Trail Where We Cried

The Trail of Tears refers to the forced relocation in 1838 of the Cherokee Native American tribe to the Western United States, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 4,000 Cherokees. In the Cherokee language, the event is called Nunna daul Isunyi-"the Trail Where We Cried." The Cherokees were not the only Native Americans forced to emigrate as a result of the Indian Removal efforts of the United States, and so the phrase "Trail of Tears" is sometimes used to refer to similar events endured by other Indian peoples, especially among the "Five Civilized Tribes." The phrase originated as a description of the forcible removal of the Choctaw nation in 1831.

Map of the Trail of Tears

Map of the Trail of Tears
Map of the Trail of Tears

The Trail of Tears Remembered...

The Cherokee Trail of Tears resulted from the enforcement of the Treaty of New Echota, an agreement signed under the provisions of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which exchanged Native American land in the East for lands west of the Mississippi River, but which was never accepted by the elected tribal leadership or a majority of the Cherokee people. Nevertheless, the treaty was enforced by President Martin Van Buren, who sent federal troops to round up about 17,000 Cherokees in camps before being sent to the West. Most of the deaths occurred from disease in these camps. After the initial roundup, the U.S. military played a limited role in the journey itself, with the Cherokee Nation taking over supervision of most of the emigration.

Trail of Tears - Cherokee Legacy Native American Indian

Trail of Tears

The Trail of Tears
The Trail of Tears

Insightful, rarely told history of Indian courage in the face of White expansionism in the 19th century. Truth-telling tale of the ruthless brutality that forced the Native American population into resettlement camps and reservations, with a look at the few white Americans who fought to help them.

 

Gold Rush and Court Cases

These tensions between Georgia and the Cherokee Nation were brought to a crisis by the discovery of gold near Dahlonega, Georgia in 1829, resulting in the Georgia Gold Rush, the first gold rush in U.S. history. Hopeful gold speculators began trespassing on Cherokee lands, and pressure began to mount on the Georgia government to fulfill the promises of the Compact of 1802.

When Georgia moved to extend state laws over Cherokee tribal lands in 1830, the matter went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), the Marshall court ruled that the Cherokees were not a sovereign and independent nation, and therefore refused to hear the case. However, in Worcester v. State of Georgia (1832), the Court ruled that Georgia could not impose laws in Cherokee territory, since only the national government-not state governments-had authority in Indian affairs.

President Andrew Jackson has often been quoted as defying the Supreme Court with the words: "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!" Jackson probably never said this, but he was fully committed to the policy of Indian removal. Jackson had no desire to use the power of the national government to protect the Cherokees from Georgia, since he was already entangled with states' rights issues in what became known as the nullification crisis. With the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the U.S. Congress had given Jackson authority to negotiate removal treaties, exchanging Indian land in the East for land west of the Mississippi River. Jackson used the dispute with Georgia to put pressure on the Cherokees to sign a removal treaty.

Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation

Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation
Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation

In the tradition of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the author of the highly acclaimed The Winter People tells the moving, searing story of the betrayal and brutal dispossession of the Cherokee Nation. "(A) beautifully written and emotionally mature book . . . a must."--New York Newsday.

 

Many Died on the Trail of Tears

Many Died on the Trail of Tears
Many Died on the Trail of Tears

Georgia and the Cherokee Nation

The rapidly expanding population of the United States early in the 19th century created tensions with American Indian tribes located within the borders of the various states. While state governments did not want independent Indian enclaves within state boundaries, Indian tribes did not want to relocate or to give up their distinct identities.

With the Compact of 1802, the state of Georgia relinquished to the national government its western land claims (which became the states of Alabama and Mississippi). In exchange, the national government promised to eventually conduct treaties to relocate those Indian tribes living within Georgia, thus giving Georgia control of all land within its borders.

However, the Cherokees, whose ancestral tribal lands overlapped the boundaries of Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama, declined to move. They established a capital in 1825 at New Echota (near present-day Calhoun, Georgia). Furthermore, led by principal Chief John Ross and Major Ridge, the speaker of the Cherokee National Council, the Cherokees adopted a written constitution on 26 July 1827, declaring the Cherokee Nation to be a sovereign and independent nation.

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The Trail of Tears: Cherokee Legacy

The Trail of Tears

The Trail of Tears
The Trail of Tears

Aftermath

The Cherokees who were removed initially settled near Tahlequah, Oklahoma. The political turmoil resulting from the Treaty of New Echota and the Trail of Tears led to the assassinations of Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot; of the leaders of the Treaty Party, only Stand Watie escaped his assassins. The population of the Cherokee Nation eventually rebounded, and today the Cherokees are the largest American Indian group in the United States.

There were some exceptions to removal. Perhaps 1,000 Cherokees evaded the U.S. soldiers and lived off the land in Georgia and other states. Those Cherokees who lived on private, individually owned lands (rather than communally owned tribal land) were not subject to removal. In North Carolina, about 400 Cherokees lived on land in the Great Smoky Mountains owned by a white man named William Holland Thomas (who had been adopted by Cherokees as a boy), and were thus not subject to removal. These North Carolina Cherokees became the Eastern Band Cherokee.

The Trail of Tears is generally considered to be one of the most regrettable episodes in American history. To commemorate the event, the U.S. Congress designated the Trail Of Tears National Historic Trail in 1987. It stretches for 2,200 miles (3,540 km) across nine states.

In 2004, Senator Sam Brownback (Republican of Kansas) introduced a joint resolution (Senate Joint Resolution 37) to "offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States" for past "ill-conceived policies by the United States Government regarding Indian Tribes." The United States Senate has yet to take action on the measure.

Native Americans March the Trail

Native Americans March the Trail
Native Americans March the Trail

Removal treaty and resistance

With the landslide reelection of Andrew Jackson in 1832, some of the most strident Cherokee opponents of removal began to rethink their positions. Led by Major Ridge, his son John Ridge, and nephews Elias Boudinot and Stand Watie, they became known as the "Ridge Party", or the "Treaty Party". The Ridge Party believed that it was in the best interest of the Cherokees to get favorable terms from the U.S. government, before white squatters, state governments, and violence made matters worse. John Ridge began unauthorized talks with the Jackson administration in the late 1820s. Meanwhile, in anticipation of the Cherokee removal, the state of Georgia began holding lotteries in order to divide up the Cherokee tribal lands among white Georgians.

However, elected principal Chief John Ross and the majority of the Cherokee people remained adamantly opposed to removal. Political maneuvering began: Chief Ross cancelled the tribal elections in 1832, the Council impeached the Ridges, and a member of the Ridge Party was murdered. The Ridges responded by eventually forming their own council, representing only a fraction of the Cherokee people. This split the Cherokee Nation into two factions: the Western Cherokees, led by Major Ridge; and the Eastern faction, who continued to recognize Chief John Ross as the Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

In 1835, Jackson appointed Reverend John F. Schermerhorn as a treaty commissioner. The U.S. government proposed to pay the Cherokee Nation 4.5 million dollars (among other considerations) to remove themselves. These terms were rejected in October 1835 by the Cherokee Nation council. Chief Ross, attempting to bridge the gap between his administration and the Ridge Party, traveled to Washington with John Ridge to open new negotiations, but they were turned away and told to deal with Schermerhorn.

Meanwhile, Schermerhorn organized a meeting with the pro-removal council members at New Echota, Georgia. Only five hundred Cherokees (out of thousands) responded to the summons, and, on December 30, 1835, twenty-one proponents of Cherokee removal, among them Major Ridge and Elias Boudinot, signed or left "X" marks on the Treaty of New Echota. John Ridge and Stand Watie signed the treaty when it was brought to Washington. Chief Ross, as expected, refused. The signatories were violating a Cherokee Nation law drafted by John Ridge (passed in 1829) which had made it a crime to sign away Cherokee lands, the punishment for which was death.

Not a single official of the Cherokee Council signed the document. This treaty gave up all the Cherokee land east of the Mississippi. Despite the protests by the Cherokee National Council and principal Chief Ross that the document was a fraud, Congress ratified the treaty on May 23, 1836, by just one vote. A number of Cherokees (including the Ridge party) left for the West at this time, joining those who had already emigrated. By the end of 1836, more than 6,000 Cherokees had moved to the West. More than 16,000 remained in the South, however; the terms of the treaty gave them two years to leave.

Soft Rain: A Story of the Cherokee Trail of Tears

Soft Rain: A Story of the Cherokee Trail of Tears
Soft Rain: A Story of the Cherokee Trail of Tears

In what PW called "an eye-opening introduction to a painful period of American history," a Cherokee girl recounts the hardships of 1838 leading up to and including the journey along the Trail of Tears. Ages 8-12.

 

Forced removal

The protests against the Treaty of New Echota continued. In the spring of 1838, Chief Ross presented a petition with more than 15,000 Cherokee signatures, asking Congress to invalidate the treaty. Many white Americans were also outraged by the dubious legality of the treaty and called on the government not to force the Cherokees to move. For example, on April 23, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a letter to Jackson's successor, President Martin Van Buren, urging him not to inflict "so vast an outrage upon the Cherokee Nation."

Nevertheless, as the May 23, 1838, deadline for voluntary removal approached, President Van Buren assigned General Winfield Scott to head the forcible removal operation. He arrived at New Echota on May 17, 1838, in command of about 7,000 soldiers. They began rounding up Cherokees in Georgia on May 26, 1838; ten days later, operations began in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama. About 17,000 Cherokees-along with approximately 2,000 black slaves owned by wealthy Cherokees-were removed at gunpoint from their homes over three weeks and gathered together in camps, often with very few of their possesions. They were then transferred to departure points at Ross's Landing (Chattanooga, Tennessee) and Gunter's Landing (Guntersville, Alabama) on the Tennessee River, and at Fort Cass (Charleston, Tennessee) near the Cherokee Agency on the Hiwassee River (Calhoun, Tennessee). From there, they were sent to the Indian Territory, mostly traveling on foot or by some combination of horse, wagon, and boat, a distance of around 1,200 miles (1,900 km) along one of the three routes.

The camps were plagued by dysentery and other illnesses, which led to many deaths. After three groups had been sent on the trail, a group of Cherokees petitioned General Scott for a delay until cooler weather made the journey less hazardous. This was granted; meanwhile Chief Ross, finally accepting defeat, managed to have the remainder of the removal turned over to the supervision of the Cherokee Council. Although there were some objections within the U.S. government because of the additional cost, General Scott awarded a contract for removing the remaining 11,000 Cherokees to Chief Ross. The Cherokee-administered marches began on August 28, 1838, and consisted of thirteen groups with an average of 1,000 people in each. Although this arrangement was an improvement for all concerned, disease still took many lives.

The number of people who died as a result of the Trail of Tears has been variously estimated. American doctor and missionary Elizur Butler, who made the journey with one party, estimated 2,000 deaths in the camps and 2,000 on the trail; his total of 4,000 deaths remains the most cited figure. A scholarly demographic study in 1973 estimated 2,000 total deaths; another, in 1984, concluded that a total of 6,000 people died.

During the journey, it is said that the people would sing "Amazing Grace", using its inspiration to improve morale. The traditional Christian hymn had previously been translated into Cherokee by the missionary Samuel Worcester with Cherokee assistance. The song has since become a sort of anthem for the Cherokee people.

Voices from the Trail of Tears (Real Voices, Real History Series)

Voices from the Trail of Tears (Real Voices, Real History Series)
Voices from the Trail of Tears (Real Voices, Real History Series)

Although British and American governmental policy had been pushing Native Americans westward for much of the 18th and early 19th centuries, passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 brought this policy to a head. This act, which provided for the exchange of American Indian lands in the East for lands west of the Mississippi River and for the removal of the Indians to those lands, resulted in the relocation of an estimated 100,000 Native Americans.

Although many tribes were involved in this process, the most publicized removal was that of the Cherokees. In Voices from the Trail of Tears, Vicki Rozema draws from letters, military records, physicians' records, and journal excerpts to provide insight into what actually happened during this period. Through these primary sources, which are presented in chronological order, we follow the feuding within the Cherokee ranks about whether to accept the white man's ultimatum, and if so, how it should be implemented. We have firsthand accounts of how the Indians from Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee were rounded up to prepare for their removal. We hear the sympathetic white missionaries pleading for the Cherokees to be allowed to stay in their homeland, and we see how some of these same missionaries dealt with the testing of their faith as they accompanied the Indians on their westward journey. We read official reports and private musings from the soldiers who were ordered to carry out the removal, many of whom ended up sympathizing with their wards. We see the conditions that the people endured as they traveled on what they called "the Trail Where They Cried." We even follow the confusion that resulted when the new arrivals in the West faced assimilation into a culture already established by those who had emigrated 20 to 30 years earlier.

In Voices from the Trail of Tears, the actual participants give us a perspective on what happened during this infamous chapter in American history.

 

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    • bjj james profile image

      bjj james 4 years ago

      My history can be found here.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      ty

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      My great great grandmother walked this trail and I just wanted to weep reading this and thinking of the hardship and heart break.

    • JohnMichael2 profile image

      JohnMichael2 5 years ago

      thank you for a such informative lens

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      kylekartarn 6 years ago

      Excellent Lense. Squid mine at squidoo.com/haida-indians

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      huvalbd 6 years ago

      For a few years I lived in Chattanooga where the Cherokee Trail of Tears began. A few years ago when the city did a big project to add to the riverfront, the city and the Cherokee collaborated on it--the most prominent and popular of the new features were designed by the Cherokee and incorporate Native American mythology and spirituality. More subtle reminders are scattered around the downtown area--keep your eyes open to notice them.

      I like how that turned out. Instead of trying to deny what happened, Chattanooga chose to make its apology by embracing the living tribe as cherished neighbors and friends rather than just saying repentant words over the dead. Actions speak louder than words.

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      I am conducting a research project for my school, and my topic is native american relocations. I think it is disgusting what the american government did to the real american people.

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      as a native american i think what they did to my people was wrong so i strongly say yes they should apologize.

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      These are some of the examples of harsh realities and the greed of humanity. So many ancient tribals and cultures continue to erode and lose their identity, location in a never again achievable way. It is a gruesome fact and is going on even today with factories and industries destroying their very existence and killing them to a slow death.

    • Wbisbill LM profile image

      Barbara Isbill 6 years ago from New Market Tn 37820

      Another great lens. Being from the Appalachians I am aware of the trail. I have attended a few of the Cherokee nation activities (Not the casinos). A tragedy of history, but I believe that we do not know all the variables of that time, and need to move on. The best thing to learn is that we must never repeat such. A great lens!

    • AslanBooks profile image
      Author

      AslanBooks 6 years ago

      @julieannbrady: Hello...yes, it's been a while. I've been otherwise pre-occupied (I'll PM you more later).

      How have you been?

      Did you take my 62 polls on my 62nd lens?

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      Wake up my sleeping brothers and sisters. Rise up again for the same government that took your lands eons ago are doing so to their own bonified people's.

      Who gave the government the right to make and then change the laws of the land and they see fit. To take what belongs to someone from them. In the 1800's it was the Gold found in the Georgia lands. Greed took control of the government and they took what did not belong to them. And because of those laws created back then, we today, even though we hold title to land, do not actually own it. The government has the sole right to all lands.

      Now I ask you: Who is the government, but a group of selfish, greedy people who want what is best for them. Who can put a stop to them before they take again. We, meaning the White people, Indian people, and all nationalities that inhabit this land now, are actually slaves to this so called government! Peace and tranquility as we know it is about to change again. Our laws are being changed again and the rights of the people are being taken away.

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      julieannbrady 6 years ago

      Hello my dear -- SO nice to see you -- it has been ages! This is quite a remarkably styled page -- love it and channeling the idea that the past several months have been a trail of tears!

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      It was the white man that took our land and every thing else that was ours many moon ago and still it hunts us for our people that has thrive to make the land was ours and just in one swift moment it was gone and now our people has to go with out and learn the white man laws the way they live our brother and sister that once room this great land their spirit is walking this earth with broken hearts knowing that they would never get the full feeling of what was their and the white man has destroy the mother earth with many building that we don't need but the white man laws say we do it destroy the fresh clean air that once was among us it kill the birds that fly in the blue sky and ruin the pure of water we drink of the stream are no longer clean and all of these dose make father moon and mother earth very angry even to this day and we have the rights to stand up for our pepole of the Cherokee nation we shall be for ever on a warpath until we get our land back and the air , water will be once clean for our children to feel and to real know what it was like many moons ago we should never stop fighting for our belives and our spirit and we well never give up on this for this is our dreams our goul to take back our land and to live in peace once again so white man be aware you still have a fight on your hand still of to day O'Great Spirit give us the courage to stand tall among the living of the white man ways give us the strength to carry on of our culture let our heart be pure the earth , water, sky, fire may they bring it all back to our tribes as pure as the white snow let the sun give the warmth of a blanket and the night give us the cold when we need it the sky the light to see by fire to keep us warm on those days that are chilly O'Great Spirit hear our plea let us live in harmony upon the grounds so pure the let us find a piece of the earth we could call our own once again give back our medicine man in stead of the white man doctor for they donât know how to heal our people O'Great Spirit hear our plea for truth and give us wisdom of courge to get us though an other time as we walk upon the white man grounds our bufflos room no more the eagles flys very little the bear are slowly dieing of the wolves they are endanger of being fading away O'Great Spirit hear our cries help us take back what is rightfully ours white man needs are not great as ours we need to stand strong with the help of our Great Spirit the leader of all tribes will for ever be with us for now and always.

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      AlinaWarner 7 years ago

      Amazing thank you, for sharing your knowledge high 5*****s.

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      It's insane that after all these years. This country which was made from all these bad decisions, does not have enough courage to say I'm sorry ..what happen, should have never happened. It's a shame that no one can man up to these responsibilities or better yet do what is right. What kind of world do we live in.. How can we say we are proud Americans?

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      the trail of tears will never br forgotten. Georgia needs to say sorry

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      I am not indian in fact I am white. I am not proud of anything that happened to the indians. There is not a white man "Man" enough or compassionate enough to say sorry. I say it though. A thousand times. It was sad and tradgic....And something that should never have happened. It saddens me to know this would and does happen in so many ways to so many people. Loving one another seems to be something that the human race has a terrible time learning. My prayer to all who suffered the trail of tears... Sincerely ~ Daywahdee

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      anonymous 8 years ago

      My heart breaks when I think about what happened to our people. Remember the times long ago when we were happy, and we did not know the evil in the world. I had a vision, and the white wolf walked beside me. We still have a lot to do in this world, and the great spirit, our god, will be with us.

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      anonymous 8 years ago

      i think that what they done was wrong to them my grandfather and grandmother was a cheorkee indian and i think the govermment should make up for what they done to these family and the one who lost their family this was a tragic god bless you all

    • grandmasandy lm profile image

      grandmasandy lm 8 years ago

      I live on the Trail of Tears. literally. The street I live on was part of the path the Indians followed through Missouri. I live a few miles away from Trail of Tears state park in Cape Girardeau MO.

      I have pictures taken of the Missisippi River from Trail of Tears park.

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      anonymous 8 years ago

      The trail of tears was a sad thing that had happened. i think that the u.s government should have to make up for what they did to all the native americans.

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      MarketPipeline 8 years ago

      It's really a tragic story.

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      anonymous 8 years ago

      I think that what they did was wrong! i am doing a soc studies project on the (Trail ot Tears) so i been going to all websits when i saw should the US say sorry i had to say yea!!!!!! i hate to look at the pictures

      !!!!! its toooooooo sad!!!!!

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      anonymous 8 years ago

      NOW

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      anonymous 8 years ago

      this was a very sad story i cry every night thinking about it comfort me

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 8 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      I just get so sad when I think about the Trail of Tears. You have done a good job of putting this information together.

    • linhah lm profile image

      Linda Hahn 8 years ago from California

      [in reply to Kimberly Chaudoin-Squires]

      I believe it too.

    • vanidiana24 profile image

      vanidiana24 8 years ago

      Nice to find another lens about Cherokee People!

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      tdove 8 years ago

      Thanks for joining G Rated Lense Factory!

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      anonymous 8 years ago

      You Americans have now a second chance not to repeat the same hidious genocide : stop supporting Israel and save the Palestinians

    • JenOfChicago LM profile image

      JenOfChicago LM 8 years ago

      Very well done lens about a difficult subject.

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      anonymous 8 years ago

      My family walked this trail, and I believe many Native Americans still walk their own trail today because of it.

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      anonymous 9 years ago

      American Indians were treated terribley. its part of this nation's greatest disgust in my eyes. and i'm "American". it was terrible