American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Trail of Tears

The Trail of Tears was the migration route members of the Cherokee Nation followed in 1838–1839 when the federal government forced their removal from the southeastern United States to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. The relocation resulted from the government's removal policy, which sought to open eastern lands to European-American immigrants and provide a permanent home for Native peoples in the West. The Trail originated in Tennessee and followed an overland route through Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas.

Most of the Cherokees trudged along this path, although a lesser number navigated a southern water route along the Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas Rivers. Due to the many hardships the Cherokees suffered during removal, they referred to this arduous journey as Nunna dual Isunyi, the "Trail Where We Cried." Between 1835 and 1839, approximately 16,000 Cherokees relocated to the West and an estimated 4,000 died. Despite this tragedy, the federal government remained committed to the removal policy.

During the 1820s, as the eastern population expanded, southern states exerted pressure on the federal government to remove Indians from their lands. The government attempted to appease Southerners by negotiating treaties with the tribes that contained provisions for voluntary removal, but few Indians actually moved. Consequently, on May 28, 1830, President Andrew Jackson supported Southern demands and signed the controversial Indian Removal Act. This act authorized the president to exchange Indian lands in any state or territory for lands west of the Mississippi River. Supporters of the removal policy argued that it would open eastern lands to settlement and provide a permanent land base to protect the tribes from encroachment. Although critics blame Jackson for advancing the policy, the removal idea initially was not his own. In fact, Thomas Jefferson thought the lands of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase could provide an outlet for eastern Indians, and Presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adams believed that removal would solve the so-called Indian problem.

Following passage of the Indian Removal Act, the federal government forced approximately 100,000 Native Americans to move to the West. The Act applied to Indians throughout the states and territories, but it particularly affected the Five Civilized Tribes, who held fertile lands in the South. Between 1830 and 1835, the Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seminole tribes all signed removal treaties. The treaties varied slightly, but in each the Five Tribes ceded their eastern lands in exchange for western land, and the government promised to fund the move and provide one year's subsistence.

The Cherokee Nation, which inhabited sections of North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama, was the last of the Five Tribes to agree to relocate, and ultimately its removal proved to be the most controversial. The impetus for Cherokee removal stemmed from an 1802 compact between Georgia and the federal government in which Georgia ceded its western lands in exchange for the government's promise to extinguish Indian title to lands within the state. Consequently, in 1817 and 1819, the government signed treaties with the Cherokee Nation that encouraged tribal members to relocate to present-day Arkansas. The voluntary nature of the removal provision, however, led most of the Cherokees to reject the idea, and only a few thousand moved west.

By the late 1820s, the Cherokees had demonstrated their willingness to comply with federal policy by assuming a high degree of Anglo-American style civilization. In addition to establishing a bicameral legislature and a Supreme Court, the Cherokees developed a written language, adopted a constitution, and published a newspaper. Indian acculturation, however, was insignificant to Georgians, who were more concerned with states' rights, the discovery of gold on Cherokee lands, and acquiring agricultural lands. At this point, having grown impatient with the federal government's failure to uphold the 1802 agreement, Georgia took matters into its own hands.

In 1828, following the election of President Andrew Jackson, Georgia extended state jurisdiction over Cherokee lands and nullified Cherokee law. It also authorized a lottery to distribute Cherokee lands to Georgia citizens. Jackson, a staunch supporter of the removal policy, refused to obstruct Georgia's sovereign rights by interfering in the matter. Consequently, the Cherokees filed suit in the United States Supreme Court. In two separate cases, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the Court ruled in the Cherokees' favor. In the first case, the Court declared Indian polities, "domestic dependent nations." In the second, it concluded that Georgia could not extend state law over Cherokee territory. Without federal enforcement, however, the victory rang hollow.

Following the Supreme Court decisions, the Cherokee Nation clung to the hope that it could avoid removal. By 1833, however, a rift developed within the Cherokee leadership. A minority group of Cherokees, known as the Treaty Party and led by Major Ridge, his son John, and Elias Boudinot, accepted the inevitability of removal and concluded that it was in the Cherokees' best interest to negotiate a fair removal treaty with the federal government. Consequently, on December 29, 1835, members of the Treaty Party signed the Treaty of New Echota, in which the Cherokee Nation agreed to cede its eastern lands and relocate to Indian Territory. These actions appalled the Cherokee majority, who opposed removal. Led by Principal Chief John Ross, they urged Congress to reject the treaty. Despite their pleas, Congress ratified the treaty on May 23, 1836. In exchange for the land cession, the government agreed to pay the Cherokees $5 million, provide subsistence for one year, and finance the emigration. The treaty stipulated that the Cherokees move within two years of ratification or face forced removal.

For two years following ratification of the treaty, Ross continued his effort to reverse the policy. He appealed to Jackson's successor, Martin Van Buren, and submitted a protest petition containing 15,000 Cherokee signatures. Unmoved, the federal government remained committed to its removal policy.

In the meantime, a minority of the Cherokees journeyed to the West. Between January 1837 and May 1838, approximately 2,000 Cherokees, including members of the Treaty Party, emigrated. The majority of the Cherokees, however, convinced that Ross could reverse their fate, did not prepare for removal. Consequently, at the expiration of the spring 1838 removal deadline, the United States ordered troops into Cherokee Territory to organize a forced removal. Led by General Winfield Scott, the troops seized Cherokees and placed them in stockades to await removal. Although Scott ordered his men to treat the Indians humanely, reports indicate that the treatment was severe. Families were separated during the roundup and their abrupt departure left them little time to gather their belongings.

In June 1838, the first government-led emigrant detachment left Tennessee, traveled by steamboat down the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers to the Mississippi, then entered Indian Territory. The summer heat made the journey difficult, however, and shortly thereafter, Scott postponed removal until the weather cooled. During the hiatus, Ross petitioned for and received permission to allow the Cherokees to remove themselves.

Consequently, in late August, the first of thirteen Cherokee-led detachments left the Southeast for present-day Oklahoma. The group trudged along the northern overland Trail of Tears and arrived in Oklahoma in January 1839. In December 1838, the last Cherokee detachment left the East under the leadership of John Ross. Following the southern water route, the group arrived in Oklahoma in late March 1839. Sadly, Chief Ross's wife succumbed to illness and died during the journey.

The entire removal experience devastated the Cherokee Nation. Between August 1838 and March 1839, 13,000 Cherokees and their slaves followed the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma, and 4,000 died in the stockades, en route, or during the first year in the West. Throughout the ordeal, the Cherokees suffered from disease, malnutrition, starvation, and general exhaustion. The challenges continued in their new homeland. Once in Oklahoma, a struggle ensued in which the Old Settlers, the Treaty Party, and the new arrivals all sought to control the Cherokee government. When the groups failed to reconcile, violence erupted, and in June 1839, Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot were murdered in retaliation for their roles in the 1835 treaty.

Despite the removal tragedy, the Cherokees remained committed to rebuilding their nation in the West. Soon after arriving in Oklahoma, they reestablished their political institutions and named John Ross principal chief. They also developed an education system that included institutions of higher learning and resumed publication of a newspaper. They endured the American Civil War, the arrival of the railroad, and the loss of their tribal land base when Oklahoma entered the Union. In 1987, more than 150 years after ratification of the Treaty of New Echota, Congress commemorated Cherokee removal by designating the Trail of Tears a national historic trail.

Jennifer L. Bertolet

Further Reading
Anderson, William, ed. 1991. Cherokee Removal. Athens: University of Georgia Press.; Kappler, Charles J. 1904. Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties. Vol. II. Washington: Government Printing Office.; Perdue, Theda, and Michael D. Green, eds. 1995. The Cherokee Removal. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.; Prucha, Francis Paul. 1984. The Great Father. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Rozema, Vicki, ed. 2003. Voices from the Trail of Tears. Winston-Salem, MA: John F. Blair.

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