Trail of Tears

The ”Trail of Tears” is the name given to the cruelly forced relocation and movement of Native American nations from southeastern parts of the United States following the barbaric law pass of  the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The removal included numerous members of the Cherokee, Muscogee-Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and also Choctaw original nations, among others in the United States, from their homelands to the Indian Territory.

The phrase began its origin  from a description based on the sad removal of the Choctaw Nation in 1831.  Many Native Americans suffered from exposure, disease and starvation traveling to their home-less destinations. Many people died en route, including 4,000 of the 15,000 who relocated Cherokee. President Jackson continued and renewed the political, and also military effort for the removal of the Native Americans from their own homelands with the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 still at hand.

In 1831, the Five Civilized Tribes which were, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, and Seminole were living as ”autonomous nations” which would be now refered to as the ”Deep South”. But the freshly new process of cultural transformation which was brought upon by George Washington, and Henry Knox, was gaining momentum, especially among the Cherokee and Choctaw nations in majority. However President Jackson was still pushing the Removal Act through, and one by one, the Native Tribes were forced upon to leave their lives grew upon their original homelands.

In 1831, the Choctaw nation was the first tribe to be removed, and they became the spokes model for all other removals to follow. After the Choctaw, the Seminole were removed in 1832, the Creek in 1834, then the Chickasaw in 1837, and at last the Cherokee in 1838.After removal, some Native Americans remained in their ancient homelands, as the Choctaw are found in Mississippi, the Seminole in Florida, the Creek in Alabama, and the Cherokee in North Carolina as well. Crucially by the year of 1837, 46,000 Native Americans from these southeastern states had been removed and vacated from their homelands in result opening 25 million acres of land for previously enforced ”white” settlement.

This result, opened up large areas of the United States. As the land now became U.S. states, state governments seeped out to dissolve the boundaries of the Indian nations within their border lines. These new government pressures were effected with growth by U.S. population and even more expansion of slavery in the South.

Cherokee Indian Removal – 1838

In 1838, the Cherokee people were fiercely removed from their lands in the Southeastern United States to the Indian Territory. Now the state of Oklahoma in the Western United States, where in resulted was the deaths of 4,000 Cherokees.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 the plea was never accepted by the head-elected tribal leadership or a majority of the Cherokee people. To this reluctance of acceptance.

Tensions between Georgia and the Cherokee Nation were brought to an extended rise and crisis by the discovery of gold near Dahlonega, Georgia, in the year of 1829. Where as resulting in the Georgia Gold Rush, the first major and first gold rush in U.S. history. Driven gold speculators and diggers began trespassing on Cherokee lands, and pressure began to accumulate on the Georgia government to fulfill the promises of the ”Compact of 1802”.

Therefore Georgia moved to extend state laws over the Cherokee lands in 1830, the matter eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, in the year of 1831, the Marshall court ruled that the Cherokee Nation was not a ”sovereign and independent nation”, and reluctant to hear the case. Though, in Worcester v. Georgia, in 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 Jackson had no desire to use the power of the national government to protect the Cherokees from Georgia as you could see here based on this arrogant statement he stated, ”John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it! … Build a fire under them. When it gets hot enough, they’ll go.

With the Indian Removal Act, the U.S. Congress had given Jackson the main authority to negotiate removal treaties, exchanging Indian land in the East for land west of the Mississippi River. Jackson used the fierce dispute between Georgia to put pressure on the Cherokees to sign a removal treaty.

Therefore, the treaty, was passed by Congress by a one single vote, and signed into law by President Jackson, who was imposed by his successor President Martin Van Buren who allowed Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama an armed force of 7,000 made up of militia, regular army, and volunteers under General Winfield Scott to round-up about 13,000 Cherokees into concentration camps at the U.S. Indian Agency near Cleveland, Tennessee before being sent to the West.

One participating Georgia soldier stated in the following statement, ”I fought through the War Between the States and have seen many men shot, but the Cherokee Removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.”

Most of the deaths occurred from disease, starvation and cold in these camps. Their homes were burned and their property destroyed and emptied. Farms belonging to the Cherokees for generations were received by white settlers in a lottery drawing.

After the initial roundup, the U.S. military still oversaw the emigration until they met the forced destination.Private John G. Burnett later wrote, “Future generations will read and condemn the act and I do hope posterity will remember that private soldiers like myself, and like the four Cherokees who were forced by General Scott to shoot an Indian Chief and his children, had to execute the orders of our superiors. We had no choice in the matter.”

In the winter of 1838 the Cherokee began the thousand-mile march with scant clothing and most on foot without shoes or moccasins. The march refered to as the ”death march”  began in Red Clay, Tennessee, the location of the last Eastern capital of the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee were given some used blankets from a hospital in Tennessee. Because of the diseases, the Indians were not allowed to go into any towns or villages along the way; many times this meant traveling much farther to go around them. After crossing Tennessee and Kentucky, they arrived in Southern Illinois at Golconda about December 3, 1838. Here the starving Indians were charged a dollar a head to cross the river on “Berry’s Ferry” which typically charged twelve cents. They were not allowed passage until the ferry had serviced all others wishing to cross and were forced to take shelter under “Mantle Rock,” a shelter bluff on the Kentucky side, until “Berry had nothing better to do”. Many died huddled together at Mantle Rock waiting to cross. Several Cherokee people were murdered by locals. The killers filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Government through the courthouse in Vienna, suing the government for $35 a head. Initially to bury the murdered Cherokee.

Here is John G. Burnett’s Story of the Removal of the Cherokees

“Birthday Story of Private John G. Burnett,” Captain Abraham McClellan’s Company, 2nd Regiment, 2nd Brigade, Mounted Infantry, Cherokee Indian Removal, 1838-39.

…The removal of Cherokee Indians from their life-long homes in the year of 1838 found me a young man in the prime of life and a Private soldier in the American Army. Being acquainted with many of the Indians and able to fluently speak their language, I was sent as interpreter into the Smoky Mountain Country in May, 1838, and witnessed the execution of the most brutal order in the History of American Warfare. I saw the helpless Cherokees arrested and dragged from their homes, and driven at the bayonet point into the stockades. And in the chill of a drizzling rain on an October morning, I saw them loaded like cattle or sheep into six hundred and forty-five wagons and started toward the west.

One can never forget the sadness and solemnity of that morning. Chief John Ross led in prayer and when the bugle sounded and the wagons started rolling many of the children rose to their feet and waved their little hands good-by to their mountain homes, knowing they were leaving them forever. Many of these helpless people did not have blankets and many of them had been driven from home barefooted.

On the morning of November the 17th we encountered a terrific sleet and snow storm with freezing temperatures and from that day until we reached the end of the fateful journey on March the 26th, 1839, the sufferings of the Cherokees were awful. The trail of the exiles was a trail of death. They had to sleep in the wagons and on the ground without fire. And I have known as many as twenty-two of them to die in one night of pneumonia due to ill treatment, cold, and exposure. Among this number was the beautiful Christian wife of Chief John Ross. This noble hearted woman died a martyr to childhood, giving her only blanket for the protection of a sick child. She rode thinly clad through a blinding sleet and snow storm, developed pneumonia and died in the still hours of a bleak winter night, with her head resting on Lieutenant Greggs’ saddle blanket…”

John G. Burnett, 1890

The Cherokee people eventually settled near Tahlequah, Oklahoma. When signing the ”Treaty of New Echota Major Ridge” it  had stated, “I have signed my death warrant.” Then resulting in controversal political turmoil led to the murders of Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot; all which were the leaders of the Treaty Party, but only Stand Watie escaped death at the time. The population of the Cherokee Nation eventually rebounded in time, and today the Cherokees are the largest American Indian group in the United States.

There were some loopholes to the removal though which some had jumped through luckily. Including about 100 Cherokees who deserted the U.S. soldiers and lived off the land in Georgia and other nearby states. Those Cherokees who lived on private, individually owned lands other than united owned tribal land were not subject to removal.

Trail of Tears National Historic Trail

In 1987, about 2,200 miles of trails were authorized by Federal law to mark the removal of seventeen detachments of the Cherokee people. Called the “Trail of Tears National Historic Trail,” it intertwines portions of nine states and includes land and water routes as well.


Research Resources: Wikipedia, Cape Coral Public Library.

Image Resources: Google Images,

I present the following song in memory of the trail of tears walkers. Who are the true definition of survivors.