Trail of Tears
In 1838, the United States government forcibly removed more than 16,000 Cherokee Indian people from their homelands in Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia, and sent them to Indian Territory (today known as Oklahoma). The impact to the Cherokee was devastating. Hundreds of Cherokee died during their trip west, and thousands more perished from the consequences of relocation. This tragic chapter in American and Cherokee history became known as the Trail of Tears, and culminated the implementation of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which mandated the removal of all American Indian tribes east of the Mississippi River to lands in the West.
Early in the 19th century, the United States felt threatened by England and Spain, who held land in the western part of the continent. At the same time, American citizens clamored for more land. President Thomas Jefferson proposed the creation of a buffer zone between U.S. and European holdings, to be inhabited by eastern American Indians. This plan would also allow for American expansion westward from the original colonies to the Mississippi River.
Between 1816 and 1840, tribes located between the original states and the Mississippi River, including Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles, signed more than 40 treaties ceding their lands to the U.S. In his 1829 inaugural address, President Andrew Jackson set a policy to relocate eastern Indians. In 1830 his plan was endorsed by the Congress passed the Indian Removal Act to force those remaining to move west of the Mississippi. Between 1830 and 1850, about 100,000 American Indians living between Michigan, Louisiana, and Florida moved west after the U.S. government coerced treaties or used the U.S. Army against those resisting. Many were treated brutally. An estimated 3,500 Creeks dies in Alabama and on their westward Journey.
Beginning in 1791 a series of treaties between the United States and the Cherokees living in Georgia gave recognition to the Cherokee as a nation with their own laws and customs. Nevertheless, treaties and agreements gradually whittled away at this land base, and in the late 1700s some Cherokees sought refuge from white interference by moving to northwestern Arkansas between the White and Arkansas Rivers. As more and more land cessions were forced on the Cherokees during the first two decades of the 1800s, the number moving to Arkansas increased. Then in 1819, the Cherokee National Council notified the federal government that it would no longer cede land, thus hardening their resolve to remain on their traditional homelands.
The Cherokee situation was further complicated by the issue of states' rights and a prolonged dispute between Georgia and the federal government. In 1802, Georgia was the last of the original colonies to cede its western lands to the federal government. In doing so, Georgia expected all titles to land held by Indians to be extinguished. However, that did not happen, and the Principal People continued to occupy their ancestral homelands, which had been guaranteed to them by treaty.
Georgia residents resented the Cherokees' success in holding onto their tribal lands and governing themselves. Settlers continued to encroach on Cherokee lands, as well as those belonging to the neighboring Muscogee (Creek) Indians. In 1828, Georgia passed a law pronouncing all laws of the Cherokee Nation to be null and void after June 1, 1830, forcing the issue of states' rights with the federal government. Because the state no longer recognized the rights of the Cherokees, tribal meetings had to be held just across the state line at Red Clay, Tennessee.
When gold was discovered on Cherokee land in northern Georgia in 1829, efforts to dislodge the Principle People from their lands were intensified. At the same time President Andrew Jackson began to aggressively implement a broad policy of extinguishing Indian land titles in affected states and relocating the Indian population.
In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which directed the executive branch to negotiate for Indian lands. This act, in combination with the discovery of gold and an increasingly untenable position within the state of Georgia, prompted the Cherokee Nation to bring suit in the U.S. Supreme Court. In United States v. Georgia (1831) Chief Justice John Marshall, writing for the majority, held that the Cherokee nation was a "domestic independent nation," and therefore Georgia state law applied to them.
That decision, however, was reversed the following year in Worcester v. Georgia. Under an 1830 law Georgia required all white residents in Cherokee country to secure a license from the governor and to take an oath of allegiance to the state. Missionaries Samuel A. Worcester and Elizur Butler refused and were convicted and imprisoned. Worcester appealed to the Supreme Court. This time the court found that Indian nations are capable of making treaties, that under the Constitution treaties are the supreme law of the land, that the federal government had exclusive jurisdiction within the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation, and that state law had no force within the Cherokee boundaries. Worcester was ordered released from jail. President Jackson refused to enforce the court's decision, and along with legal technicalities, the fate of the Principle People seemed to be in the hands of the federal government. Even though the Cherokee people had adopted many practices of the white culture, and had used the court system in two major Supreme Court cases, they were unable to halt the removal process.
The state of Georgia continued to press for Indian Lands, and a group of Cherokees known as the Treaty Party began negotiating a treaty with the federal government. The group, led by Major Ridge and including his son John, Elias Boudinot, and his brother Stand Watie, signed a treaty at New Echota in 1835. Despite the majority opposition to this treaty - opposition that was led by Principal Chief John Ross - the eastern lands were sold for $5 million, and the Cherokees agreed to move beyond the Mississippi River to Indian Territory. The senate ratified the treaty despite knowledge that only a minority of Cherokees had accepted it. Within two years the Principal People were to move from their Ancestral homelands.
President Martin Van Buren ordered the implementation of the Treaty of New Echota in 1838, and U.S. Army troops under the command of General Winfield Scott began rounding up the Cherokees and moving them into stockades in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. Altogether 31 forts were constructed for this purpose - 13 in Georgia, five in North Carolina, eight in Tennessee, and five in Alabama. All of the posts were near Cherokee towns, and they served only as temporary housing for the Cherokees. As soon as practical, the Indians were transferred from the removal forts to 11 internment camps that were more centrally located - 10 in Tennessee and one in Alabama. In North Carolina, for example, Cherokees at the removal forts were sent to Fort Butler, and by the second week in July on to the principal agency at Fort Cass. According to a military report for July 1838, the seven camps in and around Charleston, Tennessee, contained more than 4,800 Cherokees: 700 at the agency post, 600 at Rattlesnake Spring, 870 at the first encampment on Mouse Creek, 1,600 at the second encampment on Mouse Creek, 900 at Bedwell Springs, 1,300 on Chestooee, 700 on the ridge east of the agency, and 600 on the Upper Chatate. Some 2,000 Cherokees were camped at Gunstocker Spring 13 miles from Calhoun, Tennessee. One group of Cherokees did not leave the mountains of North Carolina. This group traced their origin to an 1819 treaty that gave them an allotment of land and American citizenship on lands not belonging to the Cherokee Nation. When the forced removal came in 1838, this group - now called the Oconaluftee Cherokees - claimed the 1835 treaty did not apply to them as long as they no longer lived on Cherokee lands. Tsali and his sons were involved in raids on the U.S. soldiers who were sent to drive the Cherokees to the stockades. The responsible Indians were punished by the army, but the rest of the group gained permission to stay, and North Carolina ultimately recognized their rights. Fugitive Cherokees from the nation also joined the Oconaluftee Cherokees, and in time this group became the Eastern Band of Cherokees, who still reside in North Carolina.
During the roundup intimidation and acts of cruelty at the hands of the troops, along with the theft and destruction of property by local residents, further alienated the Cherokees. Finally, Chief Ross appealed to President Van Buren to permit the Cherokees to oversee their own removal. Van Buren consented, and Ross and his brother Lewis administered the effort. The Cherokees were divided into 16 detachments of about 1,000 each.
Three detachments of Cherokees, totaling about 2,800 persons, traveled by river to Indian Territory. The first of these groups left on June 6 by steamboat and barge from Ross's Landing on the Tennessee River (present-day Chattanooga). They followed the Tennessee as it wound across northern Alabama, including a short railroad detour around the shoals between Decatur and Tuscumbia Landing. The route then headed north through central Tennessee and Kentucky to the Ohio River. The Ohio took them to the Mississippi River, which they followed to the mouth of the Arkansas River. The Arkansas led northwest to Indian Territory, and they arrived aboard a steamboat at the mouth of Sallisaw Creek near Fort Coffee on June 19, 1838. The other two groups suffered more because of a severe drought and disease (especially among the children), and they did not arrive in Indian Territory until the end of the summer.
The rest of the Principal People traveled to Indian Territory overland on existing roads. They were organized into detachments ranging in size from 700 to 1,600, with each detachment headed by a conductor and an assistant conductor appointed by John Ross. The Cherokees who had signed the treaty of New Echota were moved in a separate detachment conducted by John Bell and administered by U.S. Army Lt. Edward Deas. A physician, and perhaps a clergyman, usually accompanied each detachment. Supplies of flour and corn, and occasionally salt pork, coffee, and sugar, were obtained in advance, but were generally of poor quality. Drought and the number of people being moved reduced forage for draft animals, which often were used to haul possessions, while the people routinely walked.
The most commonly used overland route followed a northern alignment, while other detachments (notably those led by John Benge and John Bell) followed more southern routes, and some followed slight variations. The northern route started at Calhoun, Tennessee, and crossed central Tennessee, southwestern Kentucky, and southern Illinois. After crossing the Mississippi River north of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, these detachments trekked across southern Missouri and the northwest corner of Arkansas.
Road conditions, illness, and the distress of winter, particularly in southern Illinois while detachments waited to cross the ice-choked Mississippi, made death a daily occurrence. Mortality rates for the entire removal and its aftermath were substantial, totaling approximately 8,000.
Most of the land route detachments entered present-day Oklahoma near Westville and were often met by a detachment of U.S. troops from Fort Gibson on the Arkansas River. The army officially received the Cherokees, who generally went to live with those who had already arrived, or awaited land assignments while camped along the Illinois River and its tributaries east of present-day Tahlequah.
In the Indian Territory problems quickly developed among the new arrivals and Cherokees who had already settled, especially as reprisals were taken against the contingent who had signed the treaty of New Echota. As these problems were resolved, the Cherokees proceeded to adapt to their new homeland, and they reestablished their own system of government, which was modeled on that of the United States.
Tribal Government was headquartered in Tahlequah and adhered to a constitution that divided responsibilities among an elected principal chief, an elected legislature known as the National Council, and a supreme court with lesser courts. Local districts with elected officials, similar to counties, formed the basis of the nation. The Cherokees maintained a bilingual school system, and missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions were active in the nation.
This autonomy remained reasonably strong until the Civil War, when a faction of the Cherokees sided with the Confederacy. During Reconstruction they suffered a loss of self-government and, more importantly, their land base. Government annuities were reduced, and lands were sold to newly arrived tribes. Cessions of land continued during the later 19th century, and the federal government emerged as the major force for land cession under the Dawes Act of 1887, which divided up tribal lands. The establishment of the state of Oklahoma in 1907 increased pressure for land cessions. Many people of questionable Cherokee ancestry managed to get on the tribal rolls and participate in the allotment of these lands to individuals. By the early 1970s the western Cherokees had lost title to over 19 million acres of land.
Difficult times continued because of the effects of the 1930s depression and the government policy to relocate Indians from tribal areas to urban America. Many Cherokees found themselves in urban slums with a lack of basic needs. Differences also emerged between traditionalists and those who adapted to mainstream society. During the 1970s and after, however, the Cherokees' situation improved because of self rule and economic programs.
The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail commemorates the removal of the Cherokee and the paths that 17 Cherokee detachments followed westward. Today the trail encompasses about 2,200 miles of land and water routes, and traverses portions of nine states. The National Park Service, in partnership with other federal agencies, state and local agencies, non-profit organizations, and private landowners, administers the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. Participating national historic trail sites display the official trail logo.