At the beginning of the 1830s, nearly 125,000 Native Americans lived on millions of acres of land in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and Florida–land their ancestors had occupied and cultivated for generations. By the end of the decade, very few natives remained anywhere in the southeastern United States. Working on behalf of settlers who wanted to grow cotton on the Indians’ land, the federal government forced them to leave their homelands and walk hundreds of miles to a specially designated “Indian territory” across the Mississippi River. This difficult and sometimes deadly journey is known as the Trail of Tears.
Pioneering Americans, particularly those who lived on the western frontier, often feared and resented the Native Americans they encountered: To them, American Indians seemed to be an unfamiliar, alien people who occupied land that settlers wanted (and believed they deserved). Some officials in the early years of the American republic, such as President George Washington, believed that the best way to solve this “Indian problem” was simply to “civilize” the Native Americans. The goal of this civilization campaign was to make the indigenous peoples as much like Americans as possible by encouraging them convert to Christianity, learn to speak and read English and adopt European-style economic practices such as the individual ownership of land and other property (including, in some instances in the South, African slaves). In the southeastern United States, many Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole ,Creek and Cherokee people embraced these customs and became known as the “Five Civilized Tribes.”
Did you know? Indian removal took place in the Northern states as well. In Illinois and Wisconsin, for example, the bloody Black Hawk War in 1832 opened to white settlement millions of acres of land that had belonged to the Sauk, Fox and other native nations.
But their land, located in parts of Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Florida and Tennessee, was valuable, and it grew to be more coveted as white settlers flooded the region. Many of these whites yearned to make their fortunes by growing cotton, and often resorted to violent means to take land from their Indigenous neighbors. They stole livestock; burned and looted houses and towns; committed mass murder; and squatted on land that did not belong to them.
State governments joined in this effort to drive Native Americans out of the South. Several states passed laws limiting Native American sovereignty and rights and encroaching on their territory. In Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the U.S. Supreme Court objected to these practices and affirmed that native nations were sovereign nations “in which the laws of Georgia [and other states] can have no force.” Even so, the maltreatment continued. As President Andrew Jackson noted in 1832, if no one intended to enforce the Supreme Court’s rulings (which he certainly did not), then the decisions would“[fall]…still born.” Southern states were determined to take ownership of Indian lands and would go to great lengths to secure this territory.
Andrew Jackson had long been an advocate of what he called “Indian removal.” As an Army general, he had spent years leading brutal campaigns against the Creeks in Georgia and Alabama and the Seminoles in Florida–campaigns that resulted in the transfer of hundreds of thousands of acres of land from Indian nations to white farmers. As president, he continued this crusade. In 1830, he signed the Indian Removal Act, which gave the federal government the power to exchange Native-held land in the cotton kingdom east of the Mississippi for land to the west, in the “Indian colonization zone” that the United States had acquired as part of the Louisiana Purchase. (This “Indian territory” was located in present-day Oklahoma.)
The law required the government to negotiate removal treaties fairly, voluntarily and peacefully: It did not permit the president or anyone else to coerce Native nations into giving up their land. However, President Jackson and his government frequently ignored the letter of the law and forced Native Americans to vacate lands they had lived on for generations. In the winter of 1831, under threat of invasion by the U.S. Army, the Choctaw became the first nation to be expelled from its land altogether. They made the journey to Indian Territory on foot (some “bound in chains and marched double file,” one historian writes) and without any food, supplies or other help from the government. Thousands of people died along the way. It was, one Choctaw leader told an Alabama newspaper, a “trail of tears and death.”
The Indian-removal process continued. In 1836, the federal government drove the Creeks from their land for the last time: 3,500 of the15,000 Creeks who set out for Oklahoma did not survive the trip.
The Cherokee people were divided: What was the best way to handle the government’s determination to get its hands on their territory? Some wanted to stay and fight. Others thought it was more pragmatic to agree to leave in exchange for money and other concessions. In 1835, a few self-appointed representatives of the Cherokee nation negotiated the Treaty of New Echota, which traded all Cherokee land east of the Mississippi for $5million, relocation assistance and compensation for lost property. To the federal government, the treaty was a done deal, but many of the Cherokee felt betrayed; after all, the negotiators did not represent the tribal government or anyone else. “The instrument in question is not the act of our nation,” wrote the nation’s principal chief, John Ross, in a letter to the U.S. Senate protesting the treaty. “We are not parties to its covenants; it has not received the sanction of our people.” Nearly 16,000 Cherokees signed Ross’s petition, but Congress approved the treaty anyway.
By 1838, only about 2,000 Cherokees had left their Georgia homeland for Indian Territory. President Martin Van Buren sent General Winfield Scott and 7,000 soldiers to expedite the removal process. Scott and his troops forced the Cherokee into stockades at bayonet point while his men looted their homes and belongings. Then, they marched the Indians more than 1,200 miles to Indian Territory. Whooping cough, typhus, dysentery, cholera and starvation were epidemic along the way, and historians estimate that more than 5,000Cherokee died as a result of the journey.
By 1840, tens of thousands of Native Americans had been driven off of their land in the southeastern states and forced to move across the Mississippi to Indian Territory. The federal government promised that their new land would remain unmolested forever, but as the line of white settlement pushed westward, “Indian Country” shrank and shrank. In 1907, Oklahoma became a state and Indian Territory was gone for good.
In the early 1800s, the sovereign Cherokee nation covered a vast region that included northwest Georgia and adjacent land in Tennessee, North Carolina and Alabama. Under the terms of an 1819 treaty, the United States guaranteed that Cherokee land would be off-limits to white settlers forever.
Forever lasted less than 20 years.
Although the treaty mandated the removal of “all white people who have intruded, or may hereafter intrude, on the lands of the Cherokees,” the United States instead forcibly removed more than 15,000 Cherokees in 1838 and 1839. As many as 4,000 died of disease, starvation and exposure during their detention and forced migration through nine states that became known as the “Trail of Tears.”
The Indian Removal Act signed by President Andrew Jackson in1830 authorized the federal government to relocate tribes within state borders to unsettled land west of the Mississippi River. When white settlers encroached on Cherokee land to grow cotton and search for newly discovered gold, the United States ordered the Cherokee to join the Creek, Seminole, Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes in resettling to present-day Oklahoma.
The first Cherokees to relocate—approximately 2,000 men, women and children split into four groups—did so voluntarily in 1837 and early1838. They traveled westward by boat following the winding paths of the Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers. The journey for these voluntary exiles was as short as 25 days, and deaths numbered less than two dozen.
Conditions proved far worse for the Cherokee evicted from their homes at gunpoint by 7,000 federal troops dispatched by President Martin Van Buren. Beginning on May 26, 1838, soldiers under the command of General Winfield Scott rounded up the majority of the Cherokee along with 1,500 slaves and free blacks, forced them to leave behind most of their possessions and herded them into wooden stockades and internment camps.
“Men working in the fields were arrested and driven to the stockades,” recalled Private John Burnett, who served as an interpreter. “Women were dragged from their homes by soldiers whose language they could not understand. Children were often separated from their parents and driven into the stockades with the sky for a blanket and the earth for a pillow. And often the old and infirm were prodded with bayonets to hasten them to the stockades.”
Reverend Daniel But rick, a missionary who had ministered in the Cherokee territory for 20 years, wrote “from their first arrest they were obliged to live very much like brute animals, and during their travels, were obliged at night to lie down on the naked ground, in the open air, exposed to wind and rain, and herd together, men women and children, like droves of hogs, and in this way, many are hastening to a premature grave.”
Due to the poor sanitation of the internment camps, deadly diseases such as whooping cough, measles and dysentery spread among the Cherokee.
In June 1838, three military-led migrations departed present-day Chattanooga, Tennessee, to journey westward by both land and water. At gunpoint, the Cherokee were loaded onto boats that, according to But rick, had “little, if any more room or accommodations than would be allowed to swine taken to market.”
Stifling summer heat and a record drought proved deadly as drinking water for both people and horses drew scarce. While only 21 Cherokee died in the four voluntary migrations, more than 200 perished in the three military-led expeditions.
The sweltering temperatures forced the suspension of their locations, and when they resumed that fall, Scott agreed to let the Cherokee oversee the rest of the exodus. Under the agreement, the remaining Cherokee were divided into 13 groups of approximately 1,000 people each that were led by Cherokee conductors. Federal soldiers could only act as observers as a Cherokee police force kept order.
These Cherokee-managed migrations were primarily land crossings, averaging 10 miles a day across various routes. Some groups, however, took more than four months to make the 800-mile journey. The three-mile-long Cherokee caravans required days to make river crossings and included one wagon for approximately every 20 people.
While the oldest, youngest and sickest exiles rode in wagons, most made the crossing on foot, slogging through mud and snow. “Even aged females, apparently nearly ready to drop into the grave, were traveling with heavy burdens attached to the back,” recorded one traveler who encountered the Cherokee in Kentucky.
The Cherokee were ill-equipped for the grueling hike. “We had no shoes,” noted Trail of Tears survivor Rebecca Neugin, “and those that wore anything wore moccasins made of deer hide.” They were also malnourished, sustaining themselves on a daily menu of salt pork and flour. “The people got so tired of eating salt pork on the journey that my father would walk through the woods as we traveled, hunting for turkeys and deer which we brought into camp to feed us,” Neugin recalled.
Frontiersman Davy Crockett, whose grandparents were killed by Creeks and Cherokees, was a scout for Andrew Jackson during the Creek War (1813-14). However, while serving as a U.S. congressman from Tennessee, Crockett broke with President Jackson over the Indian Removal Act, calling it unjust. Despite warnings that his opposition to Indian removal would cost him his seat in Congress, where he’d served since 1827, Crockett said, “I would sooner be honestly and politically damned than hypocritically immortalized.” The year after the act’s 1830 passage, Crockett lost his bid for reelection. After being voted back into office in 1833, he continued to express his opposition to Jackson’s policy and wrote that he would leave the U.S. for the “wildes of Texas” if Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s vice president, succeeded him in the White House. After Crockett was again defeated for reelection, in 1835,he did go to Texas, where he died fighting at the Alamo in March 1836.
Renegade Cherokees signed a treaty selling all tribal lands.
John Ross, who was of Scottish and Cherokee ancestry and became the tribe’s principal chief in 1828, was strongly opposed to giving up the Cherokees’ ancestral lands, as were the majority of the Cherokee people. However, a small group within the tribe believed it was inevitable that white settlers would keep encroaching on their lands and therefore the only way to preserve Cherokee culture and survive as a tribe was to move west. In 1835,while Ross was away, this minority faction signed a treaty at New Echota, the Cherokee Nation capital (located in Georgia), agreeing to sell the U.S. government all tribal lands in the East in exchange for $5 million and new land in the West. As part of the agreement, the government was supposed help cover the Cherokees’ moving costs and pay to support them during their first year in Indian Territory. When Ross found out about the treaty, he argued it had been made illegally. Nevertheless, in 1836 it was ratified by a single vote in the U.S. Senate and signed by President Jackson. The treaty gave the Cherokees two years to vacate their lands. In June 1839, after the Cherokees had been forced to relocate to Indian Territory, several leaders of the so-called Treaty Party, who’d advocated for the New Echota agreement, were assassinated by tribe members who’d opposed removal to the west.
Martin Van Buren ordered the roundup of the Cherokees.
During his two terms in the White House, from 1829 to 1837,Andrew Jackson was responsible for putting Indian removal policies in place; however, he left office before the 1838 deadline for the Cherokees to surrender their lands in the East. It was Jackson’s presidential successor, Martin Van Buren, who ordered General Winfield Scott to forcibly evict the Cherokees. Scott’s troops rounded up thousands of Cherokees and then imprisoned them in forts in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Alabama. During these roundups, the Indians weren’t given time to pack and family members, including children, sometimes got left behind if they weren’t home when the soldiers showed up. The Indians were transferred from the forts to detention camps, most of them in Tennessee, to await deportation. At both the forts and camps, living conditions were bleak and diseases rampant, and an unknown number of Cherokees died.
The Trail of Tears wasn’t just one route.
The first group of Cherokees departed Tennessee in June 1838and headed to Indian Territory by boat, a journey that took them along the Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi and Arkansas rivers. Heat and extended drought soon made travel along this water route impractical, so that fall and winter thousands more Cherokees were forced to trek from Tennessee to present-day Oklahoma via one of several overland routes. Federal officials allowed Chief John Ross to take charge of these overland removals, and he organized the Indians into 13 groups, each comprised of nearly a thousand people. Although there were some wagons and horses, most people had to walk.
The route followed by the largest number of Cherokees—12,000 people or more, according to some estimates—was the northern route, a distance of more than 800 miles through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and into Indian Territory. The last groups of Cherokees made it to Indian Territory in March 1839. A century later, Route 66, the iconic highway established in 1926, overlapped with part of this route, from Rolla to Springfield, Missouri.
Not all Cherokees left the Southeast.
A small group of Cherokee people managed to remain in North Carolina, either as a result of an 1819 agreement that enabled them to stay on their land there, or because they hid in the mountains from the U.S. soldiers sent to capture them. The group, which also included people who walked back from Indian Territory, became known as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Today, the group has approximately 12,500 members, who live primarily in western North Carolina on the 57,000-acre Qualla Boundary.
The Cherokees rebuilt in Indian Territory.
In the first years after their arrival in Indian Territory, life was difficult for many Cherokees. However, under the leadership of Chief Ross the tribe rebuilt in the 1840s and 1850s, establishing businesses and a public school system and publishing what was then America’s only tribal newspaper. When the American Civil War broke out, the Cherokee Nation found itself politically divided. Ross initially believed the Cherokees should remain neutral in the conflict, but there was a faction who supported the South so the chief made an alliance with the Confederacy, in part to try to keep the Cherokees united. Ross soon grew disillusioned with the Confederates, who had abandoned their promises of protection and supplies to the Indians. Ross spent the rest of the war in Philadelphia, where his second wife had a home (his first wife died while walking the Trail of Tears) and Washington, D.C., trying to convince President Abraham Lincoln that the Cherokees were loyal to the Union. Ross died of illness on August 1, 1866, having served as principal chief for nearly 40years.
The U.S. apologized to Native American groups in 2009.
In December 2009, President Barack Obama signed a bill that included an official apology to all American Indian tribes for past injustices. U.S. Senators Sam Brownback of Kansas and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota led a bipartisan effort to pass the resolution, which stated: “the United States, acting through Congress…recognizes that there have been years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies, and the breaking of covenants by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes.” However, the resolution did not call for reparations and included a disclaimer that it wasn’t meant to support any legal claims against the United States.
The story of all of the 5 tribes are filled with drama, betrayal, tragedy and loss. we present these stories to remind how easy it is to do evil in the name of good, and to attempt to ensure that we do not fail in the same way again.
All of the 5 tribes are now split between two locations, one being the areas where they were originally located in the east and southeast, the other being their tribal territories located in oklahoma. We want, on this website, to provide information and links that serve both. Additionally, our 'ride before the ride' takes the organizers and a group of supporters to Cherokee, nc to begin the journey from there to oklahoma where we typically conclude the 'ride after the ride', or the Allen Ward Memorial Ride.
So Take a look below and check out the videos for more information on the cherokee trail of tears. Also see the section below that provides some links and information about Cherokee merchandise, events and happenings in both North Carolina and Oklahoma.