Background to the Trail of Tears

Although many volumes have been written on the political issues leading up to the Cherokee forced removal from their homes in Northern Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina, this provides a brief summary. For further research, see our Bibliography.

Trail of Tears from Trail of Tears Association on Vimeo.

In the 1830s the United States government forcibly removed the Cherokees from their homelands and relocated them on lands in Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). This tragic event is referred to as the Trail of Tears. Over 10,000 Native Americans died during removal or soon upon arrival in Indian Territory.

Since its inception, the United States government struggled with a problem: greedy citizens and politicians in the southeast were bent on acquiring the valuable lands occupied by the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, and other Native American nations. After the Louisiana Purchase (an enormous acquisition of territory west of the Mississippi in 1803), President Jefferson presumed that the Native Americans could be persuaded to give up their homes in exchange for land further west.

Following Jefferson’s lead, President Andrew Jackson pushed for the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The act provided funds for the United States government to negotiate removal treaties with tribes. The federal government coerced tribal leaders to sign these treaties. Factions arose within the tribes, as many opposed giving up their land. Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross even traveled to Washington to negotiate alternatives to removal and pleaded for the government to redress the injustices of these treaties.

Although President Jackson negotiated the removal treaties, President Martin Van Buren enforced them. The impact of the removal was first felt by the Choctaw. Starting in 1831, they were forced off their lands in Mississippi. The years 1836-38 saw the Creeks, Chickasaws, Cherokees, and Seminoles forced from their homes and removed to Indian Territory.

General Winfield Scott

Chiefs, head-men and warriors! Will you then, by resistance, compel us to resort to arms? God forbid! Or will you, by flight, seek to hid yourselves in mountains and forests, and thus oblige us to hunt you down? Remember that, in pursuit, it may be impossible to avoid conflicts. The blood of the white man or the blood of the red man may be spilt, and, if spilt, however accidentally, it may be impossible for the discreet and humane among you, or among us, to prevent a general war and carnage. Think of this, my Cherokee brethren! I am an old warrior, and have been present at many a scene of slaughter, but spare me, I beseech you, the horror of witnessing the destruction of the Cherokees.

Some United States citizens disagreed with the actions of the government. Congressman David Crockett of Tennessee sided with the Native Americans. Christian missionaries also opposed the Indian Removal Act. They denounced the injustice of the policy. “Will not the people in whose power it is to redress Indian wrongs awake to their duty? Will they not think of the multitudes…swept into Eternity by the cupidity of the ‘white man’ who is in the enjoyment of wealth and freedom on the original soil of these oppressed Indians?” wrote Lucy Ames Butler to her friend Drusilla Burnap in 1839. Lucy’s husband was the noted missionary Elizur Butler. He accompanied the Cherokee and served as their doctor and estimated that over 4,000 (a fourth of the Cherokee population) died along the trail.

In May 1838, the Cherokee removal process began. U.S. Army troops, along with various state militia, moved into the tribe’s homelands and forcibly evicted more than 16,000 Cherokee from their homelands in Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia. They were first sent to so-called “round up camps,” and soon afterward to one of three emigration camps. Once there, the U.S. Army gave orders to move the Cherokee west.

Nine contingents left in October 1838 and four that November. The first detachments, led by John Benge on October 1 and Jess Bushyhead on October 5, boarded Blythe's Ferry and crossed the Tennessee River where the Hiwassee intersected it. m Their journey of eight hundred miles would take three and a half months.

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