What Happened on the Trail of Tears?

Early in the 19th century, the United States felt threatened by England and Spain, who held land in the western continent. At the same time, American settlers clamored for more land. 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.

In his 1829 inaugural address, President Andrew Jackson set a policy to relocate eastern Indians. In 1830 it was endorsed, when Congress passed the Indian Removal Act to force those remaining to move west of the Mississippi, which required the various Indian tribes in today’s southeastern United States to give up their lands in exchange for federal territory which was located west of the Mississippi River. Most Indians fiercely resisted this policy, but as the 1830s wore on, most of the major tribes, the Choctaws, Muscogee Creeks, Seminoles, and Chickasaws, agreed to be relocated to Indian Territory (in present-day Oklahoma).

The Cherokee were forced to move because a small, rump faction of the tribe signed the Treaty of New Echota in late 1835, a treaty that the U.S. Senate ratified in May 1836. This action, the treaty signing and its subsequent Senate approval,  tore the Cherokee into two implacable factions: a minority of those who were allied with the “treaty party,” and the vast majority that bitterly opposed the treaty signing.

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 Indian people 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. In June 1838, three detachments left southeastern Tennessee and were sent to Indian Territory by water.

Difficulties with those moves, however, led to negotiations between Principal Chief John Ross and U.S. Army General Winfield Scott, and later that summer, Scott issued an order stating that Ross would be in charge of all future detachment movements. Ross, honoring that pledge, orchestrated the migration of fourteen detachments, most of which traveled over existing roads, between August and December 1838.

The impact of the resulting Cherokee “Trail of Tears” was devastating. More than a thousand Cherokee,  particularly the old, the young, and the infirm, died during their trip west, hundreds more deserted from the detachments, and an unknown number, perhaps several thousand, perished from the consequences of the forced migration.

The tragic relocation was completed by the end of March 1839, and resettlement of tribal members in Oklahoma began soon afterward. The Cherokee, in the years that followed, struggled to reassert themselves in the new, unfamiliar land. Today, they are a proud, independent tribe, and its members recognize that despite the adversity they have endured, they are resilient and invest in their future.

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