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The Trail of Tears was a series of forced relocations of Native Americans in the United States following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The removal included members of five Native American nations from their ancestral homelands in the southeastern U.S. to an area west of the Mississippi River that had been designated as Indian Territory. Some Native Americans who chose to stay and assimilate were allowed to become citizens in their states and of the United States. The phrase “Trail of Tears” originated from a description of the removal of the Choctaw Nation in 1831.
Between 1830 and 1850, the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, Creek, Seminole and Cherokee peoples (including European Americans and African American freedmen and slaves who lived among them) were forcibly removed from their traditional lands and relocated further west. The Native Americans suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while enroute, and many died before reaching their various destinations. The Cherokee Nation removal in 1838 (the last forced removal east of the Mississippi) was brought on by the discovery of gold near Dahlonega, Georgia, in 1829, resulting in the Georgia Gold Rush. The Cherokee population was divided into thirteen groups — the last of which was led by John Ross who had negotiated the nation’s emigration contract with the Van Buren administration. Approximately 2,000-6,000 of the 16,543 relocated Cherokee perished along the way.
A number of white leaders were opposed to the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands. Senators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay spoke out against removal, as did Davey Crockett and Sam Houston. The Reverend Samuel Worcester, missionary to the Cherokees, challenged Georgia’s attempt to extinguish Indian title to land in the state, actually winning his case before the Supreme Court.
Worcester vs. Georgia, 1832 and Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia, 1831 are considered the two most influential legal decisions in regards to Native American rights. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled for Georgia in the 1831 case, but in Worcester vs. Georgia, the court affirmed Cherokee sovereignty. President Andrew Jackson arrogantly defied the decision of the court and ordered the removal, an act that established the U.S. government’s precedent for the future removal of many Native Americans from their ancestral homelands.
The U.S. government used the Treaty of New Echota in 1835 to justify the removal. The treaty, signed by about 100 Cherokees known as the Treaty Party, relinquished all lands east of the Mississippi River in exchange for land in Indian Territory and the promise of money, livestock, various provisions, tools and other benefits.
When these pro-removal Cherokee leaders signed the Treaty of New Echota, they were seen as traitors to their people since the Cherokee Nation Council had earlier passed a law calling for the death of anyone agreeing to give up tribal land. The signing and the removal led to bitter factionalism and ultimately to the deaths of most of the Treaty Party leaders once the Cherokee arrived in Indian Territory.
Opposition to the removal was led by Chief John Ross, a mixed-blood of Scottish and one-eighth Cherokee descent. The Ross party and most Cherokees opposed the New Echota Treaty, but Georgia and the U.S. government prevailed and used it as justification to force almost all of the 17,000 Cherokees from their southeastern homeland.
Under orders from President Jackson, the U.S. Army began enforcement of the Removal Act. The Cherokee were rounded up in the summer of 1838 and loaded onto boats that traveled the Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers into Indian Territory. Many were held in prison camps awaiting their fate.
An estimated 4,000 died from hunger, exposure and disease. The journey became a cultural memory as the “trail where they cried” for the Cherokees and other removed tribes. Today it is widely remembered by the general public as the “Trail of Tears”. The Oklahoma chapter of the Trail of Tears Association has begun the task of marking the graves of Trail survivors with bronze memorials.
This article is adapted from sources provided by the Cherokee Nation Cultural Resource Center.