What was the Trail of Tears?

The official explanation of the Trail of Tears and the reality of what actually occurred have become topics for heated debate among Scholars and Historians. The Indian Removal Act of May 26th, 1830 by Congress and signed into law by President Andrew Jackson is the recognized start of organized plans by the U.S. Government to forcibly remove Native Americans from all lands in the Southeast of the Country. Generally, this most affected those Indians known as the Five Civilized Tribes from the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and the Seminoles however, there were other tribes displaced well.

The territory for forced removal included all land East of the Mississippi River, from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and up into the Carolina’s, Tennessee and Kentucky. In reality, Indians being forced from their land had been going on ever since the Europeans first arrived in America but, not on such a large Government Sanctioned scale and the U.S. Army to implement and enforce its policies. During these forced removals many Indians suffered great hardships on long marches under brutal conditions. Lack of adequate food and supplies, diseases and freezing weather cost many their lives.

Indian Removal Act Facts

In both the House and the Senate there had been years of discussion on what legislation might be required in addressing issues with Native Americans. Southern’s were strong supporters of the bill put forward allowing the Federal Government to negotiate Treaties and make financial and land compensations with the Indians East of the Mississippi and relocate them West.

They were eager to occupy the territories this would open up for settlement. However, there were many influential people in opposition to this new proposition including, Congressman Davy Crockett, Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen, and Missionary Organizer Jeremiah Evarts.

The new Act was bitterly debated on the floor by both sides before the vote. On April 24th, it passed in the Senate with a vote of 28 to 19 and in the House of Representatives on May 26th it passed 101 to 97. It was close and two days later the President signed the Indian Removal Act into law. In theory, the Act was supposed to be voluntary by the Indians to sign these new forthcoming Treaties, however, the Tribal Chiefs were put under enormous pressure to accept them willingly or face the inevitable consequences, like it, or not.

Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson as President played an intricate part in getting the Indian Removal Act passed through Congress which lead to the Trail of Tears in the first place. Many Historians believe Jackson was sincere in his assertion that, unless the Indians are made to relocate on Federal lands West of the Mississippi where they could practice their own provisional forms of Government, they faced certain annihilation as a people and culture.

He used the history of the Northeastern Indian Tribes as an example of what would happen in the South. “Over the centuries many of the Tribes in the Northeast were decimated and their cultures lost to history forever”, he argued, “It would ultimately be in their own best interest to relocate”.

In truth; however, over the years Jackson had a long history of hostile treatment towards the Indians and, as a Military Commander during Madison’s administration, he often ignored orders to protect Native Americans land from the encroachment of white settlers. As a Major General in the Creek and Seminole wars, he had a reputation for being brutal and without mercy against his Indian enemies and an opponent of any treaties seeding land to the Creeks after their surrender.

As the President of the United States in his inaugural address, he made the proposal of land west of the Mississippi be set aside for the relocation of the Indians. After the Indian Removal Act passed in 1830 he personally was involved in the treaties negotiations with many of the Tribes.

During his eight years in office over 45,000 Indians were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands to what is now Oklahoma. He may not have been personally responsible for the sufferings the Indians endured on the Trail of Tears but, he helped to put it into motion. There can be no justification for the Trail of Tears and Jackson’s determination to enforce Indian removal but, part of what helped in developing his attitude towards Indians was the fact that he had been at war with them for many years.

During the War of 1812 with British, the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, who had been attacking white settlers in the North motivated the Creek Tribe in Alabama to rise up and do the same. After a group of these Creek Warriors attacked Fort Mims in Southeast Alabama and ruthlessly massacred over 400 settlers, Andrew Jackson was called up and given charge of the Tennessee Militia to go and fight these renegade Indians. This event along with the Seminole Wars may have helped convinced Jackson that peaceful coexistence with Indians in the South was unattainable and relocation the only viable option.

Choctaw Trail of Tears

The Choctaw were the first Indians to become the victims of Indian Removal Act on Sept.27th 1830 with the signing of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. In effect by concession, they agreed to give up their land in Mississippi totaling over 11 million acres and move west into modern day Oklahoma.

In exchange, the Choctaw were to receive 15 million acres in the new Indian Territory, now the State of Oklahoma. This was the largest land transfer in history between the U.S. and Native Americans under peaceful conditions. One of the provisions of this Treaty was to allow some of the Choctaw to stay in Mississippi if they agreed to become U.S. citizens and abide by its law: however, few chose to remain. The removal was carried out in three separate stages starting in the Fall of 1831, one in 32, the last one in 1833.

It was on one of these marches that a Choctaw Chief coined the phrase Trail of Tears. Of the estimated 12,500 Choctaw forced to relocate, between 2,000 and 4,000 died, most of the casualties were due to Cholera. The Choctaw removal being the first was supposed to be exemplary and set the standards for the other Tribes to follow. Other removals that followed would become notorious for the sufferings imposed on the Indians.

Trail of Tears History

After the Choctaw, the next two Tribes slated for relocation were the Creek and the Seminole beginning in 1832. The Creeks had at times gone to war with the U.S., resisting any intrusion into their territory of Southern Georgia and Alabama. After the Creek war of 1812-1814, they lost all their land in Georgia and Central Alabama with the Treaty of Fort Jackson and, had already been subjected to relocation even before the signing of the Treaty of Cusseta in 1832. This is when they gave up the rest of their holdings East of the Mississippi River and, over the next 5 years, all the Creeks were forcibly removed. All total, over 19,600 Creek Indians were forced to Oklahoma over these years and, 3,500 died from disease after removal.

It was the Seminole Tribe that put up more resistance to relocation than any of the other Tribes in the Southeast. The Seminole were actually formed by renegade Indians from the Creek and other Tribes as well as black runaway slaves who claimed Spanish Florida as their home. As white settlers began to move down into the Florida Panhandle, the Seminole would mount raids against them.

This lead to the U.S. to send Troops under Col. Andrew Jackson beginning in 1816 and cumulating to the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819 where Spain seeded Florida to the U.S. and the Seminole were forced out of Northern Florida but, remained in the South. Then with the Removal Act, some of their Chiefs signed the Treaty of Payne’s Landing in 1832 agreeing to relocation in Oklahoma. However, many other Seminole Chiefs refused to accept this Treaty and by 1835 they were at war again with the U.S. Army.

This lasted up to 1842 and by this time most of the Seminole had either been relocated, killed in war or starved from lack of supplies. The last War with the Seminole took place in 1855-1858 were the remaining Seminole agreed to go to Oklahoma. However, a few hundred still refused and headed down into the swamps of the Everglades. Out of a population of 5,000 before the Removal Act, 2,833 were sent to Oklahoma, the rest had died or had been killed in the Wars.

It is without question that Cherokee Nation suffered the most in the Trail of Tears. Between 1836 to 1838 the U.S. Army led by General Winfield Scott by orders from President Martin Van Buren rounded up all the Cherokee Tribes in the Southeast U.S. willing or not and forced them on a treacherous journey of over 1000 miles on foot. Over 20,000 Cherokee with 2000 of their black slaves were made to leave their homes and relocate to Oklahoma.

Not only did white settlers want the Cherokee’s land for cultivation but gold was discovered in North Georgia in the late 1820’s and the rush was on. The Treaty of New Echota in 1835 signed by a small fraction of Cherokee leaders did not represent the majority of the Tribe. Most of the Cherokee did not agree with the terms of this Treaty whereby they would be relocated to Oklahoma, but none the less the U.S. Government used it as the legal means to forcibly remove all Cherokee.

There were many Trail of Tears with many different Tribes enforcing the Indian Removal Act but, it was the enormity of this event and cruelty inflicted on the Cherokee in 1838 that became the historical pinnacle. By 1838 several thousand Cherokee had left voluntarily, either singularly or in small groups, those who did not, were by force gathered up that summer and placed into internment camps awaiting the long journey West. Some 13,000 Cherokee would be forced to endure one of the darkest chapters in American History.

Trail of Tears Route

Red Clay, Tennessee near modern-day Chattanooga would become infamous as the starting point for the Indians on the Trail of Tears. Although this was only one of many forced removals, it became the most famous. A Cherokee Chief and a leader named John Ross with the consent of the other Chiefs and the U.S. Army tried to help organize the mass exodus in a safe logistical way. He proposed a division of 12 separate wagon trains, each with about 1000 persons and equipped with doctors, interpreters and adequate supplies for the journey. Unfortunately, the Trek to Oklahoma would face many unforeseen difficulties including an unusually cold winter.

In the late Autumn of 1838, they headed North through Tennessee and Kentucky to the Ohio River at Golconda, Illinois. There at Berry’s Ferry crossing, they were charged $1.00 a head to cross the river but, only after having to wait their turn in the freezing cold without shelter or food. It was here several hundred died from the elements, disease, starvation and outright murder by local whites as continued on their fateful journey.


By the end of December 1838, they had made slow progress and it took almost 3 months to cross Southern Illinois and reach the Mississippi River impeded with frozen ice preventing their crossing. After the crossing, they continued through Southern Missouri and Arkansas where many of these Trails are still marked today. Eventual most of them made to Tahlequah, Oklahoma in 1839 however, between 4,000 and 6,000 Indians suffered torturous deaths on this forced Trek that would become famous as the Trail of Tears. The Cherokee would mount a strong recovery after the relocation and, today they remain the largest Native American Indian Tribe in America.

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