The Cherokee Trail of Tears

 

Trail of Tears painting by Robert Lindneux

Trail of Tears painting by Robert Lindneux

Long time we travel on way to new land. People feel bad when they leave old nation. Women cry and make sad wails. Children cry and many men cry, and all look sad like when friends die, but they say nothing and just put heads down and keep on go towards West. Many days pass and people die very much. We bury close by Trail.

 

— Survivor of the Trail of Tears

 

As part of President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Policy of 1830, the Cherokee Nation was forced to give up its lands east of the Mississippi River and migrate to Indian Territory (now present day Oklahoma.)

During the forced march, over 4,000 of the 15,000 Indians died of hunger, disease, cold, and exhaustion. In the Cherokee language, the event is called Nunna daul Tsuny — “the trail where they cried.”

The Indian Removal Act was spawned by the rapidly expanding population of new settlers which created tensions with the American Indian tribes. Even Thomas Jefferson, who often cited the Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois Confederacy as the model for the U.S. Constitution, supported Indian removal as early as 1802.

However, Jefferson’s policy was also to allow Indians to remain east of the Mississippi River as long as they became “civilized,” meaning they were to settle in one place, adopt democracy, and divide communal land into private property to be utilized for farming.

Also in the year of 1802, the state of Georgia gave up its claims to land in the western part of the state to the U.S. Government. These lands became the states of Alabama and Mississippi. In exchange, Georgia expected that the government would remove the Indian tribes, thus allowing the State of Georgia full control of the land within its borders.

When this didn’t immediately happen, white settlers began to resent the Cherokee. Pressure was put on the tribe to voluntarily move, but their homeland, overlapping Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama had been their place of residence for generations and they obviously did not want to make the move.

In 1819 Georgia appealed to the U.S. government to remove the Cherokee from Georgia lands and when the appeal failed, attempts were made to purchase the territory. The next year, in 1820, the Cherokee Nation was founded, which included elected public officials and a governmental system modeled after the United States. John Ross was elected its principal chief and tribal members were elected to its senate and house of representatives. One of the new government’s first tasks was to enact a law that forbade the sale of any of the Cherokee lands on punishment of death.

In 1825, Ross, along with Major John Ridge, the speaker of the Cherokee National Council, established a capitol near near present-day Calhoun, Georgia. Two years later a written constitution was drafted, which declared the Cherokee Nation to be a sovereign and independent nation.

When gold was discovered in White County, Georgia in 1828, the state began to push even harder for removal of the Indians. The Georgia legislature soon outlawed the Cherokee government and confiscated tribal lands. When the Cherokee appealed for federal protection, they were rejected by President Andrew Jackson.

When the State of Georgia moved to extend state law over Cherokee lands in 1830, the Cherokee Nation took the matter before the U.S. Supreme Court. A year later, the court ruled that the Cherokee were not a sovereign and independent nation. Another court ruling in 1832 stated that Georgia could not impose laws in Cherokee territory, since only the national government had authority in Indian affairs.

But, these court rulings would make no difference, as while the cases were before the courts, President Andrew Jackson authorized the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Once an ally of the Cherokee, Jackson was fully committed to the policy of Indian removal, which provided for the government to negotiate removal treaties, exchanging Indian land in the East for land west of the Mississippi River. The first treaty was that of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek with the Choctaw that moved some 14,000 Choctaw west from Mississippi along the Red River. However, about 7,000 of the Choctaw tribe remained in Mississippi.

The Jackson Administration began to put pressure on the Cherokee and other tribes to sign treaties of removal but the Cherokee rejected any proposals. However, when Jackson was reelected in 1832, some of the Cherokee believed that removal was inevitable. A Treaty Party, led by Major John Ridge, believed that it was in the best interest of the Cherokee Nation to get the best possible terms from the U.S. government. Cautiously, Ridge began unauthorized talks with the Jackson administration.

However, Chief John Ross and the majority of the Cherokee people remained adamantly opposed to removal. In 1832, Ross cancelled the tribal elections and the Council impeached Ridge, and a member of the Ridge Party was murdered. The “Treaty Party” responded by forming their own council, which represented only a small minority of the Cherokee people. Both the Ross government and the Ridge Party sent independent delegations to Washington.

Cherokee Chief John Ross

Cherokee Chief John Ross

In the meantime, the State of Georgia was so sure that the Cherokee would be removed, they began holding lotteries in order to divide up the Cherokee tribal lands among white Georgians.

In 1835, Jackson appointed a treaty commissioner by the name of Reverend John F. Schermerhorn who offered to pay the Cherokee Nation 4.5 million dollars to move. In October, 1835, the terms were rejected by the Cherokee Nation. Both Chief Ross and John Ridge traveled to Washington in an attempt to open new negotiations, but they were turned away and told to deal with Schermerhorn.

Schermerhorn soon organized a group of pro-removal members and issued a summons for attendance by the Cherokee members. Though only about 500 of the Cherokee (out of thousands) attended, the Treaty of New Echota was agreed to which provided for the Cherokee Nation to cede its lands in exchange for $5,700,000 and new lands in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma.) Though the actions was repudiated by more than nine-tenths of the tribe and was not signed by a single elected tribal official, Congress ratified the treaty on May 23, 1836.

Chief Ross and the Cherokee National Council maintained that the document was a fraud and presented a petition with more than 15,000 Cherokee  signatures to congress in the spring of 1838. Other white settlers also were outraged by the questionable legality of the treaty. On April 23, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson appealed to Jackson’s successor, President Martin Van Buren, urging him not to inflict “so vast an outrage upon the Cherokee Nation. But it was not to be.

As the deadline for voluntary removal on May 23, 1838 approached, President Van Buren appointed General Winfield Scott to lead the forcible removal operation. Commanding some 7,000 troops, Scott arrived in Georgia on May 26th beginning a forcible evacuation at gunpoint. An estimated 17,000 Cherokee, along with about 2,000 black slaves, were forced to move over the next three weeks. The swift and brutal process drove men, women and children out of their homes, sometimes with only the clothes on their backs. They were then gathered in camps where conditions were terrible. Many of the Cherokee died while waiting in the camps, where food and supplies were limited and disease was rampant.

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