The Trail of Tears was when the United States government forced Native Americans to move from their homelands in the Southern United States to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Peoples from the Cherokee, Muscogee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole tribes were marched at gunpoint across hundreds of miles to reservations.
The Trail of Tears can also refer to the specific forced march and path of the Cherokee Nation from North Carolina to Oklahoma.
When did it take place?
The Indian Removal Act was passed by Congress in 1830. The actual removal of the Native American tribes from the South took several years. It began with the removal of the Choctaw in 1831 and ended with the removal of the Cherokee in 1838.
Did they want to move?
The people and leaders of the tribes were often divided on the issue. Some thought that they had no choice but to agree to move. Others wanted to stay and fight for their land. Few of them actually wanted to leave their homeland, but they knew they could not fight the United States government and win.
Leading Up to the Cherokee March
After the Indian Removal Act was passed in 1830, the Cherokee peoples resisted moving to Oklahoma. Eventually, President Andrew Jackson convinced some Cherokee leaders to sign an agreement called the Treaty of New Echota. By signing the treaty they agreed to trade their homeland for land in Oklahoma and $5 million. However, many of the Cherokee leaders did not agree to the treaty. They petitioned to Congress begging them to let them stay on their land.
Despite gaining some support in Congress, the Cherokee were told they must leave by May of 1838 or they would be forced from their land. When May arrived, only a few thousand Cherokee had left. President Jackson sent General Winfield Scott to remove the Cherokee by force.
Trail of Tears Map by the National Park Service
(click to view larger map)
General Scott and his soldiers rounded up the Cherokee people into large prison camps called stockades. In many cases, the Cherokee were not allowed to gather up their possessions before being put into the camps. During the summer, some groups were forced to start marching to Oklahoma. However, many people died from the heat and diseases. The remainder of the people were held in camps until that Fall.
In the Fall, the rest of the Cherokee headed out to Oklahoma. It took them several months to travel around 1,000 miles across mountains and wilderness terrain. The journey lasted into the winter months making it very difficult and dangerous. Along the way, thousands of Cherokee died from diseases, starvation, and the cold. Historians estimate that at least 4,000 Cherokee died on the Trail of Tears.
Aftermath and Legacy
The Trail of Tears is one of the darkest and most shameful events of American history. The famous poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of it at the time saying "the name of this nation...will stink to the world."
Today, the path of the Cherokee is memorialized by the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.
Interesting Facts about the Trail of Tears
The persecution of Native Americans didn't end with the removal to Oklahoma. Much of the land they were promised by law in Oklahoma was soon taken from them.
The Cherokee were given money to buy food along the way. However, dishonest suppliers sold them bad food at high prices causing many of them to starve.
John Ridge, a Cherokee leader who agreed with the removal treaty, was later assassinated by Cherokee men who survived the march.
Around 17,000 Choctaw people were forced to march to Oklahoma. It is estimated at least 3,000 died on the journey.