Posted on


The southeastern portion of the United States had been the ancestral lands of various Native American tribes. These tribes had lived for generations on this land, and had even adopted the ways of the white settlers who had come to raise crops in this fertile area. In the 1830’s, roughly 125,000 Native Americans lived on millions of acres of land in the present states of Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Florida. At the close of the decade however, very few Native Americans remained on the lands their ancestors had lived.

The state and federal government forced the Native Americans to move off of their land, and make the dangerous and often deadly journey west to lands that the government had designated “Indian Territory.” This journey is known as the “Trail of Tears.”

“The Indian Problem”

Whites who had come from Europe to settle in North America had long grappled with the issue of how to co-exist with the Native Americans. Should they live peacefully with them, even though Native Americans inhabited the most fertile lands in the area, or should they wage war against the Natives in an effort to forcefully take their land? This issue came to be known as “The Indian Problem.”

Many believed that the whites were more civilized and thus “deserved” the land more. Therefore, these people believed, it was justifiable for whites to forcefully take lands from the Native Americans. Others, including George Washington, believed the solution to “The Indian Problem” was to “civilize” Native Americans by teaching them to adapt the cultural practices of the whites. These practices included converting to Christianity, learning to speak and read English, and adopting western economic practices such as individual ownership of land. In the Southeastern U.S., many of those in the Seminole, Creek, Cherokee, Chocktaw, and Chicsaw tribes adopted the ways of the settlers. Thus these tribes came to be known as the “Five Civilized Tribes.”

A map of Native American forced migration in the 1830’s, including the “Trail of Tears”

While many of the members of these tribes tried to adapt to the white settlers’ way of life, the land they inhabited was still valuable, especially for growing cotton, and was thus coveted by their white neighbors. In fact, the whites valued this land so much, that they went so far as to be violent towards their Native American neighbors. The settlers stole livestock, committed murder, burned and looted houses and even whole towns, and squatted on land that belonged to the Natives (squat means to illegally live on or settle land or property that does not belong to you).

The state governments in the southeastern U.S. joined in the effort to remove the Natives from their land. They did so by passing laws that limited the rights of Native Americans and that encroached on their lands. In some of the cases brought before it, the U.S. Supreme Court took the side of the Native Americans, ruling that they were sovereign nations who had a right to their own land. However, the southern states and those who lived in them chose simply to ignore the Supreme Court’s rulings.

The Trail of Tears

Andrew Jackson was U.S. President in 1830. Jackson had been born in the South and as an Army General, he had been responsible for violent campaigns against the Seminoles in Florida and the Creeks in Georgia. As a result of these campaigns, the Seminoles and Creeks lost thousands of acres of their land to white settlers. In 1830, President Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which called for Native Americans from the cotton rich lands east of the Mississippi River, to exchange their land for lands in the “Indian Colonization Zone” in present day Oklahoma.

The trailhead at Trail of Tears National Historic Park, which follows the path of the Native Americans

According to the law, the government was supposed to negotiate fairly and peacefully with the Native Americans and it forbid the government from forcefully removing Native Americans from their land. However, in practice, President Jackson and the U.S.  Army frequently coerced Natives to leave their land with little in return, moving them by force to the “Indian Territory” in the west. In 1831, the Chocktaw became the first tribe to be completely removed from its land. The Chocktaw people made their journey on foot and without any food or supplies from the government. Many Chocktaw died along the way and the journey was, as one Chocktaw leader told an Alabama newspaper, “a journey of tears and death.” 

In 1836, the government proceeded to expel the Creek people from their land. Of the 15,000 Creek who made the voyage to the “Indian Territory,” 3,500 did not survive the trip.

Cherokee Take a Stand against the Trail of Tears

The Cherokee people were divided on how to face the Indian Removal Act. Many thought it would be more practical to negotiate the sale of their land for money and other concessions. Others wanted to stay on their land and fight for it. In 1835, several members of the Cherokee people who had appointed themselves representatives of the Cherokee nation negotiated a deal with the government. They would give all of the Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi River to the U.S. in exchange for $5 million, for assistance in relocation and for compensation for lost property. This deal became known as the Treaty of New Echota.

While the Federal Government believed that the Treaty of New Echota was a done deal, many of the Cherokee people felt no need to recognize the treaty. Ultimately, the people who had negotiated it were not official representatives of the Cherokee Nation. The nation’s principal chief, John Ross, wrote a letter of protest to the government that was signed by nearly 16,000 Cherokee. The government ignored the letter and approved the treaty anyway.

In 1838, the government rounded up the Cherokee and put them into boats that sailed the Ohio, Mississippi, and Arkansas rivers into Indian Territory. Many Cherokee were held in prison camps to await their fate. An estimated 4,000 Cherokee died along the journey, succumbing to diseases such as whooping cough, typhus, dysentery and cholera, along with exposure and starvation.

Trail of Tears Facts

  • The Trail of Tears ranged from 1,000 to 1,200 miles.
  • The Cherokees were allowed 600 wagons and carts, 5,000 horses and just over 100 oxen for their journey across the Trail of Tears.
  • Native Americans in the northern states of Illinois and Wisconsin were also removed from their land. The Black Hawk War of 1832 opened up land of the Sauk, Fox and other nations to white settlers.
  • In 1987, Congress passed Public Law 100-192, designating two of the routes taken by the Cherokee people in their removal as a National Historic Trail within the National Trails System.