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1838: The Trail of Tears: forced to resettle in what became Oklahoma, many Cherokee died on the brutal journey west.

With bayonets fixed to their guns, small squads of U.S. soldiers stealthily set out on May 26, 1838, to surround the little cabins in Georgia where the Cherokee lived. The soldiers then rushed inside, seizing entire families and herding them into stockades. From the stockades, the Cherokee would be led on a forced march to Oklahoma.

"Families at dinner were startled by the sudden gleam of bayonets in the doorway and rose up to be driven with blows and oaths along the trail that led to the stockade," wrote ethnologist James Mooney in 1900, after interviewing many of those forced from their homes. "Men were seized in their fields or going along the road, women were taken from their [spinning] wheels and children from their play."

Many who looked back saw their homes in flames, their cattle, pigs, and horses scattered or gone.

So began what the Cherokee came to call the Trail of Tears: the deadly, forced trek from their homes in Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, and Tennessee to unknown lands west of the Mississippi River. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Indians died during the brutal three-month-long trek west while land-hungry white settlers took possession of their farms.


According to a magazine correspondent who covered the marches, the soldiers drove the Cherokee through rivers without giving them time to remove their shoes. A deaf Indian who turned right instead of left was shot dead, and a Cherokee was given 100 lashes after striking a soldier who had pushed his wife.

In little more than a month after the soldiers' initial raid, 5,000 Cherokee had been sent to Oklahoma, then known as the Indian Territory, because it was where the government planned to resettle eastern tribes. The remaining Cherokee, between 12,000 and 13,000, began the forced march west in October 1838.

They traveled a variety of land and water routes through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas. Many succumbed to colds, dysentery, and diarrhea. The last group straggled into Indian Territory in March 1839. Between 800 and 4,000 died in the stockades and along the way.


The Cherokee's 1,000-mile march was the result of the Indian Removal Act that President Andrew Jackson signed into law in 1830. The law stated that if tribes living east of the Mississippi wished to exchange their lands for lands to the west, the federal government would agree to the swap. The law mentioned nothing about removing the Indians by force.

But Jackson's intent was just that. He told Congress in 1833: "That those tribes cannot exist surrounded by our settlements and in continual contact with our citizens is certain." Jackson began pressuring tribes to sign treaties and move.

The Cherokee removal followed the removal of the Creek from Alabama (1836); the Choctaw from Mississippi and Alabama (1836); and the Chickasaw from Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi (1837). During this period, federal authorities virtually emptied the Southeast of its native residents and sent them to Oklahoma.

The Indian Removal Act and the trek west were especially bitter for the Cherokee because they had tried to assimilate into the white culture. They had taken up farming, increasingly embraced Christianity, and written a constitution. Many dressed like their white neighbors.

Their efforts at assimilation failed. Though treaties acknowledged Indian ownership of tens of millions of acres in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Florida, the federal government had always hoped to move the tribes west to make room for the nation's burgeoning population.

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson told Georgia it could have the Cherokee lands if the state would give up ownership of territory that eventually formed the states of Alabama and Mississippi. Georgia agreed, ceded the land, and waited for the Cherokee to leave.

By 1821, only several thousand Cherokee had moved, and Georgia clamored for the federal government to make good on Jefferson's promise. Bloody clashes erupted between Cherokee and illegal settlers on their lands. Meanwhile, Georgia enacted laws saying Cherokee land belonged to Georgia.

The Cherokee's situation grew desperate in July 1829 when gold was discovered near Dahlonega, Ga. The gold fields largely lay in tribal land. Miners poured in, trampling Cherokee communities, defiling streams, and seizing their land while the state and federal governments looked away. Georgia passed a law prohibiting Indians from digging or mining for gold.


The Cherokee challenged the Georgia laws, and in March 1832, the Supreme Court ruled in their favor. In the first decision spelling out the limits of states' control of their native Indian populations, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that the Georgia laws were "repugnant to the constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States."

Georgia ignored the Supreme Court, and President Jackson refused to intervene. He reportedly said, "John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it." State surveyors began dividing Cherokee land into 40-acre and 160-acre plots to sell to white settlers and miners.

A few Cherokee chiefs who had long argued that the Cherokee could remain where they were if they adopted white people's ways, now lost hope and urged the tribe to sign a treaty and join the other Southeast tribes that had moved to Oklahoma.

In December 1835, several hundred Cherokee approved the Treaty of New Echota (named for the Georgia town where it was signed), agreeing to exchange the tribe's eastern lands for 5 million dollars and 7 million acres in Oklahoma. The vast majority of Cherokee opposed the treaty, but the U.S. Senate ratified it in 1836. When the May 23, 1838, deadline for removal came, most Cherokee remained in their homes. General Winfield Scott then ordered the roundup that began on May 26.


"The Trail of Tears marked a watershed in the nature of treaties," says Sam Cook, director of American Indian studies at Virginia Tech. "Treaties are supposed to be somber agreements between sovereign nations, but the tribes were no longer treated as equitably. The Trail of Tears marked a point where what is legal and what is ethical became separated."

The forced removal of American Indians that began in the early 1800s had far-reaching consequences: Today, more than 300 federally recognized American Indian reservations dot the nation's landscape, many the result of a presumption that the government had a right to relocate tribes and establish the boundaries of their land.

Of the 2.5 million American Indians now living in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau, 538,000 live on reservations--many of them far from where their ancestors lived.


1838: The Trail of Tears

1. The Cherokee were uprooted from their homes and forcibly marched to Oklahoma in 1838-39, but one could say their fate was seated decades earlier in a deal between Georgia and

a the Supreme Court.

b Congress.

c President Thomas Jefferson.

d the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

2. The terms of the Indian Removal Act, signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830,

a required Georgia to force the Cherokee off their lands in that state.

b promised the Cherokee they would receive better land in the West.

c threatened violence if the Cherokee did not move.

d said if the Cherokee wished to exchange their lands for lands in the West, the federal government would agree to such a swap.

3. Some Cherokee chiefs believed the whites would arrow them to stay on their land

a because the land belonged to the Cherokee.

b if they accommodated the whites and adopted their ways.

c because the white settlers' religion required respect for other people.

d because they thought there was enough land for whites and Indians to share.

4. Describe the Supreme Court's involvement in the government's decision in the Cherokee removal.

5. Why do you think there is such a wide divergence--800 to 4,000--in the estimates of Cherokee deaths?

Upfront Quiz 3 * page TE6

1. (c) President Thomas Jefferson. 2. (d) said if the Cherokee wished to exchange their lands for lands in the West, the federal government would agree to such a swap. 3. (b) if they accommodated the whites and adopted their ways. 4. The Court ruled that Georgia's laws were unconstitutional. 5. Answers will vary but might include the idea that whites were probably not inclined to pay much attention to Indian suffering.



To help students understand one of the cruelest episodes in U.S. history--the suffering of thousands of Indians who were forced from their homes in the Southeast to make room for land-hungry white settlers.

BACKGROUND: The removal of the Cherokee was the successor to a wider plan first advanced by Thomas Jefferson, who was wary of the threat posed by British and Spanish control in the West. Jefferson proposed moving eastern Indians to the West to create a buffer zone between the U.S. and British and Spanish territory.

CRITICAL THINKING/WRITING: Essential to students' understanding of this episode is the mind-set of President Jackson and those who supported him.

Ask students how they think Jackson regarded Indians as a people. Should Jackson be viewed as the lone villain in this episode? (Remind students that many Americans at the time were also anti-black, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic--and anti-anyone who wasn't them.)

Have students, either individually or as a class, write a brief speech to be delivered at a commemoration of the Trail of Tears. Here are two suggested topics to include in the speech:

* What might President Bush say about the Trail of Tears to today's Cherokee?

* What does Jackson's refusal to enforce the Supreme Court ruling teach about respect for the law?


* Do descendants of the Cherokee deserve compensation for their ancestors' loss?

* What does Virginia Tech professor Sam Cook mean when he speaks of the separation between that which is legal and that which is ethical?

FAST FACT: The Treaty of Echota passed the U.S. Senate by one vote.

WEB WATCH:, a site of the National Trail of Tears Association, provides a timeline of events during the 1838-1839 removal of the Cherokee. provides copies of The Cherokee Phoenix, a Cherokee newspaper published between 1828 and 1834.

Rex Bowman is a reporter at the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia.
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Title Annotation:Times Past
Author:Bowman, Rex
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 24, 2005
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