Background Essay: The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail
Passing through the present-day states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail follows the routes that the Cherokee people traveled when they were forcibly removed from their homelands. Four detachments of Cherokee people traveled to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) along water routes, while 13 detachments made their way overland along existing roads. The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail is an auto route that follows major highways that are close to the original trail routes and includes related sites and national and state parks as well as privately owned certified sites.
What led to the forced removal? Increased European settlement, conflicts, politics, and disagreements among the Cherokee people themselves were all factors.
The Cherokee had lived in their southeastern homeland for thousands of years before European settlers arrived. As settlement increased, the Cherokee were forced to give up some of their land. During the Revolutionary War, the Cherokee sided with the British, who promised to keep settlers from moving into their territory. At the end of the war, the Cherokee lost much of their land in South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia.
In 1785, the Cherokee signed their first treaty with the United States Government, ceding to the government even more of their land. In signing this treaty, the government treated the Cherokee as a sovereign nation. The treaty stated that, The hatchet shall be forever buried, and the peace given by the United States, and friendship reestablished between the said states on the one part, and all the Cherokees on the other, shall be universal.
Continued conflict and concessions
Unfortunately, peace and friendship were not universal. One group of Cherokee did not agree with the treaty, and, according to their culture, were not bound by the decisions of others. This group, known as the Chickamauga, continued to fight against the settlers. Meanwhile, settlers continued to move into Cherokee territory.
In 1791 in the treaty of Holston, the Cherokee gave up even more land in exchange for payment of money and supplies. The supplies included farming equipment, spinning wheels, and looms. The policy of the U.S. government was to try to civilize native peoples by encouraging them to change their lifestyle. Traditionally, Cherokee men were hunters and warriors while the women took charge of raising crops. The government policy sought to turn the men into farmers while the women took on the more domestic chores of spinning and weaving cloth.
The Chickamauga stopped fighting in 1794, and another treaty was signed in 1798. In this treaty, the Treaty of Tellico Blockhouse, the Cherokee gave up a large amount of their territory in Tennessee and North Carolina, but they were guaranteed that they could keep the rest of their land forever. In 1800, missionaries began to arrive in Cherokee territory, and many Cherokee people converted to Christianity. Many Cherokee believed that if they emulated the lifestyle of the Euro-Americans, they would be allowed to remain in their homeland.
By the 1820s the Cherokee had ceded all their land except a small holding in western North Carolina, southern Tennessee, and northern Georgia. Some of the treaties stated that Cherokee people were to receive individual reservations on recently ceded land in Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina. Ultimately, only North Carolina would honor this provision.
The Cherokee continued to adopt the lifestyle of the settlers. Some Cherokee farms grew into plantations, and some wealthy Cherokee owned slaves. They built sawmills, grist mills, and blacksmith shops. They encouraged missionaries to set up schools to teach their children to read and write English, and, in 1821, Sequoyah introduced a Cherokee syllabary (an alphabet with symbols representing syllables) for the Cherokee language. Within a year, most Cherokee were literate. A newspaper in the Cherokee language was published.
Ridge, Ross, and the threat of removal
Two of the leaders in the movement to develop a strong, separate Cherokee culture modeled after the European culture were Major Ridge and John Ross. Both men were descended from white traders who had moved into Cherokee territory, married Cherokee women, and raised their families as Cherokees. Both were wealthy plantation owners and both were fiercely committed to the welfare of the Cherokee people. In 1813 and 1814, they had both fought alongside Andrew Jackson against a faction of the Creek Nation.
Ridge and Ross worked together to create a new capital for the Cherokee Nation at New Echota and proposed a constitution modeled on the Constitution of the United States that was approved by the Cherokee National Council. Ross was elected principal chief. Both Ross and Ridge believed that the Cherokee could co-exist with the European settlers.
There were many factors working against the Cherokee. There was increasing pressure, especially in Georgia, to remove the Cherokee and open their land to white settlement. A popular song of the time included this refrain:
All I ask in this creation
Is a pretty little wife and a big plantation
Way up yonder in the Cherokee Nation.
Georgia citizens had a good reason to hope that the federal government would force the Cherokee to move west. In 1802 Thomas Jeffersons administration signed the Georgia Compact, which promised to buy all Indian land claims in Georgia as soon as possible. But the Cherokee continued to resist relocation. In 1824, John Ross wrote to the American Congress:
We appeal to the magnanimity of the American Congress for justice, and the protection of the rights, liberties, and lives, of the Cherokee people. We claim it from the United States, by the strongest obligations, which imposes it upon them by treaties; and we expect it from them under that memorable declaration, that all men are created equal.
A new President, a new act, and a new treaty
When Andrew Jackson became President in 1828, he was determined to remove all the Native people living east of the Mississippi River to the west. In 1830, Jackson and the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which gave Jackson the funds and the authority to negotiate voluntary removal treaties. That same year, gold was discovered on Cherokee land in Georgia.
Another source of agitation was the issue of slavery. Although some wealthy Cherokee owned slaves, there was also a group of Cherokee that wanted to outlaw slavery in the Cherokee Territory. This would have created a haven for runaway slaves in the heart of the slave states. Alabama and Georgia passed legislation restricting the rights and liberties of the Cherokee. The Cherokee brought suit against the State of Georgia in two cases. In 1832, the Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokee Nation was sovereign and that Georgia had no right to extend their laws into the Cherokee Nation. Georgia, however, ignored the courts ruling.
A people divided
A split developed between John Ross and Major Ridge. Ridge believed that removal was inevitable. He thought the best thing the Cherokee could do was to sign a treaty ceding their lands in exchange for $5 million. Ross and the Cherokee National Council bitterly opposed Ridge and his Treaty Party. In December 1835, while Ross was in Washington D.C., Major Ridge and a small group of Cherokee signed a treaty at New Echota agreeing to cede all Cherokee lands in exchange for $5 million and to remove themselves to Indian Territory.
Ross immediately sent a letter to Congress, signed by 15,000 Cherokee, denouncing the treaty as illegal. Not one of the signers was an elected representative of the Cherokee National Council. Congress, however, ratified the treaty. Ridge and his party moved to Indian Territory and became known as the Old Settlers, but Ross and his followers continued to resist relocation.
A harsh removal
After two years, the limit set for voluntary removal, the government sent troops under General Winfield Scott to round up the Cherokee. Cherokee families were forced from their homes at bayonet point, leaving behind all their possessions that they could not carry. They were gathered in detention camps to await removal. The camps were crowded and unsanitary, which led to disease and deaths. Three detachments were sent west during the summer under military supervision. They were supposed to follow water routes, but due to a drought, they ended traveling largely by land. There was so much death and suffering among these first detachments that Scott agreed to Ross request that the Cherokee be allowed to supervise the rest of the detachments themselves.
Between October and December, the remaining Cherokee, including many infants and those who were elderly and sick, set out on their thousand-mile journey. They had some horses and wagons, but the majority walked. They lacked adequate clothing and food, and the winter was unusually harsh. Of 15,000 Cherokee who left, 4,000 died along the trail they followed. It is no wonder that the trail became known as the Trail of Tears.
When the new arrivals reached Indian Territory, there were bitter feelings toward Ridge and his treaty signers, who were considered traitors. Major Ridge, his son John, and his nephew Elias Boudinot were murdered. This caused an uproar, but the murderers were never identified. Despite these hard feelings, the Cherokee reunited under an act of union and adopted a new constitution, establishing their capitol at Tahlequah.
The Cherokee today
Today there are three Cherokee tribes recognized by the federal government. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma has over 260,000 members and a tribal government that oversees social programs, development and special services, and tribal operations. Their business enterprises include arts and crafts outlets, a utility company, ranching, poultry, and the gaming businesses. The United Keetoowah Band, with over 16,000 members, has organized its own government and seeks to maintain more traditional tribal values. The Eastern Band of Cherokee also has its own tribal government and a boundary of land in North Carolina. Many members are descendants of the Cherokee who had been granted citizenship by the state of North Carolina and were allowed to remain during the Removal. Others are descended from Cherokees who escaped the Trail of Tears or left Indian Territory and returned to North Carolina. The Eastern Band has a membership of over 12,500. The majority lives on the Qualla Boundary.
The U.S. government never paid the Cherokee the $5 million that was promised.
In 1987, the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail was designated to preserve the story and the routes and to support the associated sites that commemorate the Cherokees forced migration. Information about the trail has come from many sources, including journals written by two missionaries who were part of the Cherokee community and accompanied them west, Reverend Butrick and the Reverend Evan Jones. Using these accounts and other research, community groups such as the Trail of Tears Association have worked with the National Park Service and public and private landowners to establish certified sites along the trail and to provide those who travel it with information about this tragic chapter in American history.
- General information, history, and maps are found at the web site of the National Trail of Tears Association.
- The National Park Service web site includes links to the currently certified trail sites.
- The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail web site includes maps, general information, and educational materials.
- The Museum of the Cherokee Indian web site includes extensive information on Cherokee history and culture.
- The Trail of Tears Commemorative Park web site includes information about this Hopkinsville, Kentucky trail site, along with photos from powwows held at the park.
- The PBS web site offers a Teachers Resource on Indian Removal, including the original text of the letter written by John Ross to protest the Treaty of New Echota.
- The Library of Congress website includes original documents related to Indian Removal.
- View an image and read a favorable profile of Major Ridge at the Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee web site.
- The National Park Service web site includes links to the web sites of several tribes that were associated with the Trail of Tears.
- The Marion, Kentucky, Tourism web site includes a guide to trail sites in the Marion area.