Trail Of Tears

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Trail of Tears


The Trail of Tears is the tale of the Cherokee Indians and their removal from their ancestral lands. Based primarily in northern Georgia, the Cherokees were recognized as one of the “five civilized tribes” and had gone to great lengths to ensure their sovereignty and show their civility to the American people and government. By the time their removal was demanded, they had a written language, a written constitution, and a governmental body that included a judicial branch. (Ehle, 21)


Trail of Tears, most closely associated with the Cherokees, is perhaps the most well known injustice done to Native Americans during the removal period of the 1830s. Historically, the Cherokees occupied lands in several southeastern states including North Carolina and Georgia. Acting under the Removal Act of 1830, federal authorities sought to win the tribe's agreement to exchange tribal lands for a reservation in the West. In 1835, approximately 500 Cherokees, none of them elected officials of the Cherokee nation, (Ehle, 21) gathered in New Echota, Georgia, and signed a treaty ceding all Cherokee territory east of the Mississippi to the United States in exchange for $5 million and new homelands in Indian Territory (modern Oklahoma). Though a majority of the tribe protested this illegal treaty, it was ratified—by a single vote—by the U.S. Senate on 23 May 1836.

In May 1838, federal troops and state militia units supervised by General Winfield Scott rounded up the Cherokees who refused to accept the New Echota agreement and held them in concentration camps until they were sent west in groups of approximately 1,000 each. (Ehle, 21) Three groups left that summer, traveling 800 miles from Chattanooga by rail, boat, and wagon, primarily on the water route. In November, with river levels too low for navigation and with inadequate clothing and supplies, twelve more groups traveled overland, under close military supervision and primarily on foot, in spite of roads rendered impassable by autumn rains and the subsequent onset of winter. By March 1839, all survivors had arrived in their new home. Of the 15,000 Cherokees who began the journey, about 4,000—a fifth of the total Cherokee population—perished along the route. (Ellis, 45)

By May 1838, only 2,000 of approximately 16,000 Cherokees had moved, and Maj. Gen. (Ellis, 45) Winfield Scott entered Cherokee territory with about 2,200 federal troops and nearly 5,000 state volunteers from Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, and Tennessee. They herded the Cherokees into stockades, and then, in June, forced three groups—approximately 2,745 men, women, and children—to begin the 850-mile march from Tennessee to Indian territory. Sickness and death in the stockades led Chief John Ross to request a delay until cooler weather. The remainder were removed, in thirteen detachments, between 23 August and 5 December 1838. (Ellis, 45) Approximately 4,000 died as a result of their ordeal, most not on the trail itself. Cherokee removal—the Trail of Tears—remains one of the greatest tragedies that the United States has inflicted upon a minority population. Removal and assimilation, however, remained incomplete. Remnants of the ...
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