The Trail of Tears
The eventual removal of the Cherokee Nation from their traditional homeland is demonstrated by the conflict between the European culture that immigrated to America and the Native American culture. From the constant ceding of land, through treaty after treaty, to ignoring Supreme Court decisions, the Cherokees were eventually forced to move to land west of the Mississippi River. This land could ill support the numbers and existing culture of the Cherokee Nation.
As more and more Europeans immigrated to America pressure for the lands of the tribes of the east increased. As disease devastated the eastern tribes European settlers increasingly pressured tribal lands. Between 1721 and 1777 a series of nine treaties gave up almost half of the Cherokee’s land to the English.1 In an effort to stop the encroachment of European settlers onto Native American land the English passed the Proclamation of 1763. This proclamation prohibited settlers from moving onto Native American land west of the Appalachians. It was recognized that European settlers and Native Americans were not interested in living together, so they must be kept apart. Native Americans did not want to give up their culture. Europeans felt that assimilating with the various tribes would just be one step closer to assimilating African-American slaves into society. Racism by Europeans toward both Native Americans and black slaves would not allow this. The fact that the Cherokees sided with the British during the American Revolution did not help the situation.
The Cherokees originally inhabited parts of what are now Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, and North Carolina. The English established treaties with the Cherokees as early as 1684.2 As with most Native American tribes, the Cherokees had no natural defense against the diseases brought to America by the Europeans. Epidemics of European diseases devastated the Cherokee people. It is estimated that their population dropped from approximately 30,000 to 35,000 before contact with Europeans to as low as 7,000 by the mid-1760’s.3 The introduction of trade goods from Europe also dramatically changed Native American culture. Before European contact Native Americans in the East had used very little metal for any reason. The introduction of steel knives, hatchets, traps, pans, and kettles were quickly taken up by the Eastern tribes, changing the entire economy.4 The Europeans wanted the furs and the Natives Americans wanted the manufactured goods.
Following the American Revolution the populations of the southern states exploded. The combined populations of Mississippi and Alabama rose from about 40,000 in 1810 to approximately 445,000 by 1830. The total population of Ohio, Tennessee, and Georgia went from about 745,000 in 1810 to over 2 million by 1830.5 Settlers continued to ignore any laws prohibiting them from settling on Native American land. The Treaty of Hopewell signed in 1785 set Cherokee boundaries and allowed the Cherokees to expel squatters. White settlers and southern states continued to ignore this and encroached on tribal lands in increasing numbers.6 The state of Georgia was relentless in their pursuit of Cherokee land. Georgia felt that this land belonged to the state of Georgia and not the Cherokees. They even passed laws that made the Cherokees subject to the civil and criminal laws of Georgia. These laws also denied the Cherokees the right to testify in court against a white person, including testimony on land ownership.7
Into this whole situation stepped Andrew Jackson. This very opinionated and headstrong leader had very specific ideas about what he wanted. His opinions and ideas had been formed by years of Indian wars and treaty negotiations with various tribes. He was also concerned about the security of the new nation. After seeing various tribes side with the British, and later the Spanish, Jackson felt that the only way we could completely secure southern U.S. borders from colonial powers was to remove the southern Indian tribes.
Jackson realized that there were four possible options in dealing with the Cherokees and the other southern tribes. First, was to exterminate the tribes. Almost no one, including Jackson thought this was a real option. The second option was assimilation, which as stated before was not an option either side wanted. Third was to try and keep all the white settlers from invading the Cherokee lands. This had already been tried unsuccessfully. Jackson felt that there were not enough soldiers in the Army to stop the invasion of settlers. The last option was to remove the southern tribes to land west of the Mississippi River. Jackson felt that this was the only viable option.8 Jackson also felt that this would be the only way for the southern tribes to retain their culture. The fact that Jackson became personally wealthy on the purchase and sale of Indian land somewhat taints his supposed noble actions. Andrew Jackson’s relations with the various tribes are very complicated. He fought them, adopted an orphaned Creek boy as his own son, and worked tirelessly to remove them from their land.
Unlike the Plains Indian tribes the Cherokees tried to work through the American legal process to protect their lands. The Cherokee were considered one of the most “civilized” tribes. They had their own written language, started a newspaper, set up schools, and had even adopted a constitution in 1827 based on the U.S. Constitution.9 As the state of Georgia continued the pressure to take over Cherokee land the Cherokees challenged them in the Supreme Court in two cases, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worcester v. Georgia. Cherokee Nation v. Georgia was somewhat of a split decision in that the Cherokee Nation was not ruled a foreign state, but that the Cherokee Nation did have rights as a “domestic dependent nation”.10 The Worcester v. Georgia decision was more clear cut in favor of the Cherokees. The Court ruled that “The Cherokee Nation is a distinct community, occupying its own territory, with boundaries accurately described, in which the laws of Georgia can have no force.”11 Unfortunately for the Cherokees President Jackson and the state of Georgia ignored these rulings and proceeded with the removal of the Cherokees.
In 1830 the U.S. Congress passed the Removal Act after much heated debate. The Removal Act authorized the government to set aside land west of the Mississippi River, pay for moving expenses, cash allocations, and initial living expenses to remove the Cherokees. The Cherokees fought this in the courts as seen previously with mixed results. The Cherokees truly believed that they could prevail in the American legal system. Thus many made no real plans to leave by the removal date in 1838.12 The Cherokee Nation was also divided. Many believed that they should not give up any more land for any reason. Others believed that there would be no way to stop the white settlers. One group called the Treaty Party eventually signed the Treaty of New Echota agreeing to removal. This was a very contentious decision that would eventually result in the deaths of the leaders of the Treaty Party at the hands of their own tribe.
The actual removal of the Cherokees form their land occurred in several stages. Due to incompetence, harsh treatment, and criminal graft approximately 4,000 or about one fourth of the Cherokees die on the trip to the western lands in what is now Arkansas and Oklahoma. Many were forced out of their homes with no time to back and were only allowed to take just a few personal possessions with them. Some then had to walk hundreds of miles to get to their new home. When they did get to their new home the promised provisions had been stolen or were sold rotten and spoiled supplies. Many also died of the cold and disease. Although the treaty had reasonable intentions to care for the Cherokee people the implementation allowed unscrupulous and greedy vendors to steal the Cherokees blind, or in this case, until many of them died.
The Trail of Tears is certainly a dark side of American history. There is certainly enough blame to go around between white settlers, land speculators, greedy politicians, and Cherokee leaders that refused to believe that they would be forced to move from their land. The end result was a human tragedy resulting in the deaths of thousands of Cherokee people. But, unlike the tribes in the Northeastern United States whose culture and identity vanished, The Cherokee were able to remain a distinct and viable culture. The question still remains as to whether this tragedy could have been averted. Historians are still debating this.
Share with your friends: