The Cherokee Indians have lived on this continent far longer than anyone of British decent. Yet they were removed, in a brutal manner, from their homeland, on which they have lived for countless centuries. This journey of removal was called the Trail of Tears, and this paper will show the effect it had on the Cherokee. It will be told how they lived before they were removed, tell the events that led to their removal, explain the conditions of travel, and tell what has happened to the Cherokee after the Trail of Tears.
The native people of the North America lived for hundreds of years in peace. However, in 1540 the every day lives of the Native Americans came to an alarming halt. It was in that year that Hernando de Soto came in contact with the native people of North America. From then on the natives, known as Indians, would come in contact with settlers from around the world that would be after their land. They would eventually adopt some of the foreigners’ ways. They would even go as far as to involve themselves in some of the colonial wars. This would not prove good for some because the Indians on the losing side of a war would lose some of their land.1
During the nineteenth century as many as one hundred thousand Indians were moved westward. The Indians from five different tribes were removed. The removed tribes were the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and the Seminoles. “The removal of these Indians mostly occurred during the decade of the Indian Removal Act if 1830” The one Indian tribe that was most devastated by United States was the Cherokee Indians. This group of people were the ones who experienced one of the most horrific removals in our nation’s history. “The Cherokee removal was named Nunna dual Tsung( Trail Where They Cried)”. To us it is known as the Trail of Tears.2
The Cherokee Indians were a unique people. It was said that “they never bow to any other creature”. When they spoke, they did so one at a time. When the speaker was finished he or she would fall silent and listen to the other. When Europeans began to come on to the scene, the Cherokee came up with name for them, ““ugly whites””. Cherokee men loved to do three main things: play ball games, go hunting, and warfare. The ball games would be played “town against town”. The players were subjected to harsh rules which limited their diet before ball games. If a ball player would break any of these rules they would be subject to public humiliation. Many of the men were very polite but some of the young were “quick to react”.3
Compared to the European settlers that were moving in, Cherokee women had more of a say then their European counter parts. The Cherokee women “had a say in who they married and owned the house”. The children were considered to be theirs. In the event of too many children or if a child was born disabled, the mother would be able to kill the child if she felt it was necessary. If the father were to try and do this he would be guilty of murder, it was a right given only to women.4
Originally the Cherokee Nation extended “from the Ohio River south almost to present day Atlanta, Georgia, and from Virginia and the Carolinas west across Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama to the Illinois River”. This quantity of land, however, would not last forever. After the Revolutionary War their land began to shrink considerably. In fact, by the mid-1830’s “it barely covered the area where North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia converse”. This loss of land and the growing of our nation would lead to interact between the U.S. and the Cherokee.5
In 1791 the U.S. began to negotiate some treaties with the Cherokees. Eventually the Cherokee nation was recognized as a nation. However American citizens would begin to move on to Cherokee land and force them away. This began a series of problem that led to their removal. In 1828 the state of Georgia passed a law that stated “as of June 1 1830 the Cherokee Nation would be null and void, it would no longer be seen as a nation to the state of Georgia”.6 In July of 1829 the Cherokee were dealt a blow that shook their control over their land. Gold was found in Cherokee territory. Miners began to invade the Cherokee lands in hope of getting rich. The gold was easy to get, it was on the ground and easily found in the streams. The miners ended up destroying Cherokee land and were even accused of attacking and beating Cherokees. The Cherokee people asked for help, but received none. Also Georgia moved into Cherokee territory earlier than the given year of 1830. The Cherokee were upset by this and pleaded for help. They were told by General Coffee that it was “the Cherokees’ problem and they should throw the Georgians out of the land”. So led by Major Ridge, the Cherokees did just that. The rounded up the white families, gave them time to leave, warned them to stay of their land, and then burned their houses down. This was seen throughout the states as an act of hostility.7
Then in 1830 congress passed the Indian Removal Act. In response to this act a Cherokee named Aitooweyah wrote this to John Ross, the principle chief ““We, the great mass of the people think only of the love we have to our land for…we do love the land where we were brought up. We will never let our hold on this land go…to let it go it will be like throwing away…[our] mother that gave…[us] birth””. The act led to two Supreme Court cases: Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worcester v. Georgia. The out come of these cases would not be enforced. When asked about enforcing the courts decision President Andrew Jackson said ““John Marshall has made his decision; let him enforce it now if he can””.8
The Cherokees faced he final blow in 1835 when the Treaty of New Echota was passed. This treaty stated that the Cherokee would receive land west of the Mississippi River and be paid fifteen million dollars for the land they currently lived on. The real blow that the treaty gave was that only a small handful of Cherokees signed it. In fact none of the main officers in the Cherokee nation signed it. With that fact known the treaty was still ratified, and regardless the Cherokee would now have to move. “During this time some Cherokees moved to the west voluntarily”. Some of those people had signed the Treaty of Echota. Many of the Cherokees felt that they should not move. When the treaty was enforced the Cherokee people saw themselves being forced from their homes. John G. Burnett, a soldier who helped during the removal described the incident “Men working in the fields were arrested and driven to the stockades. Women were dragged from their homes by soldiers whose language they could not understand. Children were often separated from their parents and driven into stockades with the sky for a blanket and the earth for a pillow. And often the old and infirm were prodded with bayonets to hasten them to the stockades. In one home death had come during the night, a little sad faced child had died and was lying on a bear skin couch and some women were preparing the little body for burial. All were arrested and driven out leaving the child in the cabin. I don’t know who buried the body. In another home was a frail mother, apparently a widow and three small children, one just a baby. When told that she must go the mother gathered the children at her feet, prayed a humble prayer in her native tongue, patted the old family dog on the head, told the faithful creature good-bye, with a baby strapped on her back and leading a child with each hand started on her exile. But the task was too great for that frail mother. A stoke of heart failure relieved her sufferings. She sunk and died with a baby on her back, and her other two children clinging to her hands”.9
It took until 1838 until President Martin Van Buren implemented the Treaty of New Echota. He sent General Winfield Scott and the U.S. army to put all the Cherokee in stockades. Stockades were basically removal forts, which were located in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. In all there were thirty one forts located throughout the states. During the rounding up process the U.S. army soldiers showed many signs of cruelty towards the Indians. They even stole items and destroyed the Cherokees’ property. The next stage for the Cherokee form the removal forts was to go to interment camps. “By late July 1838 virtually all Cherokees remaining in the east were in interment camps, with the exception of some hiding in the mountains”. After seeing how cruel his people were being treated Chief John Ross asked the president if the Cherokee may oversee their own removal. Permission was granted, but U.S. soldiers remained with the Cherokee until the end of the journey.10
The removal of the Indians was done in two ways: by land and by water. The original plan was to move all of the Cherokee by steamboat at the begging of the summer. This still happened but only a few Indians when to the new territory this way. The Indians who wished to oversee their own removal asked to wait until the end of the summer to begin their journey.During the journey they would be struck with numerous diseases such as “ cold, influenza, sore throat, pleurisy, measles, diarrhea, fevers, toothache, and among young men, gonorrhea 11
Three detachments traveled a water route. “The first group left on June 6th by steamboat. They arrived at Fort Coffee on June 19.” The other two detachments were not so lucky and were affected by disease and drought. These two groups did not arrive until the end of the summer. Unfortunately the children seemed to be the ones who most likely contracted diseases.12
The Cherokee taking the land routes were organized into groups that varied between 700-1600 people per group. The groups were led by conductors appointed by Chief Ross. “The Indians who signed the treaty however, were led by John Bell and administered by the U.S. Army. This detachment usually had a physician and perhaps a clergyman. Supplies included flower, corn, and the occasional salt pork, coffee, and sugar.” They were treated much better than the other detachments. They took one of two routes: a northern or a southern. The most common one was the northern.13 The northern trail led them “to the north and west through Tennessee and Kentucky, then Through Illinois, Missouri, and into Indian Territory.
Once they got to the new territory the problems weren’t over. Many Cherokee died of starvation or form disease. Also three of the Indians responsible for signing the Treaty of Echota were killed for treason. They were Major Ridge, his son John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot. Throughout the journey scholars believe that around four thousand Cherokee Indians died. However, it was recently calculated that the removal may have cost the Cherokee over ten thousand lives, lives that may have been if they would have stayed put.14
The trail of Tears had a horrible effect on the Cherokee. The American government forced them out of their homeland so that they could use the land. Historian Richard White put it the best when he said ““The Cherokee are probably the most tragic instance of what could have succeeded in American Indian policy and didn’t. All these things that Americans would proudly see as the hallmarks of civilization are going to the west by Indian people. They do everything they were asked to do except one thing. What the Cherokees ultimately are, they may be Christian, they may be literate, they may have a government like ours, but ultimately they are Indian. And in the end, being Indian is what kills them.””.15
“The Trail Where They Cried” http://www.powersource.com/cocinc/history/trail.htm (accessed 15 September 2006).
Ehle, John. Trail of Tears: Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation. New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1988.
Thornton, Russell. “Cherokee Population Losses During the Trail of Tears: A New Perspective and a New Estimate.” Ethnohistory. 31, 1984. Available from EBSCOhost, Academic Search Premier, 7683331
1 “The Trail Where They Cried” http://www.powersource.com/cocine/history/trail.htm ( accessed 15 September 2006)
2 Russell Thornton, “Cherokee Population Losses During the Trail of Tears: A New Perspective and a New Estimate,” Ethnohistory. 31,1984. Available from EBSCOhost, Academic Search Premier, 7683331
3 John Ehle, Trail of Tears: Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation ( New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1988), p2-23