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Trail of Tears

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Trail of Tears

At the beginning of the 1830s, over 100,000 Native Americans lived in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and North Carolina. However, in the 1840s, most of the Native Americans lived somewhere else. What happened to them? Where did they go and why?

Trail of Tears Timeline

DateEvent
1830The Indian Removal Act was passed
1835Treaty of New Echota
1837First group of Cherokee Indians travel west
May 1838The Cherokee are removed from their land
March 1839The Last group of Cherokee arrived in Oklahoma
1840Few Native Americans remain in the eastern United States.

Trail of Tears Map. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Trail of Tears Background

In the late 1820s, white Americans in the south demanded the resettlement of the indigenous people who lived on the land west of the Mississippi. White settlers had wanted the land of the indigenous people for growing crops such as cotton. Not only did they want it, but they believed that they deserved it. However, indigenous people did want to leave their land.

By the 1830s, there were over 100,000 Native Americans living on millions of acres in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida.

  • Cherokees and Creeks like in Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama.
  • Chickasaws and Choctaws lived in Mississippi and Alabama.
  • Seminoles in Florida.

By the 1840s, there were very few Native Americans residing on the east coast.

In America's early days, the American government had believed that the best way to deal with the indigenous people was to convert and civilize them. Many of the tribes in the southwest learned to read and speak English, converted to Christianity, and adopted practices like land ownership (including the ownership of slaves). The tribes who did this were viewed as civilized by many Americans

As more white settlers came to the area, the more valuable native land became to those settlers who wanted it for growing crops.

Between 1816 and 1840, tribes between the original states and Mississippi signed more than 40 treaties to cede their land to the US government.

Andrew Jackson crafted a policy of Indian removal and discussed it in his inaugural address. In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act to force the rest of the indigenous people still living on their native land into a reservation.

As it became apparent that the white settlers were desperate for their land-and desperate enough to be dangerous-the Cherokee people had a debate to settle amongst themselves. Do they make some concessions and trade money for land? Do they fight for their land?

The Trail of Tears

When you hear the word trail, you may imagine a single, earthen route in the woods.

This isn't exactly what the Trail of Tears was. The phrase Trail of Tears describes both a historical event and a description of a route the relocated Native Americans took traveling to Indian Territory (what is now modern-day Oklahoma). It is both the what and the where of this historical concept.

An Intact Portion of the Trail of Tears in Village Creek State Park (Wynne, Ak). CC-BY-2.0 Source: Thomas R Machnitzki

What is the Trail of Tears?

The phrase Trail of Tears describes a series of forced relocations of native tribes in a twenty-year span of time between 1830 and 1850. Native American tribes from the south and southeast were moved to Indian Territory, which is now the state of Oklahoma. The United States government forced the majority of the tribes to sign a treaty before forcing them to leave their tribal lands.

The United States used the 1830 Indian Removal Act as a legal impetus for removing the indigenous people from their land.

While the Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole tribes were relocated at this point, the phrase Trail of Tears is primarily used to describe the forced relocation of the Cherokee tribe.

Did you know? The Choctaw was one of the first major tribes in the southwest to be relocated in the early 1830s.

The Cherokee and the Trail of Tears

Treaty of New Echota

Trail of Tears Sign at New Echota Historic Site. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1835, American government officials and a small group of Cherokee tribe representatives negotiated the Treaty of New Echota. The treaty essentially said that over 17,000 Cherokees had to resettle in the Indian Territory by May of 1838. The Cherokee people were given a hefty chunk of money and promised new land.

The American government was happy with this arrangement, but not all of the Cherokee people were happy. They felt like they had been poorly represented by the negotiating party. Over 10,000 people signed a petition against the treaty, but it happened regardless.

President Andrew Jackson signed the treaty and the state government of Georgia began to eliminate the legal rights of the Cherokee people.

The first group left in 1837, and more followed in 1838. The federal government imposed a deadline of May 1838, but by the time May came around, only a small amount of Cherokees had resettled. President Martin Van Buren ordered General Winfield Scott forcibly carry out the treaty.

Enforcing the treaty consisted of the American military rounding up over 14,000 Cherokee and mixed-race Cherokee people and forcibly marching them to Indian Territory. Federal soldiers to military forts to create larger groups called detachments for their journey west.

From here, the Cherokee people made a long journey west, both by land and by water.

Thousands of people died from starvation, exposure, and illnesses like whooping cough, dysentery, cholera, and typhus.

The Physical Land Route

At the beginning of the Trail of Tears, the majority of the Cherokee people were living in Georgia. Cherokee people were assembled at a campsite named Rattlesnake Springs. Nearly 13,000 people Trail of Tears Sign, Bartlett Tx. CC-BY-2.0 Source: Thomas R Machnitzkileft Rattlesnake Springs as they were being relocated to the Indian Territory.

From sites like Rattlesnake Springs, the Cherokee were driven to temporary holding locations for large groups. From there they would go to emigration depots in Tennesse and Alabama.

The removed Cherokee would then travel by either land or water westward to what is now Oklahoma.

The majority of the Cherokee people traveled by land. While some rode in wagons, the majority traveled on foot. It took the Cherokee people and the soldiers escorting them several months to travel.

The Cherokee that survived the trip left the trail at a disbandment site. From there they would start in the Indian Territory amongst others who had been forcibly relocated.

The American government had promised that the land in Indian territory would remain theirs, untouched by the government. However, they did not hold up their end of the bargain. Little bit by little bit, their land was encroached upon until it disappeared and Oklahoma became a state.

The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail

A historic trail is a long travel route that commemorates the great distance traveled by historically significant people. The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail is one such trail. The trail has been preserved by the federal government as much as possible. The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail is currently maintained by the national park service.

It is over 5,000 miles long and crosses nine states. The trail commemorates the forced removal of the Cherokee people from their native homes.

Consequences of the Trail of Tears

Thousands of indigenous people died during the journey west from starvation, exposure, and illness. Many of these people we old, very young, or ill in some way prior to the journey. More died later from the consequences of the forced relocation.

The relocation was completed in 1839. Once the relocated Cherokee made it to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, they struggled to start over in a new place.

Trail of Tears Summary

The term Trail of Tears describes the historical event created by the "rounding up" of indigenous Cherokee people and their relocation to Indian Territory. It also describes the physical route not only the Cherokee people took as they journeyed west.

This relocation had been authorized by the 1830 Indian Removal Act and the 1835 Treaty of New Echota. The first of the relocated Cherokee left in 1837, and more left in 1838. However, the majority of the people had not relocated by their deadline. The military was given the authorization to round them up, gather them in large cohorts, and then escort them across the physical route. It was a long journey. People were assembled in large cohorts and often walked in large groups, while occasionally traveling water routes.

The journey was trying. Thousands died from starvation, exposure to the weather, and illness. Many who survived the Trail of Tears struggled to adjust to the new territory.

By the 1840s there were few indigenous tribes left in the eastern part of the United States.

Trail of Tears - Key takeaways

  • In the 1820s, white American settlers set their sights on the land that belonged to indigenous tribes. They wanted the land for farming. The 1830 Indian Relocation Act made it impossible to remove Native Americans from their land and move them into Indian Territory.
  • Many tribes signed treaties to work with the federal government on relocation.
  • The Trial of Tears was the forced removal and relocation of thousands of Native Americans. The Trail of Tears also describes the physical route that the Cherokee people took. It is a network of land and water routes.
  • Thousands of indigenous people died due to the United States' attempt to relocate them.

Frequently Asked Questions about Trail of Tears

The Trail of Tears describes the forced removal of Native Americans, specifically those in the Cherokee tribe. 

The forced removal of the Cherokee Indians began in May of 1838. It was complete in March of 1839. 

Thousands died on the Trail of Tears due to starvation exposure to the elements, and disease. 

The Trail of Tears ended in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma)

The Trail of Tears began in Georgia. 

Final Trail of Tears Quiz

Question

When was the Indian Removal Act passed? 

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Answer

1830

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Question

When was the Treaty of New Echota signed?

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Answer

1830

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Question

When did the Trail of Tears begin with the forced removal of the Cherokee people?

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Answer

1837

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Question

When did the Trail of Tears end?

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Answer

1839

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Question

True or False: In the early 1830s there were over 100,000 Native Americans living on millions of acres in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida. 

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Answer

True 

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Question

Where did the Cherokee people live before the Trail of Tears? 

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Answer

Georgia

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Question

True or False: By the 1840s, there were very few Native Americans residing on the east coast. 

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Answer

True, the majority were relocated to Indian Territory. 

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Question

Native Americans were seen as civilized when they 

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Answer

learned to read and speak English

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Question

The Indian Removal Act was passed under president 

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Answer

Andrew Jackson

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Question

True or False: The phrase Trail of Tears describes a series of forced relocations of native tribes in a twenty-year span of time between 1830 and 1850

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Answer

True

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Question

The Treaty of New Echota said that 

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Answer

the Cherokee had to resettle in the Indian Territory by May of 1838.

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