The Harrowing History of the Trail of Tears

The Trail of Tears was the forced relocation of approximately 100,000 Native Americans and is synonymous with the treatment of Native peoples by the US Government.

Dec 22, 2023By Madison Whipple, BA History w/ Spanish minor
trail of tears harrowing story
The Trail of Tears by Robert Lindeaux, 1942, via Black Past


During the 1830s, as a result of broken treaties and promises, the United States government forced the Cherokee Nation out of their ancestral lands, located in what is today North Carolina and Georgia. The resulting relocation was dubbed the Trail of Tears due to its brutal enforcement and the countless lives lost along the way. It has become the most famous case of so-called “Indian removal” in American history. This is a brief overview of the events that preceded, occurred, and followed the Trail of Tears.


Trail of Tears: The Cherokee People

cherokee ancestors town
An artist’s impression of Town Creek, a South Appalachian Mississippian culture town with a ceremonial mound in North Carolina, ancestors of the Cherokee people, via the National Park Service


Cherokee people referred to themselves as Ani-Yun’ wiya, which, in their language, translates to the “leading” or “principal” people. The ancestors of the Cherokee people moved from the Great Lakes region to what would become the southeastern United States in prehistoric times, occupying areas in what are now the states of Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and Georgia.


Though their ancestors had settled throughout the southeastern woodlands, the Cherokee homeland was identified to be in modern-day western North Carolina. They spoke an Iroquoian language and became incredibly powerful within the Southern Appalachian Region.


When the Cherokee first encountered European settlers, the land they occupied was made up of a loose collection of towns with no real central government. That began to change over the years as the Cherokee Nation realized they needed to consolidate power to deal with foreign powers, namely the United States, as a sovereign nation.


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

In the span of a century, from 1721 to 1819, the Cherokees had not only been involved in several conflicts with foreign powers but had also ceded much of their land. By 1819, over 90% of the former Cherokee lands were in the hands of other tribes or the United States government. Meanwhile, the culture within the nation had begun to change, assimilating itself to Western ideals. They adopted European customs and centralized their economy around agriculture.


three cherokees in london
The Three Cherokees, come over from the head of the River Savanna to London, 1762 by George Bickham, 1765, via The Museum at Colonial Williamsburg


The Cherokee Nation was formalized in 1820 with the help of Sequoyah, a scholar who devised a syllabary, allowing a written Cherokee language. With this, Cherokee leadership established a formal, Western-style government and a Constitution. A capital was established in New Echota, Georgia, followed soon after by the appointment of Principal Chief John Ross in 1828.


In 1830, gold was found on Cherokee land, but the Cherokees were prohibited from profiting. They were not given the right to mine gold, and the government of the Cherokee Nation challenged Georgia in the Supreme Court over the state giving lotteries to white settlers to mine for gold. The Cherokee Nation won the case, but their sovereignty did not last much longer.


The United States was pushing for Native American removal and had already begun establishing reservations in the Western territories, both to protect themselves and grab up land as quickly as possible.


The American Indian Removal Policies

creek surrender to jackson
Interview between Gen. Jackson & Weatherford (William Weatherford was a Creek Chief) by John R. Chapin and W. Ridgeway, 1859, via the Library of Congress


Beginning in 1802, the United States government began to fear the threat of foreign powers like England and Spain, who still held land adjacent to the new country. In addition to this, white settlers were hungry for new land, attempting to build homes and farms wherever they could find a clear plot to do so.


These pressures culminated with Thomas Jefferson’s idea for Native American displacement. In relocating the eastern tribes, Jefferson sought to create a buffer zone between the United States and foreign territories further west while freeing up land for white settlers in the place of the Native Americans.


During the years between 1816 and 1840, tribes whose ancestral lands fell between the original United States and the territory east of the Mississippi River were coerced into over 40 treaties which all but ensured their removal to the West. Whether or not the nations were aware of what actions their signing of the treaties would cause, the United States used such documents to grab up as much land as possible from several tribes, including the Cherokee, Creeks, Seminoles, Chickasaws, and Choctaws.


indian removal act 1830
Part of the Indian Removal Act Bill of 1830, via Records of Rights


This was further ensured when President Andrew Jackson came into office, and Congress enacted the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This law forced any remaining eastern Native Americans to move west of the Mississippi under the threat of armed military action. Those who were forced from their homelands in the hundreds of thousands were treated brutally. An estimated 8,000 people alone died during and after the Creek removal from Georgia and Alabama. The United States Army was used to force those who resisted from their homelands, often in chains.


The United States enacted removal policies due to many factors, one of the biggest among them being economic growth. The South was a booming haven of agriculture, and to invite more planters in, the Native Americans who occupied valuable farmland had to be displaced. It was, among other things, greed that motivated the United States to so harshly enact such policies.


The Treaty of New Echota

signatory page treaty of new echota
The signature page of the Treaty of New Echota, via the National Archives


Most Cherokee people opposed removal for obvious reasons. Their homeland was being used like a bargaining chip, and they were not being treated like a sovereign nation as they had hoped. This hopelessness fueled a small number of Cherokees to give in to removal. As they saw it, being forced off their lands was inevitable and not worth the cost of resisting the United States government.


However futile this minority felt that resisting removal was, they still thought negotiating the best possible treaty could help the Cherokee nation survive. A small group of leaders, led by Major Ridge, his son John Ridge, and his nephew, Elias Boudinot, represented the minority faction that would speak for all Cherokee people.


While the treaty negotiations would affect the entire Cherokee nation, only 300 to 500 people were present for them, none of whom were elected Cherokee officials. The treaty was signed by 20 Cherokee people, including the Ridges and Boudinot. The treaty stated that all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi River would be ceded in exchange for $5 million and that the entire Cherokee nation would relocate to “Indian Territory” (Oklahoma) in two years.


Understandably, those who were not involved with the negotiations were furious, and some 15,000 Cherokee people protested the treaty. However, the damage was already done, and on May 23, 1836, the Treaty of New Echota was ratified in the US Senate by only one vote.


The Trail of Tears

trail of tears painting echohawk
Trail of Tears by Brummett Echohawk, 1957, via the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa


Many Cherokees, including Chief John Ross, believed they would not be forced from their homeland. However, in the spring of 1838, state and federal militias began rounding up Cherokee people–often at gunpoint–and placing them in stockades. They were given only moments to collect their belongings, forced out of their homes, and made to wait in crude shelters.


Some 33 military posts and camps were erected throughout the southeast to aid in removal. Four thousand troops were assigned to escort the Cherokee people along their arduous journey. From the outset, it was clear that this journey would not be easy, as even those sent west in the summer struggled against low water levels and debilitating heat.


By November of 1838, 12 groups of 1,000 people each were sent away from the internment camps and forced to walk over 800 miles to Oklahoma. The conditions were deplorable, even for those who went west by boat. Muddy roads, flooding, and a distinct lack of supplies were further emphasized when winter came.


trail of tears route
The routes that the Trail of Tears followed, via the North Carolina Trail of Tears Association


Two-thirds of the Cherokees were trapped by icy rivers during January 1839 and had little means with which to survive. Rations were meager, and eventually, in desperation, some drank stagnant water and succumbed to the diseases that inevitably followed.


The harsh removal was further compounded by the high death toll that occurred during the journey. Elizur Butler, a missionary doctor who went with the Cherokee, estimated that over 4,000 people died during the journey, either due to starvation, disease, or extreme exposure to the elements. Approximately one-fifth of the Cherokee population was lost on the Trail of Tears, many of whom lie in graves along the route, both marked and unmarked.


The Aftermath of the Trail of Tears

cherokee national capitol tahlequah
The Cherokee National Capitol in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, via the Library of Congress


The Cherokee people arrived in Oklahoma battered and traumatized, many having lost part or all of their families. When they arrived in Oklahoma, the territory was smaller than what had been promised to them, but the Cherokee Nation was reconstituted, and John Ross was once more elected Chief.


Though they had suffered devastating losses, the Cherokees rebuilt and established themselves in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. However, some 1,000 Cherokees in North Carolina had evaded capture and were officially recognized as the Eastern Band of Cherokee in 1866.


Overall, the Cherokee Nation suffered during the process of Indian Removal but has become today the largest Native American tribe in the country, with around 820,000 people. However, the story of how their ancestors came to Oklahoma is not lost on the Cherokee of today.


trail of tears historic trailhead
The trailhead for the Trail of Tears Historic Trail, via the National Park Service


The National Park Service has since designated a Historic Trail that follows the most common route taken on the Trail of Tears through the states of North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. The end of the route is a memorial to honor the lives lost, and Oklahoma has also built a museum to honor the First Americans, which serves as the largest tribal cultural center in the country.


The Trail of Tears was a tragedy that should not be forgotten. Indian Removal was a stain on America’s past for which the government has only just begun to reconcile. In memory of those lost to genocides like the Trail of Tears, may the reconciliation with Native Americans continue for years to come.

Author Image

By Madison WhippleBA History w/ Spanish minorMadison is a contributing writer with specialties in American and women’s history. She is especially interested in women’s history in the context of the American Civil War. In her free time, she enjoys going to museums, reading, and jogging.