Trail of Tears
In 1838 the U.S. army, as well as various state militias and volunteers, forced some 15,000 Cherokees from their homes in Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee and moved them west to Indian Territory (in present-day Oklahoma). The forced removal was a response, fueled by racism, to the expansion of white settlers and cotton farmers moving into the southeast. Seven thousand troops were sent into Cherokee land and forced the Cherokees into stockades at gun point. They were forced to march westward without time to gather their belongings; their property was burned and looted by white soldiers. With minimal food or clothing (many did not even have shoes or moccasins on their feet), the Cherokees were forced to march one thousand miles westward in a journey known as the Trail of Tears. Four thousand Cherokee died of malnourishment, cold and disease along the way, under the generally indifferent U.S. army commanders. A Georgia soldier who participated in evacuating the Cherokees later remarked, “The Cherokee Removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.”
The Trail of Tears was part of a larger policy of forced removal of Native Americans by the U.S. government. President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, leading to the evacuation of most Native Americans from their ancient homelands. In addition to the Cherokee, the Choctaw, Seminole, Creek and Chickasaw tribes were forced westward during the 1830s. In total, more than 46,000 Native Americans were removed from the southeastern U.S. in order to create space for white settlement. Those who survived the journey were forced into reservations with terrible living conditions, and many tribes continued to face encroachment on their new territories from whites moving westward.
The Trail of Tears is just one part of the larger history of government sponsored ethnic cleansing in the US. A major supporter of the movement towards stripping Native Americans of their lands was the late President Andrew Jackson. Jackson, a native of Tennessee, was one of the first presidents to hail from a frontier state. Jackson’s frontier roots gave combined with his military service exposed him to tribes and tribal relations to an extent not matched by prior presidents. From 1814–1824 Jackson played a major role in the negotiation of nine treaties that divested tribes of their lands in the South Eastern US. The lands covered by the treaties included approximately 3/4th’s of modern Alabama and Florida as well as parts of North Carolina, Kentucky, and Mississippi.
When Jackson took office in 1828, he brought his interest in Indian affairs with him to the White House. As President, Jackson tirelessly advocated for swift and unmerciful removal of Native Americans from the prime lands in the Southeastern US. Jackson’s policies and rhetoric varied over time, but included calls for stripping Native Americans of their lands without compensation, forcibly relocating them to less desirable (for both Natives and White Americans alike) lands to the West (primarily present-day Oklahoma), as well as outright endorsement of killing Natives.
In 1830 Jackson signed the notorious Indian Removal Act. The Indian Removal Act authorized the president to both negotiate treaties with the tribe as well as to buy tribal lands and give Natives lands to the West which, at the time, fell outside the territorial borders of the US. In effect, if Native Americans took the lands they were stripped of their ancestral lands and sent to live outside of the US, essentially kicking them out of the lands they had long lived on as well as the country that quite literally grew up around them.
Tensions between tribes and federal and state forces escalated in the months following the enactment of the Indian Removal Act. Though aspects of state incursion on Indian land were challenged in front of the US Supreme Court, with Indian tribes actually prevailing in some cases, Jackson famously defied the Supreme Court’s position and pushed for Indian removal.
Taking the fallout over the Worcester v. Georgia case as a stepping stone, Jackson pressured Cherokee leaders to sign a removal treaty, one which is today viewed by many to be a coerced act. The treaty, which was later enforced by Jackson’s successor President Van Buren, resulted in the removal of much of the Cherokee Nation to present day Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears.
The death toll associated with the Trail of Tears is one of the stark realities associated with government supported structurally racist policies. As the chart below demonstrates, deaths associated with the Trail of Tears are relatively high, with a significant portion of tribal membership rolls diminished at the end of “removal” to the West.
Causes of death associated with the Trail of Tears varies, but most fall under the following categories: (1) disease contracted while in containment camps awaiting removal, (2) exhaustion and/or elements while travelling along the Trail, (4) starvation/ malnutrition, (5) disease contracted in new lands post-removal, and (6) battle, resisting forcible removal.
As with many racially motivated acts of oppression, the Trail of Tears has been treated differently by historians over time. Many historians agree that the Trail of Rears was at least a forced relocation. However, many historians and native peoples today prefer to use the term death march, especially in reference to the removal of the Cherokee in 1838. Others prefer the term genocide , or ethnic cleansing.
To help you situate the Trail of Tears within the larger framework of structural racism in the US, we have defined these terms for you below. Given what you have learned, which term do you think fits?
Forced Relocation—The phrase “forced relocation” is used to refer to coerced transfers of large groups of people from one geographic region to another. The phrase recognizes that relocation was not at the option of the people being moved, but, many argue, does not accurately capture the sheer violence and extent of coercion involved in exodus.
Death March—The phrase “death march” is used to describe the act of forcing a sizable group of people to, as the term suggests, march to their death. Death marches can have the stated end goal of relocating people to a new territory, or have the stated end goal be to diminish numbers of people by pushing the group to their physical limits until they die or are near death.
Genocide—genocide is a modern term—coined by Raphael Lemkin shortly after the Nazi Holocaust. The literal meaning of the term is race or tribe killing. The term is generally used to refer to any coordinated set of acts committed with the intent of destroying or eradicating a race or ethnic group of people. As a matter of modern international law, genocide is a crime against humanity.
Learn more about genocide in the modern legal context.
Ethnic Cleansing—Ethnic cleansing represents a purposeful policy that is designed, usually by the government or a group of quasi-governmental power, to erase an entire ethnic group from society. Ethnic cleansing is usually achieved by acts of genocide, as well as made possible through the use of deadly force, at times accompanied by sexual force.
Contemporary discussions of pro’s and con’s of forced Indian removal policy. Provides readers with primary source material of political branch debating the general policy.