|Brief History of The Trail of Tears
Source: Cherokee Nation
Since first contact with European explorers in the 1500s, the Cherokee
Nation has been recognized as one of the most progressive among American
Indian tribes. Before contact, Cherokee culture had developed and thrived
for almost 1,000 years in the southeastern United States--the lower Appalachian
states of Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and parts of Kentucky
and Alabama. Life of the traditional Cherokee remained unchanged as late
as 1710, which is marked as the beginning of Cherokee trade with the whites.
White influence came slowly in the Cherokee Country, but the changes were
swift and dramatic. The period of frontier contact from 1540-1786, was
marked by white expansion and the cession of Cherokee lands to the colonies
in exchange for trade goods. After contact, the Cherokees acquired many
aspects of the white neighbors with whom many had intermarried. Soon they
had shaped a government and a society that matched the most "civilized"
of the time.
Migration from the original Cherokee Nation began in the early 1800s
as Cherokees wary of white encroachment moved west and settled in other
areas of the country's vast frontier. White resentment of the Cherokees
had been building as other needs were seen for the Cherokee homelands.
One of those needs was the desire for gold that had been discovered in
Georgia. Besieged with gold fever and thirst for expansion, the white communities
turned on their Indian neighbors and the U.S. Government decided it was
time for the Cherokees to leave behind their farms, their land and their
homes. A group known as the Old Settlers had moved in 1817 to lands given
to them in Arkansas, where again they established a government and a peaceful
way of life. Later they, too, were forced into Indian Territory. Once an
ally of the Cherokees, President Andrew Jackson authorized the Indian Removal
Act of 1830, following the recommendation of President James Monroe in
his final address to Congress in 1825. Jackson sanctioned an attitude that
had persisted for many years among many white immigrants. Even Thomas Jefferson,
who often cited the Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois Confederacy as the
model for the U.S. Constitution, supported Indian Removal as early as 1802.
The displacement of native people was not wanting for eloquent opposition.
Senators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay spoke out against removal. Reverend
Samuel Worcester, missionary to the Cherokees, challenged Georgia's attempt
to extinguish Indian title to land in the state, winning the case before
the Supreme Court. Worcester vs. Georgia, 1832, and Cherokee Nation vs.
Georgia, 1831, are considered the two most influential decisions in Indian
law. In effect, the opinions challenged the constitutionality of the Removal
Act and the US. Government precedent for unapplied Indian-federal law was
established by Jackson's defiant enforcement of the removal. The U.S. Government
used the Treat of New Echota in 1835 to justify the removal. The treaty,
signed by about 100 Cherokees knows as the Treat Party. relinquished all
lands east of the Mississippi River in exchange for land in Indian Territory
and the promise of money, livestock, and various provisions and tools.
When the pro-removal Cherokee leaders signed that treaty, they also signed
their own death warrants. The Cherokee National Council earlier had passed
a law that called for the death penalty for anyone who agreed to give up
tribal land. The signing and the removal led to bitter factionalism and
the deaths of most of the Treaty Part leaders in Indian Territory. Opposition
to the removal was led by Chief John Ross, a mixed-blood of Scottish and
one-eighth Cherokee descent. The Ross party and most Cherokees opposed
the New Echota Treaty, but Georgia and the U.S. Government prevailed and
used it as justification to force almost all of the 17,000 Cherokees from
the southeastern homelands. Under orders from President Jackson, the U.S.
Army began enforcement of the Removal Act. Around 3,000 Cherokees were
rounded up in the summer of 1838 and loaded onto boats that traveled the
Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi, and Arkansas Rivers into Indian Territory.
Many were held in prison camps awaiting their fate. In the winter of 1838-39,
14,000 were marched 1,200 miles through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois,
Missouri, and Arkansas into rugged Indian Territory. An estimated 4,000
died from hunger, exposure and disease. The journey became an eternal memory
as the "trail where they cried" for the Cherokees and other removed tribes.
Today it is remembered as the Trail of Tears.
Those who were able to hide in the mountains of North Carolina or who
had agreed to exchange Cherokee citizenship for U.S. citizenship later
emerged as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of Cherokee, N.C. The descendants
of the survivors of the Trail of Tears comprise today's Cherokee Nation
with membership of more than 165,000.
Copyright 1995 The Cherokee Cultural Society of Houston