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Trail of Tears

the name given to the forced relocation and movement of Native American nations from southeastern parts of the United States following the Indian Removal Act of 1830

The Trail of Tears, by Robert Lindneux

Choctaw Removal

The Choctaw Nation inhabited lands in what are now the states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. After a series of treaties starting in 1801, the Nation was reduced to 11,000,000 acres (17,188 sq mi). The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, ratified in early 1831, ceded the remaining country to the United States. The removals were only agreed to after a provision in the treaty allowed some Choctaw to remain.

The first movement of Choctaw began on November 1, 1831, with groups meeting at Memphis and Vicksburg. Initially, the Choctaw were to be transported by wagon, but floods halted them, and five steamboats were eventually dispatched to ferry them to their designated lands in Oklahoma. The Memphis group traveled up the Arkansas for about 60 miles to Arkansas Post, where they were stalled for weeks by ice-chocked rivers. Food rationing consisted of a handful of boiled corn, one turnip, and two cups of heated water per day. Forty government wagons were evetually sent to Arkansas Post to transport the surviving Choctaw to Little Rock, and from there into Oklahoma. When they reached Little Rock, a Choctaw chief told the Arkansas Gazette that the removal was a "trail of tears and death." The Vicksburg group was led by an incompetent guide and was lost in the Lake Providence swamps.

About 6,000 of the approximately 17,000 Choctaw who began the move to Oklahoma died during the journey, and many more died after finally reaching their destination. The 5,000-6,000 Choctaw who chose to remain in Mississippi were subject to legal conflict, harassment, and intimidation.

Seminole Removal

In 1832, seven Seminole chiefs negotiated a treaty with federal officials in which they agreed to move to the Creek reservation in Indian Territory, provided they found the land there to be suitable. After touring the area for several months and conferring with the Creeks who had already settled there, the chiefs signed a statement on March 28, 1833 that the new land was acceptable. While some of the Seminole tribes agreed to abide by the agreement and made the move voluntarily, most refused, touching off what became known as the Seminole Wars. By the time the wars ended in 1842 the vast majority of Seminoles had either been killed or forcibly moved to Creek lands; a few hundred moved deep into the Everglades, and a separate Seminole Nation remains there to this day.

Creek Removal

The Creek Nation first ceded land to what is now Georgia when James Oglethorpe established Savannah, and ceded more land in the area following the War of 1812. Because the Creek Nation had been formally allied with the United States during the War of 1812, and had even helped Andrew Jackson win the Battle of New Orleans, the Creek had reason to believe they would be spared removal from their remaining lands. While Jackson willingly acknowledged that the Creek had indeed proven themselves invaluable allies, he disappointed those same allies when he became one of the most vocal supporters of removing all Indians, including the Creek, from the Southeast so that "whites" could settle there. Despite being "slighted" by the very government the Creek had helped to preserve, many Creek leaders believed that losing land in exchange for peace was far preferable to fighting, so on February 12, 1825 William McIntosh and other Creek chiefs signed the Treaty of Indian Springs, which gave up most of the remaining Creek lands in Georgia. After the Senate ratified the treaty, McIntosh was assassinated by Creeks led by Menawa, on May 13, 1825.

The Creek National Council, led by Opothleyahola, protested to the United States that the Treaty of Indian Springs was fraudulent. President John Quincy Adams was sympathetic, and eventually the treaty was nullified in a new agreement, the Treaty of Washington (1826), but by then Georgia had already begun removing the Creek from their lands.

After Alabama moved to abolish tribal governments and extend state laws over the Creeks, Opothleyahola appealed to President Andrew Jackson for appeasement, but none was forthcoming. Under terms of the Treaty of Cusseta, signed on March 24, 1832, the Creek lands were divided into individual allotments. Individual Creeks could either sell their allotments and receive funds to remove to the West, or stay in Alabama and submit to state laws. Most Creeks, including Opothleyahola, chose to sell their allotments, but they were often forced to settle for far less money than the land was worth. Those Creeks who chose to stay in Alabama found that their agreement to abide by Alabama laws did not come with a reciprocal agreement to be treated fairly by those same laws, and violence broke out, leading to the so-called Creek War of 1836. In that year, General Winfield Scott was sent to quell the violence, which he did by forcibly removing the last 15,000 Creeks to Oklahoma; approximately 3,500 Creeks died during the forced march.

Chickasaw Removal

Unlike other tribes who exchanged land grants, the Chickasaw received financial compensation from the United States for their lands east of the Mississippi River. In 1836, the Chickasaws paid the Choctaws $530,000 (equal to about $11 million today) for the westernmost part of the Choctaw reservation in Oklahoma. The first group of Chickasaws, led by John M. Millard, gathered at Memphis on July 4, 1837. Once in Indian Territory, the Chickasaws merged with the Choctaw nation.

Cherokee Removal

By 1828, when gold was discovered in northern Georgia, the Cherokee had already assimilated many "white" customs, including European-style dress and homes, individual ownership of land, Christianity, centralized government complete with a written constitution, and even the owning of slaves. Unfortunately for the Cherokee, being "civilized" did not save them from the Indian Removal Act, although it did make their removal a bit trickier for the government.

When Georgia moved to extend state laws over the Cherokee lands in 1830, the Cherokee Nation sought a federal injunction against them on the grounds that they violated the U.S. Constitution, United States-Cherokee treaties, and United States intercourse laws. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), the Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokee Nation was not a sovereign and independent nation and therefore did not have proper standing to seek the desired injunction. Chief Justice John Marshall held open the possibility, however, that the Court would hear the case again, provided it was brought by someone with proper standing.

The Supreme Court's chance to hear the Cherokee Nation's case again came after Samuel Worcester and six other missionaries were arrested by Georgia authorities for violating a state law requiring that all whites living on Cherokee lands have a state license. The missionaries appealed their convictions to the Supreme Court, arguing that the law under which they had been convicted was unconstitutional because states have no authority to pass laws concerning sovereign Indian Nations. In Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the Court ruled that Georgia could not impose laws in Cherokee territory, since only the national government -- not state governments -- had authority in Indian affairs. It further ruled that any removal of the Cherokee from their lands would have to be done by means of a treaty, which would have to be ratified by the Senate. President Andrew Jackson's reaction to the ruling was "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it! ... Build a fire under them. When it gets hot enough, they'll go."

The majority of Cherokee supported Principal Chief John Ross, who advocated active resistance against removal, but a few chose to follow Major Ridge, who advocated peaceful, voluntary withdrawal to Indian Territory. In 1835, Ridge and his followers signed the Treaty of New Echota, in which they agreed to vacate lands in Georgia in exchange for $5 million, relocation assistance, and compensation for lost property. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Cherokee openly disavowed the treaty, it was voted on by the U.S. Senate, where it was passed by one vote, over the objections of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and many others. Although many Cherokee chose to abide by the treaty's provisions, many others refused to recognize its validity since, according to them, it did not represent the will of the majority.

In 1838, President Jackson ordered General John Wool to forcibly remove all remaining Cherokee from Georgia, but General Wool resigned his commission to avoid having to carry out that order. Wool was quickly replaced by General Winfield Scott, who arrived at New Echota on May 17 with 7,000 men. Scott agreed to let John Ross organize the Cherokee into several small groups that could more easily forage for food along the way, a concession that significantly reduced the loss of life compared to all of the earlier forced moves; there were still some 4,000 deaths along the way, however. Soon after reaching Indian Territory, several of Ross's followers murdered those who had signed the Treaty of New Echota.

map of original locations of the Five Civilized Tribes and their routes to Indian Territory

James Oglethorpe
War of 1812
Andrew Jackson
President John Quincy Adams
Winfield Scott
John Marshall
Daniel Webster
Henry Clay

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This page was last updated on 05/17/2017.