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What Was the Trail of Tears? - Facts, History & Route

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Adam Richards

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The Trail of Tears was the primary passage toward federally created Indian lands west of the Mississippi River. Learn about the history of the forced Indian removal and the devastation that occurred to native groups along their painful journey to their new home.

We also recommend watching The Trail of Tears and Jackson's Indian Removal Act of 1830 and The Oregon Trail: Westward Migration to the Pacific Ocean

Introduction

In American history, the Trail of Tears has become synonymous with studies in violence, racism and genocide. Prior to the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, native groups thrived within the southeastern United States. These groups included the Creeks, Chicasaw, Choctaw, Seminole and Cherokee. Unfortunately, all of these groups resided on extremely valuable land; land that was expected to be used by white settlers for the production of cotton. To resolve the impasse that developed between the Indian nations and the United States, President Andrew Jackson began the process of relocating these tribes to federally-created lands west of the Mississippi River. Some groups went peacefully, but for those who did not, their removal became an arduous and deadly journey along the Trail of Tears.

Indian Removal Prior to 1838

1838 will be our benchmark when separating early movement along the Trail of Tears from the mass suffering of the Cherokee nation in the years that followed. So let's begin in 1830 with the passage of the Indian Removal Act. This piece of legislation, supported by Jackson, allowed the president to mediate Indian removal treaties and ensure the safe relocation of native groups onto federally funded lands west of the Mississippi River. If an Indian nation chose to resist Jackson's forced relocation, he utilized his power as Commander-in-Chief to use military force to expedite the move to the new Indian lands.

Original Indian Removal Routes (Pre-Trail of Tears Designation)
Indian Removal

The Choctaw and Chicasaw were among the first two Indian nations to overwhelmingly accept the relocation treaties. Both groups realized that they were unable to combat the powerful military forces of the United States and acquiesced to Jackson's requests and marched west. Yet, the Seminole, Creeks and Cherokee all engaged in a form of resistance.

The Creeks attempted to fight the United States, but Secretary of War Lewis Cass successfully drove the Creeks through Alabama and across the Mississippi River through military force in 1836. The Seminoles put up a better showing and engaged in the Second Seminole War from 1835 to 1842. The war resulted in thousands of deaths, and the eventual relocation of the Seminole tribe to new western lands. The Cherokee pursued a legal battle with the United States. The Cherokee nation made some successful strides in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worcester v. Georgia, but the Supreme Court was unable to enforce any of the pro-Cherokee decisions. President Jackson essentially had a free reign to eliminate the Cherokee from the southeastern United States. This is the point at which the Trail of Tears earns its designation as a route of suffering and death.

'The Place Where They Cried'

Jackson set the precedent for Indian removal. However, his term expired in 1837 and so it was up to his successor, President Martin Van Buren, to continue his work and successfully remove the Cherokee nation. President Van Buren began the assignment in 1838 when he provided General Winfield Scott with 7,000 federal soldiers and established detention centers in the Tennessee region. General Scott began a swift movement to remove the Cherokee. His federal regiment forced men, women and children into detention centers in Tennessee at bayonet point. Hundreds of Cherokee died in these draconian centers from disease and starvation. Yet, the ultimate goal was to get the Cherokee across the Mississippi River. This was done in two ways.

The first trail came by way of water. The first wave of Cherokee were gathered into boats at Chattanooga, Tennessee. They then sailed the Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers to Fort Smith in Arkansas. From that point, they were marched to Fort Coffee in Oklahoma, often arriving at the beginning of summer. Most of the Cherokee survived this version of the trail. Unfortunately, those who took the land route did not.

The principle land route stretched from the detention centers in Tennessee through Kentucky and into southern Illinois. Eventually, the Cherokee moved from Illinois across Missouri and Arkansas to their final destination in Oklahoma. A secondary route was cut from Tennessee across Arkansas and into Oklahoma (this was a more difficult terrain).

Various Routes of the Trail of Tears
New Trail of Tears

The primary land trail stretched over 2,000 miles, and those who survived made it by the end of the summer in 1838. Cherokee men, women and children faced brutal cold, unfamiliar diseases and starvation along the path to their new land in addition to paying ludicrous fees (for instance, paying a toll charge to cross a river or stream). Historians estimated that upward of 7,000 Cherokee perished on the trail and within the detention centers.

Legacy

The Indian Removal Act, and its subsequent creation of the Trail of Tears, successfully removed many of the Indian nations that resided in the southeastern United States. White settlers quickly grabbed vacant land and built plantations where they continued to forward the notion of white supremacy by organizing slave labor. The Trail of Tears will forever be remembered as a violent byproduct of Manifest Destiny and white supremacy. The trail is synonymous with death and destruction, and a dark period of history in the United States which many hope to forget.

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