The Cherokee Trail of Tears - An American Exodus

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The history of European settlement in the continental United States is essentially one of the displacement of one group of people by another. Initially living side by side with their Indian1 neighbours, the Europeans who came to this part of North America, at first as colonists, and later as citizens of a new country, the United States of America, began to find their aims in conflict with those of the native peoples living among them. Treaty after treaty was made and broken. Gradually, the people the European settlers called collectively 'Indians' were reduced in number by war, famine, disease2, and ultimately by forcible relocation.

The relocation of the Cherokee Nation as a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 was one of the last steps in the process of ethnic cleansing that paved the way for total white domination of the eastern US. The Cherokee journey, known as the Trail of Tears, is one of many sad chapters in the history of US westward expansion, though it led to the creation of a sovereign state within a state, the Cherokee Nation, with its own constitution, government, and democratic processes which mirrored the country's own. Although now widely known in the US, the story of the Trail of Tears was glossed over or ignored by American history textbooks for many years.

The Cherokee in 1838

The people known as the Tsalagi3, or Cherokee, lived up until the early 19th Century in an area of the Southeast United States now included in the states of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. The Cherokee were among what were known as the 'Five Civilised Tribes'4, in that they had adopted European ways, living on farms rather than being nomads or semi-nomads, wearing European-style clothing, adopting European naming customs - the Cherokee were matrilineal, i.e. tracing descent through the mother - and becoming Christians.

In addition, the Cherokee, who had no objection to intermarriage with other groups, had many members who were part Scots-Irish. A prominent Cherokee surname, 'Bushyhead', refers to the descendants of one John Stuart, a Scotland-born British officer who married into the Cherokee, and was given this surname in recognition of his curly red hair. There were also black Cherokee, due to the tribe's custom of welcoming fugitive slaves.

In spite of the ethnic diversity of the Cherokee as a people, they imitated the customs of the European settlers in another respect, as well - the more prosperous farmers among them often owned slaves. The entire question of slavery in colonial and Early-Republic America is more mixed than is usually assumed. Indians captured in battle were sometimes sold into slavery, and there were free blacks who owned slaves, as well. In addition, during the colonial period indentured servitude - voluntary and involuntary committal to a master for a period of seven years - was common.

In 1825, hoping to establish themselves as a sovereign entity, the Cherokee built themselves a modest capital in Georgia, which they called New Echota. This planned community, which was laid out by the Cherokee themselves, housed a new government set up along the same lines as the US republic, with similar branches of government. The new capital boasted a bilingual newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix, still published in Oklahoma today as The Cherokee Phoenix and Indian Advocate. The newspaper was bilingual in English and Cherokee, thanks to the invention only a few years earlier of a Cherokee writing sysem, called a syllabary, by the dedicated genius Sequoyah. Cherokee literacy was amazingly high.

All of these precautions were to no avail, however, for gold had been discovered in northern Georgia.

Indian Removal

The story of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 really begins with the accession to the US Presidency of Andrew Jackson, the country's first non-aristocratic, populist President. Jackson, whose home was in Tennessee, had spent years as an 'Indian fighter' against the Creek and Seminole - wars in which the Cherokee had supported him - and his administration's policy was to offer the Indians land west of the Mississippi in order to remove them from the eastern part of the country.

During Jackson's first term of office, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 was passed after four months of bitter debate. The Act decreed the removal of all five nations, the Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw. It was opposed by Christian missionaries, Daniel Webster, and Davy Crockett, among others. His vehement opposition to the Act cost Crockett his seat in Congress, causing him to say, 'I would rather be honestly damned than hypocritically immortalized.' The Cherokee went to the Supreme Court in an effort to block removal, and the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Cherokee, declaring them a sovereign nation, over whom the State of Georgia had no power. Jackson ignored the Supreme Court's ruling. He is quoted as having said, 'Well, John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it.' The State of Georgia ignored the ruling as well.

The Cherokee resisted removal by all possible legal means, but finally, in 1838, these were exhausted. General Winfield Scott5 occupied Cherokee territory, and began rounding up people for the forced evacuation across the Mississippi that became known as the Trail of Tears.

Removal policy had been vigorously opposed by the Cherokee's Principal Chief, John Ross, but supported by another respected leader, Major Ridge and his nephew, Elias Boudinot, editor of the Cherokee Phoenix. In retaliation for their support for removal, Ridge, his son, and Boudinot were murdered upon their arrival in Oklahoma.

Even before the implementation of the Removal Act, Georgia militia had begun constructing forts, and herding Cherokee men, women and children into them. Conditions in the forts were severe. An estimated one-third of the death toll from the removal of the Cherokee can be attributed to confinement in the Georgia forts.

The Trail of Tears - From Georgia to Oklahoma

In October of 1838, 13 contingents of Cherokee set out from New Echota, to join the trail already taken by the other 4 nations. They were led by Cherokee chiefs and accompanied by the US Army. Other groups were led by contractors who were paid $65 a head to shepherd the evacuees to Indian Territory. From this money, the contractors were expected to provide food for the evacuees, and hay for their horses. This was often not forthcoming. Most of the party travelled by covered wagon, along roads which - after the drought of the summer was followed by a rainy fall - were difficult to make headway on. Hunting parties fanned out along the route, bringing in much-needed game to the evening's camps.

The drought of the summer of 1838 was followed by a harsh winter, bringing suffering, sickness and death to the 16,000 Cherokee on the route. About a quarter of them died, leading to the name by which the Cherokee designated the move, 'The Trail Where They Cried' or 'The Trail of Tears'. An interesting legend that grew up from the Trail of Tears concerns the plant called the Cherokee Rose6. Originally a mid-18th-Century import, the flower, now the state flower of Georgia, came to symbolise the loss of loved ones suffered on the route.

When the contingents reached the Mississippi River in December and January, the problem became even worse, as the extreme cold had caused the huge river - about three-quarters of a mile wide at the point of crossing in Missouri - to be filled with ice floes. Barges sank, and people drowned. The crossing itself took a month.

The survivors finally reached Oklahoma in March, 1839. On July 12, the Cherokee Act of Union brought together the eastern and western Cherokee nations as one people, and on September 6, 1839, the Cherokee constitution was adopted, and Tahlequah, Oklahoma, adopted as the new capital.

The North Carolina Cherokee

Some of the Cherokee, known as 'traditionalists', lived outside the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation in the mountains of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. These were Cherokee who had not completely accepted the 'white man's road' as the others had. These stragglers were scheduled for removal by the US government.

One such was Tsali, an elderly man who lived with his family near the Nantahala River. While under escort by the military, Tsali, his three sons, his brother-in-law, and their wives and children - a group of twelve in all - broke free and escaped. In the scuffle, two soldiers were killed and one wounded. Tsali and the other men hid in the mountains successfully for a time, along with other fugitive Cherokee. They were finally captured. Tsali, his brother-in-law, and two of his sons were executed by firing squad. The military declared amnesty for the rest of the Cherokee in the mountains, and allowed them to come out of hiding without facing arrest.

The US government declared an end to removal, and allowed the remnant of the Cherokee to remain in the mountains of North Carolina, where their descendants, about 10,000 strong, still live today. These descendants hold to the belief that it was Tsali's sacrifice which made it possible for them to continue to live in their ancestral mountains.

The Mexico Cherokee

Even before the Indian Removal Act, some Cherokee had migrated west of the Mississippi, into the Indian Territory of what is now Arkansas, under pressure of white settlement. As early as 1817, there were about 5000 of them in the Arkansas region. Some of these migrants moved on to Texas, and later more were invited there by Sam Houston - whose second wife was Cherokee, and who had himself been made a citizen of the Cherokee Nation - as he wished the Cherokee to serve as a buffer against the Comanche and Kiowa during the Texans' war with Mexico.

When removal came, the Cherokee 'Old Settlers' moved out of Arkansas and joined the others, either in Oklahoma or in Texas. Some of the Texas Cherokee were experiencing trouble with the Texans at about the same time, and moved down into Mexico. A small number of their descendants still live there, and have been recognised by the Mexican government as the Cherokee Nation in Mexico.

After arriving in Oklahoma, Sequoyah went to Texas and Mexico to visit the Cherokee there, and to bring them his syllabary. He died in the Republic of Texas in 1843.


The modern Cherokee Nation, numbering about 175,000 in Oklahoma, with 10,000 of the Eastern Band still living in North Carolina, is still an independent entity with its capital in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, population 15,000. The current Principal Chief of the Cherokee is Chad Smith.

The Cherokee have made significant contributions to American life and culture. Some famous people of Cherokee ancestry include the entertainer-philosopher Will Rogers, the activist Ward Churchill, actors Johnny Depp, Burt Reynolds and James Garner, singers Eartha Kitt, Johnny Cash, Cher, and Elvis Presley, and the painter Robert Rauschenberg.

1This entry will use the generic word 'Indian' to describe the native peoples of North America, as the term is commonly used by the descendants of those people to describe themselves. There is still some debate on the question of 'Native American' as an appropriate term, but, as the title of the American Indian Culture and Research Journal, among many others, indicates, 'Indian' is the term most often used by Native Americans themselves.2Often unwittingly introduced by Caucasions, but occasionally deliberately, proven at least in the infamous case of Lord Jeffrey Amherst, commanding general of the British forces in the French and Indian War, whose plan to expose Indians to smallpox by means of giving them infected blankets is discussed in his correspondence.3In the Creek language, this means 'people of another language'. The Cherokee called themselves Aniyunwiya, or 'the real people'.4 Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw.5Also known as 'Old Fuss and Feathers' for his insistence on military correctness, this 6'5" scion of the Virginia aristocracy was once scheduled to fight a duel with Andrew Jackson. Allegedly they were both so impressed with each other that morning that they called it off, declaring that honour had been satisfied.6 Scientific name, Rosa laevigata.

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