Between the years 1830 and 1850 over 60,000 Native Americans were forced to walk a 5000 miles long path known as the Trail of Tears.
The Native Americans that belonged to the Southeastern United States were told to leave their ancestral lands and walk to the west of the Mississippi River.
The Native Americans who walked the trail of tears belonged to the Cherokee, Muscogee or Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations.
The area they were told to move to was known as the Indian Territory which is present-day Oklahoma.
After the Indian Removal Act was passed in 1830, the tribes were led down the trail of tears at bayonet point.
The white colonists were hungry for the fertile lands that belonged to the Native Americans and went to great lengths to ensure that the Native Americans were completely removed.
The Georgia Gold Rush led to the removal of the Cherokee from Dahlonega after the colonists discovered gold in the area.
Even though the Supreme Court had instructed the colonists to peacefully resolve the issue of relocation, the white Americans used violence to coax the Natives out of their land.
Many Natives did not want to leave their homes but they knew they could not fight against the invaders without weapons.
When they resisted, President Andrew Jackson offered them a deal wherein if they moved peacefully, they would receive land in Oklahoma and a sum of $5 million in exchange for their homeland.
Conversely, they would be forced out if they did not leave on their own. The Natives sent many petitions and won a lot of support as a result but President Jackson ignored their pleas and sent General Winfield Scott to push the Natives out with violence.
The Trail of Tears is one of the most shameful events in the history of the United States resulting in the death of thousands of Native Americans. It demonstrates the extent to which white colonists could go for their materialistic desires.
The Americas were inhabited by indigenous tribes for various generations. They farmed the lands, hunted the forests, and developed a civilization that had sustained life for millennia.
Though they had a simple way of life compared to industrialized Europe, they had complex societies, rich histories, and intricate belief systems.
When the Americas were discovered by explorers from Europe, many colonists harbored the dream of pushing out the Native Americans and taking over their lands.
They were motivated mainly due to their greed for gold, fertile lands, and a better standard of life than they had in Europe.
The British Empire and other European powers commissioned various companies to invade the lands and expand their settlements in the Americas and the Caribbean.
Thousands of people boarded ships headed for America with their families and began encroaching on the lands traditionally held by the Native Americans.
The Native Americans resented the invasion and fought hard against the Europeans to protect their lands.
They even teamed up with rival forces to push the invaders out of their ancestral lands.
During the seven Years’ War, the Native Americans fought alongside the French to defeat the British, some of them joined the British to defeat the French.
Various uprisings also took place, notable among them was led by Pontiac, the Ottawa Chief.
Despite their efforts, they were unsuccessful in protecting their lands and became subjects first to the English Crown and then to the government of the United States of America.
They were viewed as uncivilized by the invaders and various attempts were made to either exterminate them or drive them out of their lands.
The American land was fertile for cash crops such as tobacco, cotton, and sugar. The European settlers were tempted by the possibility of owning these rich lands.
Some Europeans wanted to dig these lands to look for gold. They often terrorized the Natives by looting and destroying their houses in an effort to drive them away.
The Native Americans did not have weapons comparable to the Europeans and were often victims of the violence unleashed by the invaders.
The Native Americans thought it wise to comply with the colonists and learn their culture in an attempt to save themselves and their families.
George Washington and Henry Knox had proposed the assimilation of Native American tribes if they accepted the White American culture.
Tribes such as the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole were called the ‘Five Civilized Tribes’ and lived in autonomous nations located in the American deep south.
However, this did not satisfy the colonists and they pushed for the removal of the tribes altogether.
As a result, President Andrew Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
According to this act, the American government had the authority to unilaterally stamp out any claim of the Native Americans on their ancestral lands in the Southeast.
President Andrew Jackson’s Role
Even before Andrew Jackson became the president of the United States, he wished to remove the Native Americans from their lands.
He harbored this dream for 10 years before he finally got a chance as a president to put his plan in motion. It was central to his legislative priorities.
When he was an Army General, he was the main leader of violent attacks against the Creeks in Georgia and Alabama. He also led people to attack the Seminoles in Florida.
These attacks resulted in the transfer of the fertile ancestral lands of the Native Americans directly into the hands of the white farmers.
The profits from the plantations encouraged Andrew Jackson to continue his maltreatment toward the Native Americans even as a President.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 gave authority to the President to exchange lands with the Native American tribes and develop infrastructure on the lands already occupied by the settlers.
It further stipulated that if the tribes willingly chose to relocate then the President must give them money for the transportation toward the West.
However, the act did not allow the president to force the Native American tribes to walk toward the west without a treaty that was agreeable to them.
Despite these laws, the State of Georgia continued to encroach on the Cherokee land and meddled in their local affairs.
The Cherokee filed many lawsuits against the State of Georgia. They argued that the state had no right to enforce laws in the Cherokee region.
One such case called Worcester v. Georgia reached all the way to the Supreme court.
The law of Georgia had condemned Samuel Worcester and other non-Natives for squatting in the Cherokee region without a valid license.
Samuel Worcester was sent to jail for four years for this crime, however, he challenged the sentence by accusing the state of Georgia based on the Supremacy Clause.
He argued that treaties and arrangements were made between the Indian nations and the federal government of the United States.
He further argued that the State of Georgia had no right to interfere in the matters of Cherokee lands because they violate the treaties already made under the federal authority.
Samuel Worcester won the case in the Supreme Court. This case also set a precedent that barred any interference in the matters of the Cherokee Nation by the state of Georgia.
President Andrew Jackson ignored the ruling of the Supreme Court because he was afraid that the Georgia Militia would retaliate if he enforced the mandate.
The ongoing Nullification Crisis prevented President Jackson from sending the federal troops because it could lead to a much bigger civil war.
President Jackson found it wiser to convince the Cherokee people to accept an exchange treaty and willingly relocate.
This upset many supporters of the Worcester decision like Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams.
They accused President Jackson of ignoring the Cherokee claims against the state of Georgia.
Ralph Waldo Emerson who was a writer and a political activist also supported the Worcester decision by writing about the Cherokee assimilation into the American way of life.
None of this deterred President Jackson and he continued the removal of Indians by forming the Treaty of Echota.
According to the treaty, the Cherokee were made to exchange their land located on the east of Mississippi River for land in the Indian territory along with a compensation of $5 million from the US government.
Over 16,000 Cherokee people expressed their discontent by filing petitions against the treaty, however, President Jackson ignored them and passed the treaty anyway.
On December 29, 1835, it was decided that the Cherokee had two years to leave the state of Georgia and move to the Indian Territory which is present-day Oklahoma.
Only a few left willingly while the rest were forced out by the state militia with the support of the US government.
By 1838, all the Cherokees were removed from their land and held in camps located in eastern Tennessee.
In November 1838, the Cherokee people were divided into groups of 1000 people each and they were forced to walk toward the West.
Their journey was extremely difficult as they encountered heavy rains, snow, and very cold temperatures.
By 1840, the Indian removal was complete with tens of thousands of Cherokee people moved from the east of the Mississippi River.
More Native American tribes like the Creek, Seminole, Choctaw, and Chickasaw were also forced out of their lands under the act.
Tribes that walked the Trail of Tears
The forceful relocation of the Native Americans is called the Death March because thousands of people died while walking the difficult terrain of the Midwest.
Almost 125,000 people belonging to Native American tribes occupied the 25 million acres of land in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida.
The removal of Native Americans would make all this land available to the white farmers who wanted to profit from cotton plantations.
They were eager to take over and supported the US government in the removal of the Native Americans.
They robbed the houses of the Native Americans and also stole their animals. Some of them killed the Native Americans and forcefully squatted on their land.
The Choctaw people were the very first to endure the brutality of the US army. They were bound in chains and made to walk in the double file without any food or other supplies for their journey.
The journey was so brutal that a Choctaw leader called it the Trail of Tears and Death. 3000 out of the 17,000 Choctaw people died on this journey.
Some Native Americans were able to remove themselves on their own but the majority were forced out at gunpoint by the military led by General Winfield Scott.
Many Cherokee people were rounded up in camps called stockades after the deadline of the treaty which was May 23, 1838.
Over 700 people were squeezed together which led to unhygienic living conditions and the outbreak of contagious diseases.
They were held in these camps until the rest of the Native Americans had passed the route they were meant to take.
As a result, most of the resources for their passage had already run out and they were blackmailed and tortured along the route.
Their marches were planned to take place in the hottest and the coldest months of the year making it an excruciatingly painful journey.
The path was mostly wild and stretched across mountains. It took months to complete the journey.
One-third of the Native American population perished due to extreme weather, starvation, diseases, and torture by the military men.
They were not allowed to take their belongings with them. The soldiers stole from the Native Americans and destroyed their homes.
It is estimated that over 4000 Cherokee people lost their lives while marching on the Trail of Tears.
Even though they were promised new land in Oklahoma in exchange for their ancestral lands, it was soon taken back.
The law had provided that the Native Americans would receive money for their journey including money to buy food on the way, but insincere suppliers cheated them with exaggerated prices in exchange for bad food.
The leader of the Cherokee people who had agreed to the Treaty of Echota was later assassinated by those who were able to make the journey alive.