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  The Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears

O. Ned Eddins

Indian Horse    Indian Smallpox     Indian Trade Beads     Indian Trade Guns   Indian Alcohol   


     Chickasaw       Creek         Seminole        Choctaw         Cherokee

Between 1816 and 1840, Indian tribes located east of the Mississippi River signed over forty treaties ceding lands to the federal government. Despite land cessions, several states wanted the Indians relocated to the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. In 1825, the United States government formally adopted an Indian Removal Policy. The forced relocation of American Indians by federal troops resulted in the Trail of of the darkest chapters in American history.

The despicable Indian Removal Act with the subsequent Trail of Tear is a black mark on American history that can never be justified or explained away. A Choctaw Chief interviewed by an Arkansas Gazette reporter was quoted as saying the Choctaw removal had been a trail of tears and death. Trail of Tears was widely quoted in the eastern press for the mass relocation of Indian tribes to the Indian Territory.

President Andrew Jackson in his inaugural address in 1829, set forth a policy to relocate Eastern Indians west of the Mississippi River. Indian relocation had been a consideration since 1803. President Jefferson had justified the Louisiana Purchase as having a place west of the Mississippi River to relocate the Eastern Indians. Anthony Wallace author of Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans stated that Jefferson was of the opinion:

Indians had the oratory skills and family values to climb the ladder of cultural evolution. Indians could be incorporated into the young republic, but not in the hunter-gather state. As long as Indians had hunting grounds, they could not be civilized. His belief was the tribes not accepting the white man’s civilization should be moved west of the Mississippi.

Many of the various Indian Nations, especially the Cherokee, had accepted President Jefferson's white man’s civilization and tried to incorporate the white man ways into their own culture and still...

The cornerstone of a country where all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among these the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness did not apply to the American Indians.

Despite opposition to Indian removal by many Americans, including Congressman Davy Crockett of Tennessee, President Andrew Jackson justified the Indian Removal Act:

Native American Indians were safer in the western lands; free from harassment from white settlers and "beyond the reach of injury and oppression... that paternal care of the General Government will hereafter watch over them and protect them.

 In 1830, the United States Congress passed the Indian Removal Act. Between 1830 and 1850, about one hundred thousand American Indians living east of the Mississippi River were forced to relocate by coerced treaties, or forcibly by the United States Army.

                                     Trail of Tears Land and Water Routes - Google Images

Prior to the arrival of white men, the country from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River and as far north as the southern boundary of Virginia, was occupied by five Indian tribes…Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole…the “five civilized tribes.” In recent times, the Trail of Tears has been primarily associated with the brutal removal of the Cherokees in 1838. The major emphasis of this article on the "five civilized tribes" does not imply that all of the Eastern Indians were not severely affected by the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

The Chickasaw

 Mississippi entered the union as the 20th state in 1817 and immediately demanded removal of the Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians. Hostilities between the State of Mississippi and the Indians brought Andrew Jackson and other government commissioners to negotiate land cessions from the Chickasaw. Between the call for removal by the State and Jackson's demand for land cessions, the Chickasaw ceded lands in western Kentucky and Tennessee. With the loss of a large part of their land, the Chickasaw became dependent on government annuity payments. With the 1818 cession of land, the Chickasaw's federal annuity payment was increased from three thousand to fifteen thousand and thirty-five thousand dollars after 1818. With cash money, alcoholism becomes a serious problem, and after 1819, an influx of Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist missions created another problem.

More afraid of losing their tribal identity than their homeland, the majority of the Chickasaw decided to leave their homes.  In October of 1832, the Chickasaw signed the Treaty of Pontotoc ceding six million acres east of the Mississippi River in exchange for three million forty-six thousand dollars, and the promise of suitable land west of the Mississippi.

The Creek

During the early 1800s, a faction of the Creek Nation known as the Red Sticks fought American expansion into Creek Territory. In August of 1813, Red Stick warriors under two Métis, William Weatherford and Paddy Welsh, attacked Fort Mims near the mouth of the Alabama River. Red Sticks warriors slaughtered the settlers. Estimates of the number killed vary, but most authorities believe it was from two hundred and fifty to four hundred settlers and militiamen.

                                                                   Fort Mims - Google Images

By October of 1813, thirteen hundred mounted Tennessee volunteers, including Joseph Walker and Sam Houston, along with several hundred Cherokee and Creek warriors under the command of Major General Andrew Jackson moved into northern Alabama. After a series of skirmishes, General Jackson’s army trapped the Red Sticks at Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa River in eastern Alabama.

                                               Horseshoe Bend Tallapoosa River - Google Images

The Red Sticks faction of the Creek Nation were forced to surrender in March of 1814. On August 9, 1814, the Creek ceded twenty million acres of Creek land to the United States under the Treaty of Fort Jackson.  For his actions in the Red Stick war and forcing the treaty on the Creek Nation, General Jackson garnered his first steps towards the presidency of the United States.

Despite land cessions and assimilating into the American culture, Governor George Troup of Georgia wanted the Creek Nation moved to the Indian Territory. In 1825, the Governor prevailed on Chief McIntosh to cede Lower Creek land to the State of Georgia. After signing the Treaty of Indian Springs, McIntosh and several other leaders were killed by angry members of the tribe…Chief McIntosh lacked permission to sell Creek land.

The United States Congress ratified the Treaty of Indian Springs by a single vote.

In January of 1826, President John Quincy Adams negotiated another treaty with the Creek Nation, but Governor Troup refused to honor the Treaty of Washington and begin to forcibly remove the Upper and Lower Creek Indians from Georgia. When President Adams threatened Governor Troup with federal intervention, Governor Troup called up the state militia and continued the Creek removal. President Adams backed off, and by 1827, the Creek were gone.

The Seminole

The Seminole tribe increased in numbers during the late 1700s from escaped slaves settling in communities near Seminole towns…the Black Seminole paid tribute in exchange for protection. In the early 1800s tensions between the Seminole and the United States led to a series of conflicts known as the Seminole Wars.

In 1832, the Payne's Landing Treaty took away the Seminole lands and provided for removal to Indian Territory within a two year period. The treaty was not ratified by the United States Senate until 1834, and the Seminole believed this gave them until 1836. The federal government argued the Seminole removal date was based on the treaty signing in 1832 which gave them until 1834. The strong disagreement between the Seminole and the federal government over the date of removal resulted in the Great Seminole War…the Seminole war lasted nearly seven years with a cost of several thousand lives.

In 1842, an agreement was reached with the Seminole tribe for relocation to the Indian Territory. Several hundred Seminole living in the Florida swamps refused to sign the treaty, or leave their homeland…these are today's Florida Seminole.

The Choctaw

The Choctaw Indians were the first to be forcible removed by the Federal Government under the 1830 Indian Removal Act. The Secretary of War Lewis Cass named George Gaines general supervisor for Choctaw removal to the Indian Territory.

Gaines planned to utilize steamboats to move a third of the Choctaw each year. The first group of Choctaw scheduled for removal were allowed the first two weeks of October to gather their crops, assemble their personal property, and sell their houses or farms in order to be at the boat docks by the first of November, 1831. Choctaw livestock was left with the promise new livestock would be provided when they reached Indian Territory.

The Gaines’ plan was to transport the Choctaw by steamboat up the Arkansas River to Little Rock, or Fort Smith, and from there be taken by wagon to their new territory. About sixty miles up the Arkansas River, the Choctaw were unloaded at the Arkansas Post…the boats were needed to transport a new detachment of soldiers to Fort Smith.

The commander at the Arkansas Post was not prepared to care for two thousand scantily clad Choctaw. By the time provisions arrived, the Choctaw and the soldiers were receiving a handful of parched corn, a turnip, and two cups of heated water per day.

As bad as the 1831 removal had been, the 1832 removal was worse. While the Choctaw were being herded towards Vicksburg an epidemic of cholera broke out. There is no record of how many Choctaw died from cholera on the way to, or at Vicksburg…Indian bodies were covered with brush, doused with kerosene, or whale oil, and burned.

With sickness, deaths, and pauses caused by the escort, it took almost three months for the Choctaw to struggle to the new territory. The 1832 removal resulted in a debacle of death and disaster for the Choctaw. Of the twelve thousand five hundred Choctaw relocated to the Indian Territory, twenty-five hundred died along the way.

                                       Choctaw Trail of Tears - Robert Lindneux - Google Images

Note the Owl in the trees -  an Indian symbol of death.

Most of the remaining five thousand to six thousand Choctaw in Mississippi were forced to move over the next few years, but a few Choctaw held out in the mountains and eventually formed the Mississippi Band of Choctaw. The Mississippi Choctaw were officially recognized as a tribe in 1945.

The Cherokee  -  Tsalagi

The Cherokee’s existence in Georgia was complicated by a prolonged dispute between Georgia and the federal government. One of the original thirteen colonies, Georgia was the last to cede (1802) its land claims in Alabama and Mississippi to the federal government…in the English land grants to the original colonies, the western boundary was ambiguous. In ceding the western land, Georgia expected titles to land held by he Indians to be extinguished, but the Cherokee refused to leave their ancestral homeland which was given to them by treaty guarantees with the federal government.

At the time of white contact, the Cherokee were a settled, agricultural people living in approximately two hundred fairly large villages. The typical Cherokee town consisted of thirty to sixty houses with a large centralized council house. Cherokee agriculture relied heavily on the three sisters (corn, beans, and squash), supplemented by hunting and the gathering of wild plants.

                                   Three Sisters - New York State Museum - Google Images 

During the early 1800s, the Cherokee formed a government with a written constitution. Sequoyah (George Gist) in 1821, utilized an alphabet of eighty-six characters to develop a written language. Within a few years, almost the entire Cherokee Nation was semi-literate. A Cherokee newspaper, the Phoenix, began publication in the native language in February, 1828. A court system and schools were soon established.

                                                                 Sequoyah-Google Images

Many Cherokee were prosperous farmers with comfortable homes, cultivated fields, and herds of livestock. An inventory of Cherokee property in 1826 revealed: 1,560 black slaves. 22,000 head of cattle, 7,600 horses, 46,000 swine, 2,500 sheep, 762 looms, 2,488 spinning wheels, 172 wagons, 2,942 plows, 10 sawmills, 31 grist mills, 62 blacksmith shops, 8 cotton machines, 18 schools, and 18 ferries. Although the poor Cherokee still lived in simple log cabins, Chief John Ross lived in a house designed by a Philadelphia architect.

                                                                   John Ross Home

An influx of settlers following the discovery of gold near Dahlonega in northern Georgia brought Indian removal to a head.…the State of Georgia wanted the Indians gone. To force the issue of states' rights with the federal government, Georgia passed a law in 1828, pronouncing all laws enacted through the Cherokee constitution null and void after June 1, 1830.

In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act with the stipulation the executive branch negotiated for Indian lands. This act and the 1828 Georgia law prompted the Cherokee to file suit in the U.S. Supreme Court. In Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia (1831) the Court refused to hear the case against Georgia extending its laws on the Cherokee because the Cherokee did not represent a sovereign nation.

Chief Justice John Marshall, writing for the majority, held that the Cherokee Nation was a "domestic dependent nation," and therefore Georgia state law applied to them.

As a result of the 1831 Supreme Court decision, the Cherokee reconstituted the Cherokee Nation and refilled their lawsuit. In 1832, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Cherokee in Worcester vs. Georgia.

Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Cherokee Nation was sovereign, making the removal laws invalid. The court ruling meant the only way the federal government could remove any tribes was with a formal treaty.

With President Andrew Jackson refusing to uphold the Supreme Court decision, the Cherokee were divided and despondent. While most of the Cherokee supported the principal chief, John Ross, a small minority of the Cherokee in northern Georgia supported Major Ridge, his son John, and Elias Boudinot. Known as the Treat Party, Ridge and his followers advocated the Cherokee relocate to the Indian Territory.

The federal government negotiated a treaty with the Treaty Party faction. In 1835, the Treaty of New Echota was signed by Major Ridge and about one hundred Cherokees…this treaty violated a Cherokee law which made it a crime to sign away Cherokee lands. In the New Echota Treaty, Major Ridge relinquished all lands east of the Mississippi River in exchange for land in Indian Territory and the promise of money, livestock, various provisions, and tools.

Despite knowing only a minority of the Cherokees accepted the treaty and protests by the Cherokee National Council, John Ross, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, Congress ratified the New Echota Treaty on May 23, 1836. The ratification passed by a single vote. The New Echota Treaty signed by a faction of the Cherokee was used by federal and state governments to justify removing the Cherokee Nation from Georgia.

The New Echota Treaty stipulated a deadline of two years for the Cherokee to relocate in the Indian Territory. By the end of 1836, more than six thousand Cherokees, including Ridge and the Treaty Party members, had moved to the Indian Territory. More than sixteen thousand remained in Georgia and surrounding areas.

In the spring of 1838, Chief Ross presented a petition with more than fifteen thousand Cherokee signatures asking Congress to invalidate the treaty. Besides the Cherokee petition, many white Americans were against enforcing Cherokee removal. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a letter to President Jackson's successor, President Martin Van Buren urging him not to inflict "so vast an outrage upon the Cherokee Nation."

As the two year deadline for voluntary removal approached, President Van Buren assigned General Winfield Scott to round up and remove the remaining Cherokee from Georgia. General Scott arrived at New Echota on May 17, 1838, in command of about seven thousand soldiers.

Soldiers immediately began rounding up the Georgia Cherokee; ten days later operations began in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama. Cherokee were removed at gunpoint from their homes and fields, often with only the clothes on their backs.

                                                         Max D. Standley - Google Images

During the roundup, the Cherokee were subjected to acts of cruelty by the federal troops, as well as, the theft and destruction of their homes and property by local residents. John Burnett a private with the federal forces during the Trail of Tears told his grandchildren on his eightieth birthday:

Men working in the fields were arrested and driven to the stockades. Women were dragged from their homes by soldiers whose language they could not understand. Children were often separated from their parents and driven into the stockades with the sky for a blanket and the earth for a pillow. And often the old and infirm were prodded with bayonets to hasten them to the stockades.

Another soldier with the Indian removal force later wrote:

During the Civil War I watched as hundreds of men died, including my own brother, but none of that compares to what we did to the Cherokee Indians.  As many as one-third of the 4,000 deaths related to the removal can be attributed to horrible conditions in these camps.

Three thousand Cherokees were rounded up in 1838 and sent to Indian Territory by steamboats on the Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi, and Arkansas rivers. Over the summer of 1838, a severe drought restricted movement of boats on the major rivers. With the rivers to low for boats, the remaining Cherokee were held in hastily-built stockades. In these crowded, unsanitary internment camps measles, whooping cough, and dysentery took a terrible toll throughout the summer and fall. Not wishing to have his people held in the internment camps until the next spring, Chief Ross appealed to President Van Buren to allow the Cherokee to oversee their own removal....anything was better than waiting in the filthy death-ridden internment camps. President Van Buren consented.

Thus began the second phase of the Cherokee removal…Nunna daul Tsuny or the trail where we cried. The Cherokee people were marched almost a thousand miles through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas. Guarded by detachments of soldiers, the Cherokee-administered marches began on August 28, 1838. There were thirteen groups with an average of one thousand people in each group. A physician and an occasional clergyman supposedly accompanied each detachment.

                                          Trail of Tears - Robert Lindneux - Google Images

The Cherokee route followed a line of army supply depots which were to provide clothing, shoes, and food. The flour, corn, coffee, sugar, and occasionally salt pork was often rotten or infested with weevils. Many suppliers charged for the goods that were supposed to be provided to the Cherokee.

Charges of fraud and misappropriation of funds and supplies promised to the Cherokee was investigated by Major Ethan Allen Hitchcock in 1841. Hitchcock reported before, during, and after removal that bribery, perjury, forgery, short weights, issues of spoiled meat and grain, and every other conceivable subterfuge was employed by designing white men. The federal government did not release the Hitchcock report.

Drought and the number of people reduced the forage for the animals hauling their  possessions which resulted in slow moving caravans. Under orders to move quickly those who died were left unburied or in shallow graves beside the road.

The number of deaths during the Trail of Tears is widely debated with varying estimates.

1) A scholarly demographic study in 1973 estimated two thousand total deaths; another in 1984 concluded a total of eight thousand people died during the Trail of Tears.
2) The official government death count at the time was four hundred and twenty-four.
3) An American doctor traveling with one party estimated two thousand deaths in the camps and two thousand on the trail; his total of four thousand deaths...this is the most accepted cited figure.

Not all Cherokee were forced out of the South; one group did not leave the mountains of North Carolina. The Oconaluftee Cherokee claimed the New Echota Treaty did not apply to them; they did not live on Cherokee lands. The Oconaluftee claimed an 1819 treaty gave them American citizenship on lands not belonging to the Cherokee Nation. North Carolina ultimately recognized their rights. In time this group became the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians that still reside in North Carolina.

At the same time as the Cherokee’s Trail of Tears, another group of Cherokee were being removed from Texas. In 1807, the Spanish government requested a number of Indian tribes settle in eastern Texas as a buffer against the encroaching American traders. After the successful revolt from Mexico in 1835, white Texans wanted the Cherokee gone. In July of 1839, three Texas regiments attacked the Cherokee under Chief Bowl and forced them across the Red River into Oklahoma.

Once the Cherokee people reached their new home, justice was not long in coming for past wrongs. On June 22, 1839, Major Ridge, his son John Ridge, and his son-in-law Elias Boudinot were killed for signing the Treaty of New Echota.

Arriving in the Indian Territory did not miraculously solve the American Indian problems. What did they eat? Where did they live? What about the sick and dying? How was the land divided? These were just a few of the problems faced by the new arrivals in the Indian Territory that were now dependent of the Federal Government. After all President Jackson had said:

Native American Indians were safer in the western lands; free from harassment from white settlers and "beyond the reach of injury and oppression... that paternal care of the General Government will hereafter watch over them and protect them.

The Federal Government gave large land grants to the various Indian Nations as an inducement to move to the Indian Territory. With America's western expansion and the discovery of oil in the Oklahoma Territory, the Federal Government wanted back millions of acres of Indian land. The redistribution of land was accomplished through the Dawes Act of 1887. The Dawes Act took away communal tribal holdings in favor of individual allotments, usually one hundred and sixty acres. By the beginning of the 1900s, the vast majority of the land given to America's first inhabitants under the Indian Removal Act did not belong to the American Indians.

In addition to taking away tribal lands, the Dawes Act established a trust fund for the proceeds from oil, mineral, timber, and grazing leases on Native American lands. Poor management by the Bureau of Indian Affairs bureaucrats led to lawsuits in the 1990s and early 2000s which forced the Federal Government to account for the money collected by the Bureau of Indian Affairs Indian Trust Fund...billions of dollars were returned to the Trust Fund. 

The Trail of Tears article was written by O. Ned Eddins of Afton, Wyoming. Permission is given for material from this site to be used for school research papers.

Citation: Eddins, Ned. (article name) Afton, Wyoming. 2012.

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Wallace, Anthony F. C. Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Cambridge. Massachusetts. 1999.

John Burnett -  - Removal Forts  - Choctaw   - Fort Mims  = eye witness accounts