It should have never happened…
Thousands of Native Americans were forced to relocate following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The removal included members of the Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations. Many Native Americans suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while going on the route to their destinations, 2,000-6,000 of the 16,543 Cherokee died. This is were we get the name “Trail of Tears”. By 1837, 46,000 Native Americans from the south-eastern states had been removed from their homelands, thereby opening 25 million acres for settlement.
The fixed boundaries of autonomous tribal nations, comprised of large areas of the United States and were subject to continual cession and annexation, in part due to pressure from squatters and the threat of military force in the newly declared U.S. territories—federally administered regions whose boundaries supervened upon the Native treaty claims. As these territories became U.S. states, state governments sought to dissolve the boundaries of the Indian nations within their borders, which were independent of state jurisdiction, and to expropriate the land therein. These pressures were exacerbated by U.S. population growth and the expansion of slavery in the South, with the rapid development of cotton cultivation in the uplands following the invention of the cotton gin.
In 1830, the Five Civilized groups of Native Americans were living as autonomous nations in what would we know as the American Deep South. The process of cultural transformation, as proposed by George Washington and Henry Knox, was gaining momentum, especially among the Cherokee and Choctaw. The acculturation proposed by Washington was well under way among the Cherokee and Choctaw by the turn of the 19th century. In an effort to assimilate with American culture, Native people were encouraged to “convert to Christianity, learn to speak and read English, and adopt European-style economic practices such as the individual ownership of land and other property.” Thomas Jefferson’s policy echoed Washington’s proposition: respect the Native Americans’ rights to their homelands, and allow the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee nations to remain east of the Mississippi provided they adopt Anglo-European behavior and cultural practices. Jefferson encouraged practicing an agriculture-based society.
Andrew Jackson had other plans though, he wanted to renew a policy of political and military action for the removal of the Native Americans from their lands. The U.S. federal government was being pressured by greedy U.S. settlers to remove the Native Americans from the Southeast many of whom were already encroaching on Indian lands. Many people were in opposition to removing the Native Americans including a U.S. Congressman from Tennessee by the name Davey Crockett, New Jersey Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen, and Christian missionaries, such as Jeremiah Evarts. Jackson worked toward enacting a law for Indian removal. In his 1829 State of the Union, Jackson called for their removal and on April 24, 1830 he was able to gain Congressional passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which authorized the government to extinguish Native American title to lands in the Southeast. Jackson truly believed he was doing the right thing and viewed the demise of Indian tribal nations as inevitable, pointing to the advancement of settled life and demise of tribal nations in the American northeast. He called his northern critics hypocrites, given the North’s history; Indian tribes were driven to extinction, Indian hunting grounds replaced with family farms, and state law replaced tribal law. If the Indians of the south were to survive and their culture maintained, they faced powerful historical forces that could only be postponed. The act provided the president with powers to exchange land with Native tribes and provide infrastructural improvements on the existing lands. The law also gave the president power to pay for transportation costs to the West, should tribes choose to relocate. The law did not, however, provide the president with power to force tribes West against the will of the tribe and without treaty.
The first removal treaty signed after the Removal Act was the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek on September 27, 1830, in which Choctaws in Mississippi ceded land east of the river in exchange for payment and land in the West. Their removal served as the model for all future relocations. The Seminoles and other tribes did not leave peacefully. Along with fugitive slaves they resisted the removal. The Second Seminole War lasted from 1835 to 1842 and resulted in the government allowing the Seminoles to remain in the south Florida swamplands. Only a small number remained, and around 3,000 were killed in the war between American soldiers and Seminoles. After two wars, many Seminoles were removed in 1832. The Creek removal followed in 1834, the Chickasaw in 1837, and lastly the Cherokee in 1838.
Nearly 17,000 Choctaws made the move to what would be called Indian Territory and then later Oklahoma. Approximately 5,000–6,000 Choctaws remained in Mississippi in 1831 after the initial removal efforts. The Choctaws who chose to remain in newly formed Mississippi were subject to legal conflict, harassment, and intimidation. The Choctaws “have had our habitations torn down and burned, our fences destroyed, cattle turned into our fields and we ourselves have been scourged, manacled, fettered and otherwise personally abused, until by such treatment some of our best men have died.” The Choctaws in Mississippi were later reformed as the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and the removed Choctaws became the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. The Choctaws were the first to sign a removal treaty presented by the federal government. President Andrew Jackson wanted strong negotiations with the Choctaws in Mississippi, and the Choctaws seemed much more cooperative than Andrew Jackson had imagined. When commissioners and Choctaws came to negotiation agreements it was said the United States would bear the expense of moving their homes and that they had to be removed within two and a half years of the signed treaty.
After the War of 1812, some Muscogee leaders such as William McIntosh signed treaties that ceded more land to Georgia. The 1814 signing of the Treaty of Fort Jackson signaled the end for the Creek Nation and for all Indians in the South. Friendly Creek leaders, like Selocta and Big Warrior, addressed Sharp Knife (the Indian nickname for Andrew Jackson) and reminded him that they keep the peace. Nevertheless, Jackson retorted that they did not “cut (Tecumseh’s) throat” when they had the chance, so they must now cede Creek lands. Jackson also ignored Article 9 of the Treaty of Ghent that restored sovereignty to Indians and their nations. Jackson opened this first peace session by faintly acknowledging the help of the friendly Creeks. That done, he turned to the Red Sticks and admonished them for listening to evil counsel. For their crime, he said, the entire Creek Nation must pay. He demanded the equivalent of all expenses incurred by the United States in prosecuting the war, which by his calculation came to 23,000,000 acres of land.
Eventually, the Creek Confederacy enacted a law that made further land cessions a capital offense. Nevertheless, on February 12, 1825, McIntosh and other chiefs signed the Treaty of Indian Springs, which gave up most of the remaining Creek lands in Georgia. After the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty, McIntosh was assassinated on May 13, 1825, by Creeks led by Menawa. The Creek National Council, led by Opothle Yohola, 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). The historian R. Douglas Hurt wrote: “The Creeks had accomplished what no Indian nation had ever done or would do again — achieve the annulment of a ratified treaty.” However, Governor Troup of Georgia ignored the new treaty and began to forcibly remove the Indians under the terms of the earlier treaty. At first, President Adams attempted to intervene with federal troops, but Troup called out the militia, and Adams, fearful of a civil war, conceded. As he explained to his intimates, “The Indians are not worth going to war over.”
Although the Creeks had been forced from Georgia, with many Lower Creeks moving to the Indian Territory, there were still about 20,000 Upper Creeks living in Alabama. However, the state moved to abolish tribal governments and extend state laws over the Creeks. Opothle Yohola appealed to the administration of President Andrew Jackson for protection from Alabama; when none was forthcoming, the Treaty of Cusseta was signed on March 24, 1832, which divided up Creek lands into individual allotments. Creeks could either sell their allotments and receive funds to remove to the west, or stay in Alabama and submit to state laws. Land speculators and squatters began to defraud Creeks out of their allotments, and violence broke out, leading to the so-called “Creek War of 1836”. Secretary of War Lewis Cass dispatched General Winfield Scott to end the violence by forcibly removing the Creeks to the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. With the Indian Removal Act of 1830 it continued into 1835 and after, as in 1836 over 15,000 Creeks were driven from their land for the last time. 3,500 of those 15,000 Creeks did not survive the trip to Oklahoma where they eventually settled.
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 had reached an agreement to purchase land from the previously removed Choctaws after a bitter five-year debate. They paid the Choctaws $530,000 for the westernmost part of the Choctaw land. The first group of Chickasaws moved in 1837 and was led by John M. Millard. The Chickasaws gathered at Memphis on July 4, 1837, with all of their assets—belongings, livestock, and slaves. Once across the Mississippi River, they followed routes previously established by the Choctaws and the Creeks. Once in Indian Territory, the Chickasaws merged with the Choctaw nation.
When the U.S. acquired Florida from Spain via the Adams–Onís Treaty and took possession in 1831 the Seminoles were called to a meeting at Payne’s Landing on the Ocklawaha River. The treaty negotiated called for the Seminoles to move west, if the land were found to be suitable. They were to be settled on the Creek reservation and become part of the Creek tribe, who considered them deserters; some of the Seminoles had been derived from Creek bands but also from other tribes. Those among the tribe who once were members of Creek bands did not wish to move west to where they were certain that they would meet death for leaving the main band of Creek Indians. The delegation of seven chiefs who were to inspect the new reservation did not leave Florida until October 1832. After touring the area for several months and conferring with the Creeks who had already settled there, the seven chiefs signed a statement on March 28, 1833 that the new land was acceptable. Upon their return to Florida, however, most of the chiefs renounced the statement, claiming that they had not signed it, or that they had been forced to sign it, and in any case, that they did not have the power to decide for all the tribes and bands that resided on the reservation.
The villages in the area of the Apalachicola River were more easily persuaded, however, and went west in 1834. On December 28, 1835 a group of Seminoles and blacks ambushed a U.S. Army company marching from Fort Brooke in Tampa to Fort King in Ocala, killing all but three of the 110 army troops. This came to be known as the Dade Massacre. When the U.S. realized the Seminoles would resist relocation Florida began preparing for war. The St. Augustine Militia asked the War Department for the loan of 500 muskets. Five hundred volunteers were mobilized under Brig. Gen. Richard K. Call. Indian war parties raided farms and settlements, and families fled to forts, large towns, or out of the territory altogether. A war party led by Osceola captured a Florida militia supply train, killing eight of its guards and wounding six others. Most of the goods taken were recovered by the militia in another fight a few days later. Sugar plantations along the Atlantic coast south of St. Augustine were destroyed, with many of the slaves on the plantations joining the Seminoles.
Other warchiefs such as Halleck Tustenuggee, Jumper, and Black Seminoles Abraham and John Horse continued the Seminole resistance against the army. The war ended, after a full decade of fighting, in 1842. The surviving Seminole band of the Everglades claims to be the only Federally recognized tribe which never relinquished sovereignty or signed a peace treaty with the United States.
Tensions between Georgia and the Cherokee Nation were brought to a crisis by the discovery of gold near Dahlonega, Georgia, in 1829, resulting in the Georgia Gold Rush, the second gold rush in U.S. history. Hopeful gold speculators began trespassing on Cherokee lands, and pressure began to mount on the Georgia government to fulfill the promises of the Compact of 1802. When Georgia moved to extend state laws over the Cherokee lands in 1830, the matter went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), the Marshall court ruled that the Cherokee Nation was not a sovereign and independent nation, and therefore refused to hear the case. However, 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. Jackson had no desire to use the power of the national government to protect the Cherokees from Georgia, since he was already entangled with states’ rights issues in what became known as the nullification crisis.
With the Indian Removal Act of 1830, passed by Congress just winning by a single vote, and signed into law by President Andrew Jackson, and imposed by his successor President Martin Van Buren who allowed Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama an armed force of 7,000 made up of militia, regular army, and volunteers under General Winfield Scott to round up about 13,000 Cherokees into concentration camps at the U.S. Indian Agency near Cleveland, Tennessee before being sent to the West. Most of the deaths occurred from disease, starvation and cold in these camps. Their homes were burned and their property destroyed and plundered. Farms belonging to the Cherokees for generations were won by white settlers in a lottery. After the initial roundup, the U.S. military still oversaw the emigration until they met the forced destination. Private John G. Burnett later wrote, “Future generations will read and condemn the act and I do hope posterity will remember that private soldiers like myself, and like the four Cherokees who were forced by General Scott to shoot an Indian Chief and his children, had to execute the orders of our superiors. We had no choice in the matter.”
The Treaty of New Echota was signed on December 29, 1835, in New Echota, Georgia by officials of the United States government and representatives of a minority Cherokee political faction, the Treaty Party established terms under which the entire Cherokee Nation ceded its territory in the southeast and agreed to move west to the Indian Territory. Although the treaty was not approved by the Cherokee National Council nor signed by Principal Chief John Ross, it was amended and ratified by the U.S. Senate in March 1836, and became the legal basis for the forcible removal known as the Trail of Tears. When signing the Treaty, Major Ridge said “I have signed my death warrant.” The resulting political turmoil led to the killings of Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot; of the leaders of the Treaty Party, only Stand Watie escaped death. In 1838, the Cherokee people were forcibly removed from their lands in the Southeastern United States to the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) in the Western United States. In the same year of 1838 only about 2,000 Cherokee had left their homes in Georgia. It took Winfield Scott and his army to forcibly kick people out of their homes and home land, which was an order at the time by President Martin Van Buren, which resulted in the deaths of approximately 4,000 Cherokees. In the Cherokee language, the event is called Nu na da ul tsun yi—“the Place Where They Cried”.
In the winter of 1838 the Cherokee began the 1,000-mile march with hardly any clothing and most on foot without shoes or moccasins. The march began in Red Clay, Tennessee, the location of the last Eastern capital of the Cherokee Nation. Because of the diseases, the Native Americans were not allowed to go into any towns or villages along the way; many times this meant traveling much farther to go around them. After crossing Tennessee and Kentucky, they arrived at the Ohio River across from Golconda in southern Illinois about the 3rd of December 1838. Here the starving Indians were charged a dollar a head to cross the river on “Berry’s Ferry” which typically charged twelve cents, equal to $2.66 today. They were not allowed passage until the ferry had serviced all others wishing to cross and were forced to take shelter under “Mantle Rock,” a shelter bluff on the Kentucky side, until “Berry had nothing better to do”. Many died huddled together at Mantle Rock waiting to cross. Several Cherokee were murdered by locals. The killers filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Government through the courthouse in Vienna, suing the government for $35 a head to bury the murdered Cherokee. It eventually took almost three months to cross the 60 miles on land between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The trek through southern Illinois is where the Cherokee suffered most of their deaths.
In the few years following the Act, the Cherokee brought forth lawsuits. Some of these cases reached the Supreme Court, the most influential being Worcester v. Georgia. Samuel Worcester and other non-Native Americans were convicted by Georgia law for residing in Indian territory in the state of Georgia without a license. Worcester was sentenced to prison for four years, and appealed the ruling, arguing that this sentence violated treaties made between Indian Nations and the United States Federal Government. The Court ruled in Worcester’s favor, declaring the Cherokee Nation was its own establishment and was therefore required to adhere only to Cherokee law, not Georgia law. Ultimately, Indian land was free from the law of individual states. Chief Justice Marshall argued, “The Cherokee nation, then, is a distinct community occupying its own territory in which the laws of Georgia can have no force. The whole intercourse between the United States and this nation, is, by our constitution and laws, vested in the government of the United States.”
The population of the Cherokee Nation eventually rebounded, and today the Cherokees are the largest American Indian group in the United States. Today, there 562 federally recognized tribal governments in the United States. In 1987, about 2,200 miles of trails were authorized by Federal law to mark the removal of 17 detachments of the Cherokee people. Called the “Trail of Tears National Historic Trail,” it traverses portions of nine states and includes land and water routes.