Guided by policies favored by President Andrew Jackson, who led the country from 1828 to 1837, the Trail of Tears (1837 to 1839) was the forced westward migration of American Indian tribes from the South and Southeast. Land grabs threatened tribes throughout the South and Southeast in the early 1800s. Across the United States, the Federal Government consolidated and relocated tribes to reservations forcing them to surrender their lands in pieces by negotiating one treaty after another with the tribes. The Indian Removal Act of 1830, the impetus for the Trail of Tears, targeted particularly the Five Civilized Tribes in the Southeast. As authorized by the Indian Removal Act, the Federal Government negotiated treaties aimed at clearing Indian-occupied land for white settlers. The Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole were among the resettled tribes. The National Park Service Trail of Tears National Historic Trail interprets the Trail of Tears primarily as it relates to the Cherokee.
Following the Indian Removal Act, a treaty determined the fate of the Cherokee in the eastern United States. Named after the capital of the Cherokee Nation in New Echota, Georgia, the Treaty of New Echota (1835) gave tribal lands east of the Mississippi River to the Federal Government in exchange for $5,000,000. This agreement preserved the Cherokee Nation but at a great cost. Conceived as a land swap, the Treaty of New Echota was a trade of Cherokee land in the East for land in the West. This arrangement relied on the assumption that most would be willing to abandon an established life in the East for a long journey to an unknown life further west. Not all Cherokee walked the Trail of Tears; some remained in North Carolina where they today form the Eastern Band of the Cherokee.
Negotiations between the government and the Cherokee occurred not with official tribal representatives but instead with a group of four men. Major Ridge, John Ridge, Elias Boudinot (also named Buck Watie), and Andrew Ross spoke for the tribe. As soon as word of the actions by this unauthorized group spread, petitions were organized and more than 14,000 signatures were obtained against the treaty. Nevertheless, President Jackson signed the treaty in 1836, and the State of Georgia began to limit the rights of Cherokee. Removal began in 1836 with the first group of Cherokee leaving in 1837 and the majority traveling in 1838. Many went west with little warning, when federal troops drove them from their homes giving them no time to prepare for a long journey. In 1839, most of the group of men who signed the treaty were murdered for signing away Cherokee lands in the East.
The Trail of Tears records the Cherokees’ journey from its beginning, routes along the way, campsites, and the gravesites and disbandment sites that mark the end of the journey. From a “beginning,” soldiers took the Cherokee to forts, emigration depots, or other areas to form them into larger groups (detachments) for the march west. Next, traveling a series of routes, both overland and by water, the Cherokee made the difficult journey. Campsites help document the Cherokee on their journey. Gravesites and disbandment sites are reminders of the hardships the Cherokee experienced not only while going to the Indian Territory in the West, but also in their new lives that began at end of the trail. Rather than one Trail of Tears, several routes with different origins and destinations in more than a half-dozen States tell the story. This description of the Trail of Tears is able to highlight only a handful of the interesting sites for visitors to see on the Trail of Tears.
The removal of the Cherokee began in 1838 under the leadership of General Winfield Scott who, with 7,000 soldiers and members of various State militias, escorted the Cherokee and other Indians west. At the time of removal, the Cherokee were primarily in Georgia, though tribal lands extended into Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, and other States. At New Echota, Georgia, the pro-treaty faction of the Cherokee signed away Cherokee lands in Appalachia and began the removal process. Negotiations for the treaty--despite a petition and vote to reject the terms--took place at nearby Red Clay Council Ground, approximately 13 miles south of Cleveland. Visitors to Red Clay Council Ground can see where the meeting occurred and view exhibits on the Cherokee. Five miles northeast of Cleveland is Rattlesnake Springs, an assembly site and location of the last council of the Cherokee before their westward removal. Here, the Cherokee resolved, despite relocation, to carry on Cherokee culture, language, and traditions in the new land. For many, the long walk west began in earnest from Rattlesnake Springs. Perhaps as many as 13,000 Cherokee left from here, though not all would reach Indian Territory. In all, 4,000 Cherokee died on the way to present-day Oklahoma.
Before leaving, the Cherokee were an established people. The partially reconstructed Cherokee capital at New Echota is accessible for visitors to tour the home and school of Samuel Worcester, a print shop (from which pro-treaty faction member Elias Boudinot edited the English and Cherokee-language Cherokee Phoenix), the tribal Supreme Court Building, and a relocated tavern. As the tribal capital for 13 years (1825-1838), New Echota was the legislative, judicial, and literary center of Cherokee culture. In addition to constructing government buildings at New Echota, some Cherokee built substantial homes. The Georgia residences of two major Cherokee leaders, Chief John Ross and Major Ridge, remain and are open for tours. The Ross House is in Rossville, Georgia and the plantation home of Major Ridge is in Rome, Georgia. Built by a wealthy Cherokee family, the Vann Home (1804), at Spring Place, Georgia also is still standing and open to the public. Most other evidence of Cherokee settlement is gone.
From these homes and other buildings that no longer remain, the Cherokee were driven to cramped, unhealthy assembly centers in each State which served as temporary holding locations from which larger groups would then go to one of three emigration depots. Though the Trail of Tears began with the forcing of individuals from their homes, the National Park Service interprets the trail as primarily having three trailheads--the emigration depots at Fort Cass (near Charleston, Tennessee), Ross’s Landing (near Chattanooga, Tennessee) and near Fort Payne (Alabama). While changed from its days as a ferry landing and starting point for many of the Cherokee, Ross’s Landing has an outdoor Trail of Tears exhibit. From these starting points, thousands of Cherokee traveled an average of 1,000 miles to the lands they had received in the Indian Territory, present-day Oklahoma.
Most of the displaced Cherokee walked west on the roads, although some went by boat. Rounded up into assembly centers, sent to emigration depots, and then herded west, most Cherokee followed the overland route of Lieutenant B.B. Cannon. Cannon led a group of Cherokee who voluntarily relocated west in 1837. Armed soldiers flushed the Cherokee out of their homes and stripped them of valuable possessions. Tightly packed in holding centers, they found that food and water were scarce and disease and death were common. From those assembled at Rattlesnake Springs, for example, 13 organized detachments made the journey west. While most walked, the infirm and mothers with young children traveled in wagons. Space was limited because food, blankets, and other supplies occupied most of the room. Those who were still alive five months later found themselves in Indian Territory.
Of the 17 total detachments of Cherokee that traveled along the Trail of Tears, the majority went by foot. Those who walked to present-day Oklahoma left mostly between August and November 1838, following a variety of overland routes. As tens of thousands of feet stepped west and wagon train after wagon train followed, the travelers wore down both new paths and old. The Springfield to Fayetteville road segment near Elkhorn Tavern close to Pea Ridge was the supply link between Springfield, Missouri and Fort Smith Arkansas before the Civil War. In 1838, it carried more than mail and goods, as thousands of Cherokee were marched along the road. Today, visitors to Pea Ridge can see part of the path the Cherokee took and learn more about the march west on the park’s auto tour route. Some Cherokee who traveled west on the Trail of Tears returned to fight at Pea Ridge during the Civil War. Other trail locations feature portions of the Memphis to Little Rock Road, along which the Cherokee traveled. Some intact segments are visible today at Village Creek State Park, near Newcastle, Arkansas, or on Henard Cemetery Road, near Zent, Arkansas.
The long march took the Cherokee and their military escorts several months. At campsites, the travelers spent a few nights resting between stages of the trip or waiting for weather conditions to improve so they could continue west. Locations like Mantle Rock, today part of Mantle Rock Nature Preserve near Smithland in Livingston County, Kentucky, contain part of the roadbed used by the Cherokee and a Cherokee campsite. A large natural sandstone arch, Mantle Rock, offered a good shelter for the Cherokee. Not all campsites were in ideal locations. Continuing from Mantle Rock, the 11 of 13 overland detachments of Cherokee that passed through the area next crossed the Ohio River by ferry from Kentucky to Illinois. The ferry could only transport a limited number at any one time, forcing the Cherokee camped at Mantle Rock to wait. An unusually cold winter froze both the Ohio and Mississippi rivers halting the last detachment at Mantle Rock. This waiting in cramped, often unhealthy, conditions meant that some of the Cherokee died at Mantle Rock.
Gravesites and Disbandment Sites
Burial sites of Cherokee who died while at Mantle Rock are largely unknown. Other gravesites along the trial have markers. Whitepath and Fly Smith, two Cherokee elders, traveled in the second detachment and died near Hopkinsville, Kentucky in October of 1838 along the highway from Nashville to Hopkinsville. Honored as elders and defenders of Cherokee traditions and culture, they lie in well-marked graves within the local Trail of Tears Park. Visitors to the park can see their graves and learn more about Cherokee culture at a heritage center.
The Cherokee who successfully made the trip west “exited” the Trail of Tears at disbandment sites like Fort Gibson, Oklahoma. Today, the fort and surrounding land are open to visitors. Other groups simply began to spread out upon reaching the Indian Territory. At the time of its construction in 1824, Fort Gibson was on the southwestern edge of “settled” land and was the main presence of the Federal Government on the western frontier.
Having endured the long removal process west, the Cherokee in the Indian Territory began building a new life in Tahlequah, the new tribal capital. The Indian Territory combined with the Oklahoma Territory in 1907 to form the State of Oklahoma. Some families, like the Murrells, rebuilt successful lives in Oklahoma despite the removal process. Visitors can tour the Murrell Home and grounds in Park Hill just outside Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
A people with a strong commitment to maintaining their cultural identity, the Cherokee survived the Trail of Tears. Amid great personal loss and circumstances difficult to imagine today, individual Cherokees emerged as protectors of the people and culture. One of these leaders, Chief John Ross, who was influential before removal and a source of constancy amid change, lies buried near Tahlequah at Ross Cemetery in Park Hill, Oklahoma. The area around this cemetery was one of the first places the Cherokee established themselves after coming west. The cemetery is open to visitors who can see the grave of John Ross as well as other family members. Beginning a new life in a new land was not easy, and the graveyard documents both the life of Chief John Ross and the difficulties faced by settlers in the Indian Territory.
The Trail of Tears is a story of conquest, but it is also a story of victory. The Cherokee still speak their language today and tribal traditions endure--testaments to the strength of a people, resolute in their desire to preserve their culture and heritage on their way for hundreds of miles to life in a new land.
The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, a unit of the National Park System, stretches across Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. For more information, visit the National Park Service Trail of Tears National Historic Trail website or call 505-988-6098. To assist with planning your visit, view trail-related sites listed by State at Places to Go and a list of trail-related sites managed by the Federal Government on Nearby Attractions. Other locations along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail listed in the National Register may be found here. Not all of these sites are open to the public and some may be on private land. A list of certified trail locations that specifically encourage public access is also available on the trail’s website.
Rattlesnake Springs, the John Ross house, and the Major Ridge house are also the subject of an online lesson plan, The Trail of Tears and the Forced Relocation of the Cherokee Nation. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places.
• Red Clay Council Ground is part of Red Clay State Park
• New Echota Historic Site; a National Historic Landmark
• John Ross House; a National Historic Landmark
• Major Ridge Plantation Home; a National Historic Landmark
• Vann Home; Historic American Buildings Survey
• Ross’s Landing
• Springfield to Fayetteville Road - Elkhorn Tavern Segment, Pea Ridge National Military Park
• Memphis to Little Rock Road - Village Creek Segment, Village Creek State Park
• Mantle Rock Nature Preserve; National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos.
• Whitepath and Fly Smith Gravesite in Trail of Tears Commemorative Park; National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos.
• Fort Gibson; a National Historic Landmark; Historic American Buildings Survey.
• Murrell Home; a National Historic Landmark; National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos; Historic American Buildings Survey.
• Ross Cemetery (located near the Murrell Home in Park Hill, OK); National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos
Last updated: August 10, 2017