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Trail of Tears
Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois,
Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee
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.
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.
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.
Gravesites and Disbandment Sites
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.
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.