Trail of Tears
The most famous Trail of Tears (Nunna daul Tsuny also Tsa La Gi ) was the
illegal removal by the United States government of the Cherokee of Georgia
to what was called Indian Territory in 1838-39. Several other of the five
civilized tribes had their own versions of the Trail of Tears, which were
also called as such.
Demand for land from non-native population growth led to pressure on Native
American lands. After the Creek tribe was decimated in 1828, the pressure
fell on the Cherokee living in northern Georgia. Georgia passed a series of
anti-Cherokee measures, confiscating property, preventing natives from
testifying in court, making it illegal for an Indian to speak out against
immigration west, and providing for a survey of Cherokee land and a lottery
to distribute such lands to whites in Georgia.
In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act which President Andrew
Jackson signed into law. Georgia was confiscating land before 1831, and in
the spring of 1834 confiscated John Ross's estate while he was away at
Washington attempting to negotiate. The US Supreme Court reversed itself in
1832 when it ruled in favor of the Cherokee Nation in Worcester v. State of
Georgia. After Jackson's re-election in 1832 some Cherokee, of their own
volition, moved west to join the Old Settlers.
Despite the Supreme Court decision, Jackson took no action to uphold the
Court verdict, and in fact would openly defy it. He famously said, "John
Marshall has made his law, now let him enforce it." As the court has no
executive powers to enforce its decisions, Jackson's executive disregard of
the court marked a time when the Judicial branch of government was very weak.
The Cherokee began to be divided, some of the most strident opponents of
removal abruptly changed their minds, led by Major Ridge, his son, and his
nephew, Elias Boudinot (aka Buck Watie) and his son Stand Watie, they became
known as the Ridge Party, or the Treaty Party. The Ridge party had very
little support within the Cherokee nation. Both the elected Cherokee
government and the Ridge party sent independent delegations to Washington.
In 1835, with the Ridge Party completely in favor of removal, Jackson
appointed Rev. John F. Schermerhorn as a treaty commissioner, and the treaty
that was proposed was rejected in October 1835 by Cherokee Nation meeting in
full council. While Chief Ross was in Washington attempting a new
discussion, Schermerhorn organized a parley of the pro-removal council
members at New Echota. Five hundred Cherokees of a tribal population of at
least seventeen thousand responded to the summons, and 21 proponents of
Cherokee removal, among them Elias Boudinot, Stand Waite, Major Ridge and
his son John, signed or left X marks on the Treaty of New Echota . All of
these signators were violating a Cherokee Nation statue drafted by John
Ridge, which had been passed in 1829. Not a single elected tribal official
signed this document. This treaty gave up all the Cherokee land east of the
Mississippi. Despite the protestations by the Cherokee National Council and
principal Chief Ross, that the document was a pure fraud, Congress ratified
the treaty on May 23 1836, by one vote. A number of members of the Treaty
party left for the west at this time.
When the spring deadline had passed, President Martin Van Buren assigned
General Winfield Scott to head the forcible removal operation. He arrived in
May 1838 with 7,000 soldiers. Some 17-18,000 Cherokee of northern Georgia,
Arkansas (the former Cherokee of Kentucky), Tennessee, and Alabama, along
with their approximately 2,000 slaves, were removed at gunpoint from their
land over three weeks and gathered together in camps with usually only the
clothes on their backs. They were then transferred to departure points at
Rattlesnake Springs and Ross's Landing in Tennessee. From there, they had to
walk (or ride, but most people had to walk) to the Indian Territory which
comprised all of Oklahoma. The Cherokee initially settled near Tahlequah,
Oklahoma, a distance of around 1,200 miles along one of three routes. Around
2,500 were transferred by river - Tennessee River to the Ohio River to the
Mississippi to the Arkansas River to Fort Smith on the border of the Indian
Territory. Sent in twenty distinct groups, initial human losses in transit
were very high and in all between 4,000-8,000 Cherokee died.
There were some noteable exceptions to removal. Some Cherokee evaded removal
and lived off the land in Georgia and former states. Another band, called
the Eastern Cherokee, due to an interaction with William Holland Thomas,
already had land in the Great Smoky Mountains and some limited state
recognition, and are the Eastern Band Cherokee of today.
Arrival in Indian Territory was not a simple affair however...