The Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears

The Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears

The Cherokee adjusted to White U.S. culture and won a case at the Supreme Court, but were still forced off their land.

Grades

6 - 8

Subjects

Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, U.S. History

Idea for Use in the Classroom

The Trail of Tears is the name given to the forced migration of the Cherokee people from their ancestral lands in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina to new territories west of the Mississippi River. The journey, undertaken in the fall and winter of 1838–1839, was fatal for one-fourth of the Cherokee population.

The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 doubled the size of United States territory. The expansion of white settlements in North America started encroaching on Native-American lands, ultimately creating the pressures that led to the removal of Native Americans. President Thomas Jefferson and others proposed setting aside tracts of the western lands for the indigenous nations.

The Cherokee had made significant efforts to assimilate into European-American culture. Many of them adopted Western dress and gave up hunting and gathering for a market economy based on export-oriented agriculture and became literate. In the 1820s the nation adopted a formal government with a written constitution.

Nonetheless, the prevailing sentiment in Georgia favored expelling the Cherokee. The land had simply become too valuable, first for cotton cultivation and later—after gold was discovered on Cherokee land in 1829—for prospecting. Georgia's state government asserted jurisdiction over the entire Cherokee territory, annulled the nation's laws, annexed the land, and began distributing plots by lottery.

The Cherokee Nation took its case to the United States Supreme Court. The legal battles that ensued raised profound questions concerning states' rights, the status and sovereignty of indigenous nations, and the separation of powers between branches of the federal government. In the first of two rulings on the matter, Chief Justice John Marshall denied the Cherokee legal standing as U.S. citizens before the Court. However, in Worcester v. Georgia (1832), Marshall held that Georgia could not extend its law over the sovereign lands of the Cherokee nation, and had no authority to displace the indigenous people.

The Cherokee had won a major legal victory, but it proved a hollow one, for in 1828, Andrew Jackson had been elected president. Earlier in his career, Jackson had defeated the Creeks and Seminoles on the battlefield, leading to the appropriation of their lands. Jackson was a tireless proponent of Native-American resettlement to the west. In May of 1830, he pushed the Indian Removal Act through Congress. This law authorized the president to designate lands west of the Mississippi for tribal use and to negotiate treaties ensuring their movement. Jackson supported Georgia's aggressive actions toward the Cherokee and had no intention of interfering to protect the nation, even after the Worcester ruling. The president reportedly uttered defiant words to the effect of, "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it."

A small, breakaway faction of Cherokee, called the Removal Party or Treaty Party, met with U.S. government representatives in 1835 and agreed to a land swap in the Treaty of New Echota. The Cherokee chief and national council argued that the treaty was fraudulent since the nation's duly constituted government had not been consulted, yet the U.S. Senate ratified the pact. Under President Martin Van Buren, Jackson's successor, federal agents rounded up the Cherokee in late 1837 and early 1838, driving them off their land and into detention camps in Tennessee and Alabama. A few Cherokee eluded their captors by hiding in the Smoky Mountains; today, their descendants are known as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Confined in stockades through the summer of 1838, the Cherokee grew weaker and began falling victim to diseases, such as dysentery. Their forced march, the Trail of Tears, began in October under the watch of armed troops. They marched, poorly equipped, alongside caravans of wagons, for more than four months, through blizzards and bitter winter weather. Their varying routes covered 1,609 kilometers (1,000 miles) or so, traversing parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas. Others traveled over water along the Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi, and Arkansas rivers, until they reached the eastern edge of present-day Oklahoma. At every stop along the trail, funerals and burials were held. The death toll from the internment camps, the migration, and its aftermath topped 4,000, out of a population of more than 16,000. They died of exposure to the elements, malnutrition, various diseases, and sheer physical exhaustion.

Many Native American peoples in the south and north, comprising as many as 100,000 people, were removed from their homelands and relocated under similar conditions. The Choctaw, for example, had their own Trail of Tears. These journeys have come to symbolize the tragedy and injustice in the Native-American experience. The Trail of Tears was designated a National Historic Trail in 1987 through an act of Congress.

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Director
Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Author
National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Producer
Clint Parks,
other
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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