During the Age of Expansion in the 1800s, the population of the United States was growing and needed more land. In response, President Andrew Jackson ratified the "Indian Removal Act" on May 28, 1830. Despite the legal protections granted in earlier treaties, this legislation was designed to push Native Americans in the eastern United States off of their ancestral lands and onto federally designated Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River.
What would come to be known as "The Trail of Tears" originally referred to the Cherokee Removal experience but is now understood more widely as the collective experience of Native American displacement in this era. Up to 100,000 people were subject to relocation, and approximately 15,000 individuals died as a direct result of their journeys.
Removal of Select Native American Groups
The Choctaw completed their negotiations for departure first. They entrusted the government to supply transportation for themselves and their worldly goods to Indian Territory in exchange for their homes and farmlands in the East. Unfortunately, their journeys were miserable. Many Choctaw lost their lives to exposure, malnutrition, disease, and exhaustion on the way.
Independently selling their land gave the Chickasaw people money to pay for their transportation and helped them avoid some of the worst conditions experienced by the other groups. White settlers illegally entered Muscogee Creek lands while they were still under negotiations for their removal, complicating the situation and ultimately leading to another tragic chapter of this story.
While a small contingent of Seminole leaders signed a removal agreement, the majority did not consent. Their resolve and resistance sparked the Second Seminole War (1835-42). In the end, many Seminole were captured and exiled, but others persisted. The Seminole remain the only Native American group never to sign a peace treaty.
The Cherokee position in the lead up to their removal was complicated but in 1838, the contested decisions held and the grace period stipulated by the Treaty of New Echota had passed. The final chapter of Cherokee Removal had begun.
When the majority of the Cherokee did not move from their farms and communities in the stipulated timeframe, US Army General Winfield Scott led the military force sent in to execute the order with power. In a proclamation dated May 10, 1838, he beseeched the Cherokee to gather in Ross or Gunter’s Landing to prepare for their immediate departure west.
Overcrowded and under-supplied, many Cherokee died from disease in these camps even before beginning their actual trek west. Cherokee General Chief John Ross protested the harsh treatment of his people and eventually won the right to oversee the emigration groups himself.
The “trail where they cried,” as it is known to the Cherokee, was a series of 17 separate groups making their journeys between May and December 1838. All told more than 16,000 Cherokee people were forcibly removed from their homes in North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama.
The impact of such an experience on Native people has carried on through the generations, and the legacy of the Trail of Tears continues in the present day. In 1987 the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail was established to commemorate the tragic episode. In 2009 continuing research was recognized, and the designated area now stretches approximately 5,045 miles (8,120 km) with sections in nine states.