What Was the Trail of Tears?

The Trail of Tears refers to the non-voluntary removal of Native American nations from areas within the Southeastern United States.

The "trail of tears" is a name given to a period in American history when Native Americans were forcefully removed from their ancestral land in the Southeastern United States and were relocated to an area labeled “Native Territory” west of the Mississippi River. The displacement of the Native Americans was through a government directive and affected the nations of Seminole, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee, and Cherokee. The removal of the Cherokee people in 1838 was the last of the displacements and saw over 2,000 people die along the way.


Before the immigration of white settlers in the New World, Native Americans were spread all over North America and lived in autonomous communities. Such communities or nations included the Cherokee, Choctaw, Muscogee, Chickasaw, and the Seminole which were labeled as Five Civilized Tribes. With the advent of white settlers, Native Americans claimed a right to their ancestral land which was on areas with perfect weather for cultivation or rich in minerals. In the inaugural of US constitution, several territories in the Western United States belonging to Native Indians were deemed as internally sovereign and were under control of tribal societies. Several attempts by the government to displace the Native Indians to repossess the lands were met by resistance from the Congress until President Andrew Jackson in 1830 was able to convince Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act. The Indian Removal Act brought with it provisions which gave the President powers to forcefully remove Native Americans from lands that were deemed to have national economic importance.

Removal Of Native Americans

Immediately after the adoption of the Indian Removal Act in 1834, the government adopted policies to begin the mass evacuation of residents from Cherokee, Chickasaw, Seminoles, Choctaw, and Creek areas. The first territory that was earmarked for the implementation of the act was Choctaw. The removal of natives from Choctaw was conducted in three phases beginning 1831 until 1833 and was later relocated in what was then known as Indian Territory or present-day Oklahoma. It is estimated that over 2,500 people died while on transit due to disease or effects of severe weather conditions. The movement of the Seminole would become a bloody affair. After negotiations between the government and the tribal leaders of the Seminole had collapsed, the Seminole attacked an army company killing over 100 men, an action that sparked the Seminole Wars of 1832 to 1842. The removal in Chickasaw was a relatively peaceful one where the residents asked for monetary compensation in exchange for their surrender of the land. The removal of the Cherokee was initially a peaceful one with people voluntarily moving away from their homeland in Georgia but turned tragic after forcible evacuations began to be enforced by the government through an order from President Martin Van Buren. It is estimated that over 4,000 people died during the relocation due to starvation, cold weather and some were even murdered by local communities they met en route.


In 1987, the government placed 2,200 miles along the trail of tears as a historical site. The government also commissioned the establishment of a medallion called the Cherokee Trails of Tears Sesquicentennial Commemorative Medallion in memory of the tragic event.

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