The Trail of Tears stretches as a series of scars across the American landscape. Its facilitators stand as a representation of America at her worst; its captives as a mark of stunning resiliency in the face of indescribable cruelty and terror.
Despite massive encroachment by white settlers on North American lands throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the sovereign Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole nations in the early 1800s accounted for significant swaths of land stretching from northwest Georgia into Alabama, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
The Cherokee were particularly adept at pursuing signed documentation protecting their native lands; a dozen treaties were signed between the United States federal government and the Cherokee between 1785 and 1819. As white settlers continued advancing on native lands, tribes sought mitigation in Washington courts to little or no avail. Gradually, other major tribes throughout the young United States acquiesced with treaties that forced their migration west to the other side of the Mississippi River.
Gold was discovered in Georgia in 1828, and by 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act. The latter granted the president the authority to offer Indigenous groups, numbering around 125,000 people at the time, 16,000 acres west of the Mississippi River in Oklahoma Territory in exchange for tribal lands within state boundaries. The removal of these Indigenous groups would free up millions of acres across the American Southeast for mineral extraction, cotton farming, and the growing white population.
The Indian Removal Act had the immediate effect of many groups moving west beginning in the early 1830s, following roads and rivers out to “Indian Territory” in present-day Oklahoma. The Trail of Tears is the shorthand used for the series of forced displacements of more than 60,000 Indigenous people of the five tribes between 1830 and 1850 and extending up through the 1870s. The Choctaw Nation’s forced removal began in 1831; Seminoles in 1832; Creek in 1834; Chickasaw in 1837; and the Cherokee in 1838—the largest forced removal of all. Illini Confederation, Osage, and Quapaw tribes were also displaced.
Stacker compiled a list of stories behind the Trail of Tears for each of the nine states it passed through, based on archived personal accounts and historical records and largely focusing on the most significant removal—that of the Cherokee—in 1838 and 1839. Much of the history has been lost due to the destruction of Indigenous lands and settlements following the forced removal of these people from their homes and, later, structured education systems that did not acknowledge these individuals, their languages, or their histories.
During the fall and winter of 1838 and 1839, tribal communities numbering in excess of 17,000 (16,000 of whom were Cherokee) were met by more than 7,000 troops deployed by President Martin Van Buren. Homes were looted, people were rounded up in camps, others were killed, and thousands at a time were marched west, often at gunpoint. Routes—not one but a tangle of trails—forced people from North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Alabama, Arkansas, and Illinois to Oklahoma by foot, train, and boat.
The main route stretched from nearby present-day Chattanooga, Tennessee, through Nashville and Clarksville then through Hopkinsville, Kentucky, into Illinois via an Ohio River crossing, then on to “Indian Territory” in present-day Oklahoma. Along the way, a lack of food, horses, supplies, and other provisions—including so much as shoes for many travelers—made the trek challenging for all and impossible for thousands. Deaths accumulated quickly due to severe exposure, famine, and contagious diseases such as cholera, influenza, malaria, measles, dysentery, syphilis, tuberculosis, typhus, whooping cough, and yellow fever.
Those who survived the march were met in Indian Territory with insufficient supplies necessary for survival and a harsh landscape inhospitable to hunting, farming, or gathering. In total, between 1830 and 1850, roughly 100,000 Indigenous people east of the Mississippi River were relocated against their will to Indian Territory.
More than 4,000 people died along the way, representing as many as one of every four Cherokee. Survivors remade the Cherokee Nation, which exists today as a still-sovereign nation based out of Oklahoma with more than 330,000 citizens across the United States.
The Trail of Tears was designated by Congress in 1987 as a national historic trail. Keep reading to discover numerous stories and significant markers along the trail.
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Read More:Stories behind the Trail of Tears for every state it passed through