At the time of European entry into North America, the Cherokee Nation included a large portion of the southern United States. Over the years, however, treaties and military actions reduced the Cherokee lands to an area comprised of western North Carolina, southeastern Tennessee, northern Georgia, and northeastern Alabama. Even here, the Cherokee, a number of whom were educated and literate, lived under the legislative control of whites without recourse to personal legal protection.
As early as 1810 a group known as the Western Cherokee had migrated to Arkansas Territory. Over the years others followed, including the illustrious Sequoyah, inventor of the world-famous Cherokee Syllabary (or Cherokee alphabet). During 1828 these Cherokee traded their Arkansas lands for others in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).
Two events in 1828 exacerbated the situation for the Cherokee Nation: the election of Andrew Jackson as president of the United States and the discovery of gold on the Cherokee lands of northern Georgia, spawning state laws that annexed the lands for gold-mining and stripped the Cherokee of legal redress from whites. Despite the determined opposition of Cherokee chief John Ross, in 1830 Jackson was able to push through Congress an Indian Removal Bill that would remove, on a so-called voluntary basis, all Eastern Indian tribes to west of the Mississippi River. His administration further supported the power of the states, in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court, to usurp solemn treaties made with the Cherokee and other tribes. During the winter of 1831832 Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that U.S. treaties overrode the laws of the state of Georgia. Jackson supposedly replied, "John Marshall has rendered his decision; now let him enforce it" (Woodward, 1963, p. 171).
When Ross, backed by the Cherokee full-blood majority, stubbornly refused to accede to Jackson's demands, Jackson subverted the accepted Cherokee form of governance and conspired with a group of Cherokee intellectuals who were amenable to removal. Through his representative, the Reverend John F. Schermerhorn, Jackson was able to negotiate the 1835 Treaty of New Echota with the ad hoc group. By this treaty the Cherokee Nation ceded all its lands east of the Mississippi to the United States for a sum of $3.25 million and agreed to relocate to new lands in Indian Territory. A U.S. officer who witnessed the treaty signing opined that if placed before the Cherokee people, the treaty would have been rejected by nine-tenths of them. Former president John Quincy Adams called the treaty "an eternal disgrace upon the country" (Eaton, 1914, p. 55).
Once the Treaty of New Echota was ratified by Congress, Jackson issued a proclamation decreeing that the United States no longer recognized the existing Cherokee governance. U.S. troops commenced rounding up Cherokee and herding them to collection camps at U.S. military posts during 1837 and 1838. Without prior notice terrified families were forced from their homes and driven off their lands, leaving behind all they owned. At times wives, husbands, and children were separated from one another. Often they were abused and degraded by the troops (Jones, 1838, p. 236).
During 1837 and the spring of 1838 over two thousand Cherokee were rounded up by the army and removed forcibly to the West. Traveling both by river and overland, some of these parties suffered cholera and other illnesses, many dying en route. Another twenty-three hundred of the Pro-Treaty Party departed voluntarily, taking an overland wagon route by way of Memphis. A number of Cherokee escaped troops by hiding out in the mountains of western North Carolina.
With a severe drought delaying removal through the summer and fall of 1838, some twelve thousand
Eventually, the surviving Cherokee were moved to collection points for their forced march to Indian Territory. Fort Payne, Alabama, served as one point of debarkation for a party that, lacking tents, blankets, and even shoes, took a middle route through northern Arkansas. Another group was formed at Ross's Landing near Chattanooga. By far the greatest number of Cherokee were herded into camps at Calhoun Agency's Rattlesnake Springs near present-day Charleston, Tennessee.
Here, principally, began the infamous Cherokee Trail of Tears, which followed a winter-imperiled, 800-mile route through Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri. Detachments of overland wagon caravans organized and departed through October and November 1838 on their fateful three-month journey. Each of these was under the control of Cherokee Nation captains and light-horse police, Ross having convinced General Winfield Scott that the Cherokee themselves could best manage their own removal.
As the first dazed contingent pushed off from Rattlesnake Springs on October 1, the mixed-blood scholar William Shorey Coodey expressed his deep pathos. "Pangs of parting," he observed, "are tearing the hearts of our bravest men at this forced abandonment of their dear lov'd country" (Hoig, 1996, p. 3).
Even at the start of the foreboding three months on the trail, there were problems. Children, the elderly, and those weak with illnesses contracted in the camps were loaded into the few wagons available. Many others were forced to walk and carry whatever goods they possessed. Once on the move, they suffered from billowing trail dust or, when the rains came, wheel-clogging mud that once dried, left deep, travel-impeding ruts. But worse problems developed when severe weather arrived. By the time the lead caravans reached Kentucky, an early blizzard struck, bringing punishing temperatures along with blowing snow and icy roads that made travel even more difficult. Canvas wagon covers provided scant protection at night.
Members of the caravan had already begun to die, among them proud elderly Chief White Path, who in 1827 led a rebellion against white influence on his people. He was buried along the trail near Hopkinsville, Kentucky; his grave is marked by a long pole and linen flag.
A traveler from Maine, who encountered the Cherokee exodus in early December, observed the wagons loaded with the sick, feeble, and dying as the majority of the Cherokee struggled forth against the fleshnumbing winds. One young Cherokee mother "could only carry her dying child a few miles further, and then she must stop in a stranger land and consign her much loved babe to the cold ground and pass on with the multitude" (New York Observer, 1839).
The Cherokee agony grew even worse upon reaching the ice-clogged Ohio River and beyond. Blasts of snow and freezing rain plagued the march; dysentery, whooping cough, and other diseases decimated the doctorless caravans. Funerals were conducted at almost every camping place, leaving a pathetic line of gravesites to mark the route across southern Illinois and Missouri. "For what crime," missionary David Butrick moaned, "was this whole nation doomed?" (Kutsche, 1986).
The death toll for the Cherokee removal and Trail of Tears has been estimated to be as high as four thousand. This does not include fatalities that occurred during the tribe's painful resettlement in the wilds of Indian Territory. Nor was even the loss of homes and property in their former Nation as disastrous as the intense rancor and divisiveness that the removal had caused among the Cherokee themselves. It would wrench their Nation apart and lead to years of factional bloodshed.
SEE ALSO Forcible Transfer; Indigenous Peoples; Native Americans
Eaton, Rachel Caroline (1914). John Ross and the Cherokee Indians. Menasha, Wis.: George Banta Publishing.
Hoig, Stanley W. (1998). The Cherokees and Their Chiefs: In the Wake of Empire. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.
Hoig, Stan (1996). Night of the Cruel Moon: Cherokee Removal and the Trail of Tears. New York: Facts on File.
Jones, Evans (1838). Baptist Missionary Magazine (September)18:236.
Kutsche, Paul (1986). "Butrick Journal." In ABC Documents 4519, 18.3.3, vol. 4, dating to October 1838.
New York Observer, January 26, 1839.
Woodward, Grace Steele (1963). The Cherokees. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press
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