Describe, discuss and explain the significance of the Trail of Tears?

Expert Answers
rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Cherokee Nation had once occupied a large swath of the Southeast, but by the early nineteenth century, it had been reduced by wars and treaties to a small parcel of land in western North Carolina, northern Georgia, and eastern Tennessee. The Cherokee had fully accepted the assimilationist polices of the United States government. They had become farmers and planters, they framed a western-style constitution, many purchased slaves, and most adopted western dress. They were the most assimilated of the so-called "Five Civilized Tribes" that inhabited the southeast, but like the other four tribes (the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole) they were facing pressures from white expansion as southern whites, eager for land to plant cotton, eyed their traditional homelands, making claims to it based on racial superiority.

In 1828, gold was discovered in Cherokee lands, and Andrew Jackson, a determined expansionist, became president. Two years later, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which gave states the power to negotiate removal treaties with the Cherokee. When Georgia did so, with a small faction of Cherokees, the vast majority refused to leave, and sued the federal government. The Supreme Court, in Worcester v. Georgia, ruled in favor of the Cherokee, but Jackson ignored the decision, and ordered the removal of the Cherokee from Georgia, negotiating the Treaty of New Echota to bring this into effect.

From 1837 to 1838, the US government sent federal troops to forcibly remove Cherokees from their lands and march them to Indian territory, located in modern Oklahoma. This began the infamous Trail of Tears, in which scores of Cherokee died of disease and exposure on their long march. The removal continued to have terrible repercussions for the Cherokee Nation, which remained divided among political factions for decades. Those who had opposed the move and those who had supported it because they thought it was inevitable remained bitter political enemies.

lynnhughes | Student

The "Trail of Tears" was a tragic event in the history of the relationship between the U. S. government and the Cherokee people of Georgia. It resulted in the forced marching of about 15,000 men, women, and children from Georgia to what is now Oklahoma. 

Increasing population of white settlers (and enslaved Africans and people of African descent) in the early 1800s led to their driving the local Native Americans off their land.Then, in 1829, came rumors that gold had been discovered on Cherokee land, which increased the demand to seize it.

The Cherokee people in Georgia were living much like the whites. But the whites' desire for the Cherokee land made these shared qualities unimportant. 

The Indian Removal Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830. The Cherokees immediately took steps to fight it in court and kept up the fight for years. The Supreme Court first ruled against them, saying they were not a "sovereign nation." A second time through the court system led to a different result (Worcester vs. Georgia). The Supreme Court said that the Cherokees could be removed only if they signed a treaty with the U. S. government, agreeing to the removal. 

Most Cherokees did not want to sign. However, a small group of Cherokees got themselves recognized as official representatives of the Cherokee nation and signed. Nearly 16,000 Cherokee signed a petition opposing the treaty, but their protest was ignored.

At that point, John Ross offered to lead the removal, even though he had strongly opposed it. He was only 1/8 Cherokee himself and had only loose ties with Cherokee language and traditions. He was elected as the "principal chief" of the Cherokee nation in 1827. Ross persuaded the army general in charge of the march to let him divide his people into small groups taking different trails so they could find food (since little or none was provided by the government). Still, at least 4,000 died. The rest arrived in the barren lands of Oklahoma in the midst of winter, and it was a harsh winter. They faced the difficult task of learning to survive and rebuilding their lives in an environment totally different than the one they knew in Georgia. 

The removal of the Cherokee affected the lives and careers of many people. For example, Davy Crockett opposed the action and left Congress for Texas, where he died fighting at the Alamo. Army General John Wool resigned from the army when he was asked to lead the march. The 3 Cherokee men who had signed the Treaty of New Echota, agreeing to the removal, were killed by their own people for that action.

This entire event was important for several reasons. It showed that the President and Congress could ignore or work around the decisions of the Supreme Court. It added to the lasting separation between the whites and the Native Americans, even the "assimilated" ones such as the Cherokee. It continued the cultural and spiritual destruction of the entire Native American population by the U. S. government, the consequences of which remain to this day. The Cherokee did restore and maintain their strong tribal identity and status as an independent nation in their new homeland, but the emotional and economic damage was immense, along with the loss of more than 1/4 of the people who began the march, including John Ross's wife. 

Some excellent information, much of it in the form of primary source material, can be found here:

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question