Trail of Tears

Trail of Tears

The Cherokees had substantial land in Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. John Ross, president of the Cherokee National Council, argued that to protect its land the tribe needed a written constitution that proclaimed that the Cherokee nation had complete jurisdiction over its own territory. In 1827 Ross drafted a written constitution for the tribe. This was based on the Constitution of the United States. Ross also encouraged Samuel Worcester and Elias Boudinot to begin publishing the newspaper, Cherokee Phoenix.

In 1828 John Ross was elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. Two years later Andrew Jackson encouraged Congress to pass the 1830 Indian Removal Act. He argued that the legislation would provide land for white invaders, improve security against foreign invaders and encourage the civilization of the Native Americans. In one speech he argued that the measure "will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the government and through the influences of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and christian community."

Andrew Jackson was re-elected with an overwhelming majority in 1832. He now pursued the policy of removing Native Americans from good farming land. He even refused to accept the decision of the Supreme Court to invalidate Georgia's plan to annex the territory of the Cherokee. This brought Jackson into conflict with Whig leaders such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.

Samuel Worcester organized protests against this decision. Worcester was now arrested and sentenced to four years imprisonment for violating a Georgia law prohibiting a white from living among the Native Americans. Chief John Ross took the case to the Supreme Court and it eventually ruled the law unconstitutional and Worcester was released.

Some members of the Cherokee tribe such as Elias Boudinot and Major Ridge supported the 1830 Indian Removal Act and in 1832 Boudinot argued that removal was the "course that will come nearest benefiting the nation". In 1835 Major Ridge, Elias Boudinot and 18 other members of Cherokee tribe signed the Treaty of New Echota. This agreement ceded all rights to their traditional lands to the United States. In return the tribe was granted land in the Indian Territory.

Although the majority of the Cherokees, including Chief John Ross, opposed this agreement they were forced to make the journey by General Winfield Scott and his soldiers. In October 1838 about 15,000 Cherokees began what was later to be known as the Trail of Tears. Most of the Cherokees travelled the 800 mile journey on foot. As a result of serious mistakes made by the Federal agents who guided them to their new land, they suffered from hunger and the cold weather and an estimated 4,000 people died on the journey. This included John Ross's wife, Quatie. The soldiers refused permission for the Cherokee to stop and bury family members and warned them they would be shot if they tried to do this. They were therefore forced to carry the dead bodies until they reached that night's camp.

Martin Van Buren, who replaced Andrew Jackson as president by 1838, claimed in Congress that: "The measures of the Removal have had the happiest effect... the Cherokee moved without apparent reluctance."

In June, 1839, Major Ridge and Elias Boudinot were murdered by a group of Cherokee warriors who had been opposed to the signing of the Treaty of New Echota.

Primary Sources

(1) Andrew Jackson, speech (May, 1830)

It gives me great pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the government, steady pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation with the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consumation.

The consequences of a speedy will be important to the United States, to individual states, and to the Indians themselves. It puts an end to all possible danger of a collision between the authorities of the general and state governments, and of the account the Indians. It will place a dense population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savaged hunters. By opening the whole territory between Tennessee on the north and Louisiana on the south to the settlement of the whites it will incalculably strengthen the Southwestern frontier and render the adjacent states strong enough to repel future invasion without remote aid.

It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the government and through the influences of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.

(2) Indian Removal Act (28th May, 1830)

An Act to provide for an exchange of lands with the Indians residing in any of the states or territories, and for their removal west of the river Mississippi.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That it shall and may be lawful for the President of the United States to cause so much of any territory belonging to the United States, west of the river Mississippi, not included in any state or organized territory, and to which the Indian title has been extinguished, as he may judge necessary, to be divided into a suitable number of districts, for the reception of such tribes or nations of Indians as may choose to exchange the lands where they now reside, and remove there; and to cause each of said districts to be so described by natural or artificial marks, as to be easily distinguished from every other.

And be it further enacted, That it shall and may be lawful for the President to exchange any or all of such districts, so to be laid off and described, with any tribe or nation of Indians now residing within the limits of any of the states or territories, and with which the United States have existing treaties, for the whole or any part or portion of the territory claimed and occupied by such tribe or nation, within the bounds of any one or more of the states or territories, where the land claimed and occupied by the Indians, is owned by the United States, or the United States are bound to the state within which it lies to extinguish the Indian claim thereto.

And be it further enacted, That in the making of any such exchange or exchanges, it shall and may be lawful for the President solemnly to assure the tribe or nation with which the exchange is made, that the United States will forever secure and guaranty to them, and their heirs or successors, the country so exchanged with them; and if they prefer it, that the United States will cause a patent or grant to be made and executed to them for the same: Provided always, That such lands shall revert to the United States, if the Indians become extinct, or abandon the same.

And be it further enacted, That if, upon any of the lands now occupied by the Indians, and to be exchanged for, there should be such improvements as add value to the land claimed by any individual or individuals of such tribes or nations, it shall and may be lawful for the President to cause such value to be ascertained by appraisement or otherwise, and to cause such ascertained value to be paid to the person or persons rightfully claiming such improvements. And upon the payment of such valuation, the improvements so valued and paid for, shall pass to the United States, and possession shall not afterwards be permitted to any of the same tribe.

And be it further enacted, That upon the making of any such exchange as is contemplated by this act, it shall and may be lawful for the President to cause such aid and assistance to be furnished to the emigrants as may be necessary and proper to enable them to remove to, and settle in, the country for which they may have exchanged; and also, to give them such aid and assistance as may be necessary for their support and subsistence for the first year after their removal.

And be it further enacted, That it shall and may be lawful for the President to cause such tribe or nation to be protected, at their new residence, against all interruption or disturbance from any other tribe or nation of Indians, or from any other person or persons whatever.

And be it further enacted, That it shall and may be lawful for the President to have the same superintendence and care over any tribe or nation in the country to which they may remove, as contemplated by this act, that he is now authorized to have over them at their present places of residence: Provided, That nothing in this act contained shall be construed as authorizing or directing the violation of any existing treaty between the United States and any of the Indian tribes.

And be it further enacted, That for the purpose of giving effect to the Provisions of this act, the sum of five hundred thousand dollars is hereby appropriated, to be paid out of any money in the treasury, not otherwise appropriated.

(3) Samuel Cloud was only 9 years old during the Trail of Tears. His great-great grandson, Michael Rutledge, reported his experiences in Forgiveness in the Age of Forgetfulness.

The leaves are on the trees. I am playing with my friends when white men in uniforms ride up to our home. My mother calls me. I can tell by her voice that something is wrong. Some of the men ride off. My mother tells me to gather my things, but the men don't allow us time to get anything. They enter our home and begin knocking over pottery and looking into everything. My mother and I are taken by several men to where their horses are and are held there at gun point. The men who rode off return with my father, Elijah. They have taken his rifle and he is walking toward us.

I can feel his anger and frustration. There is nothing he can do. From my mother I feel fear. I am filled with fear, too. What is going on? I was just playing, but now my family and my friends' families are gathered together and told to walk at the point of a bayonet.

We walk a long ways. My mother does not let me get far from her. My father is walking by the other men, talking in low, angry tones. The soldiers look weary, as though they'd rather be anywhere else but here.

They lead us to a stockade. They herd us into this pen like we are cattle. No one was given time to gather any possessions. The nights are still cold in the mountains and we do not have enough blankets to go around. My mother holds me at night to keep me warm. That is the only time I feel safe. I feel her pull me to her tightly. I feel her warm breath in my hair. I feel her softness as I fall asleep at night.

As the days pass, more and more of our people are herded into the stockade. I see other members of my clan. We children try to play, but the elders around us are anxious and we do not know what to think. I often sit and watch the others around me. I observe the guards. I try not to think about my hunger. I am cold.

Several months have passed and still we are in the stockades. My father looks tired. He talks with the other men, but no one seems to know what to do or what is going to happen. We hear that white men have moved into our homes and are farming our fields. What will happen to us? We are to march west to join the Western Cherokees. I don't want to leave these mountains.

My mother, my aunts and uncles take me aside one day. "Your father died last night," they tell me. My mother and my father's clan members are crying, but I do not understand what this means. I saw him yesterday. He was sick, but still alive. It doesn't seem real. Nothing seems real. I don't know what any of this means. It seems like yesterday, I was playing with my friends.

It is now Fall. It seems like forever since I was clean. The stockade is nothing but mud. In the morning it is stiff with frost. By mid-afternoon, it is soft and we are all covered in it. The soldiers suddenly tell us we are to follow them. We are led out of the stockade. The guards all have guns and are watching us closely. We walk. My mother keeps me close to her. I am allowed to walk with my uncle or an aunt, occasionally.

We walk across the frozen earth. Nothing seems right anymore. The cold seeps through my clothes. I wish I had my blanket. I remember last winter I had a blanket, when I was warm. I don't feel like I'll ever be warm again. I remember my father's smile. It seems like so long ago.

We walked for many days. I don't know how long it has been since we left our home, but the mountains are behind us. Each day, we start walking a little later. They bury the dead in shallow graves, because the ground is frozen. As we walk past white towns, the whites come out to watch us pass. No words are spoken to them. No words are said to us. Still, I wish they would stop staring. I wish it were them walking in this misery and I were watching them. It is because of them that we are walking. I don't understand why, but I know that much. They made us leave our homes. They made us walk to this new place we are heading in the middle of winter. I do not like these people. Still, they stare at me as I walk past.

We come to a big river, bigger than I have ever seen before. It is flowing with ice. The soldiers are not happy. We set up camp and wait. We are all cold and the snow and ice seem to hound us, claiming our people one by one. North is the color of blue, defeat and trouble. From there a chill wind blows for us as we wait by a frozen river. We wait to die.

My mother is coughing now. She looks worn. Her hands and face are burning hot. My aunts and uncles try to take care of me, so she can get better. I don't want to leave her alone. I just want to sit with her. I want her to stroke my hair, like she used to do. My aunts try to get me to sleep by them, but at night, I creep to her side. She coughs and it wracks her whole body. When she feels me by her side, she opens her blanket and lets me in. I nestle against her feverish body. I can make it another day, I know, because she is here.

When I went to sleep last night, my mother was hot and coughing worse than usual. When I woke up, she was cold. I tried to wake her up, but she lay there. The soft warmth she once was, she is no more. I kept touching her, as hot tears stream down my face. She couldn't leave me. She wouldn't leave me.

I hear myself call her name, softly, then louder. She does not answer. My aunt and uncle come over to me to see what is wrong. My aunt looks at my mother. My uncle pulls me from her. My aunt begins to wail. I will never forget that wail. I did not understand when my father died. My mother's death I do not understand, but I suddenly know that I am alone. My clan will take care of me, but I will be forever denied her warmth, the soft fingers in my hair, her gentle breath as we slept. I am alone. I want to cry. I want to scream in rage. I can do nothing.

We bury her in a shallow grave by the road. I will never forget that lonesome hill of stone that is her final bed, as it fades from my sight. I tread softly by my uncle, my hand in his. I walk with my head turned, watching that small hill as it fades from my sight. The soldiers make us continue walking. My uncle talks to me, trying to comfort me. I walk in loneliness.

I know what it is to hate. I hate those white soldiers who took us from our home. I hate the soldiers who make us keep walking through the snow and ice toward this new home that none of us ever wanted. I hate the people who killed my father and mother.

I hate the white people who lined the roads in their woolen clothes that kept them warm, watching us pass. None of those white people are here to say they are sorry that I am alone. None of them care about me or my people. All they ever saw was the color of our skin. All I see is the color of theirs and I hate them.

(4) Nelson Miles, The Indian Problem, North American Review (March, 1879)

Strange as it may appear, it is nevertheless a fact that after nearly four hundred years of conflict between the European and American races for supremacy on this continent, a conflict in which war and peace have alternated almost as frequently as the seasons, we still have presented the question, "What shall be done with the Indian?" Wise men differ in opinion, journalists speculate, divines preach, and statesmen pronounce it still a vexed question.

If the graves of the thousands of victims who have fallen in the terrible wars of the two races had been placed in line the philanthropist might travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the Lakes to the Gulf, and be constantly in sight of green mounds. And yet we marvel at the problem as if some new question of politics or morals had been presented. The most amusing part of the quandary, however, is that it should be regarded as something new and original. After every generation had, in its time, contended on deadly fields with the hope of settling the question, after the home governments had enacted laws, and the colonies had framed rules, every succeeding administration of our government has been forced to meet the difficulty, every Congress has discussed the "Indian Question," and we are still face to face with the perplexing problem. The real issue in the question which is now before the American people is whether we shall ever begin again the vacillating and expensive policy that has marred our fair name as a nation and a Christian people, or devise some way of still improving the practical and judicious system by which we can govern a quarter of a million of our population, secure and maintain their loyalty, raise them from the darkness of barbarism to the light of civilization, and put an end forever to these interminable and expensive Indian wars.

In considering the subject it might be well to first examine the causes which governed so long the condition of affairs, and if in doing so the writer shall allude to some of the sins of his own race it will be only in order that an unbiased judgment may be formed on both sides of the question.

It will be remembered that one class or race is without representation and has not the advantages of the press or telegraph to bring it into communication with the intelligence of the world, and that it has seldom been heard except in the cry of alarm and conflict along the Western frontier. If we dismiss from our minds the prejudice we may have against the Indians we shall be able to more clearly understand the impulses that govern both races. Sitting Bull, the war chief of the Dakota Nation, uttered one truth when he said that "there was not one white man who loved an Indian and not an Indian but who hated a white man."

Could we but perceive the true character of the Indians, and learn what their dispositions are when not covered by the cloak of necessity, policy, and interest, we should find that they have always regarded us as a body of false and cruel invaders of their country, while we in turn are too apt to consider them as a treacherous and bloodthirsty race, who should be destroyed by any and all means. If we now fairly consider the cause of this feeling we may more readily understand its results.

The more we study the Indian's character the more we appreciate the marked distinction between the civilized being and the real savage. Yet we shall find that the latter is, after all, governed by the impulses and motives that govern all other men. The want of confidence and the bitter hatred existing between the two races have been engendered by the warfare that has lasted for centuries, and by the stories of bad faith, cruelty, and wrong handed down by tradition from father to son until they have become second nature in both. It is unfair to suppose that one party has invariably acted rightly, and that the other is responsible for every wrong that has been committed. We might recount the treachery of the red man, the atrocities of his crimes, the cruelties of his tortures, and the hideousness of many of his savage customs. We might undertake to estimate the number of his victims, and to picture the numberless valleys which he has illumined by the burning homes of hardy frontiersmen, yet at the same time the other side of the picture might appear equally black with injustice.

One hundred years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, the Spanish government issued a decree authorizing the enslavement of the American Indian as in accord with the law of God and man. Later they were transported to France, to San Domingo, and other Spanish colonies, were sold into slavery in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Louisiana, and were hunted with dogs in Connecticut and Florida. Practically disfranchised by our original Constitution, and deprived either by war or treaty of nearly every tract of land which to them was desirable and to the white man valuable, they were the prey to the grasping avarice of both Jew and Gentile. Step by step a powerful and enterprising race has driven them back from the Atlantic to the West until at last there is scarcely a spot of ground upon which the Indians have any certainty of maintaining a permanent abode.

It may be well in this connection to remember the fact that in the main the Europeans were kindly treated by the natives when the former first landed on American shores, and when they came to make a permanent settlement were supplied with food, particularly the Plymouth and Portsmouth colonists, which enabled them to endure the severity of the long and cheerless winters. For a time during the early settlement of this country peace and goodwill prevailed, only to be followed later by violent and relentless warfare.

Our relations with the Indians have been governed chiefly by treaties and trade, or war and subjugation. By the first we have invariably overreached the Indians, and we find the record of broken promises all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific, while many of the fortunes of New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco can be traced directly to Indian tradership. By war the natives have been steadily driven toward the setting sun - a subjugated, a doomed race. In council the race has produced men of character and intellect, and orators and diplomats of decided ability, while in war they have displayed courage and sagacity of a high order. Education, science, and the resources of the world have enabled us to overcome the savages, and they are now at the mercy of their conquerors. In our treaty relations most extravagant and yet sacred promises have been given by the highest authorities, and these have been frequently disregarded. The intrusions of the white race and the non- compliance with treaty obligations have been followed by atrocities that could alone satisfy a savage and revengeful spirit. Facts that have been already referred to make it almost impossible for the two conflicting elements to harmonize. No administration could stop the tidal wave of immigration that swept over the land; no political party could restrain or control the enterprise of our people, and no reasonable man could desire to check the march of civilization.

In seeking the evidences of enlightenment the results are not satisfactory. It is presumed that there is not a race of wild men on the face of the globe which worships the Great Spirit more in accordance with that religion taught in the days of the patriarchs than the natives of this country, and yet after many years of contact with the civilized people the footprints of evil were as plentiful and as common as the evidences of Christianity. Again, in early days the Indians were, to a considerable extent, tillers of the soil, but by constant warfare, in which their fields were devastated and their crops destroyed, they have become a mere remnant of their former strength, or were pushed out on the vast plains of the West, where they subsisted upon wild fruits and the flesh of animals. Could we obtain accurate statistics we would undoubtedly find that there were more acres of ground cultivated by the Indians one hundred years ago than at the present time. The white race had finally obtained such complete control of every quarter of the country, and the means of communication with every section became so ample, that the problem resolved itself into one or the other of two modes of solution - viz., to entirely destroy the race by banishment and extermination, or to adopt some humane and practicable method of improving the condition of the Indians, and in the end make them part and parcel of our great population. The first proposition, though it was found to have thousands of advocates in different sections of the country, was and is too abhorrent to every sense of humanity to be considered. The other method was regarded as practicable, but its adoption was considered doubtful.

Looking at the purpose of our government toward the Indians, we find that after subjugating them it has been our policy to collect the different tribes on reservations and support them at the expense of our people. The Indians have, in the main, abandoned the hope of driving back the invaders of their territory, yet there are still some who cherish the thought, and, strange as it may seem, it is a fact that the most noted leader among the Indians advanced such a proposition to the writer within the last few years. They had long stood, and mostly still stand, in the position of unruly children to indulgent parents for whom they have little respect, at times wrongly indulged and again unmercifully punished.

Coming down to our direct or immediate relations with them, we find that our policy has been to make them wards of the nation, to be held under close military surveillance, or else to make them pensioners under no other restraint than the influence of one or two individuals. Living under the government, yet without any legitimate government, without any law and without any physical power to control them, what better subjects or more propitious fields could be found for vice and crime?

We have committed our Indian matters to the custody of an Indian bureau which for many years was a part of the military establishment of the government; but for political reasons and to promote party interests, this bureau was transferred to the Department of the Interior. Whether or not our system of Indian management has been a success during the past ten, fifty, or hundred years is almost answered in the asking. The Indians, the frontiersmen, the army stationed in the West, and the readers of the daily news in all parts of our country can answer that question. There is another question that is frequently asked: Why has our management of Indian affairs been less successful than that of our neighbors across the northern boundary? - and it can be answered in a few words. Their system is permanent, decided, and just. The tide of immigration in Canada has not been as great as along our frontier. They have been able to allow the Indians to live as Indians, which we have not, and do not attempt to force upon them the customs which are distasteful to them.

(5) General George Crook, evidence to Congress on the Indian Bureau (June, 1879)

I have had twenty-six years' experience with the Indians, and I have been among tribes where I spoke their language. I have known the Indians intimately - known them in their private relations - I think I understand the Indian character pretty well. They talk about breaking up their tribal relations. The Interior Department have frequently issued letters, etc., looking to that. It might as well try to break up a band of sheep. Give these Indians little farms, survey them, let them put fences around them, let them have their own horses, cows, sheep, things that they can call their own, and it will do away with tribal Indians.

When once an Indian sees that his food is secure, he does not care what the chief or any one else says. The great mistake these people make is that they go to looking after the spiritual welfare of the Indians before securing their physical. Of course, that is a thing to come after awhile.

If you will investigate all the Indian troubles, you will find that there is something wrong of this nature at the bottom of all of them, something relating to the supplies, or else a tardy and broken faith on the part of the general government.

(6) General George Crook, speech in Boston (26th February, 1887)

The Indian is a human being. One question today on whose settlement depends the honor of the United States is, 'How can we preserve him?' My answer is, 'First, take the government of the Indians out of politics; second, let the laws of the Indians be the same as those of the whites; third, give the Indian the ballot. But we must not try to drive the Indians too fast in effecting these changes. We must not try to force him to take civilization immediately in its complete form, but under just laws, guaranteeing to Indians equal civil laws, the Indian question, a source of such dishonor to our country and of shame to true patriots, will soon be a thing of the past.