The Trail of Tears
The Trail of Tears was a series of forced removals of Native American nations from their ancestral homelands in the Southeastern United States to an area west of the Mississippi River that had been designated as Native Territory.
In 1838 and 1839, as part of Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policy in 1830, the Cherokee nation was forced to give up its lands east of the Mississippi River and to migrate to an area in present-day Oklahoma. The Cherokee people called this journey the “Trail of Tears,” because of its devastating effects.
The removal included members of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations. The phrase “Trail of Tears” originated from a description of the removal of the Cherokee Nation in 1838.
Alabama has four official Trail of Tears National Historic Trail sites in open to the public:
- Fort Payne Cabin Site (cabin web site)
End of 4th Street SE, Fort Payne, AL
- Tuscumbia Landing (park web site)
Confluence of the Tennessee River and Spring Creek near Blackwell Road in Sheffield, AL
- Waterloo Landing
Main Street, Waterloo, AL
- Willstown Mission Cemetery
Corner of 38th Street NE and Godfrey Avenue NE, Fort Payne, AL
Other sites are privately owned and an attempt will be made to visit and write about as many sites as possible during our travels.
Trail Of Tears Timeline
Prior to 1830, the fixed boundaries of these autonomous tribal nations, comprising large areas of the United States, were subject to continual cession and annexation, in part due to pressure from squatters and the threat of military force in the newly declared U.S. territories—federally administered regions whose boundaries supervened upon the Native treaty claims.
As these territories became U.S. states, state governments sought to dissolve the boundaries of the Indian nations within their borders, which were independent of state jurisdiction, and to expropriate the land therein. These pressures were exacerbated by U.S. population growth and the expansion of slavery in the South, with the rapid development of cotton cultivation in the uplands following the invention of the cotton gin.
A group of Indians collectively referred to as the Five Civilized Tribes, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole, were living as autonomous nations in what would be later called the American Deep South. The process of cultural transformation, as proposed by George Washington and Henry Knox, was gaining momentum, especially among the Cherokee and Choctaw.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 provided the President with powers to exchange land with Native tribes and provide infrastructure improvements on the existing lands. The law also gave the president power to pay for transportation costs to the West, should tribes choose to relocate. The law did not, however, allow the President to force tribes to move West without a mutually agreed-upon treaty. The final treaty, passed in Congress by a single vote, and signed by President Andrew Jackson, was imposed by his successor President Martin Van Buren.
Van Buren allowed Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama an armed force of 7,000 militiamen, army regulars, and volunteers under General Winfield Scott to relocate about 13,000 Cherokees to Cleveland, Tennessee. After the initial roundup, the U.S. military oversaw the emigration to Oklahoma. Former Cherokee lands were immediately opened to settlement. Most of the deaths during the journey were caused by disease, malnutrition, and exposure during an unusually cold winter.
In 1831, the Choctaw became the first Nation to be removed, and their removal served as the model for all future relocations. The Choctaw nation occupied large portions of what are now the U.S. states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. After a series of treaties starting in 1801, the Choctaw nation was reduced to 11,000,000 acres. The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek ceded the remaining country to the United States and was ratified in early 1831. The removals were only agreed to after a provision in the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek allowed some Choctaw to remain.
George W. Harkins wrote to the citizens of the United States before the removals were to commence:
It is with considerable diffidence that I attempt to address the American people, knowing and feeling sensibly my incompetency; and believing that your highly and well improved minds would not be well entertained by the address of a Choctaw. But having determined to emigrate west of the Mississippi river this fall, I have thought proper in bidding you farewell to make a few remarks expressive of my views, and the feelings that actuate me on the subject of our removal…. We as Choctaws rather chose to suffer and be free, than live under the degrading influence of laws, which our voice could not be heard in their formation.
— George W. Harkins, George W. Harkins to the American People
United States Secretary of War Lewis Cass appointed George Gaines to manage the removals. Gaines decided to remove Choctaws in three phases starting in 1831 and ending in 1833. The first was to begin on November 1, 1831 with groups meeting at Memphis and Vicksburg.
After two wars, many Seminoles were removed in 1832. In the years following the Act, the Cherokee filed several lawsuits regarding conflicts with the state of Georgia. Some of these cases reached the Supreme Court, the most influential being Worcester v. Georgia in 1832.
Samuel Worcester and other non-Indians were convicted by Georgia law for residing in Cherokee territory in the state of Georgia, without a license. Worcester was sentenced to prison for four years and appealed the ruling, arguing that this sentence violated treaties made between Indian nations and the United States federal government by imposing state laws on Cherokee lands. The Court ruled in Worcester’s favor, declaring that the Cherokee Nation was subject only to federal law and that the Supremacy Clause barred legislative interference by the state of Georgia. Chief Justice Marshall argued, “The Cherokee nation, then, is a distinct community occupying its own territory in which the laws of Georgia can have no force. The whole intercourse between the United States and this Nation, is, by our constitution and laws, vested in the government of the United States.”
In 1832 the Seminoles were called to a meeting at Payne’s Landing on the Ocklawaha River. The treaty negotiated called for the Seminoles to move west, if the land were found to be suitable. They were to be settled on the Creek reservation and become part of the Creek tribe, who considered them deserters; some of the Seminoles had been derived from Creek bands but also from other tribes. Those among the tribe who once were members of Creek bands did not wish to move west to where they were certain that they would meet death for leaving the main band of Creek Indians.
The delegation of seven Seminole chiefs who were to inspect the new reservation did not leave Florida until October 1832.
Although the Creeks had been forced from Georgia, with many Lower Creeks moving to the Indian Territory, there were still about 20,000 Upper Creeks living in Alabama. However, the state moved to abolish tribal governments and extend state laws over the Creeks. Opothle Yohola appealed to the administration of President Andrew Jackson for protection from Alabama; when none was forthcoming, the Treaty of Cusseta was signed on March 24, 1832, which divided up Creek lands into individual allotments. Creeks could either sell their allotments and receive funds to remove to the west, or stay in Alabama and submit to state laws. The Creeks were never given a fair chance to comply with the terms of the treaty, however. Rampant illegal settlement of their lands by Americans continued unabated with federal and state authorities unable or unwilling to do much to halt it. Further, as recently detailed by historian Billy Winn in his thorough chronicle of the events leading to removal, a variety of fraudulent schemes designed to cheat the Creeks out of their allotments, many of them organized by speculators operating out of Columbus, Georgia and Montgomery, Alabama, were perpetrated after the signing of the Treaty of Cusseta.
After touring the area for several months and conferring with the Creeks who had already settled there, the seven Seminole chiefs signed a statement on March 28, 1833 that the new land was acceptable. Upon their return to Florida, however, most of the chiefs renounced the statement, claiming that they had not signed it, or that they had been forced to sign it, and in any case, that they did not have the power to decide for all the tribes and bands that resided on the reservation.
The Creek removal followed in 1834.
The Seminole villages in the area of the Apalachicola River went west in 1834.
Jackson negotiated The Treaty of New Echota, on December 29, 1835, which granted Cherokee Indians two years to move to Indian Territory (modern Oklahoma). When the Cherokee negotiated the Treaty of New Echota, they exchanged all their land east of the Mississippi for land in modern Oklahoma and a $5 million payment from the federal government. Many Cherokee felt betrayed that their leadership accepted the deal, and over 16,000 Cherokee signed a petition to prevent the passage of the treaty. By the end of the decade in 1840, tens of thousands of Cherokee and other tribes had been removed from their land east of the Mississippi River. The Creek, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chicksaw were also relocated under the Indian Removal Act of 1830. One Choctaw leader portrayed the removal as “A Trail of Tears and Deaths”, a devastating event that removed most of the Native population of the southeastern United States from their traditional homelands.
On December 28, 1835 a group of Seminoles and blacks ambushed a U.S. Army company marching from Fort Brooke in Tampa to Fort King in Ocala, killing all but three of the 110 army troops. This came to be known as the Dade Massacre.
A portion of the beleaguered Creeks, many desperately poor and feeling abused and oppressed by their American neighbors, struck back by carrying out occasional raids on area farms and committing other isolated acts of violence. Escalating tensions erupted into open war with the United States following the destruction of the village of Roanoke, Georgia, located along the Chattahoochee River on the boundary between Creek and American territory, in May 1836. During the so-called “Creek War of 1836” Secretary of War Lewis Cass dispatched General Winfield Scott to end the violence by forcibly removing the Creeks to the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. In 1836 over 15,000 Creeks were driven from their land for the last time. 3,500 of those 15,000 Creeks did not survive the trip to Oklahoma where they eventually settled.
The Chickasaw received financial compensation from the United States for their lands east of the Mississippi River. In 1836, the Chickasaws had reached an agreement to purchase land from the previously removed Choctaws after a bitter five-year debate. They paid the Choctaws $530,000 (equal to $11,558,818 today) for the westernmost part of the Choctaw land. The first group of Chickasaws moved in 1836 and was led by John M. Millard. The Chickasaws gathered at Memphis on July 4, 1836, with all of their assets—belongings, livestock, and slaves. Once across the Mississippi River, they followed routes previously established by the Choctaws and the Creeks. Once in Indian Territory, the Chickasaws merged with the Choctaw nation.
The Chickasaw removed in 1837. By 1837, 46,000 Indians from the southeastern states had been removed from their homelands, thereby opening 25 million acres for predominantly white settlement.
In 1837 federal troops arrived in Wills Valley to establish a fort to remove the Cherokee Indians from the area. A historic site, Fort Payne Cabin Site, at the east end of 4th street SE in Fort Payne, is part of local property seized by the military for Fort Payne, one of over 20 removal forts (stockades) established in Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina. Research indicates the cabin belonged to Cherokee John Huss (Spirit the Preacher), and was built circa 1825.
The Cherokees’ arrival at Tuscumbia Landing by train on March 9 and 10, 1837 was reported in two separate accounts in the March 17 edition of The North Alabamian:
“This much and ever-to-be-pitied Tribe are now on their way to their new home west of the Mississippi. They were detained at our Landing some days, awaiting the departure of the steamboat which was to bear them on their journey from the land and the graves of their fathers; and during that time numbers of them, old and young, visited our town, and excited universal admiration, by their correct and orderly deportment, and the sympathy which their hard fate naturally suggested to the minds of our citizens. In these visits, as well as in their conduct at the ‘camp,’ I remarked indications of their rapid advance towards the better traits of civilized life, which few of our people have given them credit for, and at which I was equally surprised and pleased.”
Lastly the Cherokee removed in 1838. Only a fraction of the Cherokees left voluntarily. The U.S. government, with assistance from state militias, forced most of the remaining Cherokees west in 1838. The Cherokees were temporarily remanded in camps in eastern Tennessee. In November, the Cherokee were broken into groups of around 1,000 each and began the journey west. They endured heavy rains, snow, and freezing temperatures.
By 1838, about 2,000 Cherokee had voluntarily relocated from Georgia to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). Forcible removals began in May 1838 when General Winfield Scott received a final order from President Martin Van Buren to relocate the remaining Cherokees. Approximately 4,000 Cherokees died in the ensuing trek to Oklahoma. In the Cherokee language, the event is called nu na da ul tsun yi (“the place where they cried”) or nu na hi du na tlo hi lu i (the trail where they cried). The Cherokee Trail of Tears resulted from the enforcement of the Treaty of New Echota, an agreement signed under the provisions of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which exchanged Indian land in the East for lands west of the Mississippi River, but which was never accepted by the elected tribal leadership or a majority of the Cherokee people.
In the winter of 1838 the Cherokee began the 1,000-mile march with scant clothing and most on foot without shoes or moccasins. The march began in Red Clay, Tennessee, the location of the last Eastern capital of the Cherokee Nation. Because of the diseases, the Indians were not allowed to go into any towns or villages along the way; many times this meant traveling much farther to go around them. After crossing Tennessee and Kentucky, they arrived at the Ohio Riveracross from Golconda in southern Illinois about the 3rd of December 1838. Here the starving Indians were charged a dollar a head (equal to $22.49 today) to cross the river on “Berry’s Ferry” which typically charged twelve cents, equal to $2.70 today. They were not allowed passage until the ferry had serviced all others wishing to cross and were forced to take shelter under “Mantle Rock,” a shelter bluff on the Kentucky side, until “Berry had nothing better to do”. Many died huddled together at Mantle Rock waiting to cross. Several Cherokee were murdered by locals. The Cherokee filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Government through the courthouse in Vienna, suing the government for $35 a head (equal to $787.17 today) to bury the murdered Cherokee.
Fort Payne, Alabama was a major emigrating depot by the fall of 1838. The majority of Cherokee who were forced by the military to leave their homes in Alabama left from Fort Payne. A detachment led by Cherokee John Benge departed for Indian Territory in October of 1838.
The latter forced relocations have sometimes been referred to as “death marches”, in particular with reference to the Cherokee march across the Midwest in 1838, which occurred on a predominantly land route.The largest death toll from the Cherokee forced relocation comes from the period after the May 23, 1838 deadline. This was at the point when the remaining Cherokee were rounded into camps and pressed into oversized detachments, often over 700 in size. Communicable diseases spread quickly through these closely quartered groups, killing many. These contingents were among the last to move, but following the same routes the others had taken; the areas they were going through had been depleted of supplies due to the vast numbers that had gone before them. The marchers were subject to extortion and violence along the route. In addition, these final contingents were forced to set out during the hottest and coldest months of the year, killing many. Exposure to the elements, disease and starvation, harassment by local frontiersmen, and insufficient rations similarly killed up to one-third of the Choctaw and other nations on the march.
Nearly 17,000 Choctaws made the move to what would be called Indian Territory and then later Oklahoma. About 2,500–6,000 died along the trail of tears. Approximately 5,000–6,000 Choctaws remained in Mississippi in 1831 after the initial removal efforts. The Choctaws who chose to remain in newly formed Mississippi were subject to legal conflict, harassment, and intimidation. The Choctaws “have had our habitations torn down and burned, our fences destroyed, cattle turned into our fields and we ourselves have been scourged, manacled, fettered and otherwise personally abused, until by such treatment some of our best men have died.” The Choctaws in Mississippi were later reformed as the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and the removed Choctaws became the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. The Choctaws were the first to sign a removal treaty presented by the federal government. President Andrew Jackson wanted strong negotiations with the Choctaws in Mississippi, and the Choctaws seemed much more cooperative than Andrew Jackson had imagined. When commissioners and Choctaws came to negotiation agreements it was said the United States would bear the expense of moving their homes and that they had to be removed within two and a half years of the signed treaty.
There were some exceptions to removal. Perhaps 100 Cherokees evaded the U.S. soldiers and lived off the land in Georgia and other states. Those Cherokees who lived on private, individually owned lands (rather than communally owned tribal land) were not subject to removal. In North Carolina, about 400 Cherokees, known as the Oconaluftee Cherokee, lived on land in the Great Smoky Mountains owned by a white man named William Holland Thomas (who had been adopted by Cherokees as a boy), and were thus not subject to removal. Added to this were some 200 Cherokee from the Nantahala area allowed to stay in the Qualla Boundary after assisting the U.S. Army in hunting down and capturing the family of the old prophet, Tsali. (Tsali faced a firing squad.) These North Carolina Cherokees became the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation.
In 1987, about 2,200 miles of trails were authorized by federal law to mark the removal of 17 detachments of the Cherokee people. Called the “Trail of Tears National Historic Trail,” it traverses portions of nine states and includes land and water routes.