In 1830, at President Andrew Jackson’s urging, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in order to free up land for the nation’s expanding white population. The act granted the president the power to negotiate treaties with Native American tribes to relinquish their lands east of the Mississippi River in exchange for unsettled lands west of the river. While some Indians complied peacefully, the Cherokee, among other tribes, resisted.
In 1838, U.S. troops rounded up the Cherokees from their traditional lands in the southern Appalachians, held them in camps then forced them to relocate to Indian Territory, in present-day Oklahoma.
An estimated 15,000 to 16,000 Cherokee people made the grueling journey west, following one of several routes that collectively became known as the Trail of Tears. Along the way, some 3,000 to 4,000 of them died from disease, malnutrition and exposure. Check out seven facts about this infamous chapter in American history.
Davy Crockett objected to Indian removal.
Frontiersman Davy Crockett, whose grandparents were killed by Creeks and Cherokees, was a scout for Andrew Jackson during the Creek War (1813-14). However, while serving as a U.S. congressman from Tennessee, Crockett broke with President Jackson over the Indian Removal Act, calling it unjust.
Despite warnings that his opposition to Indian removal would cost him his seat in Congress, where he’d served since 1827, Crockett said, “I would sooner be honestly and politically damned than hypocritically immortalized.” The year after the act’s 1830 passage, Crockett lost his bid for reelection.
After being voted back into office in 1833, he continued to express his opposition to Jackson’s policy and wrote that he would leave the U.S. for the “wildes of Texas” if Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s vice president, succeeded him in the White House. After Crockett was again defeated for reelection, in 1835, he did go to Texas, where he died fighting at the Alamo in March 1836.
Renegade Cherokees signed a treaty selling all tribal lands.
John Ross, who was of Scottish and Cherokee ancestry and became the tribe’s principal chief in 1828, was strongly opposed to giving up the Cherokees’ ancestral lands, as were the majority of the Cherokee people.
However, a small group within the tribe believed it was inevitable that white settlers would keep encroaching on their lands and therefore the only way to preserve Cherokee culture and survive as a tribe was to move west. In 1835, while Ross was away, this minority faction signed a treaty at New Echota, the Cherokee Nation capital (located in Georgia), agreeing to sell the U.S. government all tribal lands in the East in exchange for $5 million and new land in the West.
As part of the agreement, the government was supposed help cover the Cherokees’ moving costs and pay to support them during their first year in Indian Territory. When Ross found out about the treaty, he argued it had been made illegally. Nevertheless, in 1836 it was ratified by a single vote in the U.S. Senate and signed by President Jackson.
The treaty gave the Cherokees two years to vacate their lands. In June 1839, after the Cherokees had been forced to relocate to Indian Territory, several leaders of the so-called Treaty Party, who’d advocated for the New Echota agreement, were assassinated by tribe members who’d opposed removal to the west.
Martin Van Buren ordered the roundup of the Cherokees.
During his two terms in the White House, from 1829 to 1837, Andrew Jackson was responsible for putting Indian removal policies in place; however, he left office before the 1838 deadline for the Cherokees to surrender their lands in the East. It was Jackson’s presidential successor, Martin Van Buren, who ordered General Winfield Scott to forcibly evict the Cherokees.
Scott’s troops rounded up thousands of Cherokees and then imprisoned them in forts in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Alabama. During these roundups, the Indians weren’t given time to pack and family members, including children, sometimes got left behind if they weren’t home when the soldiers showed up.
The Indians were transferred from the forts to detention camps, most of them in Tennessee, to await deportation. At both the forts and camps, living conditions were bleak and diseases rampant, and an unknown number of Cherokees died.
The Trail of Tears wasn’t just one route.
The first group of Cherokees departed Tennessee in June 1838 and headed to Indian Territory by boat, a journey that took them along the Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi and Arkansas rivers. Heat and extended drought soon made travel along this water route impractical, so that fall and winter thousands more Cherokees were forced to trek from Tennessee to present-day Oklahoma via one of several overland routes.
Federal officials allowed Chief John Ross to take charge of these overland removals, and he organized the Indians into 13 groups, each comprised of nearly a thousand people. Although there were some wagons and horses, most people had to walk.
The route followed by the largest number of Cherokees—12,000 people or more, according to some estimates—was the northern route, a distance of more than 800 miles through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and into Indian Territory. The last groups of Cherokees made it to Indian Territory in March 1839. A century later, Route 66, the iconic highway established in 1926, overlapped with part of this route, from Rolla to Springfield, Missouri.
Not all Cherokees left the Southeast.
A small group of Cherokee people managed to remain in North Carolina, either as a result of an 1819 agreement that enabled them to stay on their land there, or because they hid in the mountains from the U.S. soldiers sent to capture them.
The group, which also included people who walked back from Indian Territory, became known as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Today, the group has approximately 12,500 members, who live primarily in western North Carolina on the 57,000-acre Qualla Boundary.
The Cherokees rebuilt in Indian Territory.
In the first years after their arrival in Indian Territory, life was difficult for many Cherokees. However, under the leadership of Chief Ross the tribe rebuilt in the 1840s and 1850s, establishing businesses and a public school system and publishing what was then America’s only tribal newspaper.
When the American Civil War broke out, the Cherokee Nation found itself politically divided. Ross initially believed the Cherokees should remain neutral in the conflict, but there was a faction who supported the South so the chief made an alliance with the Confederacy, in part to try to keep the Cherokees united. Ross soon grew disillusioned with the Confederates, who had abandoned their promises of protection and supplies to the Indians.
Ross spent the rest of the war in Philadelphia, where his second wife had a home (his first wife died while walking the Trail of Tears) and Washington, D.C., trying to convince President Abraham Lincoln that the Cherokees were loyal to the Union. Ross died of illness on August 1, 1866, having served as principal chief for nearly 40 years.
The U.S. apologized to Native American groups in 2009.
In December 2009, President Barack Obama signed a bill that included an official apology to all American Indian tribes for past injustices. U.S. Senators Sam Brownback of Kansas and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota led a bipartisan effort to pass the resolution, which stated: “the United States, acting through Congress…recognizes that there have been years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies, and the breaking of covenants by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes.”
However, the resolution did not call for reparations and included a disclaimer that it wasn’t meant to support any legal claims against the United States.