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Definition: Trail of Tears from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Route traversed by 16,000 Cherokee in 1838 from their ancestral lands in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama to Indian Territory under the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Held initially in stockades by the US army, they were forced to march under military escort nearly 1,600 km/1,000 mi in winter with little food; over 4,000 died from disease, hunger, and exposure. The Trail of Tears became a national monument in 1987.

Summary Article: Trail of Tears
from Encyclopedia of American Indian Removal

The phrase “Trail of Tears” originally referred primarily to the overland routes taken by the Choctaws, Muscogees (Creeks), Seminoles, Chickasaws, and Cherokees during their removal to the West (see Choctaw Removal, Muscogee [Creek] Removal, Seminole Removal, Chickasaw Removal, Cherokee Removal). During the past century, however, the term has become a popular metaphor for the tribes' removal experiences. Because of the Cherokees' great popularity among historians, Cherokee removal has received much more publicity than other Indian removals, so that now the general public uses the expression to refer primarily to the Cherokee removal experience, often at the expense of the other tribes' history.

Historians agree that the origin of the term is uncertain. Cherokees claim that it is theirs. However, late 19th- and early 20th-century Cherokee tribal historians who wrote about removal, such as White Horse (Henry C. Reece), DeWitt Clinton Duncan, and John Oskison, did not use the term. Choctaws also claim the term. They say that during their 1831 removal, a newspaperman at Little Rock, Arkansas, interviewed one of their chiefs, who said that the Choctaws' removal to that point had been “a trail of tears and death.” They also say that the term was picked up and popularized by the eastern press. However, those events have not been verified to date in newspapers contemporary with Choctaw removal. The Choctaws who remained in Mississippi had a song in their repertoire describing their feelings as they saw their fellow tribespeople leave to cross the Mississippi. The song said, basically, “They saw the trail to the Big River, and they cried.” By the first decade of the 20th century, non-Indian Oklahoma historians had begun to use “trail of tears” to refer to the roads that had led all of the tribes into the Indian Territory.

Whatever its origins, the expression was popularized during the first quarter of the 20th century. It was a time when Indians were thought to be vanishing from the American scene and could, therefore, safely be romanticized, even idealized, by emerging American youth organizations such as the Woodcraft Indians and Boy Scouts of America, both founded in the first decade of the century. Romanticizing Indian removal was primarily the work of Cherokee women college students, who popularized the expression in historical studies, oratory, and poetry. Rachel Caroline Eaton made “Trail of Tears” the title of a chapter of her 1914 thesis at the University of Chicago. Anne Ross, dressed in Plains tribe fashion and calling herself Princess Galilolle, toured the country in 1916 talking about the “Trail of Tears.” And Ruth Muskrat (later Bronson of Indian activism fame) published a poem in 1922 titled “The Trail of Tears.” Choctaw writers Winnie Lewis Gravit and James Culberson also used the term in the 1920s. By the 1930s, “Trail of Tears” had become a metaphor for removal and had become embedded in the language of historical literature about the subject.

During the last half of the 20th century, artists—primarily Cherokees—enhanced the metaphor by creating images of removal that often little resembled the reality: people trudging through deep snow when, in reality, heavy snow was (and is) a rarity in the South; soldiers riding as escort, when army escorts attended only a few removing parties of Seminoles aboard steamboats; and people trudging through a trackless wilderness, whereas removal parties followed well-established routes. Perhaps the most fallacious image is that a majority of the people are walking. Choctaws walked more miles of their trail than any other people among the southern tribes. In reality, every available mode of transportation was used in removing Indians to the West: horse, cart, wagon, steamboat, keelboat, flatboat, canal boat, railway, and sailing ship. Members of the southern nations traveled more miles by water than by any other means. Nevertheless, the artistic license of these renderings in no way mitigates the terrible experience that removal was or the overriding question about removal: Why were people forced to leave their homelands?

In recent years, Cherokees have politicized the expression “Trail of Tears.” Their appeals to Congress resulted in legislation in 1987 establishing the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail to commemorate Cherokee removal. The act alienated the other southern tribes, whose removals were also devastating. They had removed or begun their removals before the Cherokees, and some had endured hardships much more severe than those suffered by the Cherokees. Despite research to the contrary—and much of it done by Cherokee scholars—the Cherokee Nation continues to espouse the romanticized images of the Trail of Tears by its sponsorship of filmmakers and its Web site, which publishes inaccurate information, such as the number of Cherokee casualties on the Trail and John Burnett's alleged eyewitness account, which is well known to be spurious. Elsewhere, new findings about the removal process have fair prospects of reforming the way the public thinks about the Trail of Tears.

  • Eaton, Rachel Caroline. John Ross and the Cherokee Indians. Menasha, WI: George Banta Publishing Company, 1914.
  • Green, Len. “Trail of Tears from Mississippi Walked by Our Choctaw Ancestors.” Bishinik (March 1995): 4-5.
  • Owens, Pamela Jean. “Trail of Tears.” In American Indian Religious Traditions: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Suzanne J. Crawford and Dennis F. Kelley. London: ABC-CLIO, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 1106.
  • Thoburn, Joseph B., and Isaac M. Holcomb. A History of Oklahoma. San Francisco: Doubleday & Company, 1908.
  • United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Denver Service Center. Trail of Tears National Historic Trail: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee: Comprehensive Management and Use Plan. Denver: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1992.
  • Littlefield, Daniel F. Jr.
    Copyright 2011 by Daniel F. Littlefield and James W. Parins

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