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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 The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity and Nationalism
  • clash of civilizations
  • colonialism
  • ethnic cleansing
  • imperialism
  • indigenous rights

The Trail of Tears describes the forced relocation of the Cherokee Nation in 1838–39 from its southeastern homelands to the Indian Territory, presently the state of Oklahoma, as part of the federal policy of Indian removal. Although the event is most closely associated with the Cherokees, removal was enacted on all of the “Five Civilized Tribes,” and on many American Indians throughout the United States. But it was the Cherokee Nation and its public, political, and legal resistance that brought Indian removal to the forefront of the American consciousness. The Cherokees fought a sophisticated and strategic resistance against state and federal laws, garnering public sentiment and a victory in the Supreme Court, only to see their efforts ignored by President Jackson and the Congress. The ensuing march resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and meets the United Nations' definition of ethnic cleansing.

The designation “Trail of Tears” is most often identified with the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation, one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” of American Indians, which was relocated in 1838–39 from its homelands in the southeastern region of the United States to an area generally known as the Indian Territory, later known as the state of Oklahoma. But the others of the Five Civilized Tribes—the Chickasaws, the Choctaws, the Creek Confederacy, and the Seminoles—are also described as having experienced their own “trails of tears” in the years from 1830 to 1840. In its very broadest sense, the term has been used in relation to the forced or coerced relocations throughout the 1810s and 1820s of many American Indian tribes from their homelands in the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes regions to other lands west of the Mississippi River.

The Trail of Tears is most often associated with the Cherokee Nation as a result of the very sophisticated public, political, and legal resistance to removal offered by that tribe, which brought the policy of Indian removal to the forefront of the American consciousness. In the early 1800s, the Cherokees' responses to the federal Indian policies of “civilization” and “removal” included the rise of an indigenous nationalism within their citizenry, and the pursuit of formal education and literacy in their own language. Renowned for their development of a centralized system of government, the Cherokee Nation, as it was styled, maintained a body of statutes, tribal law enforcement and courts, and a bifurcated legislature that resembled its older moiety system of town government. This initially enabled its members to resist more cohesively the pressures to relinquish their lands and remove to the west.

The invention of a written system of their own language by the native genius Sequoyah enabled the development of a tribal newspaper that was used strategically by the Cherokees to enlist support from sympathetic reformers and federalists in the northern areas of the United States. When Cherokee editor Elias Boudinot's writings were reprinted by major newspapers in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, public awareness of the policy of Indian removal came to the forefront for the first time. The Cherokees enhanced this effort with a series of speaking engagements to northern audiences by Boudinot and his cousin, John Ridge, a member of the Cherokee Council.

The development of the first Cherokee Constitution in 1827, which asserted their national government's exclusive territory and jurisdiction within it, was followed in the years immediately after by the election to president of their old antagonist Andrew Jackson, as well as the discovery of gold within Cherokee lands in northern Georgia. The state reacted with a series of “Harassment Laws” in 1829 and 1830, asserting state jurisdiction over the tribe and authorizing official terrorism against them. The US Congress also passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which sought to entice tribes into removal treaties. But the act also revealed the emerging divisions within the United States over states' rights, and the Cherokees had many federalist supporters among those who opposed the legislation.

The Cherokees and their supporters presented two cases to the Supreme Court in 1830 and 1832 testing the validity of Georgia's laws. The second case, Worcester v. Georgia, was a decisive victory for the Cherokee Nation, but President Jackson declined to enact it, and Congress would not compel him to do so. Finding no other recourse, the Cherokees continued to resist until 1835 when, under tremendous pressure and emerging internal division, twenty-two citizens of the tribe signed a removal treaty, even though they had no governmental standing to do so. Among the signers were Boudinot, John Ridge, and his father, Major Ridge.

Although the document was considered by most Cherokees to be fraudulent, the Senate ratified the treaty and set May 1838 as the date for Cherokee removal. Federal troops then rounded up over sixteen thousand Cherokees and detained them in encampments for more than three months as removal was postponed due to summer heat and drought. As hundreds of Cherokees began to die of fever, dysentery, and cholera, their principal chief, John Ross, negotiated for the Cherokee Nation to manage its own removal. The Cherokees organized thirteen detachments, led by Cherokee captains and numbering between 230 and more than 1,800, to undertake the arduous journey. Delayed by the drought, the removal occurred throughout the late fall and winter of 1838–39. Traveling through icy rain and snow, burdened by illness and exposure to the elements, hundreds more Cherokees perished along the route, especially elders and children under ten. The journey took many months and covered almost nine hundred miles.

Arriving in the Indian Territory, additional Cherokees died throughout the first year from lingering illness and the physical exhaustion of the march. In total, it is estimated that 2,000–2,500 Cherokees died in the camps, on the march, and in the year afterward, and that an additional 1,200–1,500 left the march. Overall, the loss of citizenry to the tribe was as much as four thousand. The others of the Five Tribes experienced similar impacts. The Choctaws and Creeks suffered even greater losses of life, and the Seminoles fought a bloody war with the United States, the costliest for that country previous to the American Civil War. Even for the smaller Chickasaw Nation, which did not lose as many of its citizens or as much of its property, the loss of homeland was still an act of ethnic cleansing, defined by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 819 (1993) as “the planned deliberate removal from a specific territory, persons of a particular ethnic group, by force or intimidation, in order to render that area ethnically homogenous.” Today, many of the removed tribes have a small remnant of the ethnic tribal population remaining in the original area; these are usually regarded as separate citizenries from the majorities that were removed.

The Five Tribes in Oklahoma have managed to survive and flourish, despite continuing losses of their Indian Territory lands, but their original homelands remain occupied and controlled by others.

SEE ALSO: Ethnic Cleansing and Ethnic Swamping; Exploitation, Cultural Appropriation, and Degradation; Nation and Homeland

  • Worcester v. Georgia, 31 US (6 Pet.) 515 (1832).
    University of California Los Angeles USA
    Copyright © 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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