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The Trail of Tears is a name given to the forced relocation of Native American nations from southeastern parts of the United States following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The removal included many members of the following tribes, who did not wish to assimilate: Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations, among others, from their homelands to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. The Native Americans who chose to stay and assimilate were allowed to become citizens in their states and of the U.S. The phrase "Trail of Tears" originated from a description of the removal of the Choctaw Nation in 1831.
Many Native Americans suffered from exposure, disease and starvation on the route to their destinations. Many died, including 2,000-6,000 of 16,542 relocated Cherokee. European Americans and African American freedmen and slaves also participated in the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek and Seminole forced relocations.
In 1830, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole (sometimes collectively referred to as the Five Civilized Tribes) were living as autonomous nations in what would be called the American Deep South. The process of cultural transformation (proposed by George Washington and Henry Knox) was gaining momentum, especially among the Cherokee and Choctaw. Many white settlers had pressured the federal government to move the Indians out of the Southeast; some encroached on Indian lands and others wanted land made available to white settlers. Andrew Jackson helped gain Congressional passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which authorized the government to offer deals in order to extinguish Native American title to lands in the Southeast.
In 1831 the Choctaw were the first to be removed, and they became the model for all other removals. After the Choctaw, many Seminole were removed in 1832 (following two wars, but a small group had moved to the Everglades and were never defeated by the US), the Creek in 1834, the Chickasaw in 1837, and finally the Cherokee in 1838. After removal, some Native Americans remained in their ancient homelands; some Choctaw are found in Mississippi, Seminole in Florida, Creek in Alabama and Florida, and Cherokee in North Carolina. A limited number of non-native Americans (including African Americans, usually as slaves) also accompanied the Native American nations on the trek westward; some were spouses. By 1837, 46,000 Native Americans from these southeastern states had been removed from their homelands, thereby opening 25 million acres (100,000 km2) for predominantly white settlement.
The fixed boundaries of these autonomous tribal nations, comprising large areas of the United States, were subject to continual cession and annexation prior to 1830, 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 magnified by U.S. population growth and the expansion of slavery in the South with the rapid development of cotton cultivation in the uplands due to the invention of the cotton gin.
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The territorial boundaries claimed as sovereign and controlled by the Native American nations living in what were then known as the Indian Territories—the portion of the early United States west of the Mississippi River not yet claimed or allotted to become Oklahoma—were fixed and determined by national treaties with the United States Federal government. These recognized the tribal governments as dependent but internally sovereign, or autonomous nations under the sole jurisdiction of the Federal government.
While retaining their tribal governance, which included a constitution or official council in tribes such as the Iroquois and Cherokee, many portions of the southeastern Native American nations had become partially or completely economically integrated into the economy of the region. This included the plantation economy in states such as Georgia, and the possession of slaves. These slaves were also forcibly relocated during the process of removal. A similar process had occurred earlier in the territories controlled by the Confederacy of the Six Nations in what is now upstate New York prior to the British invasion and subsequent U.S. annexation of the Iroquois nation.
Under the history of U.S. treaty law, the territorial boundaries claimed by Federally recognized tribes received the same status under which the Southeastern tribal claims were recognized; until the following establishment of reservations of land, determined by the Federal government, which were ceded to the remaining tribes by de jure treaty, in a process that often entailed forced relocation. The establishment of the Indian Territory and the extinguishment of Native American land claims east of the Mississippi anticipated the establishment of the U.S. Indian reservation system. It was imposed on remaining Indian lands later in the 19th century.
The statutory argument for Native American sovereignty persisted until the Supreme Court ruled in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), that (e.g.) the Cherokee were not a sovereign and independent nation, and therefore not entitled to a hearing before the court. However, in Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the court re-established limited internal sovereignty under the sole jurisdiction of the Federal government, in a ruling that both opposed the subsequent forced relocation and set the basis for modern U.S. case law.
While the latter ruling was famously defied by Jackson, the actions of the Jackson administration were not isolated because state and federal officials had violated treaties without consequence, often attributed to military exigency, as the members of individual Native American nations were not automatically United States citizens and were rarely given standing in any U.S. court.
Jackson's involvement in what became known as the Trail of Tears cannot be ignored. In a speech regarding the removal of Native Americans, Jackson said, "It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; 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 influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.” According to Jackson, the move would be nothing but beneficial for all parties. His point of view garnered support from many Americans, many of whom would benefit economically from the removal.
Compounding this was the fact that while citizenship tests existed for Native Americans living in newly annexed areas before and after forced relocation, individual U.S. states did not recognize tribal land claims, only individual title under State law, and distinguished between the rights of white and non-white citizens, who often had limited standing in court; and Indian removal was carried out under U.S. military jurisdiction, often by state militias. As a result, individual Native Americans who could prove U.S. citizenship were nevertheless displaced from newly annexed areas. The military actions and subsequent treaties enacted by the Jackson and Van Buren administrations pursuant to the 1830 law (which Tenn. Congressman Davy Crockett had unsuccessfully voted against) are widely considered to have directly caused the expulsion or death of a substantial part of the Native Americans then living in the southeastern United States.
The Choctaw nation was in 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 (45,000 km2). 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 would write 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
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. A harsh winter would batter the emigrants with flash floods, sleet, and snow. Initially the Choctaws were to be transported by wagon but floods halted them. With food running out, the residents of Vicksburg and Memphis were concerned. Five steamboats (the Walter Scott, the Brandywine, the Reindeer, the Talma, and the Cleopatra) would ferry Choctaws to their river-based destinations. The Memphis group traveled up the Arkansas for about 60 miles (97 km) to Arkansas Post. There the temperature stayed below freezing for almost a week with the rivers clogged with ice, so there would be no travel for weeks. Food rationing consisted of a handful of boiled corn, one turnip, and two cups of heated water per day. Forty government wagons were sent to Arkansas Post to transport them to Little Rock. When they reached Little Rock, a Choctaw chief referred to their trek as a "trail of tears and death." The Vicksburg group was led by an incompetent guide and was lost in the Lake Providence swamps.
In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn't watch without feeling one's heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but sombre and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas were leaving their country. "To be free," he answered, could never get any other reason out of him. We ... watch the expulsion ... of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples.—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
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 U.S. acquired Florida from Spain via the Adams–Onís Treaty and took possession in 1821. 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 chiefs who were to inspect the new reservation did not leave Florida until October 1832. After touring the area for several months and conferring with the Creeks who had already settled there, the seven 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 villages in the area of the Apalachicola River were more easily persuaded, however, and went west in 1834. 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. Out of 110 army troops, only three survived. This came to be known as the Dade Massacre.
As the realization that the Seminoles would resist relocation sank in, Florida began preparing for war. The St. Augustine Militia asked the War Department for the loan of 500 muskets. Five hundred volunteers were mobilized under Brig. Gen. Richard K. Call. Indian war parties raided farms and settlements, and families fled to forts, large towns, or out of the territory altogether. A war party led by Osceola captured a Florida militia supply train, killing eight of its guards and wounding six others. Most of the goods taken were recovered by the militia in another fight a few days later. Sugar plantations along the Atlantic coast south of St. Augustine were destroyed, with many of the slaves on the plantations joining the Seminoles.
Other warchiefs such as Halleck Tustenuggee, Jumper, and Black Seminoles Abraham and John Horse continued the Seminole resistance against the army. The war ended, after a full decade of fighting, in 1842. The U.S. government is estimated to have spent about $20,000,000 on the war, at the time an astronomical sum, and equal to $488,758,621 today. Many Indians were forcibly exiled to Creek lands west of the Mississippi; others retreated into the Everglades. In the end, the government gave up trying to subjugate the Seminole in their Everglades redoubts and left fewer than 100 Seminoles in peace. However, other scholars state that at least several hundred Seminoles remained in the Everglades after the Seminole Wars.
As a result of the Seminole Wars, the surviving Seminole band of the Everglades claims to be the only Federally recognized tribe which never relinquished sovereignty or signed a peace treaty with the United States.
In general the American people tended to view the Indian resistance as unwarranted. In an article published by the Virginia Enquirer on January 26, 1836 called the "Hostilities of the Seminoles" that assigned all the blame for the violence that came from the Seminole's resistance to the Seminoles themselves. The article accuses the Indians of not staying true to their word—the promises they supposedly made in the treaties and negotiations from the Indian Removal Act.
After the War of 1812, some Muscogee leaders such as William McIntosh signed treaties that ceded more land to Georgia. The 1814 signing of the Treaty of Fort Jackson signaled the end for the Creek Nation and for all Indians in the South. Friendly Creek leaders, like Selocta and Big Warrior, addressed Sharp Knife (the Indian nickname for Andrew Jackson) and reminded him that they keep the peace. Nevertheless, Jackson retorted that they did not "cut (Tecumseh's) throat" when they had the chance, so they must now cede Creek lands. Jackson also ignored Article 9 of the Treaty of Ghent that restored sovereignty to Indians and their nations.
Jackson opened this first peace session by faintly acknowledging the help of the friendly Creeks. That done, he turned to the Red Sticks and admonished them for listening to evil counsel. For their crime, he said, the entire Creek Nation must pay. He demanded the equivalent of all expenses incurred by the United States in prosecuting the war, which by his calculation came to 23,000,000 acres (93,000 km2) of land. - Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson 
Eventually, the Creek Confederacy enacted a law that made further land cessions a capital offense. Nevertheless, on February 12, 1825, McIntosh and other chiefs signed the Treaty of Indian Springs, which gave up most of the remaining Creek lands in Georgia. After the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty, McIntosh was assassinated on May 13, 1825, by Creeks led by Menawa.
The Creek National Council, led by Opothle Yohola, protested to the United States that the Treaty of Indian Springs was fraudulent. President John Quincy Adams was sympathetic, and eventually the treaty was nullified in a new agreement, the Treaty of Washington (1826). Writes historian R. Douglas Hurt: "The Creeks had accomplished what no Indian nation had ever done or would do again — achieve the annulment of a ratified treaty." However, Governor Troup of Georgia ignored the new treaty and began to forcibly remove the Indians under the terms of the earlier treaty. At first, President Adams attempted to intervene with federal troops, but Troup called out the militia, and Adams, fearful of a civil war, conceded. As he explained to his intimates, "The Indians are not worth going to war over."
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 received funds to remove to the west, or stay in Alabama and submit to state laws. Land speculators and squatters began to defraud Creeks out of their allotments, and violence broke out, leading to 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.
Unlike other tribes who exchanged land grants, 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 $11,382,152 today) for the westernmost part of the Choctaw land. The first group of Chickasaws moved in 1837 and was led by John M. Millard. The Chickasaws gathered at Memphis on July 4, 1837, 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.
In 1838, the Cherokee people were forcibly removed from their lands in the Southeastern United States to the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) in the Western United States, which resulted in the deaths of approximately 4,000 Cherokees. In the Cherokee language, the event is called Nu na da ul tsun yi—“the Place 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 Native American 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.
Tensions between Georgia and the Cherokee Nation were brought to a crisis by the discovery of gold near Dahlonega, Georgia, in 1829, resulting in the Georgia Gold Rush, the second gold rush in U.S. history. Hopeful gold speculators began trespassing on Cherokee lands, and pressure began to mount on the Georgia government to fulfill the promises of the Compact of 1802.
When Georgia moved to extend state laws over the Cherokee lands in 1830, the matter went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), the Marshall court ruled that the Cherokee Nation was not a sovereign and independent nation, and therefore refused to hear the case. However, in Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the Court ruled that Georgia could not impose laws in Cherokee territory, since only the national government — not state governments — had authority in Indian affairs.
John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it! ... Build a fire under them. When it gets hot enough, they'll go.—Andrew Jackson, 1832. Quoted in The Trail of Tears Across Missouri.
Jackson had no desire to use the power of the national government to protect the Cherokees from Georgia, since he was already entangled with states’ rights issues in what became known as the nullification crisis. With the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the U.S. Congress had given Jackson authority to negotiate removal treaties, exchanging Indian land in the East for land west of the Mississippi River. Jackson used the dispute with Georgia to put pressure on the Cherokees to sign a removal treaty.
Nevertheless, the treaty, passed by Congress by a single vote, and signed into law by President Andrew Jackson, was imposed by his successor President Martin Van Buren who allowed Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama an armed force of 7,000 made up of militia, regular army, and volunteers under General Winfield Scott to round up about 13,000 Cherokees into concentration camps at the U.S. Indian Agency near Cleveland, Tennessee before being sent to the West. Most of the deaths occurred from disease, starvation and cold in these camps. Their homes were burned and their property destroyed and plundered. Farms belonging to the Cherokees for generations were won by white settlers in a lottery. After the initial roundup, the U.S. military still oversaw the emigration until they met the forced destination. Private John G. Burnett later wrote, "Future generations will read and condemn the act and I do hope posterity will remember that private soldiers like myself, and like the four Cherokees who were forced by General Scott to shoot an Indian Chief and his children, had to execute the orders of our superiors. We had no choice in the matter."
I fought through the War Between the States and have seen many men shot, but the Cherokee Removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.—Georgia soldier who participated in the removal
In the winter of 1838 the Cherokee began the thousand-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 Native Americans (colloquially known as 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 River across from Golconda in southern Illinois about the 3rd of December 1838. Here the starving Indians were charged a dollar a head (equal to $22.15 today) to cross the river on "Berry's Ferry" which typically charged twelve cents, equal to $2.66 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 killers filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Government through the courthouse in Vienna, suing the government for $35 a head (equal to $775.14 today) to bury the murdered Cherokee.
As they crossed southern Illinois, on December 26, Martin Davis, Commissary Agent for Moses Daniel's detachment, wrote: "There is the coldest weather in Illinois I ever experienced anywhere. The streams are all frozen over something like 8 or 12 inches (20 or 30 cm) thick. We are compelled to cut through the ice to get water for ourselves and animals. It snows here every two or three days at the fartherest. We are now camped in Mississippi [River] swamp 4 miles (6.4 km) from the river, and there is no possible chance of crossing the river for the numerous quantity of ice that comes floating down the river every day. We have only traveled 65 miles (105 km) on the last month, including the time spent at this place, which has been about three weeks. It is unknown when we shall cross the river...."
Removed Cherokees initially settled near Tahlequah, Oklahoma. When signing the Treaty of New Echota in 1835 Major Ridge said "I have signed my death warrant." The resulting political turmoil led to the killings of Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot; of the leaders of the Treaty Party, only Stand Watie escaped death. The population of the Cherokee Nation eventually rebounded, and today the Cherokees are the largest American Indian group in the United States.
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 (3,500 km) 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.
A historical drama based on the Trail of Tears, Unto These Hills, has sold over five million tickets for its performances since 1950, both touring and at the outdoor Mountainside Theater of the Cherokee Historical Association in Cherokee, North Carolina.
The latter forced relocations have sometimes been referred to as a "death march", in particular with reference to the Cherokee march across the Midwest in 1838, which occurred on a predominantly land route.
Tribesmen who had means initially conducted their own removal. Contingents that were led by conductors from the U.S. Army included those led by Edward Deas, who was claimed to be a sympathizer for the Cherokee plight. 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 (larger than the populations of Little Rock or Memphis at that time). 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.
It has also been claimed by descendants of the survivors[by whom?] that the term "Trail of Tears" referred to the tears of those who witnessed the suffering of the marchers, and that the Native Americans themselves marched in silence.
There exists some debate among historians and the affected tribes as to whether the term "Trail of Tears" should be used to refer to the entire history of forced relocations from the United States east of the Mississippi into Indian Territory (as was the stated U.S. policy), or to the Five Tribes described above, to the route of the land march specifically, or to specific marches in which the remaining holdouts from each area were rounded up.
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