Western Life

The Trail of Tears – A Journey Resulting in Loss and Heartache

As the USA expanded, many white settlers believed that they were entitled to the land that Native Americans had farmed and hunted for hundreds of years in Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, Alabama and North Carolina. At the beginning of the 1830s there were approximately 125,000 Native Americans living in these states, but by the end of the decade that number had dwindled to almost none. The government had put measures in place to remove the American Indians from the land, so that the settlers could use it to grow cotton. The tribes were forced to leave their homes and cross the Mississippi River to land that was designated as ‘Indian Territory.’ This perilous journey, that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Native Americans, became known as The Trail of Tears.

As the American republic grew, it became a priority to ‘civilise’ the Native Americans, meaning they were trained to be more like the white settlers that had arrived in the country. They were taught English, converted to Christianity and given individual land and other property, which sometimes included African slaves. The five tribes that embraced this new culture: Choctaw, Seminole, Creek, Cherokee and Chickasaw, quickly became known as ‘The Five Civilised Tribes.’

Image: The Granger Collection, New York

Although they had embraced the culture of the European settlers, their land was valuable and was coveted by the same people that had ‘civilised’ them. The white settlers wanted to make their fortune in cotton growing, which was extremely profitable at the time. The Native American settlements were burnt, their livestock stolen, and acres of land was captured. The government soon passed several laws which limited the rights of the American Indians and decreased the amount of land they could own. When Andrew Jackson became president, he continued a lifelong crusade to remove these aboriginal people from their lands. He signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, giving the federal government the authority to exchange land held by the Native Americans in the cotton kingdom for land in the west. This zone was in present day Oklahoma and had been acquired as part of the Louisiana Purchase. It became known as ‘The Indian Colonisation Zone.’

Although the law required that the relocations were to be fairly negotiated, this was ignored and many of the Indians forcibly removed. In 1831, the Choctaw became the first tribe to be expelled from their land completely, under threat of attack by the US Army. They made the journey, some in chains and marched double file, to the Indian Territory on foot with no supplies, food or assistance from the government. Thousands died along the way and it was reported to be ‘A Trail of Tears and Death’ by one Choctaw leader. The removal process continued, and in 1836 the Creeks were marched westward with 3500 out of 15,000 dying along the way.

In 1835, self-appointed Cherokee representatives negotiated the Treaty of New Echota. This traded all the tribe’s land east of the Mississippi for $5 million, provided relocation assistance and compensation for lost property. One of the Cherokee’s leaders protested and provided the government with a petition supporting the disagreement of most of the tribe. Despite the 16,000 signatures on the petition, Congress approved the treaty. In 1838, only 2000 Cherokees left their lands in Georgia heading west, as the treaty demanded. 7000 soldiers were allocated to expedite the rest of the tribe’s removal, and the remaining Cherokee were forced into stockades at bayonet point while their property looted. They were then marched more than 1,200 miles to Indian territory. Along the journey, the tribe was plagued by whooping cough, typhus, dysentery, cholera and starvation which caused the deaths of over 5,000 Cherokee.

Although the federal government had promised their new land would remain permanent, the boundaries of the Indian Territory began to shrink. By 1907, when Oklahoma became a state, the territory had disappeared altogether.

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