Many believe the Trail of Tears to be the darkest period in American history. Signed into law during President Andrew Jackson’s administration, the Indian Removal Act led to the relocation of American Indians from where they originally lived west of the Mississippi River to the east. People call this long trek the Trail of Tears because of how difficult and harrowing it had been for the tribes. To this day, many remember the Trail of Tears with the utmost respect–and for good reason. Find out why through these Trail of Tears facts you probably never knew about.
Before the Trail of Tears, the United States did not originally own the “Indian Territory” they moved American Indians to.
France owned the land west of the Mississippi River, where the Cherokees, Seminoles, and other tribes moved to. The United States gained this land through the Louisiana Purchase. In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte sold 530,000,000 acres of land to the United States for $15 million. Originally, President Thomas Jefferson only asked about purchasing New Orleans. To his surprise, France offered to sell the entirety of Louisiana, and this expansion furthered the power of the United States.
U.S. President Jackson earned himself the title of an “Indian fighter” because of his direct hand at the Trail of Tears.
As the seventh U.S. President, Andrew Jackson made use of his position to actively declare his support of relocating American Indian tribes to the west. He actively promoted the Indian Removal Act to Congress, and this led to its ratification in 1830. Following this, Jackson used the U.S. Army to force tribes who refused to leave, leaving them no choice but to journey through the Trail of Tears.
While some tribes went willingly, the Seminole tribe resisted for seven years.
We know this as the Second Seminole War, which began in 1835 and ended in 1842. Refusing to adhere to the Indian Removal Act, most Seminoles did not leave their homeland by Lake Okeechobee. Chief Osceola, known for his impressive skill and smarts in battle, led the Seminoles. He was both a warrior and a spokesperson, and he led their people in many battles. During what was supposed to be a truce, U.S. militia captured Osceola. His imprisonment gradually led to the end of the Second Seminole War and the beginning of the Trail of Tears for the remaining Seminole people.
John Ross led the Cherokees and acted as the negotiator between the U.S. government and the Cherokee tribe.
Chief John Ross may have only been one-eighth Cherokee, but he was at the forefront of all stately matters that concerned the tribe. Together with his counselor Major Ridge, John Ross wrote a constitution for the Cherokee, hoping to establish an independent Cherokee Nation that was held as an equal by the United States.
The U.S. government, however, did not recognize this, and Ross, alongside the other survivors of the Cherokee, reluctantly moved to the west.
The Cherokees were the last to trek the harrowing Trail of Tears after the Treaty of New Echota was passed.
Because of the Cherokees’ strong opposition under Ross, the U.S. government sought other ways to force them to the west. This is where the Treaty of New Echota comes in: the U.S. rounded up around 300 – 500 Cherokee civilians who were reluctant to fight and propositioned them with $5 million and promised land in the “Indian Territory.” Twenty signed the treaty, and while plenty argued against its legality, Congress signed the Treaty of New Echota into law on May 23, 1836. However, the U.S. government granted the Cherokees a grace period of two years to allow them time to gather their bearings and move to the west.
The U.S. government imprisoned thousands of Cherokees before releasing them to pass through the Trail of Tears.
At the end of the two-year grace period, most of the Cherokee people remained in the east. President Van Buren, who served his term from 1837 to 1841, sent General Winfield Scott to lead the U.S. military to imprison the remaining Cherokees. This led to the capture of around 15,000 Cherokees, who were detained in collection camps. The U.S. military released detainees in groups of 800 to 1000 people in the months to follow. Despite being weakened by their imprisonment, they had no choice but to travel through the Trail of Tears.
The Cherokees moved through the Trail of Tears for six months, starting from October 1838.
The Cherokees went through a painful journey with little to no food, water, or other kinds of supplies. On the Trail of Tears, their numbers dwindled. They lost their people to starvation, dehydration, and most especially disease. The Northern Route that most of the Cherokees favored as the more practical choice did not fare well for them. Despite being given wagons and horses by the U.S. government, the trip had still been difficult as the weather made the routes impassable for wagons. This forced the elderly, women, and children to walk the snow-covered path between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
The Cherokees who traveled the water route also struggled.
It was summer when the U.S. government released some detainees. These Cherokee groups journeyed through boats on the water route, but the water levels were too low, forcing them to move by foot instead. The summer heat and drought made the trek even more excruciating. Disease spread through the people, costing them three to five lives each day. To this day, historians are unsure of exactly how many lives were lost in the Trail of Tears, but they estimate that almost one-fifth of the Cherokees did not make it.
After the Trail of Tears, John Ross was once again elected as chief of the new Cherokee Nation.
John Ross survived the Trail of Tears, and the remaining survivors trusted him to lead them once more. They elected him Principal Chief in August 1839. Despite the lives lost in the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee people rebuilt anew. They reestablished their nation and government in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. For 27 years, Ross spearheaded various petitions to claim the $5 million promised to them. He also negotiated to free Cherokee slaves and extend citizenship to them. He would, later on, die from poor health at age 75.
Initially, the U.S. government did not hold up its end in the Treaty of New Echota.
During negotiations of the Treaty of New Echota, the U.S. government had promised the Cherokees $5 million for their homeland. They, however, did not pay this amount upfront to the Cherokee survivors, leaving them to rebuild their new life from scratch. The federal government did not pay the full amount until 1852 after Cherokee survivors filed years’ worth of petitions for money the U.S. government entitled them to.
What we now know as the state of Oklahoma predominantly comprises the endpoint of the Trail of Tears.
Survivors from the different American Indian tribes settled down in Oklahoma. The Chickasaws first settled down in Tishomingo, Oklahoma while the Choctaw people also settled nearby in southwestern Oklahoma. Aside from Oklahoma, six other states also comprise this territory. This includes Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska.
The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma comprises the direct descendants of the Trail of Tears survivors.
The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma stands today as the largest out of the three Cherokee tribes legally recognized by the U.S. government as autonomous. Around 300,000 people are registered in the Cherokee Nation, and more than half of them currently occupy the state of Oklahoma, where John Ross and the other survivors arrived after the Trail of Tears.
The descendants of the Cherokees who did not travel the Trail of Tears call themselves the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
While around 15,000 Cherokees trekked the Trail of Tears, around a thousand Cherokees remained in the east and survived. Today, their descendants call themselves the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (ECBI). The U.S. government legally recognizes the ECBI as an autonomous nation. Most live in North Carolina, where they rebuild and continue to protect what they can of the homeland of their ancestors. This includes the Qualla Boundary.
Robert Lindneux painted a famous depiction of the march entitled “The Trail of Tears.”
In 1942, American Western artist Robert Lindneux created one of his most famous works, “The Trail of Tears.” The artwork depicts the painful journey of the Cherokee people from their homeland to the west. Viewers can see Cherokees of all ages walk on foot while some ride tired horses and a few wagons. This famous painting is currently in the Woolaroc Museum and Wildlife Preserve in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
The Trail of Tears Association (TOTA) is a non-profit organization established to protect the historic trail.
The National Park Service and the Trail of Tears Advisory Council established the Trail of Tears Association in 1993. The TOTA’s mission is “to promote and engage in the protection and preservation of Trail of Tears National Historic Trail resources.” The organization has state chapters in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, all of which are part of the routes of the Trail of Tears.
The Trail of Tears Association also produced a short historical film.
The Trail of Tears Association released a short educational film called, “Trail of Tears,” on their YouTube channel in 2017. Joshua Colover directed the film. He included reenactments of events leading up to the Trail of Tears to the end of their march. This is told from the perspective of a Cherokee man and his granddaughter. At the end of the film, Colover also included a narration of the present lives of Cherokee descendants, highlighting the culture of the Cherokee Indians that lives on to this day.
“The Trail of Tears: Cherokee Legacy” is a documentary that features the Cherokees’ culture and history.
In 2006, Rich-Heape Films released “The Trail of Tears: Cherokee Legacy.” Chip Richie and Steven R. Heape directed the 1-hour and 45-minute long film. The documentary features Cherokee actors. This includes James Earl Jones, who is of African and Cherokee heritage, and Wes Studi, a prominent Cherokee actor in the industry. Both the Cherokee Nation of the west and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians endorsed the documentary because of its respectful portrayal of Cherokee culture and history, including a narration of Wes Studi speaking his native language.
Because of its rich and educational account on the Trail of Tears, the film won several awards. Some of these awards include the Silver World Medal for History (New York Festivals in 2007), Silver Film Award (Telly Awards in 2007), and Best Documentary (American Indian Film Festival in 2006).
The Choctaw Nation commemorates its ancestors through an annual Trail of Tears Walk.
As one of the displaced tribal groups by the Indian Removal Act, the Choctaw people also suffered through the Trail of Tears. Participants of the annual walk remember and honor the Choctaw tribe who traveled the harrowing journey. The event begins with a prayer by the tribal council chaplain, followed by an address by the chief. Then, to signal the beginning of the walk, the chief rings a bell three times. Finally, the Choctaw Nation Color Guard leads the crowd of hundreds of Choctaw tribal members and their families through capitol grounds.
Tourists can easily find an online interactive map of the Trail of Tears routes.
This National Scenic and National Historic Trail web map is an ongoing project continuously being updated and developed by the National Park Service. Among the different National Trails available on the map, users can easily find the Trail of Tears routes. Interested individuals can plan their own tour by following the map as they tagged all museums and historical sites with their respective locations and details. It is important to note, however, that the National Park Service advises all interested individuals to first contact each site before making the journey there.
Trekkers can identify and follow markers along the route of the Trail of Tears.
Trekkers can find the first marker, placed as early as 1931, at Marion along the Mississippi River. Colt, De queen, Fayetteville, and Springdale also house some of the earlier markers. Meanwhile, Helena, Pea Ridge National Military Park, and Village Creek State Park contain some of the more recent markers that follow the trail. These markers are not complete yet, so we can expect many more to be identified as researchers continue to study the rich history of the Trail of Tears.