The Trail of Tears: Genocide on America’s Homeland

Photo Credit: Encyclopedia Britannica

Introduction: The Indian Problem

American settlers often feared and resented the native tribes. To them, the Indians occupied land they wanted and believed that they deserved.

President George Washington felt the best way to solve this “Indian problem” was simply to civilize the community. The goal of this civilization campaign was to make Native Americans as much like white Americans as possible, by encouraging them to convert to Christianity and adopt European-style economic practices such as the individual ownership of land.

In the southeastern United States, many CherokeeChoctawChickasawCreek and Seminole people embraced these customs and became known as the “Five Civilized Tribes.”

The civilized tribes had accepted Christianity and translated the Bible into the Cherokee language.

The lands of the Native Americans were valuable and grew to be more coveted as settlers flooded the region. Many of these new arrivals yearned to make fortunes and didn’t care how “civilized” their native neighbors were. They began to victimize the tribes by stealing livestock, burning and looting houses and towns, committing mass murder, and squatting on thousands of acres of land that did not belong to them.

When gold was found on Cherokee lands in 1829, efforts to dislodge Indian peoples were more intensified.

State governments joined in this contemptuous effort to drive Native Americans out of the South. In Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the U.S. Supreme Court objected to the states’ behavior and affirmed that native nations were sovereign nations “in which the laws of Georgia [and other states] can have no force.” However, the state of Georgia refused to abide by the Supreme Court decision and President Jackson refused to enforce the law. This led the way for the forced removal of the Five Civilized Tribes.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The state of Georgia and President Jackson ignored the Supreme Court ruling and the removal policy was put into motion.

Federal Indian Removal Policy

Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which said that "no state could achieve proper culture, civilization, and progress, as long as Indians remained within its boundaries". This legislation gave President Jackson the power to negotiate removal treaties with Indian tribes living east of Mississippi. Under these treaties, the Indians were to give up their property in exchange for lands to the west.

President Andrew Jackson: Courtesy Wikipedia

Jackson’s attitude toward Native Americans was patronizing. He described them as children in need of guidance and believed that the removal policy was beneficial. According to his view, “removal would save Indian people from harassments of whites and would resettle them in an area where they could govern themselves in peace”.

Not all politicians favored removal, as the Indian Removal Act only barely passed in Congress after bitter debates. John Quincy Adams had a mixed record on Native American relations as president, but when he became a Congressman he became seriously uncomfortable with how natives were being treated. Davy Crockett, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster all spoke out as well.

Davy Crockett: Courtesy Wikipedia

While serving as a U.S. congressman from Tennessee, frontiersman Davy Crockett broke with President Jackson, calling the Indian Removal Act “unjust”. Despite warnings his open opinions could cost him his seat in Congress, Crockett said, “I would sooner be honestly and politically damned than hypocritically immortalized.”

During the Capitol Hill debates, according to Sea Coast Online, seven towns filed "memorials" asking for previous treaties to be honored and Native Americans to stay put. As well, many residents of Georgia wanted the Cherokee and other tribes to stay and wrote letters to Congress. However, the government wasn't listening.

Chief John Ross: Courtesy Library of Congress

The (Fraudulent) Treaty of New Echota

Chief John Ross became the leader of the Cherokee resistance to the stealing of their lands. He made legal moves to prevent the removal, including organizing the tribe as a nation with its own Constitution, patterned after the U.S. Constitution. It was all to no avail and he failed in his efforts.

About 300 Cherokees, led by tribal member Major John Ridge, believed that they might survive only if they signed a treaty with the government. In 1835, this minority signed a removal agreement, the Treaty of New Echota, which ceded all Cherokee territory east of the Mississippi River to the federal government. This small minority of people were not elected representatives of the Cherokee Nation, and 15,000 tribal members protested the illegal treaty. But it gave Jackson the legal document he needed and the United States gained control over three-quarters of Alabama and Florida, as well as parts of Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky and North Carolina.

Major John Ridge was a member of the Cherokee Nation who falsely represented himself as its tribal leader. 


The relocation of Native Americans to the Oklahoma Territory that became known as "The Trail of Tears", represents one of the darkest and saddest episodes of American history. It is a story of power winning out over decency and justice.

In spite of orders to treat the tribe members kindly, the roundup was cruel. Men, women and children were taken away from their homes, families were separated, the elderly and ill forced out at gunpoint, and people were given only a few moments to collect their belongings. They were then herded into forts with minimal facilities and food.

Trail of Tears 1839. Painting: “Forced Move” by Max D. Standley courtesy R. Michelson Galleries.

One member of the guard would later write: "I saw the helpless Cherokees [sic] arrested and dragged from their homes, and driven at the bayonet point into stockades. And in the chill of a drizzling rain on an October morning I saw them loaded like cattle and sheep into 645 wagons and started toward the west. Some people were dragged from their homes almost naked and without shoes or moccasins.”

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The small forts which housed Indian prisoners had been likened to concentration camps. One soldier wrote, "During the Civil War I watched as hundreds of men died, including my own brother, but none of that compares to what we did to the Indians."

It is difficult to imagine the hardships which the people of the five civilized tribes endured during their one-thousand-mile forced march to Oklahoma, which began on May 23, 1838.

Sickness and death rates caused by drought, distress of winter, starvation, contaminated water, and physical exhaustion were especially high. One military estimate of the death rate in one of the detachment parties was 17.7%, with half of the deaths children.

Two thirds of the ill-equipped natives that were trapped beside the frozen Mississippi River still remembered a half-century later the hundreds of sick and dying in wagons or lying on the frozen ground with only a single blanket provided by the government. Many became victims of disease, particularly cholera, smallpox and dysentery.

Image Credit: Alamy

A traveler who witnessed a passing mother holding her dying child wrote: ”She could only carry her child in her arms a few miles farther, and then, she must stop in a stranger-land and consign her much loved babe to the cold ground, and in that without pomp or ceremony, and pass on with the multitude."

Image: Tsalagi Journey

In March 1839, the survivors had arrived to the Indian Territory, now known as Oklahoma, a word that means “red people”. It was estimated of the 16,000 who started the dreary march westward, more than 4000 Cherokee died, and not one baby survived. The route and journey itself lasted nearly a year and became known as the Trail of Tears.

And so a country formed fifty years earlier on the premise "…that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among these the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…" victimized innocent and peaceful Native American tribes, resulting in the deaths of thousands.

Tens of thousands died on the trail, including African slaves. Many runaway slaves found refuge on Indian land and became tribal members. (Image Courtesy: African American Policy Forum)

Rebecca Neugin is reported to be the last survivor of the onslaught. Last June, she was honored by the Oklahoma Chapter of the Trail of Tears.

In May of 1838, the family of Tickaneeski and Sallie Ketcher, including their three-year-old daughter Rebecca were rounded up in Georgia by soldiers. She raised seven children and died at her home on July 15, 1932 at the age of 97.

Excerpts taken from Mrs. Neugin’s testimony:

“When the soldiers came to our house my father wanted to fight, but my mother told him the soldiers would kill him if he did and we surrendered without a fight. They drove us out of our house to join other prisoners in a stockade.”

“After they took us away, my mother begged them to let her go back and get some bedding. So, they let her go back and she brought what bedding and a few cooking utensils she could carry and had to leave behind all of our other household possessions.”

“Eight of my brothers and sisters and two or three widow women and children rode with us. My brother Dick, who was a good deal older than I was, walked along with a long whip, which he popped over the backs of the oxen and drove them all the way. My father and mother walked all the way also.”

“The people got tired of eating salt pork on the journey that my father would walk through the wood as we traveled, hunting for turkeys and deer, which he brought into the camp to feed us.”

“Camp was usually made at some place where water was to be had. When we stopped and prepared to cook our food, other emigrants who had been driven from their homes without the opportunity to secure cooking utensils came to our camp to use our pots and kettles. There was much sickness among the emigrants and a great many little children died of whooping cough.”


About 1000 Cherokee in Tennessee and North Carolina escaped roundup. They gained recognition in 1866, establishing their tribal government in Cherokee, North Carolina. That tribe is known today as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

In the Oklahoma Indian territory, the tribes tried to adapt to their new homeland and re-established their own systems of government, which was modeled on that of the United States. In 1839, John Ross was elected Principal Chief of the reconstituted Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.


The Legend of the Cherokee Rose

The Cherokee Rose is the official flower of the state of Georgia.

No better symbol exists depicting the pain and suffering on the Trail of Tears than the Cherokee Rose. The mothers of the Cherokee grieved so much that the chiefs prayed for a sign that would lift their spirits and give them strength. From that day forward, a beautiful rose grew wherever a mother’s tear fell to the ground.

The rose is white, representing the mothers’ tears; it has a gold center signifying the gold taken from Indian lands and seven leaves on each stem that represent the seven Cherokee clans that made the journey. The Cherokee Rose grows along the route of the Trail of Tears, and is the official flower of the State of Georgia.

In December 1987, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill establishing the Trail of Tears as a National Historic Trail and an advisory council was created to oversee the marking of its routes. The National Park Service’s master plan called for hiking trails and a marked route from Tennessee to Oklahoma that would include interpretive centers and historical markers.

Photo Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

In December 2009, President Barack Obama signed a bill that included an official apology to all American Indian tribes for past injustices. The resolution stated, “the United States, acting through Congress…recognizes that there have been years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies, and the breaking of covenants by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes.”



The Trail spans more than 5,000 miles and stretches across parts of nine states, including Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Georgia, North Carolina, Illinois, Missouri, and Kentucky. 

Trail of Tears National Historic Trail

Sponsored by the National Park Service, the network of trails stretches across 5,043 miles in nine states.

Museum of the Cherokee Indian

This museum tells the history of the Cherokee Nation, including the Trail of Tears. It offers educational programs and a multitude of exhibits.

Trail of Tears State Park - Cape Girardeau, Missouri 

Located along the Mississippi River in Cape Girardeau County, the park commemorates the infamous historical episode.

The park preserves the woodlands to match what would have been seen by the tribes who camped there after crossing the Mississippi. There is a memorial monument dedicated to: Princess Otahki, daughter of Chief Jesse Bushyhead, who died during the journey.

The National Trail of Tears Association

The mission of the Association is to promote and engage in the protection and preservation of Trail of Tears National Historic Trail resources. It also creates awareness of the trail's legacy in conformity with the National Park Service's trail plan.

Cherokee Trail of Tears Park, Hopkinsville, Kentucky

This is one of the few documented sites of trail and campsites used during the forced removal. The park is the burial site of two Cherokee Chiefs who died during the onslaught, Fly Smith and Whitepath.

For students and others who wish to learn more about the Trail of Tears: Questia.comStoryJumper.comBookrix.comU.S. HistoryEncyclopedia

Lead Story Image: Max D. StandleyR. Michelson Galleries