Near the start of the 1830s, there were nearly one hundred and twenty five thousand Native Americans living on the millions of acres of land shared by Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida. This was land that their forefathers had occupied for generations. However, by the end of the decade, there were very few natives living anywhere in the southeastern United States. The federal government decided to work on behalf of the white settlers who came to the Indians’ lands. These settlers wished to grow cotton, and the government supported the exile of the native people who’d lived there for centuries. The Native Americans were forced to abandon their homes and travel thousands of miles to a place that was designated as “Indian Territory” across the Mississippi River. This difficult – and deadly – journey is now known as the Trail of Tears.
The “Indian Problem”:
The white settlers who came to the southeastern United States, especially those who had lived on the western frontier, were afraid of the Native Americans. Even more than that, they resented them and their lifestyles. To them, Indians were a strange, mysterious, and even alien people who occupied the land that the white settlers wanted – and believed that they rightfully deserved. There were some people of power, such as President George Washington, who believed the easiest and best way to solve the “Indian problem” was to civilize these Native Americans.
The goal of civilizing the Indians had cornerstone beliefs such as teaching them to speak and read and write English, to convert them to Christianity, and to encourage them to adopt European-style economic practices. This included things such as learning about the individuals ownership of their land and their other property – even so far as to include African Slaves. In some of the southeastern states, this worked to an extent. Many of the Cherokee people, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole Indians embraced these cultural changes and became known as the Five Civilized Tribes.
These tribes adopted many of the cultural habits of the white settlers: the women wore gowns. They built schools, roads, churches, and there were both farmers and cattle ranchers. Sequoyah created the ‘Talking Leaves’; a Cherokee alphabet.
Despite these natives embracing the changes that the white settlers demanded, their land was still valuable and coveted. The more white settlers who flooded the area, the more people wanted this land for their own. A lot of these settlers wanted to ensure their fortunes by growing cotton on the Native American’s lands. They chose not to care how ‘civilized’ their native brothers were: they simply wanted the land, and would do anything necessary to procure it. They did a number of unsavory things to ensure this, including stealing livestock, burning and looting houses and entire towns, and squatting on land that was not their own.
Unfortunately for the Native Americans who habited this land, the state governments became involved, joining in the effort to drive Indians from the south. There were several states who passed laws that would limit Native American rights, sovereignty, and allowing encroachment on their territory. There were a few cases brought to the courts including the Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia (brought in 1831), and Worcester vs. Georgia (brought in 1832). The United States Supreme Court objected to these practices against the Native Americans, and confirmed that the native nations were their own personal nations “in which the laws of Georgia can have no force”.
Despite this, the abuse towards the Indians continued. President Andrew Jackson said in 1832, if nobody wanted to enforce the Supreme Court’s ruling (which he definitely did not), then the decision would “fall stillborn”. The southern States were completely driven in their efforts to take over the Indian lands and would go to any lengths to ensure that they would get their territory.
It didn’t help that in 1829, the Georgia Gold Rush became known to those who hadn’t before heard of it. Hernando deSoto had been relentlessly searching for gold; eventually it was discovered in the Georgia Mountains.
President Andrew Jackson was one of the largest advocates of what would be called “Indian Removal”. He was an Army General, and had spent many years leading devastating campaigns against the Seminoles in Florida, and the Creeks in Georgia and Alabama. This resulted in the transfer of hundreds of thousands of acres of ‘prime land’ from Indian nations to the white farmers who wished to grow cotton and secure their fortunes. When he became President, he continued this crusade against Native Americans.
It was in 1830 that he signed the Indian Removal Act. This gave the federal government the rights and powers to take away Native-held lands east of the Mississippi (prime cotton growing lands) for land in the west. This would come to be called the “Indian colonization zone”; land that the United States had acquired as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The “Indian territory” was actually located in what is now Oklahoma.
The law was meant to enforce that the government was to negotiate removal treaties voluntarily, peacefully and fairly. It was intended so that the president nor anybody else could coerce the Native nations into leaving their land. However, President Andrew Jackson and his government backers often ignored this law, and were known for forcing Indians from the lands they had inhabited for centuries. In the winter of 1831, under threat of invasion from the United States military, the Choctaw became the first Indian nation to be forced from their land altogether. They were forced to make the journey to the Indian territory on foot. Some historians report that they were bound in chains and forced to march double file! They were not given food, supplies, or any other help from the government. Thousands of people died during this forced exile. One of the Choctaw leaders told an Alabama newspaper that it was a “trail of tears and death”.
Trail of Tears:
The Indian removal process did not stop with the Choctaw. In 1836, the federal government forced the Creeks from their land. Over thirty five hundred of the fifteen thousand Creeks who were made to travel to Oklahoma did not last through the journey.
The Cherokee people were split: they could not decide the best way to handle the government’s determination to take their lands from them. Should they stay and fight? Many wanted to. Others, though, thought it better to agree to leave in exchange for money.
It was in 1835, that the treaty of New Echota was negotiated – by a few self-appointed representatives from the Cherokee Nation. This treaty would trade all Cherokee land east of the Mississippi for relocation assistance, compensation for lost lands, and five million dollars. The federal government considered this a great deal and quickly agreed.
It was Major Ridge and his son, John, alongside Elias Boudinot who advocated for the treaty and the removal of the Native Americans from their homelands. Less than five hundred of the seventeen thousand Indians followed him.
The rest of the Cherokee felt betrayed. Those who had negotiated this treaty were not representatives of the tribal government or anyone else. John Ross penned a letter to the United States Senate, protesting the treaty. He said, “the instrument in question is not an act of our nation. We are not parties to it’s covenants; it has not received the sanction of our people.” There were over sixteen thousand Cherokees who signed Ross’s petition, but Congress ultimately approved the treaty despite this. Those who spoke out against this treaty were Daniel Webster and Henry Clay; however, it still passed by a single vote.
By 1838, only about two thousand Cherokees had deserted their Georgia homes for Indian Territory. President Martin Van Buren sent General Winfield Scott and his seven thousand soldiers to hurry up the removal process. Scott and his men coerced the Cherokee people into stockades at sword point while the rest of the soldiers and white settlers looted their homes and belongings. After this was done, they marched all of the remaining Cherokee Indians to the Indian territory, which was more than twelve hundred miles away. There were many illnesses along the way that killed off more than five thousand of the remaining Cherokee Indians. These illnesses included whooping cough, dysentery, typhus, cholera, and starvation. None of the soldiers seemed to care much for the death of these Native Americans, and to them, it was a job well done.
John Ross did not give up on his people, and made a plea to General Scott to allow him to lead his people west. General Scott eventually agreed. Ross organized the Cherokee Indians into smaller, easier to handle groups, and let them move separately through the wilderness. This allowed them to forage for food. The parties under Ross left in early fall, and arrived in Oklahoma during the devastating winter of 1938. He significantly reduced the number of deaths that came from walking the trail of Tears.
The Cherokee eventually killed Major Ridge, his son, and Elias Boudinot for their part in the treaty that eventually forced them from their homes. John Ross, who had advocated against this treaty so long and valiantly, unfortunately lost his wife during the western movement of the Cherokee.
By 1840, tens of thousands of Indians had been chased off their lands in the southeastern states, and forced to travel across the Mississippi to the so-called Indian Territory. The federal government made a promise that their new homes would remain theirs, and untouched. Of course, that did not happen. As the line of white settlement began pushing ever westwards, the Indian country began to shrink, little by little. In 1907, Oklahoma officially became one of the states in America, and Indian territory was gone for good.
Don’t Know Much About History:
Kenneth C. Davis wrote a novel about the removal of the Indians, making sure that the true history shined through the Hollywood version. In the Hollywood versions, the impression made to the people was that the great Indian wars came to the Old West during the late 1800s. Many people think of this simplistically as the “cowboy and Indian” days. In fact, this was not the case. It was more of a ‘mopping up’ effort. By the late 1800s, the Indians were almost completely finished off, their subjugation complete, their numbers decimated. The killing, land theft, and enslavement began with the arrival of the Europeans. However, it may have reached it’s tipping point when it became federal policy under President Andrew Jackson.
The Cherokee Rose:
There is no better symbol that exists to represent the pain and suffering of the Trail Where they Cried (the Trail of Tears) than the Cherokee Rose. It is said that the mothers cried so much for their lost children that the chiefs prayed for a sign that would lift up the mothers’ spirits and allow them to continue to care for the children who had not yet died during this brutal trip. The myth of the Cherokee Rose states that wherever a mother’s tears fell, a beautiful rose would spring up to represent what they had lost. The rose is white, and represents the mother’s grief. It has a gold center, which is said to represent the gold that was taken from the Cherokee lands. There are seven leaves on each stem, which is said to represent the seven Cherokee clans who were forced to make the journey.
To this day, the Cherokee Rose still blooms along the route of the now famous Trail of Tears. It is now the Georgia State flower.
The United States, a country that had formed over fifty years earlier, on an ideology 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...’ turned their backs on the Indians, and closed the chapter of the Native Americans, who had ultimately, done no wrong.