Assimilation, Relocation, Genocide
LeAnne Howe’s grandmother painted this interpretation of the Trail of Tears.LeAnne Howe’s grandmother painted this
interpretation of the Trail of Tears.

Trail of Tears

In the early 1800s, the Cherokee tried to assimilate, along with their neighbors the Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws and Seminoles. Most of the leaders were convinced that to survive they would have to adopt white ways. These tribes became known as the Five Civilized Tribes.

The process of assimilation began when the Cherokee allowed Moravian missionaries onto their land in 1801. The missionaries taught the basics of European agriculture, domestic arts, English and Christianity. In the 1820s, Sequoyah invented a Cherokee syllabary that translated the sounds of Cherokee language into written symbols. The tribe began publishing a newspaper. They adopted a constitutional government based on the model of the United States. They even adopted a form of slavery, like their southern neighbors.

The Cherokee Trail of Tears has captured the imaginations of Americans.

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None of that made any difference to the state of Georgia. To them, the Cherokee were still "savages" who had too much land. In 1802, Georgia had ceded, or legally given up, its claim to land west of the Appalachian Mountains to the federal government in exchange for a promise to move the Cherokee out of Georgia. The federal government reneged on its promise.

In 1817, some 6,000 of the Cherokee were persuaded by future president Andrew Jackson to voluntarily move to Arkansas Territory. But others resisted.

Then, Jackson was elected President in 1828. He was committed to removing all Indians in the East and Southeast, by force if necessary. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830. Soon, the Choctaws and the Creeks were on their way west along the other civilized tribes.

But the Cherokee decided to fight back politically and legally. John Ross had become Principal Chief in 1828. He was a mixed-blood Cherokee who was popularly elected with his strongest support coming from traditional Cherokees. He spoke English and learned the law, and between 1830 and 1838 made many trips to Washington to plead the tribe's case to stay in their original homelands.

He found little support in Congress or the White House, so the Cherokee turned to the U.S. Supreme Court for remedy. In a series of cases, Chief Justice John Marshall eventually seemed to support the legal arguments of the Indians, saying that jurisdiction over the Cherokees belonged to the federal government, not the states. Andrew Jackson ignored the ruling and encouraged Georgia to keep harassing the Cherokee.

By 1834, the tribe was divided and disheartened. John Ross and other traditionalists opposed giving up their land. Another leader, Major Ridge, believed the Cherokee would either move or die fighting the more powerful new Americans. So, Ridge traveled to Washington and negotiated a treaty selling Cherokee lands for $5 million. When he returned, the Cherokee National Council promptly rejected the treaty. But Congress ratified it anyway, and that gave Jackson the legal authority he needed.

The treaty gave the Cherokee three years to move west. Ross campaigned tirelessly to have the treaty annulled, without success. Ridge and a few followers moved to Indian Territory, but the majority stayed home. In the summer of 1838, Gen. Winfield Scott, who did not like his assignment, took 7,000 troops and rounded up the Cherokee at bayonet point. Only about 400 Cherokee escaped into the hills and stayed in North Carolina. Their descendants still live there today and are now recognized as the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, the story of Spiral of Fire.

Almost 18,000 Cherokee did not escape and were herded first into a series of forts. The Army escorted the first groups over the 800 miles to what became eastern Oklahoma. But on that first march, so many died that John Ross pleaded with Gen. Scott to allow him to organize the people into smaller parties who could forage for food along the way. Scott relented.

Follow the Trail of Tears on our Interactive Map.

Through the fall and bitter winter of 1838-39, the Cherokee marched west. The average trip took six months. Despite Ross's efforts, it's estimated that 4,000 of the 18,000 Cherokee died on the trail. Ross's wife was one of the casualties.

Many other tribes were forced later on their own Trail of Tears, but the Cherokee was one of the worst. This story has captured the attention and imagination of the nation.

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