Imagine people being uprooted from their home where they occupied it all of their life as well as their parents and their parents. Imagine having your rights ignored to dealing with broken promises, and having to fight for what is yours. In the end, you are tricked or just too plain tired to fight anymore and go on a journey. A journey where as each mile that goes by, you leave behind a mother, a father, a brother, and a friend.
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The Native Americans of the early nineteenth century did not have to imagine, because they had to face all this turmoil. Their experience was called the Trail of Tears which refers to the removal of the Five Civilized Tribes: Choctaws, Muskogee or Creek Nation, Chickasaws, Cherokees, and the Seminoles. These tribes were known as “civilized” because out of all the Native American tribes they were the ones who up till this point had took knowledge of the Western culture. The Trail of Tears was their removal from their ancient homeland in the east to present-day Oklahoma.
The Native American tribes' experiences started in the early nineteenth century, when the fast growing United States wanted to expand into the deep South. White settlers faced a stumbling block because the area was already home to the Native American tribes. Because the settlers were anxious for land, they pressured the federal government to take hold of the Indian Territory. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson pushed new legislation called the Indian Removal Act. This act gave Jackson power to negotiate removal treaties with Indian tribes living east of the Mississippi. Under these treaties, the Indians were to give up their land in exchange for lands to the west. Some tribes agreed to sign, and others were forced into it, but either way it went they had to leave.
The Choctaws were the first to sign the treaty, but some stayed behind. In 1831, four thousand left in groups of between 500-2000. Hundreds died, entire families and communities perished of disease, exposure, and exhaustion. For the ones that stayed, they got cheated out of their holdings and ended up leaving as well. The Creek Nation did not leave as peacefully. Following their treaty in 1832 came the Creek War of 1836-37. The American army captured more than 14,000 Creeks and moved them to Oklahoma where 2,500 made the trip in chains. Others died of exposure and disease.
The Chickasaw tribe probably had the easiest removal because there were fewer of them. Nonetheless, 500 died of smallpox alone. It has been said that the Cherokees suffered the most. The Georgia militia invaded the nation destroying crops, burning homes, and scattering families. Federal Troops rounded up the remaining tribe and herded them into concentration camps. Disease spread and eventually one quarter of the tribe perished. Lastly, the Seminoles who were deceived by the government agents into signing the treaty, and they fought when authorities tried to enforce it. The result was the second Seminole War in 1835 as the U.S. army moved to Florida to remove them. The last band of the Seminoles were force westward in chains in 1859.
No one knows from which tribe the name "the trail of tears" came from. Some say the Choctaws and others the Cherokees, but they all experienced the pains of leaving something or someone behind. After the removal, the tribes tried to make names for themselves by establishing their own government and building homes on their own reservations.
“Trail of Tears.” Encyclopedia of Indians of the Americas. 1974 ed.
“Trail of Tears.” Encyclopedia of North American Indians. 1996 ed.
“Indian Removal.” PBS Online. 1999. WGBH Educational Foundation. 17 Feb.2004.
Research and Written by
HIST 2260: Modern World History
3 March 2004