The Trail of Tears

The Trail of Tears

One of the most tragic chapters in the history of the Native American came about as a result of the U.S. government's plan to relocate the Cherokee to a reservation near the present city of Tulsa. Oklahoma.

The series of events that led to the tragedy began in 1827. In that year the Cherokee boldly declared their nation to be an independent republic and even ratified their own constitution. In 1828 a renowned Indian fighter by the name of Andrew Jackson frowned on recognizing the Cherokee as a nation, let alone a republic. When gold was discovered on Cherokee land the following year, the Jackson administration enacted the Indian Removal Act, which gave the United States the power to decree removal of Indians from any designated area. The move to what was, to them, a foreign country, Oklahoma Territory.

The law was not really enforced for several years, but some of the Indians, highly embittered, voluntarily emigrated from the area. In 1838 the U.S. Army moved to forcibly evacuate the remaining Indians from their homeland, which made up most of the state of Georgia.

The army officer in charge of the removal of the Cherokee issued precise, strict orders that the evacuation be carried out as humanely as possible. His men were apparently less sympathetic than their commanding officer, for in every operation they completely ignored his orders. Cherokee families were virtually herded out of their houses at bayonet point, which often "accidentally" inflicted painful wounds and resulted in several fatalities. Men, women, and children were shoved, beaten, and even shot while bands of civilian looters pillaged Native American villages, sometimes before all the residents had left. Not even the cemeteries were spared as savage brigands unearthed graves, searching for silver pendants and jewelry. The skeletal remains were ruthlessly and contemptuously scattered in all directions.

The Cherokee were at first interned in makeshift camps and then grouped into caravans. In September 1838 they left Georgia and began the long trek to their new homes in Oklahoma Territory.

The westward movement was very slow; some rode in crude wagons and some on horseback, but by far the majority were on foot. They trudged painfully through an unusually snowy, cold winter. The price was high for the old and feeble, who withstood as much as flesh and blood could endure and then began to die. Travelers who passed the processions all described the constant wailing and weeping as the caravan stopped momentarily to bury the dead. The survivors, their faces wet with tears — very unusual for Native Americans of that time — left their loved ones behind. They genuinely felt that those who had died were the fortunate ones, and this knowledge somehow relieved their grief.

The last of the Cherokee arrived on the reservation near present—day Tulsa in March 1839. It is not known exactly how many had perished along the way, but a conservative estimate is 4,000 — nearly a third of the Cherokee population. Superstition soon set in, and tales still abound. Travelers near the route of the caravans vow they clearly hear the wailings of women as the gentle winds blow in the night.

By 1840 the route of the Cherokee became known as "The Trail of Tears," a title that persists today.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth