The Trail of Tears is one of the most shameful legacies of US history. In the 1830’s nearly 60,000-100,000 Native Americans were forcibly removed from their homes and made to walk thousands of miles to a new territory in modern day Oklahoma. While the exact number of Native Americans is debated among historians, it is for certain that thousands died along the Trail of Tears.
This article delves into the tragic history of the Trail of Tears and examines the factors that contributed to this devastating loss of life.
At the time of the formation of the United States the founding fathers generally favored an approach to “civilize” the natives and have them assimilate into western culture. Several tribes succeeded at assimilation and the largest ones were called “The Five Civilized Tribes”. They consisted of the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole.1
All five of these tribes were located in what’s considered the “Deep South”. Through previous US legal rulings, they all lived as autonomous nations with their own recognized leaders and lands crafted out of past treaties with the government.
Despite this, the tribes continually had to deal with encroachment on their lands from American settlers. Throughout the early 19th century, southern politicians tried many times to take these lands and open them to settlement. With the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, the opportunity finally arose, leading to the deadly event known as the Trail of Tears.
How Many Natives Died on the Trail of Tears?
All told, historians estimate that somewhere between 10,000-16,000 Native Americans died on the Trail of Tears and in the immediate aftermath. The breakdown by Native American Nation includes:2
- Cherokee: ~4,000-8,000
- Creek: ~3,500
- Choctaw: ~2,000-4,000
- Chickasaw: ~500-800
- Seminole: ~700
New President Andrew Jackson was famed for his hard line stances. He even ran on a platform promising to remove Native Americans west of the Mississippi. In 1830 his allies in Congress passed the Indian Removal Act. This act allowed for the negotiation of the tribes relocation to lands west of the Mississippi.
Some tribes agreed to move willingly (Choctaw and Chickasaw). They saw the writing on the wall and knew that the federal government would not protect them or their lands from encroachment of settlers. It would only escalate further.
Others did not agree willingly. The Seminoles refused to leave, which led the United States into a series of long and costly series of wars to forcibly remove the natives from Florida.
The Cherokee also did not willingly move. The US government cheated the tribe by signing the Treaty of New Echota with non-leaders of the tribe. Despite this, in 1838 federal troops forcibly removed the Cherokee from their homes and forced them to walk thousands of miles to their new home along the Trail of Tears.
Of all the natives forcibly removed during Jackson’s administration, the Cherokee perhaps suffered the greatest. Given the Cherokee protest over the fraudulent treaty, its members were not prepared for the long trek.
Thousands died along the way, as the federal government failed to provide the natives with adequate food and supplies. Of the many dubious, shameful moments in the history of the United States, the legacy of the Trail of Tears features prominently.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Davis, Ethan. “An Administrative Trail of Tears: Indian Removal.” The American Journal of Legal History, vol. 50, no. 1, 2008, pp. 49–100. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25664483.
2) Thornton, Russell. “Cherokee Population Losses during the Trail of Tears: A New Perspective and a New Estimate.” Ethnohistory, vol. 31, no. 4, 1984, pp. 289–300. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/482714.