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How Native Americans Struggled to Survive on the Trail of Tears

November 7, 2019 in History

By Christopher Klein

Severe exposure, starvation and disease ravaged tribes during their forced migration to present-day Oklahoma.

In the early 1800s, the sovereign Cherokee nation covered a vast region that included northwest Georgia and adjacent land in Tennessee, North Carolina and Alabama. Under the terms of an 1819 treaty, the United States guaranteed that Cherokee land would be off-limits to white settlers forever.

Forever lasted less than 20 years.

Although the treaty mandated the removal of “all white people who have intruded, or may hereafter intrude, on the lands of the Cherokees,” the United States instead forcibly removed more than 15,000 Cherokees in 1838 and 1839. As many as 4,000 died of disease, starvation and exposure during their detention and forced migration through nine states that became known as the “Trail of Tears.”

Indian Removal Act Forces Tribes From Native Lands

Trail of Tears: Forced Native American Relocation (TV-PG; 3:21)

The Indian Removal Act signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830 authorized the federal government to relocate tribes within state borders to unsettled land west of the Mississippi River. When white settlers encroached on Cherokee land to grow cotton and search for newly discovered gold, the United States ordered the Cherokee to join the Creek, Seminole, Choctaw and Chicksaw tribes in resettling to present-day Oklahoma.

The first Cherokees to relocate—approximately 2,000 men, women and children split into four groups—did so voluntarily in 1837 and early 1838. They traveled westward by boat following the winding paths of the Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers. The journey for these voluntary exiles was as short as 25 days, and deaths numbered less than two dozen.

Conditions proved far worse for the Cherokee evicted from their homes at gunpoint by 7,000 federal troops dispatched by President Martin Van Buren. Beginning on May 26, 1838, soldiers under the command of General Winfield Scott rounded up the majority of the Cherokee along with 1,500 slaves and free blacks, forced them to leave behind most of their possessions and herded them into wooden stockades and internment camps.

“Men working in the fields were arrested and driven to the stockades,” recalled Private John Burnett, who served as an interpreter. “Women were dragged from their homes by soldiers whose language they could not understand. Children were often separated from their parents and driven into the stockades with the sky for …read more


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