By 1840 all the eastern tribes had been subdued, annihilated or forcibly removed to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi.
The discovery of the New World by European explorers caused endless problems for American Indians, whose homelands were gradually taken from them and whose cultures were dramatically altered, and in some cases destroyed, by the invasion.
The first contact between southeastern American Indians and Europeans was the expedition of Hernando de Soto in 1540. De Soto took captives for use as slave labor, while others were abused because the Europeans deemed them savages. Epidemic diseases brought by the Europeans spread through the Indian villages, decimating native populations.
Over the next two centuries more and more white settlers arrived, and the native cultures responded to pressures to adopt the foreign ways, leading to the deterioration of their own culture. During the colonial period Indian tribes often became embroiled in European colonial wars. If they were on the losing side, they frequently had to give up parts of their homelands.
After the American Revolution the Indians faced another set of problems. Even though it took time for the new government to establish a policy for dealing with the Indians, the precedent had been set during the colonial period. The insatiable desire of white settlers for lands occupied by Indian people inevitably led to the formulation of a general policy of removing the unwanted inhabitants.
Political leaders including President Thomas Jefferson believed that the Indians should be civilized, which to him meant converting them to Christianity and turning them into farmers. Many other whites agreed, and missionaries were sent among the tribes. But when the transformation did not happen quickly enough, views changed about the Indian people's ability to be assimilated into white culture.
"We, the great mass of the people think only of the love we have to our land for...we do love the land where we were brought up. We will never let our hold to this land go...to let it go it will be like throwing away...[our] mother that gave...[us] birth."
(Letter from Aitooweyah, to John Ross, principal chief of the Cherokees.)
National policy to move Indians west of the Mississippi developed after the Louisiana Territory was purchased from the French in 1803. Whites moving onto these lands pressed the U.S. government to do something about the Indian presence. In 1825 the U.S. government formally adopted a removal policy, which was carried out extensively in the 1830's by Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. The result was particularly overwhelming for the Indians of the southeastern United States - primarily the Cherokee, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles - who were finally removed hundreds of miles to a new home.
Perhaps the most culturally devastating episode of this era is that concerning the removal of the Cherokee Indians, who called themselves (Italicized- Ani Yun wiya.) Traditionally the Cherokees had lived in villages in the southern Appalachians - present-day Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, western North Carolina, and South Carolina, northern Georgia, and northeastern Alabama. Here in a land of valleys, ridges, mountains, and streams they developed a culture based on farming, hunting, and fishing.
The Cherokees took on some of the ways of white society. They built European-style homes and farmsteads, laid out European-style fields and farms, developed a written language, established a newspaper, and wrote a constitution. But they found that they were not guaranteed equal protection under the law and that they could not prevent whites from seizing their lands. They were driven from their homes, herded into internment camps, and moved by force to a strange land.
"...Inclination to remove from this land has no abiding place in our hearts, and when we move we shall move by the course of nature to sleep under this ground which the Great Spirit gave to our ancestors and which now covers them in their undisturbed peace."
Cherokee Legislative Council
New Echota July 1830
Georgia residents resented the Cherokees success in holding onto their tribal lands and governing themselves. Settlers continued to encroach on Cherokee lands, as well as those belonging to the neighboring Creek Indians. In 1828 Georgia passed a law pronouncing all laws of the Cherokee Nation to be null and void after June 1, 1830, forcing the issue of states' rights with the federal government. Because the state no longer recognized the rights of the Cherokees, tribal meetings had to held just across the state line at Red Clay, Tennessee. When gold was discovered on Cherokee land in northern Georgia in 1829, efforts to dislodge the Principal People from their lands were intensified. At the same time President Andrew Jackson began to aggressively implement a broad policy of extinguishing Indian land titles in affected states and relocating the Indian population.
"No eastern tribe had struggled harder or more successfully to make white civilization their own. For generations the Cherokee had lived side by side with whites in Georgia. They had devised a written language, published their own newspaper, adopted a constitution, and a Christian faith. But after gold was discovered on their land, even they were told they would have to start over again in the West."
The West, a documentary by Ken Burns and Stephen Ives
That decision, however, was reversed the following year in Worcester v. Georgia. Under an 1830 law Georgia required all white residents in Cherokee country to secure a license from the governor and to take an oath of allegiance to the state. Missionaries Samuel A. Worcester and Elizur Butler refused and were convicted and imprisoned. Worcester appealed to the Supreme Court. This time the court found that Indian nations are capable of making treaties, that under the Constitution treaties are the supreme law of the land, that the federal government had exclusive jurisdiction within the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation, and that state law had no force within the Cherokee boundaries. Worcester was ordered released from jail.
President Jackson refused to enforce the court's decision and along with legal technicalities, the fate of the Principal People seemed to be in the hands of the federal government. Even though the Cherokee people had adopted many practices of the white culture, and had used the court system in two major Supreme Court cases, they were unable to halt the removal process.
"John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it."
President Andrew Jackson re: Worcester v. Georgia
"My friends, circumstances render it impossible that you can flourish in the midst of a civilized community. You have but one remedy within your reach, and that is to remove to the west. And the sooner you do this, the sooner you will commence your career of improvement and prosperity."
President Martin Van Buren ordered the implementation of the Treaty of New Echota in 1838, and U.S. Army troops under the command of Gen. Winfield Scott began rounding up the Cherokees and moving them into stockades in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. Altogether 31 forts were constructed for this purpose - 13 in Georgia, five in North Carolina, eight in Tennessee, and five in Alabama. All of the posts were near Cherokee towns, and they served only as temporary housing for the Cherokees.
As soon as practical, the Indians were transferred from the removal forts to 11 internment camps that were more centrally located - 10 in Tennessee and one in Alabama. In North Carolina, for example, Cherokees at the removal forts were sent to Fort Butler, and by the second week in July on to the principal agency at Fort Cass. By late July 1838, with the exception of the Oconaluftee Citizen Indians, the fugitives hiding in the mountains, and some scattered families, virtually all other Cherokees remaining in the East were in the internment camps.
According to a military report for July 1838, the seven camps in and around Charleston, Tennessee, contained more than 4,800 Cherokees: 700 at the agency post, 600 at Rattlesnake Spring, 870 at the first encampment on Mouse Creek, 1,600 at the second encampment of Mouse Creek, 900 at Bedwell Springs, 1,300 on Chestooee, 700 on the ridge east of the agency, and 600 on the Upper Chatate. Some 2,000 Cherokees were camped at Gunstocker Spring 13 miles from Calhoun, Tennessee.
One group of Cherokees did not leave the mountains of North Carolina. This group traced their origin to an 1819 treaty that gave them an allotment of land and American citizenship on lands not belonging to the Cherokee Nation. When the forced removal came in 1838, this group--now called the Oconaluftee Cherokees - claimed the 1835 treaty did not apply to them as they no longer lived on Cherokee lands. Tsali and his sons were involved in raids on the U.S. soldiers who were sent to drive the Cherokees to the stockades. The responsible Indians were punished by the army, but the rest of the group gained permission to stay, and North Carolina ultimately recognized their rights. Fugitive Cherokees from the nation also joined the Oconaluftee Cherokees, and in time this group became the Eastern Band of Cherokees, who still reside in North Carolina.
"One by one Indian peoples were removed to the West. The Delaware, the Ottawa, Shawnee, Pawnee and Potawatomi, the Sauk and Fox, Miami and Kickapoo, the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole. In all some 90 thousand Indians were relocated. The Cherokee were among the last to go. Some reluctantly agreed to move. Others were driven from their homes at bayonet point. Almost two thousand of them died along the route they remembered as the Trail of Tears."
Documentary: The West (Ken Burns/Stephen Ives)
During the roundup intimidation and acts of cruelty at the hands of the troops, along with the theft and destruction of property by local residents, further alienated the Cherokees. Finally, Chief Ross appealed to President Van Buren to permit the Cherokees to oversee their own removal. Van Buren consented, and Ross and his brother Lewis administered the effort. The Cherokees were divided into 16 detachments of about 1,000 each.
The most commonly used overland route followed a northern alignment, while other detachments (notably those led by John Being and John Bell) followed more southern routes, and some followed slight variations. The northern route started at, Tennessee, and crossed central Tennessee, southwestern Kentucky, and southern Illinois. After crossing the Mississippi River north of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, these detachments trekked across southern Missouri and the northwest corner of Arkansas.
Road conditions, illness, and the distress of winter, particularly in southern Illinois while detachments waited to cross the ice-choked Mississippi, made death a daily occurrence. Mortality rates for the entire removal and its aftermath were substantial, totaling approximately 8,000.
"I saw the helpless Cherokees arrested and dragged from their homes, and driven at the bayonet point into the stockades. And in the chill of a drizzling rain on an October morning I saw them loaded like cattle or sheep into six hundred and forty-five wagons and started toward the west....On the morning of November the 17th we encountered a terrific sleet and snow storm with freezing temperatures and from that day until we reached the end of the fateful journey on March the 26th 1839, the sufferings of the Cherokees were awful. The trail of the exiles was a trail of death. They had to sleep in the wagons and on the ground without fire. And I have known as many as twenty-two of them to die in one night of pneumonia due to ill treatment, cold and exposure..."
Private John G. Burnett
Captain Abraham McClellan's Company,
2nd Regiment, 2nd Brigade, Mounted Infantry
Cherokee Indian Removal 1838-39
Most of the land route detachments entered present-day Oklahoma near Westville and were often met by a detachment of US. troops from Fort Gibson and the Arkansas River. The army officially received the Cherokees, who generally went to live with those who had already arrived, or awaited land assignments while camped alone the Illinois River and its tributaries east of present-day Tahlequah.
"A common ancestry promotes understanding between Cherokee full bloods and the mixed bloods. They are poles apart in many respects but, under the skin, are still brothers. For one thing, they have Cherokee traditions in common, and no amount of white blood can dilute the remembrance of what happened in centuries past to the Cherokee people."
Grace Steele Woodward
Tribal government was headquartered in Tahlequah and adhered to a constitution that divided responsibilities among an elected principal chief, an elected legislature know as the National Council, and a supreme court with lesser courts. Local districts with elected officials, similar to counties, formed the basis of the nation. The Cherokees maintained a bilingual school system, and missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions were active in the nation.
This autonomy remained reasonably strong until the Civil War, when a faction of the Cherokees sided with the Confederacy. During Reconstruction they suffered a loss of self-government and, more importantly, their land base. Government annuities were reduced, and lands were sold to newly arrived tribes. Cessions of land continued during the later 19th century, and the federal government emerged as the major force for land cessions under the Dawes Act of 1887, which divided up tribal lands. The establishment of the state of Oklahoma in 1907 increased pressure for land cessions. Many people of questionable Cherokee ancestry managed to get on the tribal rolls and participate in the allotment of these lands to individuals. By the early 1970's the Western Cherokees had lost title to over 19 million acres of land.
Difficult times continued because of the effects of the 1930's depression and the government policy to relocate Indians from tribal areas to urban America. Many Cherokees found themselves in urban slums with a lack of basic needs. Differences also emerged between traditionalists and those who adapted to mainstream society. During the 1970's and after, however, the Cherokees' situation improved because of self rule and economic programs.
Throughout the years, the Cherokees have sought to maintain much of their original cultural identity. To increase public awareness of their heritage, many of them have advocated the designation of the Trail of Tears as a historic trail.
"The Cherokee are probably the most tragic instance of what could have succeeded in American Indian policy and didn't. All these things that Americans would proudly see as the hallmarks of civilization are going to the West by Indian people. They do everything they were asked except one thing. What the Cherokees ultimately are, they may be Christian, they may be literate, they may have a government like ours, but ultimately they are Indian. And in the end, being Indian is what kills them."
Richard White, Historian