Trail of Tears: Story, Death Count & Facts
In the 1830s, almost 125, 000 people of Indian descent occupied millions of acres around Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida. They were known as the Cherokees. Their land was rich and was cultivated for various crops. A sad spectacle, however, happened in the year 1838.
The ethnic owners of the land were forcefully removed from their ancestral lands and sent to places beyond Mississippi. This event is what came to be known as the Trail of Tears.
Approximately 15,000 people were made to march for a distance of about 1,200 miles; and by the time the march ended, more than 5,000 of them had died of hunger and various forms of diseases like flu.
The Indian problem
White Americans and prospective businessmen felt they had greater entitlement to the land on which the native Cherokees lived on. They considered the natives uncivilized and named their existence at the place the “Indian Problem”
A few authorities in the early post-independence periods, like President George Washington, accepted that the most ideal approach to understand this “Indian Problem” was just to “edify” the Native Americans. The objective of this crusade was to make Native Americans much like white Americans by urging them to convert to Christianity. Authorities also embarked on projects that incentivized Native Americans to speak and read English.
The Indian Removal Process
To solve the Indian problem, the Indian Removal Act was passed by the US congress in 1830. Particularly, the act was supported by President Andrew Jackson. Prior to that, President Thomas Jefferson and his administration, in 1802, contracted another pact known as the Georgia agreement. The agreement contained how all of the Indian lands were to be acquired.
It wasn’t going to be possible to take the land of the Cherokees anyhow because they were sovereign. Their lands could only be taken by signed treaties, and so a lot of such treaties were signed, but many of those pacts were signed under so much pressure and eventually did not work.
These agreements invariably meant that the Indians had sold out some of their lands and were guaranteed sovereignty and the right to keep all their remaining territory.
They thought haven signed these deals; the rest of their land would be protected. But as the white American population grew, so did the thirst and need for more lands increase. Subsequent US presidents began piling up pressure on law makers for more and more Indian lands.
At a point, the natives decided, they were not going to allow any further removal. They strengthened their front and built a national capital at New Echota, Georgia. They also built a governance system like that of the United States and made John Ross their elected principal chief. The Indians fought with letters upon letters, but these could not stop the looming event from unfolding.
It is recorded in history that the Cherokees, though being treated unfairly, were sharply divided over their response to the issue of the unlawful ejection. The division was on how to deal with America’s resolve to take what rightfully belonged to them.
While some felt that they had to hold their own against their usurpers and contest for it, refusing to give away their birthright of land, others felt otherwise. The second group reasoned that their eviction was inevitable; it would be more rational to reach an agreement for something in return.
What happened eventually was that, in 1835, a small number of Cherokees agreed and signed another pact with the federal government. It came to be known as the Pact of New Echota. This pact gave out all of their lands on the East of Mississippi for some amount of money.
Historians quote the amount of money as $5 million. This was in exchange for the movement, relocation, and recompense for the land that was being given away.
With almost 16,000 signatures John Ross petitioned against the signing of this agreement; but the federal government saw the agreement as a done deal. The majority of the Cherokee felt manipulated, betrayed and deceived; this was because those who went to broker the deal did not do so on their behalf and with their consent.
General Winfield Scott mobilized wagons, keelboats, and steamers to Cherokee areas and forcefully moved about 16,000 indigenes from their land till they got to their reservation.
5 Major Facts about the Trail of Tears
- As the Native Americans were being forced to move, they were kept in forts along the way. Fifteen of these forts were located in Georgia alone. These forts were filled with human waste and dead bodies.
- Each time this story is told, the distance of the journey overshadows the suffering those Native Indians went through.
- Cherokee dwellers were forced into dwellings (pens as a matter of fact) not even befitting of animals. At knife point, many of the Native Indians lost their properties. Ancient bayonets were pointed at them as a distance of 1,200 miles had to be covered on foot. As already stated, many died of several diseases, many of them airborne diseases. It is estimated that over 5,000 of them died in the process.
- The Cherokees, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Creek people who accepted the lifestyle of the white Americans and did not resist forceful ejection came to be known as “Five Civilized Tribes” in the American public.
- Another point worth noting is that the Indian removal also happened in the North, in places like Illinois and Wisconsin.