Migration from the original Cherokee Nation began in the early 1800’s. Some Cherokees, wary of white encroachment, moved west on their own and settled in other areas of the country. A group known as the Old Settlers previously had voluntarily moved in 1817 to lands given them in Arkansas where they established a government and a peaceful way of life. Later, however, they were forced to migrate to Indian Territory.
White resentment of the Cherokee had been building and reached a pinnacle following the discovery of gold in northern Georgia. This discovery was made just after the the creation and passage of the original Cherokee Nation constitution and establishment of a Cherokee Supreme Court. Possessed by “gold fever” and a thirst for expansion, many white communities turned on their Cherokee neighbors. The U.S. government ultimately decided it was time for the Cherokees to be “removed”; leaving behind their farms, their land and their homes.
President Andrew Jackson’s military command and almost certainly his life were saved thanks to the aid of 500 Cherokee allies at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. Unbelievably, it was Jackson who authorized the Indian Removal Act of 1830 following the recommendation of President James Monroe in his final address to Congress in 1825. Jackson, as president, sanctioned an attitude that had persisted for many years among many white immigrants. Even Thomas Jefferson, who often cited the Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois Confederacy as the model for the U.S. Constitution, supported Indian Removal as early as 1802.
The displacement of native people was not wanting for eloquent opposition. Senators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay spoke out against removal. The Reverend Samuel Worcester, missionary to the Cherokees, challenged Georgia’s attempt to estinguish Indian title to land in the state, actually winning his case before the Supreme Court.
Worcester vs. Georgia, 1832 and Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia, 1831 are considered the two most influential legal decisions in Indian law. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled for Georgia in the 1831 case, but in Worcester vs. Georgia, the court affirmed Cherokee sovereignty. President Andrew Jackson arrogantly defied the decision of the court and ordered the removal, an act that established the U.S. government’s precedent for the future removal of many Native Americans from their ancestral homelands. In reply to the court’s ruling, Jackson offered “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!… Build a fire under them. When it gets hot enough, they’ll go”.
The U.S. government used the Treaty of New Echota in 1835 to justify the removal. The treaty, signed by about 100 Cherokees known as the Treaty Party, led by Major Ridge, his son John Ridge and nephews Elias Boudinot (born Gallegina Uwati), and Staind Watie, their signing relinquished all lands east of the Mississippi River in exchange for land in Indian Territory and the promise of money, livestock, various provisions, tools and other benefits. The party believed it was in the best interest of the Cherokees to get favorable terms from the US Government before white squatters, state governments, and violence made matters worse.
When these pro-removal Cherokee leaders signed the Treaty of New Echota, they also signed their own death warrants, since the Cherokee Naiton Council had earlier passed a law calling for the death of anyone agreeing to give up tribal land. The signing and the removal led to bitter factionalism and ultimately to the deaths of most of the Treaty Party leaders once the Cherokee arrived in Indian Territory.
Opposition to the removal was led by Chief John Ross, a mixed-blood of Scottish and one-eighth Cherokee descent. The Ross party and most Cherokees opposed the New Echota Treaty, but Georgia and the U.S. government prevailed and used it as justification to force almost all of the 17,000 Cherokees from their southeastern homeland.
When Chief Ross became aware of the treasonous act of the Treaty Party, he appealed to the US Government for relief…
Letter from Chief John Ross,
It is well known that for a number of years past we have been harassed by a series of vexations, which it is deemed unnecessary to recite in detail, but the evidence of which our delegation will be prepared to furnish. With a view to bringing our troubles to a close, a delegation was appointed on the 23rd of October, 1835, by the General Council of the nation, clothed with full powers to enter into arrangements with the Government of the United States, for the final adjustment of all our existing difficulties. The delegation failing to effect an arrangement with the United States commissioner, then in the nation, proceeded, agreeably to their instructions in that case, to Washington City, for the purpose of negotiating a treaty with the authorities of the United States.
After the departure of the Delegation, a contract was made by the Rev. John F. Schermerhorn, and certain individual Cherokees, purporting to be a “treaty, concluded at New Echota, in the State of Georgia, on the 29th day of December, 1835, by General William Carroll and John F. Schermerhorn, commissioners on the part of the United States, and the chiefs, headmen, and people of the Cherokee tribes of Indians.” A spurious Delegation, in violation of a special injunction of the general council of the nation, proceeded to Washington City with this pretended treaty, and by false and fraudulent representations supplanted in the favor of the Government the legal and accredited Delegation of the Cherokee people, and obtained for this instrument, after making important alterations in its provisions, the recognition of the United States Government. And now it is presented to us as a treaty, ratified by the Senate, and approved by the President [Andrew Jackson], and our acquiescence in its requirements demanded, under the sanction of the displeasure of the United States, and the threat of summary compulsion, in case of refusal. It comes to us, not through our legitimate authorities, the known and usual medium of communication between the Government of the United States and our nation, but through the agency of a complication of powers, civil and military.
By the stipulations of this instrument, we are despoiled of our private possessions, the indefeasible property of individuals. We are stripped of every attribute of freedom and eligibility for legal self-defence. Our property may be plundered before our eyes; violence may be committed on our persons; even our lives may be taken away, and there is none to regard our complaints. We are denationalized; we are disfranchised. We are deprived of membership in the human family! We have neither land nor home, nor resting place that can be called our own. And this is effected by the provisions of a compact which assumes the venerated, the sacred appellation of treaty.
We are overwhelmed! Our hearts are sickened, our utterance is paralized, when we reflect on the condition in which we are placed, by the audacious practices of unprincipled men, who have managed their stratagems with so much dexterity as to impose on the Government of the United States, in the face of our earnest, solemn, and reiterated protestations.
The instrument in question is not the act of our Nation; we are not parties to its covenants; it has not received the sanction of our people. The makers of it sustain no office nor appointment in our Nation, under the designation of Chiefs, Head men, or any other title, by which they hold, or could acquire, authority to assume the reins of Government, and to make bargain and sale of our rights, our possessions, and our common country. And we are constrained solemnly to declare, that we cannot but contemplate the enforcement of the stipulations of this instrument on us, against our consent, as an act of injustice and oppression, which, we are well persuaded, can never knowingly be countenanced by the Government and people of the United States; nor can we believe it to be the design of these honorable and highminded individuals, who stand at the head of the Govt., to bind a whole Nation, by the acts of a few unauthorized individuals. And, therefore, we, the parties to be affected by the result, appeal with confidence to the justice, the magnanimity, the compassion, of your honorable bodies, against the enforcement, on us, of the provisions of a compact, in the formation of which we have had no agency.
The treaty provided a two year period for Cherokees to willingly emigrate to Indian Territory. A number of Cherokees (mostly members of the Ridge faction) accepted government funds for subsistence and transportation. Many travelled as individuals or families, but there were several organized groups:
- John S. Young, Conductor; via river boats; 466 Cherokees and 6 Creeks, left March 1, 1837; arrived March 28, 1837; included Major Ridge and Stand Watie.
- B.B. Cannon, Conductor; overland; 355 persons (15 deaths); left Oct.15, 1837; arrived Dec.29, 1837; included James Starr.
- Rev. John Huss, Conductor, overland; 74 persons; left Nov.11, 1837; arrival unknown.
- Robert B. Vann, leader; 133 persons; left Dec.1, 1837; arrived March 17, 1838.
- Lt. Edward Deas, Conductor; by boat; 252 persons (2 deaths); left April 6, 1838; arrived May 1, 1838.
- 162 persons; left May 25, 1838; arrived Oct. 21, 1838.
- 96 persons; date left unknown; arrived June 1, 1838.
- Lt. Edward Deas and John Adair Bell, Co-Conductors, overland, 660 persons left Oct. 11, 1838; 650 arrived Jan. 7, 1839.
There are muster rolls for groups # 1, 3 – 6 and daily journals of conductors for groups # 2 and 5 among records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the National Archives. Despite the government blandishments, only a few hundred volunteered to accept the Treaty terms for Removal.
Many white Americans were outraged by the dubious legality of the treaty and called on the government not to force the Cherokees to move. For example, on April 23, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a letter to Jackson’s successor, President Martin Van Buren, urging him not to inflict “so vast an outrage upon the Cherokee Nation.
Nevertheless, as the May 23, 1838, deadline for voluntary removal approached, President Van Buren assigned General Winfield Scott to head the forcible removal operation. He arrived at New Echota on May 17, 1838, in command of U.S. Army and state militia totalling about 7,000 soldiers. They began rounding up Cherokees in Georgia on May 26, 1838; ten days later, operations began in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama. Men, women, and children were removed at gunpoint from their homes over three weeks and gathered together in camps, often with very few of their possessions. Another soldier, Private John G. Burnett later wrote “Future generations will read and condemn the act and I do hope posterity will remember that private soldiers like myself, and like the four Cherokees who were forced by General Scott to shoot an Indian Chief and his children, had to execute the orders of our superiors. We had no choice in the matter.”
This story is perhaps a garbled version of the episode when a Cherokee named Tsali or Charley and three others killed two soldiers in the North Carolina mountains during the round-up. The two Indians were subsequently tracked down and executed by Chief Euchella’s band of Cherokees in exchange for a deal with the Army to avoid their own removal. The Cherokees were then marched overland to departure points at Ross’s Landing (Chattanooga, Tennessee) and Gunter’s Landing (Guntersville, Alabama) on the Tennessee River, and forced on to flatboats and the steamers “Smelter” and “Little Rock”. Unfortunately, a drought brought low water levels on the rivers, requiring frequent unloading of vessels to evade river obstacles and shoals. The Army directed Removal was characterized by many deaths and desertions, and this part of the Cherokee Removal proved to be a fiasco and Gen. Scott ordered suspension of further removal efforts. The Army-operated groups were :
- Lt. Edward Deas, Conductor; 800 left June 6, 1838 by boat; 489 arrived June 19, 1838.
- Lt. Monroe, Conductor, 164 persons left June 12, 1838; arrival unknown.
- Lt. R.H.K. Whiteley, ca. 800 persons left June 13, 1838 by boat, arrived Aug. 5, 1838 (70 deaths).
- Captain Gustavus S. Drane, Conductor, 1072 left June 17, 1838 by boat, 635 arrived Sept. 7, 1838 (146 deaths, 2 births).
Muster rolls for groups # 1 and 4 are in the records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and # 2 in records of the Army Continental Commands (Eastern Division, Gen. Winfield Scott’s papers) in the National Archives. There are daily journals of conductors for groups # 1 and 3 among Special Files of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The deaths and desertions in the Army’s boat detachments caused Gen Scott to suspend the Army’s Removal efforts, and the remaining Cherokees were put into eleven internment camps, mostly located near Ross’ Landing (now Chattanooga, TN) and at Red Clay, Bedwell Springs, Chatata, Mouse Creek, Rattlesnake Springs, Chestooe, and Calhoun (site of the former Cherokee Agency) located within Bradley County, TN and one camp (Fort Payne) in Alabama.
Cherokees remained in the camps during the summer of 1838 and were plagued by dysentery and other illnesses, which led to 353 deaths. A group of Cherokees petitioned General Scott for a delay until cooler weather made the journey less hazardous. This was granted; meanwhile Chief Ross, finally accepting defeat, managed to have the remainder of the removal turned over to the supervision of the Cherokee Council. Although there were some objections within the U.S. government because of the additional cost, General Scott awarded a contract for removing the remaining 11,000 Cherokees under the supervision of Principal Chief Ross, with expenses to be paid by the Army.
Chief John Ross organized 12 wagon trains, each with about 1000 persons and conducted by veteran full-blood tribal leaders or educated mixed bloods. Each wagon train was assigned physicians, interpreters (to help the physicians), commissaries, managers, wagon masters, teamsters, and even grave diggers. Chief Ross also purchased the steamboat “Victoria” in which his own and tribal leaders’ families could travel in some comfort. Lewis Ross, the Chief’s brother, was the main contractor and furnished forage, rations, and clothing for the wagon trains. Although this arrangement was an improvement for all concerned, disease and exposure still took many lives. This is the part of the Removal usually identified as The “Trail of Tears.”
- Daniel Colston, Conductor (first choice Hair Conrad became ill); Asst. Conductor Jefferson Nevins; 710 persons left Oct.5, 1838 from Agency camp and 654 people arrived at Woodall’s place in Indian Territory on Jan. 4, 1839 (57 deaths, 9 births, 24 deserters).
- Elijah Hicks, Conductor; White Path (died near Hopkinsville, Kentucky) and William Arnold, Asst. Conductors; 809 persons left Oct.4, 1838 from Camp Ross on Gunstocker Creek and 744 people arrived Jan.4, 1839 at Mrs. Webber’s place in Indian Territory.
- Rev. Jesse Bushyhead, Conductor; Roman Nose, Asst. Conductor; 864 left Oct. 16, 1838 from Chatata Creek camp and 898 arrived Feb. 27, 1839 at Fort Wayne, Ind. Ty. (38 deaths, 6 births, 151 deserters, 171 additions).
- Capt. John Benge, Conductor; George C. Lowrey, Jr. Asst. Conductor; 1,079 persons left Fort Payne camp, Alabama Oct. 1, 1838 and 1,132 arrived Jan.11, 1839 at Mrs. Webber’s place, Indian Territory. (33 deaths, 3 births).
- Situake, Conductor; Rev. Evan Jones, Asst. Conductor; 1,205 persons left Oct. 19, 1838 from Savannah Creek camp and 1,033 arrived Feb. 2, 1839 (at Beatties’ Prairie, Indian Territory. (71 deaths, 5 births).
- Capt. Old Fields, Conductor; Rev. Stephen Foreman, Asst. Conductor; 864 persons left Oct. 10, 1838 from Candy’s Creek camp and 898 arrived Feb. 2, 1839 at Beatties’ Prairie (57 deaths, 19 births, 10 deserters, 6 additions).
- Moses Daniel, Conductor; George Still, Sr. Asst. Conductor; 1,031 persons left from Agency camp on Oct.23, 1838 and 924 arrived March 2, 1839 at Mrs. Webber’s (48 deaths, 6 births).
- Chuwaluka (a.k.a. Bark), Conductor; James D. Wofford (fired for drunkenness) and Thomas N. Clark, Jr. Asst. Conductors; 1,120 left Oct.27, 1838 from Mouse Creek camp and 970 arrived March 1, 1839 at Fort Wayne.
- Judge James Brown, Conductor; Lewis Hildebrand, Asst. Conductor; 745 left Oct. 31, 1838 from Ootewah Creek camp and 717 arrived March 3, 1839 at Park Hill.
- George Hicks, Conductor; Collins McDonald, Asst. Conductor; 1,031 left Nov. 4, 1838 from Mouse Creek camp and 1,039 arrived March 14, 1839 near Fort Wayne.
- Richard Taylor, Conductor; Walter Scott Adair, Asst. Conductor; 897 left Nov. 6, 1838 from Ooltewah Creek camp and 942 arrived March 24, 1839 at Woodall’s place(55 deaths, 15 births). Missionary Rev. Daniel Butrick accompanied this detachment, and his daily journal has been published.
- Peter Hildebrand, Conductor; James Vann Hildebrand, Asst. Conductor; 1,449 left Nov. 8, 1838 Ocoe camp and 1,311 arrived March 25, 1839 near Woodall’s place.
- “Victoria” Detachment – John Drew Conductor; John Golden Ross, Asst. Conductor; 219 left Nov. 5, 1838 Agency camp and 231 arrived March 18, 1839 Tahlequah.
There exist muster rolls for four (Benge, Chuwaluka, G. Hicks, and Hildebrand) of the 12 wagon trains and payrolls of officials for all 13 detachments among the personal papers of Principal Chief John Ross in the Gilcrease Institution in Tulsa, OK.
An estimated 4,000 died from hunger, exposure and disease. The journey became a cultural memory as the “trail where they cried” for the Cherokees and other removed tribes. Today it is widely remembered by the general public as the “Trail of Tears”. The Oklahoma chapter of the Trail of Tears Association has begun the task of marking the graves of Trail survivors with bronze memorials.