The American Legacy of the Trail of Tears

trail-of-tears“Old Hickory” General Andrew Jackson won the nasty, negative election of 1828 and was elected to the White House.  At this time, over 125,000 Native Americans still occupied millions of acres in western North Carolina, Tennessee, north Georgia, Alabama, and Florida – land they’d lived on for generations. By 1840, there’d be few left anywhere east of the Mississippi.  Frontier Americans both feared and resented the many southeastern tribes. To them, Indians were an alien race who occupied land white settlers believed they deserved.  They desperately wanted to grow cotton and other crops in the fertile soil of the south.

 

George Washington had believed the solution to “The Indian Problem” was to civilize the savage and make them as American as possible. This included conversion to Christianity, learning English, and adopting the principles of property ownership. In the southeastern US, some Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole tribes took up white customs and became known as “The Five Civilized Tribes.”  But their land was still valuable, ever more so as thousands of white settlers continued to flood the southeast. Many white settlers did not care how “civilized” the tribes were.  They wanted that land and would do anything to get it. They burned and looted villages and squatted on property that belonged to those tribes.

The new populist President Jackson was staunch advocate for “Indian Removal.”

As a General, he’d led brutal campaigns against the Creeks & Seminoles that transferred thousands of acres from Indians to white farmers. As President, he continued this crusade as his solution to The Indian Problem. In 1830, he signed the INDIAN REMOVAL ACT, giving government the authority to exchange Native land in the southeast for land west of the Mississippi in the Oklahoma territory.  The new law did required fair, voluntary and peaceful removal treaties and did not permit forced removal of tribes from their land. Nevertheless, Jackson ignored the wording of the law and proceeded to force Native tribes to vacate their ancestral lands.

The forced displacement of native American had some eloquent opposition in Congress. Senators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay both spoke out frequently against the removal.  President Jackson ignored them.  In the winter of 1831, the Choctaws became the first tribe to be expelled from their land by the US Army. They made the journey to Oklahoma on foot, some bound, marching double file at gunpoint, without any food, shelter or other help from the military. Thousands died along the way. It was just the beginning of what one newspaper called the Trail of Tears and Death.  While Jackson put a very positive and populist spin on ‘Indian Removal’ in his speeches, the actual removal was anything but. There was little the native tribes could do to defend themselves.

The Cherokees however chose to take legal action. They were by no means frontier savages. They’d developed their own written language, printed newspapers and elected representatives to their government.   When the state governments threatened to seize their land, the Cherokees took their case to the Supreme Court AND WON! a favorable decision. In 1832, the opinion of Court was that states had no jurisdiction over the Cherokee Nation or claim to their lands.

However state officials simply ignored the Supreme Court’s decision, and President Jackson refused to enforce it. He was furious and personally insulted by the Court’s ruling shouting:

“The Court has made their decision, now let them enforce it!”

So the encroachment continued unabated.  Jackson proclaimed that if no one enforced the Court’s rulings (and he certainly did not), then the decisions was in essence still born.  Jackson himself defied the court’s decision  and ordered further removal of Native Americans. Under orders from President Jackson, the U.S. Army began strict enforcement of the Indian Removal Act. This defiant action set a precedent the government would use for decades to come when the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral land was deemed ‘necessary.’

In 1835, representatives of the Cherokee Nation negotiated a Treaty which traded all Cherokee land in Georgia east of the Mississippi for $5 million dollars and relocation assistance. While the treaty was a done deal, many Cherokee felt betrayed by their representatives and refused to leave.  The removal process continued nonetheless. In 1836, the government forced the Creek Nation from their land. Over 3,500 of 15,000 Creeks would not survive the long, harsh journey west.

By 1838, only 2,000 Cherokees had left.  The President was fed up with the delay and sent 7,000 troops to “expedite the removal process.”  The soldiers forced the remaining Cherokee refugees into stockades at bayonet point while white settlers looted their villages. About 20,000 Cherokees marched westward at gunpoint more than 1,200 miles. Diseases, dysentery, and starvation were rampant along the way.  More than 5,000 Cherokee, nearly a quarter, would die, with the remainder left to seek survival in a territory totally foreign to them.

By 1840 the deed was done.

Tens of thousands of Native Americans had been forced off of their lands. The government promised their new territory would remain untouched forever, but of course history tells us how that went.  As white settlers pushed westward across the Mississippi, “Indian Country” would shrink yet again.  According to legend, the white Cherokee rose, the state flower of Georgia, grew everywhere a tear fell on the sad Trail of Tears. The flowers continue to grow wildly along many of the trails the Native American tribes took on their long journey westward.

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