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Trail of Tears

The Trail of Tears was the journey of the eastern Cherokees to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) during the Indian Removal of 1838.

Why were the Cherokees removed? Besides Manifest Destiny, a motivator could have been the discovery of gold found on Cherokee lands in 1830. The Cherokee people themselves were not allowed to mine for gold, and Georgia held lotteries to give the land to white pioneers and settlers. The Cherokees successfully challenged Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1831, but the decision was not enforced.

By the treaty of New Echota, signed by a minority of the tribe in 1835, none of which were elected officials, the Cherokees were to surrender their lands in Georgia and move west of the Mississippi River to "Indian country." The majority bitterly opposed the plan and refused to leave until troops under Gen. Winfield Scott forced them into internment camps. From the camps, they were released with military detachments and sent out on a journey of thousands of miles. They traveled by foot, horse, wagon, or steamboat in 1838-1839.

In October and November, 1838, over 15,000 started west, the majority by foot and a few wagons. During the winter, rain and poor food brought sickness, which killed many. Small children, the old, and the infirm were especially susceptible. Exact figures are not available, but missionary doctor Elizur Butler, who accompanied the Cherokees, estimated that more than 4,000 died, or about one-fifth of the entire population.

It is important to note that other tribes were also removed from their homelands. The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), and Seminole signed more than 40 treaties ceding their lands to the U.S. Between 1830 and 1850, about 100,000 American Indians were relocated west after the U.S. government coerced treaties or used the U.S. Army against resistors. Many were treated brutally and thousands died in waiting or on their journey.

The Trail Today
The Trail of Tears Historic Trail, "A Journey of Injustice," was designated in 1987 as a way to remember intolerance and suffering, but also commemorate the survival of the people who were forcefully removed from their homelands to live in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail is a network of different routes that stretches more than 5,000 miles across nine states, along the paths that 17 detachments followed westward.