by Sadegh Tavakoli and Hossein Sohrevardi
“The Trail of Tears,” the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation from their ancestral lands east of the Mississippi to the Indian Territories in present day Oklahoma, is remembered as one of the darkest chapters in American history. Although this incident is most closely associated with the Cherokee, it has also come to more general refer to a period of history of forced expulsion of Southeastern and Northeastern Native American tribes after the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. To better understand what lead up specifically, to the death of 4,000 Cherokee Indians in the winter of1838-9 one must look at the dynamics and historical interaction between European (and later white American) with the Native Americans.
The history of Native Americans during the “founding” and development of America is the oldest and darkest stain upon this country. The Europeans discovery of America and the subsequent colonization of this continent came at the expense of millions of natives in this land. From its very inception, the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492 and the enslavement of native islanders for presentation before Queen Isabella of Spain foreshadowed the centuries of violence and injustice to come. There are scattered incidents of peaceful, positive coexistence such as the famed “First Thanksgiving,” although some of the reports about that incident seem to be exaggerated. Unfortunately, injustice against Native Americans has been a recurring theme throughout American history, one that is being redressed even today as can be seen by a recent court settlement between the US government and three hundred thousand Native Americans.
Prior to the American Revolution, the British Proclamation of 1763 prevented colonial expansion east of the Appalachian Mountains and angered colonists. As the American colonies matured into the United States of America, the rewards of Democracy, the government of the people, by the people, for the people as Abraham Lincoln made public in his Gettysburg Address exactly 100 years after the Proclamation, ironically did not improve the conditions of those people who were most entitled to the land, the Native Americans. The early 1800s saw the rapid expansion of the US either through the direct purchase of lands or through treaties and forced removal.
The modus operandi of dealing with American Indians was through the rule of law, by establishing a legal precedent and then following it up by force. During the ten year period between 1814 until 1824, Andrew Jackson served a key role in negotiating nine out of the eleven treaties relinquishing Native Americans of their eastern lands, although many of them did not actually make the move westward to the lands that they had received in exchange. They had hoped that by acquiescing they would be left alone, but this only set the stage for their forced removal years later. In 1823 the US Supreme Court ruled that Native Americans could reside within the United States but could not own the title to that land. The avaricious greed of Manifest Destiny dictated that the right of US discovery preceded that of Native American occupancy.
Some Native Americans tried assimilation, as the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, and Seminole tribes that earned the nickname the “Five Civilized Tribes,” developing schools, commercial farming and even some European dress. The Cherokee tried using legal means to save their land. They had observed that in prior cases, American Indians’ that had had their lands seceded to the United States were first recognized as sovereign nations before that could be done so. Therefore in 1827 the Cherokee took the initiative declaring themselves a sovereign nation and forming a constitution, taking their complaint to the Federal Government to secure their rights. They were not recognized by the state of Georgia, having their case overturned by the Supreme Court in the case of The Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia. The Cherokee went to the Supreme Court again in Worcester vs. Georgia, arguing that the Federal Government and not States had authority over Indian affairs, this time winning recognition of their sovereignty in the 1832, but it seemed to be borrowed time. From 1790 until 1830 the population of Georgia multiplied by six fold and the discovery of gold in the Georgian territories in the late 1820s effectively sealed the Native Americans’ fate. Georgians demanded fulfillment of the Compact of 1802 whereby the government of President Thomas Jefferson paid Georgia $1.25 million for the temporary purchase of central and western lands in exchange promising to nullify the Cherokee claims and to remove them from their land in coming years.
President Andrew Jackson was determined to do just that, refusing to enforce the Supreme Court’s 1832 court decision and in fact a year prior, in 1830, he had signed the Indian Removal Act into law. Under this law, any Indians choosing to stay would become legal citizens under the state they resided, but when the Southeastern tribes resisted, Jackson had them forcible removed. One by one the American Indians of the Deep South were forcibly moved westward to Indian Territory located in present day Oklahoma. First came the Choctaw; they signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1831 and voluntarily left their lands in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The Seminole were not as amenable. The Second Seminole War (1835-42) and tens of millions of dollars later Jackson had still not successfully removed all the Seminole, and no one would until the conclusion of Third Seminole War in 1858 when the US government paid the remaining ones to leave. The Creek presented much the same, most of them were forcibly removed by 1837 without ever having signed a removal treaty. The Chickasaw did not attempt resistance also leaving in the winter of 1837-8 to Tennessee.
As difficult as the previous four tribes had been the removal of the Cherokee Nation was one of the most brutal chapters in American history, forever recorded as the “Trail of Tears.” Most Cherokee supported their Principle Chief, John Ross, who chose to resist removal of his people, but the US chose to recognize and ratify the Treaty of New Echota lead by John Ridge, his father, Major Ridge, and Elias Boudinot who along with a minority of 500 out of the 17,000 Cherokee supported moving. Following up on Andrew Jackson’s initiative, his successor Martin Van Buren authorized an armed force of 7,000 men under the command of General Winfield Scott to enforce the removal in 1838. Sixteen thousand men, women, and children were rounded up and displaced from their homeland forced to trek 1000 miles. Seeing the casualties mounting under the guidance of Scott, Ross negotiated to have the people guide the tribe west. They split up into small groups and traversed the wilderness, foraging for food on the way. Four thousand Cherokee died on what they came to call “Nunna daul Tsuny,” or “The Trail Where They Cried” now famously known as the “Trail of Tears.”
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