7 Things You May Not Know About the Cherokee Trail of Tears
An estimated 15,000 to 16,000 Cherokee people made the grueling journey west, following one of several routes that collectively became known as the Trail of Tears.
1- Davy Crockett objected to Indian removal. Frontiersman Davy Crockett, whose grandparents were killed by Creeks and Cherokees, was a scout for Andrew Jackson during the Creek War (1813-14). However, while serving as a U.S. congressman from Tennessee, Crockett broke with President Jackson over the Indian Removal Act, calling it unjust. Despite warnings that his opposition to Indian removal would cost him his seat in Congress, where he’d served since 1827,
2- Renegade Cherokees signed a treaty selling all tribal lands. John Ross, who was of Scottish and Cherokee ancestry and became the tribe’s principal chief in 1828, was strongly opposed to giving up the Cherokees’ ancestral lands, as were the majority of the Cherokee people. However, a small group within the tribe believed it was inevitable that white settlers would keep encroaching on their lands and therefore the only way to preserve Cherokee culture and survive as a tribe was to move west.
3- Martin Van Buren ordered the roundup of the Cherokees. During his two terms in the White House, from 1829 to 1837, Andrew Jackson was responsible for putting Indian removal policies in place; however, he left office before the 1838 deadline for the Cherokees to surrender their lands in the East. It was Jackson’s presidential successor, Martin Van Buren, who ordered General Winfield Scott to forcibly evict the Cherokees. Scott’s troops rounded up thousands of Cherokees and then imprisoned them in forts in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Alabama.
4- The Trail of Tears wasn’t just one route. The first group of Cherokees departed Tennessee in June 1838 and headed to Indian Territory by boat, a journey that took them along the Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi and Arkansas rivers. Heat and extended drought soon made travel along this water route impractical, so that fall and winter thousands more Cherokees were forced to trek from Tennessee to present-day Oklahoma via one of several overland routes.
5- Not all Cherokees left the Southeast. A small group of Cherokee people managed to remain in North Carolina, either as a result of an 1819 agreement that enabled them to stay on their land there, or because they hid in the mountains from the U.S. soldiers sent to capture them. The group, which also included people who walked back from Indian Territory, became known as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Today, the group has approximately 12,500 members, who live primarily in western North Carolina on the 57,000-acre Qualla Boundary.
6- The Cherokees rebuilt in Indian Territory. In the first years after their arrival in Indian Territory, life was difficult for many Cherokees. However, under the leadership of Chief Ross the tribe rebuilt in the 1840s and 1850s, establishing businesses and a public school system and publishing what was then America’s only tribal newspaper.
7- The U.S. apologized to Native American groups in 2009. In December 2009, President Barack Obama signed a bill that included an official apology to all American Indian tribes for past injustices. U.S. Senators Sam Brownback of Kansas and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota led a bipartisan effort to pass the resolution, which stated: “the United States, acting through Congress…recognizes that there have been years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies, and the breaking of covenants by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes.” However, the resolution did not call for reparations and included a disclaimer that it wasn’t meant to support any legal claims against the United States.