10 Misunderstood Facts on the Trail of Tears History Books Don’t Cover

10 Misunderstood Facts on the Trail of Tears History Books Don’t Cover

Larry Holzwarth - March 16, 2018

The tribe most often associated in the public mind with the tragic events of the Trail of Tears is the Cherokee. They were not the only tribe forced from their ancestral land to locations west of the Mississippi. The Choctaw had their own Trail of Tears as did the Chickasaw, Seminole, and Creek. The forced relocations led to a decade long war with the Seminole in Florida, after that tribe’s delegation signed a treaty of peace and relocation, having inspected their new lands and finding them to be acceptable. The events set in motion by the Indian Removal Act in which the tribes were forced off their lands ran from 1830 to 1850.

George Washington had decades before proposed the assimilation of the eastern tribes through a process of transforming their culture. The process gained traction in the American South, some Creek Indians especially embraced the individual ownership of land, and many Indians occupying both private and communal lands owned slaves. Indians living on privately owned land were not affected by the relocation and were allowed to remain in the East. Beginning with the removal of the Choctaw in 1831, the Trail of Tears refers to more than a pathway, but to two decades of policy which led to the deaths of thousands, from malnutrition, disease, murder, drowning, and sometimes simple exhaustion.

10 Misunderstood Facts on the Trail of Tears History Books Don’t Cover
There were several different routes taken by the Eastern Tribes to the Indian Territories in what is now Oklahoma. Wikimedia

Most of the actual migrations were led by the tribal leaders themselves, rather than the US government. Here are some events and facts about the Indian Removal Policies which led to the Trail of Tears.

10 Misunderstood Facts on the Trail of Tears History Books Don’t Cover
Official Presidential Portrait of Andrew Jackson, who believed the only way the Indians could preserve their culture was removal to the West. The White House

The Indian Removal Act of 1830

The remaining Eastern American Indian Tribes, particularly in the South, mostly lived communally on land which in some cases crossed state lines. Legally, state governments had no authority to deal with the Indians, a right guaranteed to the federal government by the Constitution. As demand for southern cotton grew so did the need for more land on which to grow it, and some Indians had their own plantations, on land either leased or owned. Most did not, preferring the communal style of living which had been their tribal tradition.

In 1830 Andrew Jackson pushed Congress to pass legislation which would empower the President to remove the Indians from the land they occupied and relocate them to lands west of the Mississippi, just above the Mexican province of Texas. Jackson is frequently condemned for this action, but it was in response to intense pressure from the white population of the South and their representatives. Opposition to the plan was led by David Crockett of Tennessee, and Congressional debate was heated but the act passed, with Jackson presenting his views in the 1829 State of the Union address and in letters to his supporters.

Jackson expressed the view that the Indians’ way of life could not be maintained within the confines of the states, with pressures on both game for sustenance and land for crops eventually extinguishing tribal life. Those Indians who had adopted individual land ownership were allowed to stay where they were if they wished, but those who preferred their traditional manner of existence needed to be outside the physical jurisdiction of the individual states, and on land over which the federal government held full jurisdiction. Jackson viewed the often expressed notion of preserving the Indian’s way of life as romantic nonsense incompatible with progress.

Another problem Jackson was dealing with was the state governments. Although the Supreme Court ruled that the individual states’ held no jurisdiction over the Indian lands within their boundaries, Jackson was concerned that states’ rights advocates would eventually lead to conflicts between state militias and federal troops sent to enforce federal laws. Jackson had another challenge to federal supremacy on his hands, the Nullification Crisis in South Carolina, and in his mind the presence of conflict with the state’s over the Indian lands could add to the challenge to federal law. He believed that removal to the Indian lands (present day Oklahoma) was for the benefit of the Indians, the states, and the federal government.

Jackson is often blamed for the sad events of the Trail of Tears and he certainly bears his share of responsibility for what ensued during the forced relocation. The Indian Removal Act was not intended to exterminate the Indian tribes but was an attempt to allow them to maintain their traditions without the steadily increasing pressure on the lands they occupied. The tragic events which followed were due to a variety of factors including inept or corrupt management of the removal, prejudices and racial hatreds, bad weather, insufficient supply, and in some cases outright murder.

10 Misunderstood Facts on the Trail of Tears History Books Don’t Cover
The Choctaw and Chickasaw lands in Mississippi before the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, in which the Choctaw ceded their lands in return for acreage in the Indian Territory. Trinitarian Creek

The Choctaw Removal

The Choctaw traditional lands were in the Deep South, in parts of what is now Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. In 1831 their lands comprised approximately 11 million acres and these were ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, in which the Choctaw agreed to removal to the Indian Territory. The Choctaw received 15 million acres of land there, and any Choctaw head of a family who wished to become a citizen of the United States and remain was allowed to do so. It was also agreed that they could retain their citizenship as a Choctaw. About 5,000 Choctaw remained in Mississippi under these terms.

Jackson hoped to use the Choctaw removal as a model for future tribes. George Gaines, an agent with experience trading with the Choctaw and one of the negotiators of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, was assigned the task of removing them to their new lands. A three phase removal process was established, beginning in the autumn of 1831, before the Senate had ratified the treaty. Beginning in early November the first phase had the Choctaw departing from mustering points at Memphis and Vicksburg. When harsh weather and floods prevented their traveling by wagon Gaines arranged for steamboats to carry them up the Arkansas River to Arkansas Post.

There the river became blocked with ice floes rendering steamboat travel impossible. Supplies began to run out as they had not planned on being stationary for a prolonged period. Gaines requisitioned forty wagons to carry the Choctaw to Little Rock. The group which had started from Vicksburg became lost in the swamps. That winter a severe blizzard struck, creating further difficulties in travel and reducing supplies still further. In 1832, as another group of Choctaw migrated west, cholera epidemic swept across the south, and fear of disease among the Indians led to many towns denying them the right to pass through, forcing them to go around, lengthening their journey.

The Choctaw who remained in Mississippi didn’t fare much better, as Jackson had foreseen. They faced legal harassment as a means of taking their land, as well as physical attacks and the destruction of their property. Many white settlers of Mississippi considered the Choctaw to be inferior to Blacks, and treated them accordingly. Gradually the number of Choctaw in Mississippi was reduced through sickness, or through members of the tribe finally giving up and moving elsewhere. Many moved to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma is a Choctaw word).

About 15,000 Choctaw and an additional 1,000 Black slaves they owned were removed to the Indian Territory. It was the Choctaw who gave the trip the name “Trail of Tears.” Estimates of their dead range from 2,500 to 6,000 during the migration. The migration was completed in 1833 although members of the Mississippi Choctaw continued to remove to Oklahoma into the twentieth century. It has since been alleged that the tribe’s leaders had agreed to the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek after being bribed.

10 Misunderstood Facts on the Trail of Tears History Books Don’t Cover
Osceola, who joined the Seminole after abandoning the Creek, refused to accept the treaty ceding Seminole lands and relocating to the Indian Territory. Wikimedia

The Seminole

In 1832 leaders of the Seminole Nation of Florida traveled to the west along the Mississippi, where it had been proposed to them that they would be relocated to the Creek Reservation there. After a trip of several months inspecting the lands and meeting with the Creek leadership the Seminole signed a treaty for their removal. Upon their return to Florida they encountered opposition from some of the Seminole, former Creeks who feared reprisals for their having abandoned the tribe. They renounced the treaty, although some Seminole bands accepted the terms and traveled to the west in 1834.

Those that did not soon began attacking American settlements and troops, including the massacre of a company of US Army regulars in which all but three of the 110 man unit were killed. Florida’s settlers began to flock to the forts and blockhouses erected for the purpose of sheltering them and militia units mustered around the state. Abandoned farms were raided and their crops burned. The name Osceola became known and feared around Florida, and throughout the United States. Many of the citizens who heard it reviled him and his tactics. As Seminole bands were subdued they were removed to the Creek lands.

The press of the day reported the war and blamed the Seminole, who had initiated the hostilities after signing a peace treaty and an agreement to remove to the west. The tribal structure of the Seminole was such that the leaders who had traveled to the west and negotiated with US Agents and the Creek Indians did not have the authority to speak for all of the Seminole bands. It also led the Seminole bands to operate independently of one another in guerrilla raids. American pursuit often led them deep into the swamps, where they were at the mercy of their enemies.

To subdue the Seminole the United States troops used the strategy of burning their towns and villages, destroying their food supplies, and forcing them to sue for peace or die of starvation. When the Seminole did surrender they were removed to the Indian Territory. Many died on the trail, of either starvation or disease, or the attacks of hostile settlers who had read of the atrocities committed against civilians in Florida. The war did not end with a formal treaty, but with the remaining Seminole, estimated to have been between 500 and 1,000, fleeing deep into the Everglades, and the army left them alone.

There would be another Seminole War, again started when the Seminole renounced another treaty which they signed. By the end of that war there were many times more Seminole living with the Creeks in Indian Territory than there were in Florida. The Seminole were another example of Jackson’s being correct when he surmised that the Indian present within the states would either have to assimilate themselves with the Americans or lose their way of life.

10 Misunderstood Facts on the Trail of Tears History Books Don’t Cover
The treaty ending the Creek War (1813-14) further weakened the already divided Upper and Lower Creek tribes. New York Public Library

The Upper and Lower Creeks

The Creek tribes had a long history of treaties which gradually ceded their ancestral lands to the United States. The Creek tribes were branches of the Muscogee, and over the years devolved into the Lower Creek, mostly in Georgia, and the Upper Creek living in Alabama and Tennessee. The Red Sticks, which Andrew Jackson routed at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend during the war of 1812, were comprised of Upper Creek Indians led by a chief named Menawa, many of whom fled to the lands of the Seminole following the defeat. Among these was a young Creek brave named Osceola.

The War of 1812 led to many of the Lower Creek being removed to the Indian Territory, Many others, including the Red Stick leader whose English name was William McIntosh settled among the whites, assimilated into the communities and purchasing land and slaves. McIntosh was a frequent guest of Andrew Jackson at the Hermitage, where they discussed politics and their mutual interest in race horses. By 1825 the Upper Creeks were being pressured to move as well, and had ceded so much land to the whites that their tribal council imposed a death sentence for any leader who agreed to surrender Creek land.

When McIntosh ceded lands in the 1825 Treaty of Indian Springs, Menawa had him assassinated. The Governor of Georgia began using state militia to remove the Creek and when the Creek complained to Washington and asked for help retaining what was left of their lands, President John Quincy Adams refused, despite the Supreme Court having decided that Georgia’s actions were unconstitutional. With most of the Lower Creek being removed to the Indian Territory, Alabama began similar actions against the Upper Creek, with by then President Andrew Jackson refusing to intervene, for reasons similar to those of his predecessor.

In 1832 the remaining Creek lands in Alabama were divided into allotments and the Creek were offered a choice. Those who wished could sell their allotment of land and remove themselves to the Indian Territory where they could continue their traditional way of life. Those who desired to remain on their allotment had to agree to subject themselves to the authority of federal, state, and territorial laws. If they refused they would be forcibly removed to the Indian Territory. Scattered raids and warfare along the Chattahoochee River broke out among resisting Creek and Alabama militia.

Many of the Creek resisted after trying to comply with the sale of their allotments only to be cheated by speculators of both white and Indian race. Their attacks were focused on the property of the devious men who had cheated them. The federal government sent troops to support the militia and the Creek resistance was broken in 1836, just as the Seminole War was entering its most violent period. The broken Creek Nation, a group of about 15,000 men, women, and children, removed westward to the Indian Territory along their own Trail of Tears, largely following the paths taken by the Choctaw and Chickasaw. About 3,500 Creek died on the journey.

10 Misunderstood Facts on the Trail of Tears History Books Don’t Cover
President Martin Van Buren ignored federal law and allowed several states to treat with Indians independently, increasing pressure on the tribes. The White House

The Cherokee Removal Part One

The earliest Cherokee to remove to the Indian Territory did so voluntarily when a group of more than 2,000 moved there from Georgia. By 1838 these Cherokee were settled in the Territory but large bands of the Cherokee remained in Georgia, resistant to the provisions of the Indian Removal Act, claiming that the tribal leaders who had signed it lacked the authority to do so, and petitioning through the federal courts for exemptions. They made some progress in the legal system, but in 1831 the United States Supreme Court found that the Cherokee were not a sovereign nation and therefore lacked status before the Court.

Complicating matters for the Cherokee was the 1829 discovery of gold on the lands they occupied in Georgia, and pressure from gold speculators led to the above Supreme Court decision. In an 1832 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the state of Georgia could not treat with the Cherokee, nor extend state laws to land occupied by the Cherokee, as those powers were reserved to the federal government by the Constitution. This decision was one cause of Andrew Jackson’s dissatisfaction with the Supreme Court and it led Jackson to challenge the court to enforce it, albeit derisively. The court affirmed his powers which he was hesitant to use.

It was Martin Van Buren, as Jackson’s successor, who authorized the states of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina to use their militia, supplemented by federal troops, to collect the Cherokee in the area of Cleveland and Chattanooga, Tennessee. As the Cherokee were removed the land which they had occupied was surveyed, divided, and made available for settlement. As with the other relocated tribes, Cherokee who agreed to abide by the laws of the state and occupy individual plots of land under state and federal law were allowed to remain. Many agreed to these terms. Others removed to the vicinity of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Those who did not were rounded up by the various state militia and once they were gathered in Tennessee, the federal government assumed responsibility for their care and removal to the Indian Territory. Suffering of the Cherokee began in the camps in Tennessee long before the western migration began. Disease was rampant as was insufficient rations for the Indians, who also suffered from the rampant racism of the day. Those attempting to purchase supplies were often swindled by unscrupulous agents, delivered food was frequently short-weighted.

Although it was summer when the round-up of the Cherokee was completed, movement to the west was delayed by a variety of factors, including the heat. Although the majority of the Cherokee held in these internment camps still resisted the idea of moving to the Indian Territory by autumn it was evident even to their most reluctant leaders that failure to do so meant the end of the Cherokee Nation, through attrition. American General Winfield Scott awarded contracts to Cherokee companies to remove the remaining 11,000 or so Cherokee, and their primary chief, John Ross, agreed to the removal and to lead the migration.

10 Misunderstood Facts on the Trail of Tears History Books Don’t Cover
Cherokee Chief John Ross both opposed the removal to the Indian Territory and planned it, eventually profiting from the migration. Wikimedia

The Cherokee Removal Part Two

If the actual decision to relocate the Cherokee to lands which were unfamiliar to them was cruel, the manner in which it was carried out was far worst. Bureaucratic incompetence, malfeasance, outright swindling and theft, and mismanagement combined with the horrendous weather and the sheer distance to be traveled to wreak havoc upon the Cherokee. Chief John Ross organized wagon trains for the removal, purchased supplies, obtained a steamboat, and arranged for each of the trains to carry medicines, trained doctors, and sufficient guides. Different routes were selected for the trains to ease pressure in supply stations. Ross purchased additional shoes and clothing for each train.

Depending upon the route taken, the westward bound Cherokee traveled through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Arkansas, Mississippi and Missouri. The trip could be as long as 2,000 miles and because of conditions found along the way, often much longer. Many towns in the Cherokee’s path refused to allow them entry after hearing of the disease present in some of the trains, forcing them to follow a circuitous route to avoid confrontation, a situation the Choctaw had also faced. The weather was freezing, damp, and often icy conditions forced a halt. Sitting idly in crowded camps, supplies dwindled and disease increased.

The twelve separate wagon trains left the internment camps between early October, 1838, and March, 1839. In addition there was an attachment conducted by John Ross himself, which departed Agency Camp in Tennessee with 219 Cherokee in November 1838 and arrived in Tahlequah, Indian Territory in late March 1839, escorting 231 Cherokee, having picked up some stragglers in the trek west. Most of the trains heading westward were not so fortunate. Many of the wagon trains found their numbers depleted through desertion, as Cherokee departed the removal as they passed through the still largely unsettled wilderness between the cities.

The number of deaths which occurred during the westward migration has been disputed since the removal was actually in progress. Upon completion of the westward movement Chief John Ross submitted his expense reports to the United States Army. The Army, after studying the reports, considered many of them to be falsely inflated. In his accounts Ross claimed that he received higher numbers of rations than army disbursal records at the various supply sites recorded. His claims were consistently in conflict with army records throughout the trek. This indicated he had to feed many more than arrived, and their absence was explained as death or desertion.

Before the Trail of Tears migration by the Cherokee their tribal census indicated a population of about 16,000. Twelve thousand made the trek to the Indian Territory successfully, leading some contemporary scholars to report that 4,000 or more died during the removal. This figure fails to account for the 1,500 or so that remained in the east, primarily in the region of the Great Smoky Mountains, and others whom remained in the Piedmont of South Carolina. The number of deaths from disease and malnutrition are more likely in the area of 2,000, still a regrettable figure, but not one to qualify, as some extremists would have it, as a genocide.

10 Misunderstood Facts on the Trail of Tears History Books Don’t Cover
The Fort Marr Blockhouse in Tennessee is all that remains of the detention camps where the Cherokee were held prior to departing as arranged by their Chief, John Ross. Wikimedia

The Cherokee Removal Part Three

As the journeyed across the country to the Indian Territory the Cherokee encountered miserable weather, which severely hampered their progress, as well as the greed of local merchants and farmers with whom they treated for additional supplies to supplement their army rations. Cherokee Chief John Ross was responsible for the acquisition of the rations, as well as army blankets and other supplies provided by the federal government. Following the completion of the removal Ross submitted his expenses to the federal government for reimbursement.

The supplies Ross claimed to have requisitioned and received and the records of the disbursement agents were substantially different in nearly every instance, with Ross claiming to have received and paid for numbers of supplies which exceeded those removed from army stores. This disparity created confusion in both the numbers of Cherokee making the trip and the number to have succumbed on the way. While nobody disputes that a great many Cherokee died of disease during the trek, the numbers counted upon arrival in the Indian Territory reflect an equally high number of deserters.

After reviewing Ross’s expense reports and assessing their accuracy the US Army refused to pay them, citing many of them as fraudulent. In one expense report Ross claimed that more than 1600 Cherokee received rations over the number of receipts recorded by the Army. When the Treaty which authorized the removal of the Cherokee was passed by Congress it included the disbursement of more $5 million, to be distributed to the tribe on a per capita basis. An accurate count of the Cherokee was therefore essential to an equitable division, a higher number of reported Cherokee dead would increase the amount to the survivors, a process supervised by Ross.

The Van Buren administration directed that the expenses presented by Ross were inaccurate and thus unpayable. Ross continued to lobby for payment, to both the administration and Congress, and eventually the Tyler administration authorized the payment of just over $500,000 to settle what Ross claimed were his expenses during the westward migration. Ross was already a man of significant wealth when the forced removal began, and was in fact the richest of the Cherokee at the time. He made the bulk of his fortune on a tobacco plantation, which he worked using slaves.

While on the trek westward, a ferry owner in Golconda, Illinois, charged the Cherokee the equivalent of just under $23 (in today’s money) per person to cross the river, according to the expenses filed by Ross, at a time when standard fare was just under $3 (today’s money). This has often been cited as an example of the hostility encountered by the Cherokee. Viewed in the questionable nature of the expense accounts submitted by their primary tribal leader this event, if it in fact happened, should be viewed in another light, especially considering that earlier John Ross had founded Ross Landing, a ferry crossing, which he operated for many years. Today Ross Landing is known as Chattanooga.

10 Misunderstood Facts on the Trail of Tears History Books Don’t Cover
In the Indian Territory the Cherokee and other tribes rapidly gave up their old ways and assumed those of the white’s, including the building of the Female Seminary, beginning in 1851. Library of Congress

The Indian Territory

The romantic view of the Cherokee (and all American Indians) as nomadic hunter gatherers living in wigwams and other similar shelters was long gone by the time of the Indian Removal Act, at least as regards the eastern tribes, with the possible exception of some of the Seminole bands in the Everglades. The Cherokee had a sophisticated political structure including partisan political parties, and a process of negotiating within the tribe and with entities outside of its structure. John Ross wore western garb, and was a man of education and wealth. This was true of most of the tribal leaders.

Several of these Cherokee leaders came to consider the removal to the Indian Territory to be a better idea than remaining in the eastern lands, agreeing with Jackson and other American leaders that the Cherokee traditions could not survive the pressure of white settlement. Led by Major Ridge, his son John, and Elias Boudinot among others, they came to be known as the Treaty Party. They supported the removal, argued that the best action for the Cherokee was to obtain the best possible terms for the sale of the lands they occupied, and travel to the west.

These leaders were of a faction which was a distinct minority among the Cherokee, in opposition to John Ross and the majority which supported staying where they were. In 1832 Ross canceled the tribal elections, and the Treaty Party split from the main body of the Cherokee, with the Ross faction becoming the National Party, and the Treaty Party entered into negotiations with the Americans for compensation for leaving the lands they occupied. Ross was forced to attempt to achieve better terms as forcible removal became more and more of a reality.

Ross continued to argue against the removal up to the time when he was contracted by the US Army to be in charge of its execution. The agreement, the Treaty of New Echota, was negotiated and signed primarily by the leading members of the Treaty Party (also known as the Ridge Party). Thus the treaty, which was for compensation for removal rather than outright purchase of land, was entered into with a group which did not represent the views of the majority of the Cherokee. Ross continued to call the treaty fraudulent as he accepted the contract to execute its terms.

During the relocation and after the arrival in the Indian Territory many of the leaders of the Treaty Party died, most by assassination. Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot were murdered on June 22, 1839, in the Indian Territory. Boudinot’s brother, Stand Watie, another Treaty Party leader, survived an attack the same day. This was the beginning of a seven year period of murders, assaults, and other violence against property between the Cherokee factions in their new home in the Indian Territory. Ross denied any involvement in the murders and subsequent violence, which required the involvement of the US Army before it was brought to an end in 1846.

10 Misunderstood Facts on the Trail of Tears History Books Don’t Cover
Cherokee Chief Joe Vann, whose father built this Georgia house, was forced to abandon it and relocate to the Indian Territory along the trail of tears. Wikimedia


In American history the Trail of Tears and the forceful removal of the eastern tribes is considered an act of genocide by some, an unfortunate incident by others, and it is one of the least understood actions in American history. Although the term is usually referred to only in the context of the Cherokee removal, it encompasses a great deal more than the relocation of that tribe. In many instances Indian leadership was complicit with and profited from the removal. In others it was forcibly opposed by the Indians, leading to even greater suffering by their people.

Andrew Jackson is blamed by both sides which condemn the actions under the Indian Removal Act, but he is just one of several Presidents who directed the removal of the Indians under the Act’s provisions. Martin Van Buren and John Quincy Adams were both involved as well. Later other Presidents would order other relocations. Adams refused to use American Army troops to enforce federal law in Georgia and Alabama, allowing both states to initiate their own seizure of lands occupied by the Indians. Both Adams and Van Buren ( and to an extent Jackson) felt that the use of federal troops would lead to conflict with state militia and possible civil war, and none wanted to assume that risk.

The American public and political groups argued strongly against the Indian Removal Act, especially those of the Northeastern states and the newer states of the west, such as Ohio and Indiana. New England opposition was especially strong. Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, political adversaries in other areas, opposed the removal. In Tennessee Congressman David Crockett risked his political career by arguing forcibly against the act, angering the President, a fellow Tennesseean. Crockett had been seriously considered a possible Presidential candidate until the Jackson Machine in Tennessee ensured he wouldn’t be re-elected to Congress following his opposition. Defeated, Crockett went to Texas. Before the Cherokee removal began, he was dead at the Alamo.

Another forgotten victim of the forced removal are the people of the Chickasaw Nation. In 1832 the Chickasaw agreed to move to the Indian Territory as soon as they had the available resources to effect the relocation. In return the federal government agreed to provide financial compensation, protect the Chickasaw from all enemies, and provide suitable land in the west. Before the terms of the agreement could be complied with, pressure on the Chickasaw land from white settlements forced the tribe to pay tribute to the Choctaw to be allowed to live on Choctaw land in the Indian Territory. The Chickasaw were assimilated into the Choctaw.

By the end of the Jackson Administration in 1837, approximately 46,000 members of the eastern tribes had been forcibly or voluntarily removed to the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi. This was just under half of all the American Indians who were eventually removed under the terms of the Indian Removal Act and the ensuing treaties with the tribes involved. The Cherokee removal had yet to begin when Jackson left office. Under Jackson, 25 million acres of land, primarily located in the slave states of the south, were opened to planters and other settlers.

10 Misunderstood Facts on the Trail of Tears History Books Don’t Cover
The slave owning Cherokee became further divided during the American Civil War. Stand Watie became Principal Chief of the Cherokee supporting the Confederates. Wikimedia

The Impact of the Indian Removal Act

There are those in Cherokee reservations and nearby locales who refuse to accept the United States $20 bill as legal tender, citing Jackson’s portrait upon it as the reason. The Indian Removal Act is routinely referred to as a shameful episode in American history, an attempted genocide. This image which is encouraged by supporters of the American Indian as a noble and civilized race with its own cultures and traditions routinely and ignorantly destroyed by the incursion of the whites. Many argue that the land belonged to the Indians and the white’s simply stole it from them. This despite the fact they also claimed the Indians had no concept of land ownership, living communally.

This argument is simplistic and far from true. In every instance treaties were negotiated with the tribal leaders, many of whom enriched themselves through them. Andrew Jackson viewed the Indians as uneducated children in many instances, who needed to be cared for. In this he was supported by many military and political leaders with experience dealing with the Native Americans. Jackson’s view that the Indian way-of-life was incompatible with white settlement was likely correct, as the history of America’s settlement to that point indicates.

Many of the tribal members of the relocated tribes remained behind, successfully assimilating with the white settlers, and becoming successful planters and businessmen in the American states. Others became political figures. One of the great ironies of the removal was that once in Oklahoma the Indians of all the relocated tribes rapidly adopted many of the features which would have allowed them to remain in the east had they adopted them there. These include individual ownership of land and American citizenship.

The numbers of those who died during the western migration of the tribes is routinely inflated by the re-writers of history determined to depict the American settlement of the continent as a genocide on a par with the Nazi led holocaust in Europe. This is a disservice to history. The sufferings of the Indians who moved west on the many Trails of Tears were real and severe, a bitter chapter of American history and a wholly regrettable one. But the relocation was an unavoidable fact of the times were the Indians to survive, given the determination of many not to assume the reality that their way of life was incompatible with their neighbors.

The horrors of the Trails of Tears were the responsibility of the American leadership that ordained them and the Indian leadership who were irresponsible to their people. Incompetent leadership on both sides, including graft and incompetence, coupled with horrendous weather and rampant disease, led to the suffering of the Indians as they moved to the west. But consider, when the Cherokee began their move west their tribal population stood at less than 20 thousand. Today there are more than 316,000 enrolled members of the Cherokee Nation in the United States.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Georgia and the Conversation over Indian Removal”, by Michael Morris, Georgia Historical Quarterly, 2007

“Tennessee: A Short History”, by Robert Ewing Corlew, 1990

“Chief John Ross”, by Ed Hooper, Tennessee History Magazine, online

“The Seminoles of Florida”, by James W. Covington, 1993

“Cherokee Trail of Tears”, by Kathy Weiser, Legends of America, April 2013

“Andrew Jackson and his Indian Wars”, by Robert Remini, 2001

“Cherokee Removal: Before and After”, by William Anderson, 1991

“Choctaw”, entry, Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

“Trail of Tears”, The History Channel, online

“Top Twenty-five American Indian Tribes for the United States: 1990 and 1980”, US Bureau of the Census, August 1995