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

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

Larry Holzwarth - March 16, 2018

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

Aftermath

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

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