Skip to Main Content

The Trail of Tears

Written by: Bill of Rights Institute

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain how and why American foreign policy developed and expanded over time

Suggested Sequencing

This Narrative can be used alongside the Responses to the Cherokee Removal Mini DBQ Lesson and the Native Americans in American Art Lesson.

The technological innovations of the cotton gin and weaving looms in early factories in Great Britain and New England led to the mass production of manufactured textiles. The worldwide demand for cotton soared, and the American South provided almost half that cotton, amounting to 400 million pounds by the 1820s. Southern planters and farmers had an insatiable desire for land on which they and their enslaved workers grew the lucrative crop. Tens of thousands of white southerners and their enslaved workers moved into Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. The owners were guided by the idea of Manifest Destiny and believed they had a right to land that was supposedly unimproved by American Indians.

However, members of the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole nations lived on those lands in the Southeast. Whites called them the “Five Civilized Tribes” because they had adopted some of the cultural ways of whites, such as by using whites’ methods of agriculture and animal husbandry, wearing whites’ style of clothing, and attending English-speaking missionary schools. The Cherokee leader Sequoyah created a syllabary to write down stories from the Cherokee oral tradition, and the Cherokee adopted a republican constitution with a bicameral legislature and three branches of government. Still, the tribes were split over whether to follow this policy of cultural assimilation in which they gave up their traditional ways of living. They were also deeply divided over whether to cede land to whites after the War of 1812. Several treaties were made ceding tens of millions of acres in the southeastern states when Andrew Jackson and other negotiators appealed to those Indians who wanted to sell.

During the 1820s, Jackson and many southerners in Congress and state governments embraced a policy of removal of the American Indians living in the Southeast to west of the Mississippi River. Settlers and land speculators pressured all levels of government to support removal. The congressional House Committee on Indian Affairs considered a removal bill in 1825, but it died in committee. The removal policy coincided with proposals for a giant Indian reservation that would comprise different tribes. These also failed.

Jackson was another prominent supporter of Indian removal in the 1820s. He had fought in several battles against American Indians in the Southeast during and after the War of 1812. He also served as a treaty commissioner and persuaded tribes to surrender millions of acres of land. He and the southerners who later formed the nucleus of the emerging Democratic Party advocated removal.

In his first inaugural address as president in 1829, Jackson vaguely promised “to observe toward the Indian tribes within our limits a just and liberal policy.” In his annual message to Congress that December, he summarized government policy much more extensively. Despite his view that the southeastern Indian nations had “made some progress in the arts of civilized life,” Jackson said, “I suggest for your consideration the propriety of setting apart an ample district west of the Mississippi, and without the limits of any state or territory now formed, to be guaranteed to the Indian tribes as long as they shall occupy it, each tribe having a distinct control over the portion designated for its use.” Removal to the West, he argued, was actually beneficial to “preserve this much-injured race.”

In February and March 1830, the debate in Congress over the Indian removal bill was acrimonious. Mostly northerners, influenced by the ideals of justice and Christian morals, submitted hundreds of petitions protesting the removal. New Jersey Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen delivered a three-day speech excoriating the removal policy as a violation of federal treaties and “oppressive encroachments upon the sacred privileges of our Indian neighbors.” Georgia Senator John Forsyth retorted by defending removal as a matter of states’ rights and declared that American Indians would be better off on western hunting grounds. The bill narrowly passed by a vote of 28 to 19 in the Senate and 102 to 97 in the House. Jackson signed it into law in late May. The act provided for voluntary removal to lands held by Indians in perpetuity west of the Mississippi provided they surrendered lands to the east. The federal government promised provisions and protection during the journey to the west.

The Choctaws were the first to sign a removal treaty in September, and some of the tribe began emigrating during a terrible winter without federal troops or adequate provisions. Hundreds perished during the journey, and the survivors straggled to their destination in small groups.

In the icy winter chill of a December day in 1831, French chronicler Alexis de Tocqueville was present to witness the forlorn and destitute Choctaw cross the partially frozen Mississippi River. Tocqueville looked upon the injustice with mixed disgust and pity. Though he had come to the United States ostensibly to study its prison system, he had spent the majority of his time, instead, studying his real passion: the functions and trappings of the institutions of the first modern republic, which he believed represented the future of humanity. But the coerced removal of entire American Indian nations and the denial of their natural rights contradicted the ideals of American democracy. Tocqueville believed “the Indian race [was] doomed to perish.”

He described the scene:

At the end of the year 1831, whilst I was on the left bank of the Mississippi at a place named by Europeans, Memphis, there arrived a numerous band of Choctaws (or Chactas, as they are called by the French in Louisiana). These savages had left their country, and were endeavoring to gain the right bank of the Mississippi, where they hoped to find an asylum which had been promised them by the American government. It was then the middle of winter, and the cold was unusually severe; the snow had frozen hard upon the ground, and the river was drifting huge masses of ice. The Indians had their families with them; and they brought in their train the wounded and sick, with children newly born, and old men upon the verge of death. They possessed neither tents nor wagons, but only their arms and some provisions. I saw 373 of them embark to pass the mighty river, and never will that solemn spectacle fade from my remembrance. No cry, no sob was heard amongst the assembled crowd; all were silent. Their calamities were of ancient date, and they knew them to be irremediable. The Indians had all stepped into the bark which was to carry them across, but their dogs remained upon the bank. As soon as these animals perceived that their masters were finally leaving the shore, they set up a dismal howl, and, plunging all together into the icy waters of the Mississippi, they swam after the boat.

Portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville.

Alexis de Tocqueville, shown in an 1850 oil portrait by Théodore Chassériau, traveled extensively throughout the United States during the early days of the republic while writing his famous book Democracy in America

Federal troops and private companies helped more than nine thousand Choctaws settle in Indian Territory by 1833. However, the summers of 1832 and 1833 saw devastating outbreaks of cholera among the Choctaws. Thousands of them perished from the disease.

Map of the southeastern United States, showing tribal territories for the Cherokee (northern Georgia), Creek (east central Alabama), Choctaw (east central Mississippi), Chickasaw (northern Mississippi), and Seminole (central Florida). Also shown are their reservations in what is present-day Oklahoma.

This map shows the removal of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes from their homelands.

The other nations followed the Choctaws to the Indian Territory in the West throughout the 1830s and early 1840s. Secretary of War Lewis Cass was responsible for providing military protection and ensuring the tribes had adequate provisions and medical care through federal troops or private contractors. The Chickasaws decided to sign a treaty in 1832, and more than six thousand of the tribe emigrated by 1838. The Creeks resisted for a few more years, but the encroachment of an estimated ten thousand white settlers seeking land and gold without much hindrance from the federal government persuaded the Creeks to sign a treaty in 1834. When violence erupted in what were termed the First and Second Creek Wars, federal troops subdued the Creeks and forcibly removed three thousand of them, followed by thousands of others. By 1838, thousands of Creeks had died during removal.

The Cherokee stayed in Georgia and were harassed by the state government and private citizens who wanted their land. Chief John Ross refused to sign a removal treaty, but other chiefs were more willing and signed the Treaty of New Echota. Writer Ralph Waldo Emerson and Texan Sam Houston were among those who publicly denounced the treaty as a miscarriage of justice. It passed by a single vote in the Senate. In the fall of 1838 and the harsh winter that followed during the presidency of Martin Van Buren, the Cherokee were forcibly removed by federal troops. Private companies failed to deliver food and supplies, and about four thousand Cherokee died of starvation and disease during the journey along the “Trail of Tears.”

The Seminoles were victims of a fraudulent treaty some of the chiefs signed in 1832, so most the nation refused to leave Florida. A Creek named Osceola led a band of warriors who attacked and killed more than one hundred U.S. troops to start the Second Seminole War in December 1835. The two sides engaged in several battles, though the Seminoles retreated to the nearly impenetrable swamps of the Everglades from which they launched raids on neighboring forts. The war lasted several years, with more than one thousand casualties on each side from the fighting and diseases such as malaria. The U.S. Army fought bitterly to remove approximately four thousand Seminoles by force, but a truce was signed in 1842, allowing about five hundred to remain.

Within the first few years of arrival in what is now Oklahoma, the resettled American Indian population was decimated by cholera, malaria, smallpox, and influenza. “We did not visit a house, wigwam, or camp,” wrote a distressed missionary, “where we did not find more or less sickness, and in most instances the whole family were prostrated by disease. Great numbers of them have died.” The sickness hit the children hardest, and child death rates soared.

With similar results, the U.S. government forcibly removed the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole. Twice, the Cherokee took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), Marshall’s court ruled that the Cherokee constituted a “domestic dependent nation” and therefore had no standing to challenge Georgia’s sovereignty within Cherokee lands. A year later, in Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the Marshall court ruled in the favor of the Cherokee, noting that Georgia, as a state, had no jurisdiction over independent and sovereign Indian nations. The Court thereby invalidated the Georgia laws claiming Cherokee lands because they were protected by federal treaty and the Commerce Clause of Article I, section 8.

The five American Indian nations of the southeast were dispossessed of their lands by white settlers and speculators, state governments, and the federal government. The treaties they had made respecting their lands were superseded by new treaties endorsing the idea of Indian removal and resettlement west of the Mississippi, supposedly forever. Nevertheless, within a few decades, the pressure of continued American migration to the West resulted in a series of Indian wars and additional injustices.

Painting of American Indians on horseback and in covered wagons.

At their peak, the Cherokee controlled land in the present-day states of Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina. By the end of the 1830s, most Cherokee had either relocated voluntarily or were forced to move to Indian Territory, as shown in a modern artist’s rendition of the Cherokee relocation journey on The Trail of Tears.

Review Questions

1. In his 1829 first inaugural address, President Jackson laid out his belief that the best policy toward American Indians was to

  1. assist American Indians in the adoption of agriculture
  2. set aside land west of the Mississippi for American Indians’ control and use
  3. declare war on the Five Civilized Tribes
  4. allow the Supreme Court to rule on the legality of their claim to land in the southeast

2. The five southern tribes removed and forced upon the Trail of Tears were

  1. the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Creek, the Choctaw, and the Seminole
  2. the Cherokee, the Kiowa, the Creek, the Choctaw, and the Seminole
  3. the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Shawnee, the Choctaw, and the Seminole
  4. the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Sioux, the Choctaw, and the Seminole

3. Who witnessed the policy of Indian Removal in 1831, claiming “the Indian race [was] doomed to perish”?

  1. Ralph Waldo Emerson
  2. Sam Houston
  3. John Forsyth
  4. Alexis de Tocqueville

4. The initial ruling of the Supreme Court in regard to American Indians stated

  1. American Indians were citizens and had full protection under the Constitution
  2. the various states had authority over American Indian nations within their jurisdiction
  3. the Supreme Court had no authority over American Indian groups
  4. Indian tribes were “domestic dependent nations” and had rights to their own land

5. The first major expulsion after the Indian Removal Act of 1830 occurred in

  1. Tennessee
  2. Mississippi
  3. Georgia
  4. Oklahoma

6. The greatest impetus for whites pushing American Indians off their traditional territory was the

  1. belief that American Indians were inferior and had no ability to work the land
  2. desire for the land for development and the acquisition of wealth
  3. belief that North America was destined to be a white continent, where enslaved African persons would work the land
  4. belief that American Indians would be safer and happier in land west of the Mississippi River

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain Andrew Jackson’s words and actions related to American Indians.
  2. Explain how the U.S. government failed to protect American Indians during the 1820s-1840s.

AP Practice Questions

“And be it further enacted, That it shall and may be lawful for the President to have the same superintendence and care over any tribe or nation in the country to which they may remove, as contemplated by this act, that he is now authorized to have over them at their present places of residence: Provided, That nothing in this act contained shall be construed as authorizing or directing the violation of any existing treaty between the United States and any of the Indian tribes.”

Indian Removal Act, signed by Andrew Jackson May 28, 1830

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. The Indian Removal Act was a

  1. formal acknowledgement of the president’s power to direct relocation of American Indians
  2. radical departure from previous presidents’ policies regarding Indian ways of life
  3. formal and specific assurance of protection of American Indians’ individual constitutional rights
  4. repudiation of all previous treaties between the United States and American Indians

2. The main idea expressed in the excerpt from the Indian Removal Act was most likely motivated by

  1. an overwhelming demand from Congress for new treaties that would protect American Indians’ rights, culture, and economic survival by relocating them to rich farmlands in the west
  2. a desire by the state of Georgia to remove the Cherokee from their land
  3. Andrew Jackson’s demand that American Indians be protected by enforcement of all treaties between the United States and the tribes
  4. the request by American Indians that they receive territory free of U.S. government interference

Primary Sources

Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. Vol. 1. Translated by Henry Reeve. (1835).

Suggested Resources

Ehle, John. Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation. New York: Anchor Books, 1988.

Perdue, Theda. Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 1998.

Perdue, Theda, and Michael Green. The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears. New York: Penguin, 2007.

Perdue, Theda, and Michael Green. The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1995.

Remini, Robert V. The Legacy of Andrew Jackson: Essays on Democracy, Indian Removal, and Slavery. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University, 1988.

Thornton, Russell. The Cherokees: A Population History. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Wallace, Anthony. The Long, Bitter Trail: Andrew Jackson and the Indians. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

Woodward Grace Steele. The Cherokees. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963.

Related Content