In the Cherokee Trail of Tears (1838-1839) the American military forced all the Cherokee Indians of Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina out of their homes at gunpoint and forced them to march a thousand miles (1600 km) west to live in a wasteland in what is now called Oklahoma. Their old homeland was taken over by white people.
Because they marched through the winter and slept in the open, 4,000 died along the way, leaving 12,000 alive at the end. Some later fled to Mexico to be beyond the reach of American power.
The Cherokee were one of the Five Civilized Tribes of the American South. The other four – the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole – were all removed from their homelands during this time, the 1830s, in much the same way. It was the law: the Indian Removal Act of 1830. But some of the Seminoles, along with some Creeks and runaway blacks, fought on into the 1850s from the Florida Everglades in the Seminole Wars.
The Cherokee were civilized: they farmed the land and worked iron, they could read and write their own language, they had their own constitution and press – some were even Christians, had Anglo names and black slaves!
But instead of gaining respect from whites it only made them seem more of a threat.
In 1791 the Cherokee gave up part of their land to the American government with the promise that they could keep the rest. But then in 1802 President Jefferson broke that promise by making another one: he promised the state of Georgia that in time all the Cherokee would be removed from the state.
In 1828 gold was discovered on Cherokee land. The state of Georgia passed laws to take away their rights and their land. The Cherokee fought it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in their favour. But President Jackson refused to uphold the court’s decision.
In 1831 ten white missionaries who had stood up for the Cherokee were arrested, beaten and marched in chains to the country jail. The two who refused to swear loyalty to the laws of Georgia were sentenced to four years of hard labour.
In 1836 the government forced through a new treaty which gave the Cherokee two years to leave their homeland forever. It was one of the few Indian treaties that it did not break.
Ralph Waldo Emerson warned the president:
We only state the fact that a crime is projected that confounds our understandings by its magnitude … the name of this nation, hitherto the sweet omen of religion and liberty, will stink to the world.
The president was not persuaded. In 1838 when the two years were up he sent in the army to move the Cherokee by force. Some ran off into the mountains but most wound up in prison camps. From there they were sent west through the snow and sleet in wagon trains. They sang “Amazing Grace”. Warmly-dressed white people came out to watch them pass by.
– Abagond, 2010.