Our Georgia History
The Trail of Tears
By Randy Golden
Exclusively for Our Georgia History

A journey west. To settlers it meant expanding horizons. Hope. Dreams of riches and a new life. To the Cherokee Nation the journey west was a bitter pill forced upon them by a state and federal government that cared little for their culture or society, and even less about justice. It is a travesty and tragedy of both our Georgia history and our American heritage that forced the Cherokee west along a route they called "The Trail of Tears."

1835 was a pivotal year in Georgia history. Three years earlier, to solidify their claim to Cherokee land the state of Georgia held two land lotteries that divided the Cherokee Nation in 160 acre lots and gave them to any Georgian who had four dollars in their pocket and won a chance to buy the land. Unfortunately, the Cherokee never ceded the land to either the state or federal government and the Supreme Court (in Worchester v. Georgia) ruled that state did not have the power to make a treaty with a sovereign nation.

John Ross represented the vast majority of the Cherokee and had their complete support. With settlers moving into the Cherokee Nation Ross understood that making a deal for the land with the United States was his best option, since he was at risk of losing the entire nation to the state of Georgia. In early 1835 he and his group wanted to deed a portion of the land to the United States for an amount of money to be determined by Congress, with the rest of the property deeded to the Cherokee owners. The sticking point on the Ross deal was the requirement that the United States and the state of Georgia recognize Cherokee citizenship, including the right to vote and hold political office. Neither Georgia nor the United States would never agree to this.

To compensate the Cherokee for their loss without retaining some land and living a normal life among the settlers, Ross came up with the figure of 20 million dollars, or about 25% of the value of the land if sold separately to each settler. For this amount 17,000 men, women and children would leave voluntarily and relocate to the Indian Territory, now the state of Oklahoma. This comes to a payment of just under $1200 per person. This is roughly $4.34 per acre (the going rate for similar, nearby land sold in the state of Georgia in 1835 was between $18.00 an acre and $25.00 an acre.)

Ross enjoyed the backing of the Cherokee Nation, and both the original proposal (4.5 million dollars, land and citizenship) and the second proposal (20 million dollars) had been approved by the Cherokee council. A small group of radicals led by John Ridge and his cousin Elias Boudinot negotiated the corrupt Treaty of New Echota, giving up Cherokee lands for pennies on the dollar ($1.085 dollars per acre, or about 5% of the actual value of the land). This proposal had not been approved by the Cherokee council, in fact it was specifically declined.

On December 29, 1835 the Ridge (or Treaty) Party members filed one by one to sign the document that Major Ridge called his death warrant. The only hope now for the Cherokee was with the government of the United States. Unfortunately, Andrew Jackson's forces in the U. S. Senate (which is required to ratify all treaties) were too strong. The Treaty of New Echota was ratified the next year.

Wealthy Cherokee Leave

Major Ridge led a group of Cherokee west in 1836, blazing the land route for future parties. He stopped at Nashville to visit his old friend, Andrew Jackson, now merely a citizen. Jackson warmly welcomed Ridge, with whom he met for nearly a day. This party contained mostly mixed-blood Cherokee who had been successful in business and could afford to move to present-day Oklahoma on their own. John Ridge stayed in Georgia, actually leading one of the final parties west. Other wealthy Cherokee managed to get out to Oklahoma in smaller groups or on their own, such as Joseph "Rich Joe" Vann, who went west on his own steamship.

The Cherokee Nation's last stand

Cherokee hope did not fade. After the ratification, Ross attempted to petition the United States government to no avail. In May, 1838, the forcible eviction of the Cherokee Nation began. Government troops under the command of Winfield Scott, at times supported by the brutal Georgia Guard, moved across the state taking the helpless Cherokee from their homes. Within two weeks every Cherokee in North Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama had been captured, killed, overlooked or fled. Holding areas contained the Cherokee until they could be moved to one of the specially constructed forts further north.

With minimum facilities the forts were little more than rat-infested prisons for these Cherokee. The Cherokee began the move to one of two embarkation points: Rattlesnake Springs, near the Cherokee Agency in Tennessee, or Ross's Landing (now Chattanooga, Tennessee). Death rates on the first of the forced marches were very high. Ross went to Scott and requested that the Cherokee be allowed to lead the parties west later in the year. Scott granted his request. The first parties under Ross's left in October under a dual command. Scott rode to Nashville with one of the parties.

The Water Route

From the port on the Tennessee River (currently a city park near the Tennessee Aquarium), groups of Cherokee would leave by steamship to the Mississippi River (via a short journey on the Ohio River), then south on the Mississippi to the Arkansas River. They followed this river to Fort Smith, on the border between Arkansas and Indian Territory. From here they headed northwest to the area reserved for the Cherokee. This was the route which John Ross's wife died.

The Land Routes

There were roughly ten individual routes, with some overlapping between each of them. The route that is technically called the "Trail of Tears" began at the Cherokee Agency near Rattlesnake Springs and headed northwest to the vicinity of Nashville, Tennessee, then to Hopkinsville, Kentucky. From here the Cherokee headed to a crossing of the Ohio just northwest of the confluence of the Tennessee River. From here the Cherokee moved southwest, crossing the Mississippi near Cape Girardeau. From here the route headed south-southwest across the Ozark plateau to the Oklahoma Territory.

Along the Trail of Tears

In general the settlers who witnessed the Cherokee moving west were indifferent to their plight. While some did offer assistance, most did not. In a number of cases the settlers did not want the Cherokee in their towns, so the groups were forced to change their route. For example, at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, the Cherokee had been fording the Mississippi at a point near downtown. City fathers, who were unhappy with the long lines of Indians passing through town asked that they cross two miles north, at a more difficult crossing known as Moccasin Springs. Today a state park commemorates the site where Rev. Jesse Bushyhead lost his sister after crossing an ice-covered river.

Arrival at Arkansas

Fort Smith, on the border of Arkansas and Oklahoma was rebuilt in anticipation of the arrival of the Cherokee and the other Southeastern tribes (Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole). Many Cherokee made it to the fort, but others simply continued west when they reached Arkansas.

Clash with the "Old Settlers"

The Cherokee from Georgia were not the only people relocated to the area of Tallequah, Oklahoma. A group of Cherokee from Arkansas known as the Old Settlers had moved there in the late 1820's. These Old Settlers had an established nation, but the influx of 13,000 Cherokee from Georgia created friction. When the Georgia Cherokee completed their journey they immediately formed the majority of the tribe. Issues of administration caused deep divisions within the tribe, especially as the Georgia Cherokee gained control of the nation. Once Ross had returned to power, the attention of the tribe turned to those who had betrayed the Cherokee in Georgia.

A new constitution was ratified, and Ross's position as Principal Chief was reaffirmed. The night of Ross's success his men spread out to carry out the final act of the Trail of Tears: the execution of the Ridge family. Major Ridge dies on a roadway, John Ridge is dragged from his house and stabbed in front of his children and wife, Elias Boudinot is surrounded after leaving Samuel Worchester's home. Stand Watie's life is saved by Worchester, who sends a messenger to warn him.

Additional information on the "Trail of Tears":

North Georgia Trail of Tears
Cherokee Forts
Trail of Tears Map

About the Author

Randy Golden has been writing since 1975, starting with his college newspaper. During his 25+ years he has written for a wide range of publications including newspapers and newsletters, magazines, web sites, and books including school textbooks. Topics he has written about include computers, travel, hiking (his GeorgiaTrails.com website is the leader in on-line information about hiking in the state of Georgia), book reviews, life in general, and of course, history.

He is considered an expert on North Georgia, the Cherokee Indians and The Atlanta Campaign.

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