The Trail of Tears
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.
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
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
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":
Trail of Tears
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,
He is considered an expert on North Georgia, the Cherokee Indians
and The Atlanta Campaign.