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The year 1838 was the beginning of a dreadful tragedy in America’s history which in turn led to the deaths of 4,000 out of the 15,000 Cherokee as they made the 1200 mile journey
on what is infamously known as The Trail of Tears (Ehle). Initially the Cherokees, an indigenous Native American group, territory included parts of Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and the southern Appalachian Mountains (Ehle). A lot of the original Cherokee territory was taken and sold by the U.S. Government. In fact, when Andrew Jackson became president in 1828, he made a lot of profit from selling Cherokee territory to the people (Purdue). This could have encouraged him to pass laws to remove the Cherokee to Missouri as well as the discovery of gold fields in northwest Georgia (Gilbert). With the persistence of Georgians and President Andrew Jackson, the Cherokees were officially removed from their territory starting in 1838 under the Treaty of Echota passed in 1835 (Treaty of New Echota). Most Cherokee refused to move from their homeland, but resistance was futile because the U.S. Government refused to take no for an answer. Attributable to this long and treacherous journey, an assembly of Cherokees faced death, hunger, disease, and exhaustion. The Trail of Tears was an appalling incident that forced the Cherokees out of their own territory they had owned for generations and resulted in the torture and death of thousands of their tribes.
As mentioned previously, the government was making a lot of profit from selling Cherokee territory, since their land was so agriculturally rich, and a lot of people were finding gold fields in northwest Georgia. With these two financially beneficial advantages attributed to Cherokee territory, a lot of people wanted the Cherokee gone so that they could benefit from the riches of the Cherokee territory. However not everyone was in favor of removing the Cherokee and tried to speak against it. For instance, Governor Sam Houston made a special trip to the White House to try and plead with President Andrew Jackson to prevent him from enforcing the removal (Gilbert). David Crockett, a congressman from Tennessee, also spoke against the forced removal of the Indians from their eastern homeland (Gilbert). Along with Houston and Crockett, Daniel Webster, a senator from Massachusetts, fought aggressively against the Indian Removal Bill and advised the Cherokees to appeal to the Supreme Court (Gilbert). Even with effort from all of these political officials, Jackson commenced with passing laws to eventually remove the Cherokee from the East. The Cherokee rebuked the demand that they leave their land initially ushered by the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and with the help of John Ross, elected principal of chief of the Cherokees in 1828; the Cherokee tried their best to keep their land (Gilbert).
The first major step in keeping their territory, involved the Cherokee going to the Supreme Court in the hope of gaining legal rights to fight the removal. In their first case, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Cherokees constituted a domestic dependent nation that existed under the guardianship of the U.S. Government but the court also held that it did not have jurisdiction to strike down Georgia’s laws (Garrison). The second case that vouched for the Cherokee keeping their land was Worcester v. Georgia. In the case of Worcester v. Georgia Chief Justice John Marshall had affirmed the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation, redirecting the conflict into one between Georgia and the United States which was a huge relief (Purdue). The Supreme Court also stated that the Cherokee Nation remained a separate, sovereign nation with a legitimate title to its national territory (Garrison). Although these cases did administer decisions that would allow the Cherokee to maintain control over their territory, nothing was enforced by the courts, which did not secure the Cherokee’s possession of their territory.
The struggles of going to the Supreme Court to secure their land did not produce the outcome that the Cherokee hoped would permit them to hold onto their land. President Andrew Jackson completely ignored the Court’s decisions and promptly passed the Treaty of New Echota on December 29, 1835 (Ehle). This treaty was signed by General William Carroll and John F. Schermerhorn commissioners on the part of the United States and Major Ridge, who negotiated the treaty with the United States, claiming that he represented the Cherokee Nation although he only represented a minute fraction of them (Treaty of New Echota). The Cherokee Nation rejected this treaty once they got word of what was to be decreed. Since Major Ridge acted against the interests of the Cherokee, they assassinated him as well as his son John and cousin Elias Boudinot in 1839 (Treaty of New Echota).
Unfortunately, since the Treaty of Echota was signed and passed, the U.S. government could legally remove the Cherokee from their territory. Since the Cherokees were not going to leave their land, force was the only way to remove them and they only had two years from the signing of the treaty to remove themselves from their land and head to the West. Only two thousand of the Cherokee left their homeland by the time this two year deadline arrived (Ehle). As a consequence, in May of 1838 General Winfield Scott assumed command of seven thousand soldiers, militia, and volunteers to remove the Cherokee and set up headquarters in New Echota (Purdue). They used no discretion or mercy and Cherokees were arrested and dragged from their homes and driven at bayonet point to stockades (The Cherokee and the Trail of Tears). During the roundup, a huge number of children were separated from their families and any who resisted were murdered in cold blood and several captive women were forced to drink with the soldiers and raped (Gilbert).
Once it was time for the Cherokee to make their way to Missouri, the majority of the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears started this horrific voyage in Rattlesnake Spring near what is now Charleston, Tennessee (Gilbert). Everyone marching was divided into groups of approximately one thousand and each group had a conductor, or leader, with guides, wagon masters, commissaries, farriers to shoe horses, blacksmiths, and two doctors (Gilbert). It is estimated that there were 645 wagons, 5,000 horses, and a large number of oxen (Gilbert). This may appear to be an appropriately enumerated amount to accompany the Cherokee and soldiers on the long journey but sadly it was not. There were not enough wagons, teams, horses, blankets, and there were only eighty-three tents for the thousands that traveled. Warm clothing for winter months was also needed, food was scarce, and the water that was provided was often contaminated. The majority of Cherokee had to walk the whole way to Missouri; the ill, disabled, elderly, and small children were allowed to ride in wagons that were available with the belongings that were packed on the wagons (Gilbert). The Cherokee that managed to keep their animals were able to ride or drive their own horses and use their vehicles loaded with their belongings.
The supplies that was given to the Cherokee and the soldiers was meant to last them what was assumed to be a three month journey, but the trip actually turned out to last four months (Gilbert). All that traveled on the Trail of Tears had to make their way across approximately 1200 miles. This 1200 mile journey was over parts of five different states: Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas (Gilbert). Many of the roads that the Cherokee detachments crossed demanded that a toll be paid, some gatekeepers showed mercy to the already exhausted and suffering travelers while others fleeced them (Purdue). Not all Cherokee were fortunate to travel on horse or in a wagon, and after a while the old and sick even had to walk and carry heavy burdens attached to their back (Purdue). The grounds that the Cherokee had to travel on varied from frozen ground to muddy streets in which they had to walk on with their bare feet. Anyone that was too sick to travel, whether they were young or old, were left to die if they could no longer walk the trail independently because the soldiers leading them did not care. Some historical reports stated that the soldiers would often ride circles around the Cherokees like they were cattle if the appeared to be venturing off course.
Not only did the Cherokee have to walk barefoot on the trail, starve, have little water, and receive harsh treatment from the soldiers guiding them, they also had to battle the elements as they relocated to the West. Thanks to the major lack of tents, shelter and subsistence became a major issue. When the Cherokee were fortunate enough to set up tents, they had to pitch canvas tents in howling winds, torrential rains, brutal cold, and heavy snow (Purdue). The exposure and exhaustion that the Cherokee faced as a result of these conditions greatly weakened their immune systems, making them more susceptible to diseases (Purdue). The diseases that plagued the Cherokee on their journey included measles and the whooping cough along with dysentery and respiratory infections. The weather offered no mercy to the helpless Cherokee forced from their land, nor did the lack of provisions help. Eventually the Cherokee finally arrived barely alive and dispirited after the approximate four month journey to the Indian Territory reserved for them in Missouri and parts of Oklahoma.
The Trail of Tears is a massive tragedy that is truly heartbreaking to learn about. I did not know how severe this event was, nor did I comprehend the extent of the Cherokee’s suffering. The Georgians and President Andrew Jackson had no right to force the Cherokees off their land that they had owned for generations. The decisions made in the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the two cases Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worcester v. Georgia should have been honored. The Cherokee had every right to keep their territory and for them to be forcefully removed with such lack of humanity was utterly barbaric. With the journey that the Cherokees had to make, it not only broke their spirits, but demolished a large number of their tribe. The Trail of Tears is the type of historical incident that leaves a blood soaked stain among American soil and there will never be an appropriate compensation for what the Cherokee had to endure.
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