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The history of relations between the white colonists and Native American tribes in Northern America is full of violent acts of injustice. However, some events can still shock with the unfairness and brutality that the US side used to reach its expansive and ambitious goals. The Trail of Tears is one of such terrifying episodes. The tragic events that are known by the name of the Trail of Tears not only violated the US laws, but they were also some of the most shameful acts of ethnic cleansing, as the United States in their pursuit of new territories and resources held an act of latent genocide toward the Cherokee community.
The term Trail of Tears refers to a series of coercive removals of Native American tribes from their original territories in the modern Southern States to the reservations on the West of Mississippi River that took place after the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and ended with the Cherokee removal in 1838-1839 (Sturgis, 4). Although there were 5 tribes, including Cherokee, Muscogee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole communities, that were removed during this period, the term Trail of Tears originated as a result of the last and most struggling removal of Cherokee tribe in 1838-1839, as that was how the migration route was called by the Cherokee people. To keep the discussion focused, I will concentrate on Cherokee removal in this paper.
Andrew Johnson, the American President from 1829 to 1837, was one of the main executors of the removal policies. Seeking the expansion of Georgia’s rich lands for American farmers and anticipating new economic opportunities after the start of Georgia’s gold rush in 1829, Johnson actively worked to remove Native Americans from their lands and free them for the white farmers and slave owners (Sturgis, 7). Being more concerned with the satisfaction of his ambitions and the well-being of Georgian farmers, Johnson seemed to value his political career and ratings far more than the principles of coexistence of colonists and Native Americans laid by Thomas Jefferson, and the decision of the Supreme Court of 1832 (Sturgis, 7). Johnson’s initiatives were later finished by his successor Martin Van Buren in 1839, as the Cherokee tribe, the last of the largest Native Americans large tribes on the desired territories, was removed. For Americans, the tribal territories presented a great economic potential and were seen as natural part of the US dominance over the continent.
Although most of the Native Americans were not ready to give up their lands after the illegitimate treaty, Treaty of New Echota in 1835, the US reinforced the pressure by sending thousands of soldiers to the tribal territories and showing that they would be ready to use violent measures if their demands were not pleased (Sturgis, 57). Facing disastrous military consequences, all of the approximately 16,000 Cherokee population was forced to migrate to the reservations West of Mississippi River, 900 miles away from their home (Thornton 289). There were two of the most devastating parts of the migration that led to a severe number of deaths. First, the fact that the route was laid solely through the land, which extended the period of migration and made it physically more challenging.
Second, the migration started in November of 1838 and finished in May of 1839. Therefore, the migrants needed to get through the winter’s cold weather. These factors, as well as the poor organization and provision of the migration because of US’s ignorant and violent commanding, have led to human losses estimated at around 4,000 people during the travel (Thornton 289). Therefore, a quarter of Cherokee migrants died as a result of brutal conditions of traveling through the Trail of Tears. Such disastrous consequences for the Cherokee make it clear why the name of the Trail of Tears was introduced by the Cherokee community.
The events around the Trail of Tears have several controversial issues. The first one is the legal controversy around it. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 made it clear that the US cannot forcefully remove the tribes from their territories. The only way to legally execute the transition of territories is through signing two-side treaties between the tribe leaders and the US representatives. Such disposition was supported by the US Supreme Court decision on the Worcester v. Georgia case. As Samuel Worcester was convicted of the unlicensed entrance and living on the Cherokee territories, the Supreme Court denounced this decision and concluded that “Indian tribes are distinct, independent political communities retaining their original natural rights’ in matters of local self-government”
Interestingly, Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision, forcing the treaties onto Indian tribes and aggressively taking the lands by force (Sturgis, 8). After it became clear that Cherokee were not eager to move to reservations, while having a legitimate right to do so, the US used a trick to legitimize their forced removal. The Treaty of New Echota was signed by a minority, the pro-treaty group of Cherokee’s political establishment, who were not the legitimate representatives of the tribe at that time (!). However, the US used the treaty to legitimize the removal, giving the Cherokees two years to move voluntarily. In 1838, after most of the Cherokee people refused to leave, the US used military forces to impose the removal. Therefore, the events of Trail of Tears were illegitimate and were a result of aggressive, expansive policies by Andrew Johnson and Martin Van Buren’s administrations, which violated not only the basic principles of international relations but the decision of the US Supreme Court.
Amy Sturgis claimed that the removal of Cherokee tribe from Georgia fits under United Nations Commission of Experts definition of ethnic cleansing, as it was based on the purposeful removal of the specific ethnocultural community from its geographic areas using violent methods. Moreover, although the US forces did not directly kill the 4,000 of Cherokee people, the authorities were aware of the potentially disastrous consequences of massive land migration during winter. Therefore, it seems appropriate to go further than Sturgis and argue that Trail of Tears should be recognized as an act genocide. Dadrian’s (205) typology of genocide includes various forms of genocidal actions, including their latent form.
Latent genocide emerges as an unintended byproduct of goals that were unrelated with the community’s extermination. Dadrian points out that massive deportation cases are among the most significant examples of latent genocide (Dadrian, 206). Moreover, Dadrian himself uses the tragedy of Trail of Tears as “perhaps the single most relevant case” of latent genocide in American history (206). Although the main aim of the removal of Native Americans from their territories was to free the lands of these tribes for agricultural activities of the white population and their slaves, the tragic byproduct of the removal was the death of a quarter of Cherokee’s population. Therefore, there are significant reasons to call the Trail of Tears a genocidal act, executed by the United States toward the tribe of Cherokee. Such terminology underlines the controversial side of America’s state-building process and should provoke a further reevaluation of the history of American international affairs, demonstrating the expansive, imperialistic policies of the US aimed at the neighboring nations.
The Trail of Tears is amongst the most shameful episodes in American history. Forceful removal of numerous Native American Tribes in the 1830’s culminated in the most violent and tragic removal of the Cherokee tribe in 1838-1839. As the tribe was forced to migrate 900 miles by land during the hostile winter weather, a quarter of tribe’s population dies as a result of the Trail of Tears. Motivated by economic and political ambitions, the US farmers, gold seekers and politicians, led by Presidents Andrew Johnson and Martin Van Buren, violated the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the US Supreme Court’s 1932 decision and, using the illegitimate Treaty of New Echota, forced the Cherokee tribe to migrate from their lands to the appointed reservation. These actions were not only illegal, but they can also be considered as an act of latent genocide, committed by the US commandment. The history of Trail of Tears should remain as an important reminder of the tragic consequences that voracious expansive policies might lead to.
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