Prelude (Part 1 of 3)
The Trail of Tears is a term used to describe the forced relocation of the Cherokee Nation from Georgia to the Indian Territory in the western United States. The trail was over 2,000 miles long, crossing nine states, and along the way more than a third of all Cherokee people died. For the Cherokee Nation, this incident is known as the “The Trail Where They Cried.”
The spark for this tragedy came from something that had been burning for a long time. There was a longstanding irreverence and often hatred for the Native Americans from many white men since they first met. The US government mistreated, ignored and disrespected the many Native American nations for decades before the Trail of Tears.
But what started this particular incident began with the discovery of gold in Georgia in 1829 and the resulting Georgia Gold Rush. Much of where the gold was found happened to be on Cherokee land. The white men of the area began to immediately look for a way to remove the Native Americans from the land and claim it as their own.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was the first step toward accomplishing that. Backed by then President Andrew Jackson, it permitted the US government to negotiate with the Native Americans for their land and offer them substitute land west of the Mississippi. According to the terms of the treaty, the tribes were to be compensated for their troubles and all migration costs were to be covered by the government. They were also to be provided assistance in moving their families and belongings to their new lands. Many natives began to move to Mexico, but the government there grew alarmed at how many were immigrating there and started to impose restrictions that limited the Indians ability to migrate to that area.
Things came to a head in 1831 when the state of Georgia tried to impose jurisdiction over the Cherokee people. The case of Cherokee Nation v. State of Georgia brought the problem to national attention. The chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, declared that the Cherokee did not qualify for court protection since they were independent nations that should be capable of taking care of their own affairs.
The Supreme Court issued another ruling during the next major case involving the Cherokee: Worcester v. State of Georgia. They ruled that the state has no power over native territories, only the federal government. This case involved a white missionary who had come to live with the Cherokee but who failed to comply with the state of Georgia’s law that any American citizen living in native territories swear an oath of allegiance to the state.
The state of Georgia had incarcerated the missionary, and even though the Supreme Court’s ruling would have allowed him to go free, the state kept him in jail. Andrew Jackson, when asked to step in and handle the matter, said that the Supreme Court should be able to enforce their own rulings.
In 1833, the Choctaw Nation was forcibly removed and “escorted” by armed guard to western territories. This set a precedent for things to come. Two years later, the Seminoles defied any attempts at forced removal of their people and started a war that would last for seven years.
Meanwhile, the Cherokee had been under extreme pressure by the state of Georgia to remove from their lands and relocate. This included both state-sanctioned and unsanctioned terrorizing of the Cherokee people on a regular basis. Finally, in 1835, weary of their mistreatment by the state of Georgia and hoping to avoid a war like the Seminoles were experiencing, the Cherokee signed a treaty that would have them give up their Georgia lands and relocate 2,200 miles away.
The Trail of Tears had begun.