The Cherokee Trail of Tears

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Updated: Sep 30, 2020
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The Cherokee Trail of Tears essay

“The Trail of Tears was a chain of forced relocations of multiple endemic Native American tribes from their ancestral homeland. Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Creek, and other southern Indian tribes were forcibly relocated to designated areas of land west of the Mississippi River throughout the 1830s.

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The period was so burdensome to the Cherokee people they named it “Nunna daul Tsuny”(translates to The Trail Where We Cried). This term reflects the emotions the Cherokee felt during this time. As the “principal people”, Cherokee Indians believed their land marked the center of the world. (2). I The arrival of the European settlers disrupted the harmony and balance of this world. The original occupants of what is now known as the United States, lived in high mountains and green valleys in the southern region of the Appalachians. Cherokee lands extended from South Carolina to Kentucky including parts of Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina, and North and West Virginia.(1)

Hernando de Soto and his men descended upon Cherokee land around 1540. With their arrival came disease, imbalance and the initial decimation of the Cherokee people. In search of grand cities and gold, de Soto discovered an agrarian society that refrained from the exploitation of their land or the accumulation of wealth and vengeance. (3). In his disappointment, de Soto continued his conquest for Spain at the expense of the Cherokee nation and other native societies.

The Cherokee Indians were not immune to Hernando de Soto or the European settlers to follow. This lack of immunity led to depopulation, which resulted in a significant loss of children and the elderly. The loss of elders meant the loss of the past. The world of the “was principal people” was now out of balance. This presented itself as a threat to the native tribes of America. (2)

The first hundred years of European conquest led to the demise of approximately 95% of the Native population (1). In efforts to adapt, Cherokee people began to trade fur, animal skins, and prisoners of tribal wars for manufactured goods such as weapons, metal tools, and clothing. Eventually, Native Americans and Europeans began to intermarry. Ultimately, this was the practice of ‘out with the old, and in with the new.” Not all Cherokee this new way of life. Some remained more traditional than others while others welcomed this new way of living and allegiances that it brought.(1)

Throughout the years, Britain and France competed for Cherokee allegiance. This led to the French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years’ War. At first, the Cherokee Nation allied with the British in exchange for protection from enemy tribes. Protection came in the agreement that the British would construct forts as a defense to the tactics of foes.
After a perceived betrayal from English settlers who resided on Indian land, the Cherokee allied with the French. (8).

Upon conclusion of the war, the Cherokee Nation encountered famine, smallpox epidemic, catastrophic war casualties, an economic depression, and stripping of land rights.

After the end of the Seven Years’ War, other wars followed. The American Revolutionary War, also known as the War for Independence, was an 18th-century war between Great Britain and its Thirteen Colonies which declared independence as the United States of America. The American Revolutionary War brought about the rise of the United States, and the fall of the Cherokee Nation. (4)

At the end of the American Revolutionary War, the Cherokee Nation encountered an economic depression. To recover, the Cherokee was obliged to relinquished tracts of land of up to sixty percent and relinquish it to the United States. The government persisted in seeking land as the United States grew, and from 1783 to 1819 the Cherokees became deprived of and additional 69 percent of their original lands. By the end of 1819, they maintained only 17,000 square miles of the original 124,000. (9)

It seemed as if the fabric of the Cherokee nation was tearing apart. However, the Cherokee adjusted.

During the infancy of the United States, the obtaining of Cherokee lands gave way to a proposed strategy of civilizing the Cherokee people. It was first proposed by Henry Knox, George Washington’s Secretary of War, his proposed agenda was targeted at transforming the Indian who owned a share of land communally, who governed him of herself by their own laws, worshipped gods created by man, and spoke a different language into a farmer who owned his own property, judged and lived by the written law, praises the one true God, spoke English, and had a proper and fundamental education.

However, this agenda lied on the basis of an ethnocentric and a completely exaggerated view of native society. On paper, the original goal of the “civilization” process seemed generous and heroic, but beneath that, the policy was regarded as a new attempt to wrestle the Cherokees land from under their noses. Knox and others reasoned that if the Indians relinquished hunting, their hunting grounds would now become “extra” land that the Cherokees would gratefully give up in order to receive money for education, agriculture, and other “U.S.-approved” pursuits.

This “civilization” policy demanded a total and complete reorganization of the Cherokees spiritual and social mindset. While maintaining their cultural identity, they adopted European customs, to avoid the disintegration of their customs, values, and beliefs. This meant adapting to European-style practices including converting to Christianity, learning the English language, and certain economic behaviors like the practice of slavery, the sole ownership of properties, and a written constitution. Many tribes adapted to this new practice in order to reduce hostility between the Europeans and their tribe.

The Cherokee, more than any other tribe, became dedicated to adapting to Anglo-American culture by changing their society and their traditional culture in order to conform to U.S. standards, to appease politicians and statesmen, but most importantly, to maintain their tribal integrity. Acculturation, then, was to be used as a defense to prevent any further loss of land and the extinction of their culture. The advancement of the Cherokee surprised many Europeans who passed through their lands.

Unfortunately, multiple stumbling blocks appeared on the Cherokee Nation’s road to progress. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 gave the U.S. government an alternative to the “civilization” process– removal. With the “civilization” program found deficient in turning the Cherokees to model citizens overnight, the men who originally supported it decided that the Cherokee should not be allowed to stay in the premises of civilized society. The only option was removal to the West. Many other factors added to the removal of the Cherokees, including the discovery of gold on Cherokee lands, the controversy of states’ rights, and the birth of racist propaganda disguised as science, commonly known as scientific racism. (9). The invention of the cotton gin created a desire for agricultural lands by the white man, and lastly, the Creek War of 1812 ended any fears of an Indian consortium against the United States.

In 1817, the U.S. government arranged the first treaty that included the allocation of the removal of the Cherokee people. This treaty proposed the exchange of Cherokee land in the Southwest for territory located west of the Mississippi. The government promised to provide the necessary assistance in resettling in the West to the Cherokees who chose to leave for the West voluntarily. About 1,500 to 2,500 Cherokees volunteered to go despite the opposition of Cherokee leaders and the preference of majority for staying on their land. (9). These Cherokees joined other Cherokees who had moved West at the the beginning of the century.

In fact, it was the existence of Cherokee on government land in the West that gave rise to the United States demanding Cherokee cessions in 1817. The treaty also held a proposal for a study in citizenship. Cherokee who desired to stay on ceded lands in the East could apply for up to six hundred and forty acres of reserves and U.S. citizenship. (9) If the states approved of the experiment it might have accomplished the goal of Indian assimilation. Instead, the Southern states combatted it, even using legal formalities to render Indian claims invalid.

Most of the Cherokee did not agree with the 1817 treaty, and the Cherokee Council voted in 1819 to deny citizenship in the tribe to anyone who moved West or accepted a reserve. The Cherokees who did not approve of removal also sought and obtained another treaty in 1819, which allowed them to maintain communal ownership of ten million acres of their natural lands in the East. Even though the Cherokee gave up about four million acres due to the treaty, they hoped that this added cession would cease any removal effort.

Around the same time, the Cherokee expedited their acculturation. They increased the amount of the written laws and established a legislature. During the early 1820s, a Cherokee named Sequoyah invented a syllabary that enabled the Cherokee to read and write in their own language, and because of this invention, the Cherokee were able to publish a newspaper called the Cherokee Indian (Tsa-La-Ge-Tsi-Le-Hi-Sa-Ni-Hi)written in English and Cherokee that “espoused acculturation and opposition to removal”. (5).

By 1829, the Cherokee Nation was able to bring into being a supreme court and a constitution. The Cherokee constitution’s goals included: establish justice, ensure tranquility, and promoting common welfare. The manifestations of Cherokee accomplishment was everywhere: a new capital with stately buildings at New Echota, well-dressed leaders and statesmen, educated men, etc. Without a doubt, the Cherokee exceeded all expectations set by various presidents of the United States from George Washington to Andrew Jackson.

Unfortunately, though, in the period after 1820 the future of the Cherokee and other native peoples was placed in jeopardy as white Americans began to “embrace a belief in white superiority” and the “static nature of the red man”. Many American believed that “once an Indian, always an Indian.” Culture was congenital, not cultivated. However “civilized” an Indian appear to be, he still perpetuated his “savage” nature. (9).

Another factor vital to the issue of removal was states’ rights. The Cherokee saw their constitution as their greatest achievement, Georgians, however, viewed the constitution as a stumbling block in the way of states’ rights, due to the fact that Cherokee lands was within the limits of four states. The Cherokee constitution claimed sovereignty over tribal lands, establishing a state within a state. Georgians claimed that such legal circumvention violated the Constitution in Article IV, section 3 and that the federal government was not taking action against this.

President Andrew Jackson, in his first annual message to Congress, acknowledged state predominance over the Indians, abjured Cherokee claims to sovereignty, and requested that Congress provide an act for Indian removal. (4). Less than two weeks later, Georgia, passed a series of laws that abolished Cherokee government, began the implementation of state law in Cherokee country, and authorized a survey of Cherokee lands in order for it to be apportioned for a lottery for citizens of the state of Georgia. With the inability to receive aid from Congress or the President of the United States, the Cherokee Nation took their case to the Supreme Court.

This case was called the Worcester v. Georgia case. In the Worcester v. Georgia decision, Chief Justice John Marshall decided that Georgia had overreached its authority by extending state law into Cherokee land. Nevertheless, Georgia chose to ignore the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction over the state. Federal marshals and state militias could not be send to enforce the law without a state judge refusing to agree with the Supreme Court’s decision, and Georgia chose to completely ignore the decision rather than protest against it.

By 1833, a party grew within the Cherokee Nation, led by Major Ridge, a war hero of 1812, his son John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot, former editor of the Cherokee Phoenix. They firmly believed that removal by the government was inevitable, and so they sought a treaty on the best terms possible. The majority of the Cherokees (16,000), led by Chief John Ross, were in opposition of removal. Disregarding the majority of Cherokees, U.S. commissioners arranged the duplicitous Treaty of New Echota in 1835 with a group of unauthorized individuals. Notwithstanding a petition from over 15,000 Cherokee protesting the treaty, the United States Senate ratified the Treaty of New Echota in May of 1836. The Cherokees were given two years to emigrate west of the Mississippi to designated areas of land called reservations or face involuntary removal.

By 1838, only 2,000 of the 16,000 had moved west, so the government sent in seven thousand militias and volunteers to remove those remaining. The Cherokee gathered up at gunpoint and marched into stockades. The Cherokee were given meager or no time to gather belonging and important possessions. As some turned to see their homes, they saw them being looted and raided by white and burned to the ground. Becoming resigned to their deportation, Chief John Ross then attempted to induce the Van Buren administration to allow the Cherokee to remove themselves. Meager portions of food, extreme climate, and the spread of disease were the common factors that resulted in the high death count among the Cherokee Nation.

Extirpated from their ancestral homeland, the Cherokees arrived at their new territory in disbelief. Very few families were saved from the death of a relative. Animosity and civil broke out, ending in 1846. The coming of the American Civil War brought a revival of factionalism. White Americans still persisted in interfering with tribal government and Indian society, reaching a head at the end of the century in the cessation of tribal government.

The Curtis Act of 1898 brought the dissolution of communally held lands through sole subsidisation. Again the goal was to “civilize” the Indian and force them into society. Corruption and greed soon destabilized whatever benevolence might have encouraged policy makers, and as with the removal, the Cherokees suffered greatly. (6). With the Indian Act of 1939, the Cherokee Nation and other native peoples gained some hold over their own business, but the stain of removal was irremovable. Three Cherokee Nations- the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma, and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma- are reminders of that era of suppression and unfair treatment by the United States.”

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The Cherokee Trail of Tears. (2020, Sep 30). Retrieved from