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What is the Trail of Tears?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Trail of Tears refers to the US government enforced relocation of the Cherokee Native Americans from their native lands in Georgia to Tahlequah, Oklahoma. This march was a devastating and deadly one for the Cherokee Nation — over 4,000 deaths occurred during the march and afterwards in Oklahoma. Roughly 20% of the Cherokee Nation died, either during the march or shortly afterwards, due to diseases like dysentery.

To the Cherokee Nation, this event is called the Nunna daul Isunyi, or the Trail Where We Cried. The journey was exceptionally difficult, spanning over 1,000 miles (about 1,600 km). At least 2,000 people died during the march, so cause for weeping is not hard to understand.

The issues that led to this devastating decision by the US government started long before 1838, when the forced march began. Expansion and land treaties in the areas surrounding Georgia in the 1800s resulted in the Compact of 1802. Part of this compact was an agreement to relocate Native American populations living on lands defined as Georgia.

The Cherokee Indians, who declared themselves in 1827 to be a distinct nation, protested this relocation decision. Several lawsuits went before the US Supreme Court contesting the right of the US government to forcibly relocate members of the Cherokee Nation, and not all Americans were in support of these actions. In particular, Davy Crockett and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson objected to the actions taken by the US government, and either spoke or wrote impassioned appeals on behalf of the Cherokees.

The treaty that was ratified by the US government, ostensibly giving up claim to any lands east of the Mississippi by the Cherokees, was not signed by any Cherokee leaders. Presidential support, first by Andrew Jackson and then Martin Van Buren, was for the forced relocation, however. As a result, the Cherokee people were removed from their homes at gunpoint in 1838 and set off to march on the Trail of Tears.

Most of the Cherokee Nation, about 17,000 people, were forced to march, and much of the relocation was actually conducted and supervised by Cherokee leaders. It should be noted that the Cherokee group was extremely westernized as compared to some of the other Native American groups. They lived in villages, made use of the American political system, and wealthy Cherokee people might own slaves. In fact, 2,000 slaves also marched on the Trail of Tears with their Cherokee owners.

About 1,000 Cherokee people were exempt from the enforced march because they lived on lands already owned by people who opposed the march. Also, about 400 Cherokee people in North Carolina also evaded the journey. Most people in the Cherokee Nation endured the indignities and the suffering of this forced march, however.

Perhaps because of the Cherokee’s strength as a nation, and ability to work with the US government, the Cherokee Nation recovered from their devastating losses and has remained one of the largest groups of Native American people in modern days. Efforts have since been made to commemorate and compensate for the intense suffering inflicted on the Cherokee Nation by the US government.

A 2,000 mile (3,218.69 km) trail called the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail was dedicated in 1987. The path crosses through nine states and serves as a reminder of the injustices committed by the US government toward the first Americans.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon326045 — On Mar 19, 2013

I feel Jackson was a selfish person and enough just wasn't enough. He had a temper and wanted to please his voters by moving the Cherokee elsewhere. But did anyone ever care to think that the farmers always had so much land to begin with that wasn't even used? On the other hand, if this event never happened, we wouldn't learn the history in our past. That is, I mean this time.

By discographer — On Feb 17, 2011

I saw the trail in memory of the Cherokee Indians in Fort Payne, Alabama. The trail was marked to represent the suffering of the Cherokee. It also had areas similar to those where Cherokee Indians studied reading and writing. I also learned that Sequoyah walked the Trail of Tears with his people. I had learned about him in school. He was a Cherokee Chief who developed an alphabet so that the Cherokee could write and communicate with one another. It was a really nice trail to learn more about the Cherokee and to remember the Trail of Tears.

By burcinc — On Feb 15, 2011

When we studied about ethnic groups, we also learned about a term called chosen traumas. It was about ethnic groups who go through a traumatic experience, an injustice and carve it into their memory. So even though years pass by and there are many new generations of that ethnic group, no one forgets what was done to them. Small kids know about the injustice and have strong emotions about it even though it was their great great grandparents who experienced it. I wonder if for the Cherokee Indians, the trail of tears is a chosen trauma? Do grandparents and parents retell stories of the trail of tears to their children and wish for it to be never forgotten?

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia...
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