Source: American Experience: "We Shall Remain: Trail of Tears"
In this video segment adapted from American Experience: "We Shall Remain," reenactments help tell the story of how the Cherokee people were forced from their lands in the southeast. The U.S. government initially promised the Cherokee and other Native American tribes that if they could assimilate into European Americans lifestyles, they would be considered equals. But a new movement in the late 1820s, supported by President Andrew Jackson, promoted removal of Native Americans from the eastern U.S. The Indian Removal Act, passed in 1830, called for the tribes to leave peacefully. Feeling that removal from their own lands was not an option, the vast majority of people stayed. When the deadline to leave passed, federal troops and state militia forcefully assembled the Cherokee people, letting them take nothing but the clothes on their backs, and made them march an 850-mile trek to new lands. Many died on this march, known as the Trail of Tears, which lasted through one of the hardest winters the region had ever experienced.
Cherokee Removal Map (Image)
In the early years of the United States, settlers migrating westward coveted Cherokee Indian lands, which were located primarily in northwest Georgia. For European Americans, land ownership meant individual control over a precise parcel of land, to use for settlement and economic development. Because Cherokee lands were primarily within the boundaries of Georgia, the state believed it could claim this territory for its citizens. The Indian notion of land ownership was more communal, giving the whole tribe the right to use the resources of their traditional lands, a right passed through generations. The Cherokee had been living on these lands for centuries, and they, too, deeply felt a right to the land.
Many Cherokee had accepted the changed conditions in which they lived, embracing the American economic system of private property. Some became plantation owners, growing cotton or tobacco, and even using slave labor. Others became store owners or operated ferries. In 1821, a Cherokee man named Sequoyah created a written system for the Cherokee language, and within a very short time, a majority of the Cherokee people were literate. By 1828 they began publication of The Cherokee Phoenix, a newspaper written in both Cherokee and English. The Cherokee also wrote a constitution in 1827, patterned after the United States Constitution, including legislative, executive, and judicial branches. In addition, they took steps to have some of their young men educated in schools run by European Americans. By adapting to American ways, the Cherokee thought they would have a stronger right to their ancestral lands. In 1830, about 18,000 Cherokee lived on tribal lands.
That same year, however, the U.S. Congress sided with the Georgians and passed a measure called the Indian Removal Act. The act authorized the president to negotiate with Indian tribes to move them to lands west of the Mississippi River. The tribes would get title over these in exchange for their original lands east of the Mississippi. Andrew Jackson, a wealthy frontiersman from neighboring Tennessee who was elected President in 1828, supported Indian removal.
The Cherokee, under the leadership of Principal Chief John Ross, refused the land exchange offered them by Jackson and the American government. The state of Georgia responded by passing laws designed to make the Cherokee so miserable that they would willingly leave. But the Cherokee Nation filed a court case against Georgia, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to guarantee their right to their ancestral lands.
In 1831, the Court ruled that the Cherokee and other Native Americans should be categorized as “domestic dependent nations.” As wards of the federal government, they were prohibited from bringing cases before U.S. courts. However, the following year the Supreme Court changed its opinion in another case involving the Cherokee Nation. The new opinion guaranteed the security of Cherokee lands and prohibited anyone from entering those lands without permission of the Cherokee. The Cherokee thought they had won their battle.
President Jackson, however, refused to implement the Court's order. In December 1835, while Cherokee leaders were in Washington, D.C. meeting with Jackson, federal government negotiators got a minority of the Cherokee nation (known as the Treaty Party) to sign the Treaty of New Echota, in which the Cherokee accepted removal in return for five million dollars. About 2,000 Indians voluntarily moved west. When the Cherokee leaders returned home, they vowed to defy the treaty, and began organizing their people against it.
In June 1838, the U.S. Army ordered the roundup of the 16,000 remaining Cherokee and held them in stockades while soldiers and settlers looted the Cherokee's land and homes. Then the Army forced the Cherokee to march from Georgia to what is now Oklahoma. For many, the journey lasted through the following winter, during which they had to endure cold and snowy conditions and inadequate food, shelter, and health care. Four thousand Cherokee died on the walk west. It took years of hard work for the Cherokee Nation to rise from the ashes of their relocation experience.
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