Long Run Up to the Trail of Tears
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Condensed by Native Village

On May 28, 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed a bill which will forever taint his Presidency. The Indian Removal Act relocated Indian Nations east of the Mississippi River to unsettled lands in today's Kansas and Oklahoma. Those forced to move were the Five Civilized Tribes in the South and remnants of tribes in the old Northwest Territory.

Thomas Jefferson had already established a U.S. policy toward Native Americans. That policy allowed Native Americans to remain on their traditional lands, as long as they became “civilized.” Civilized meant settling the land and becoming farmers and traders, not roaming hunters. Jefferson thought this would make them  dependent on trade with white Americans.

 “When they withdraw themselves to the culture of a small piece of land, they will perceive how useless to them are their extensive forests, and will be willing to pare them off from time to time in exchange for necessaries for their farms and families …”  Thomas Jefferson

The first Native tribes to relocate after the Indian Removal Act was signed were the Choctaw. On Sept. 27, 1830, they signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. When the Choctaw reached Little Rock, a chief (thought to be Thomas Harkins or Nitikechi) stated to the Arkansas Gazette that the removal was a “trail of tears and death.”

A few tribes went peacefully, but many resisted the relocation policy. During the fall and winter of 1838 and 1839, the Cherokees were forcibly moved west by the United States government. Approximately 4,000 Cherokees died on this forced march, which became known as the "Trail of Tears."

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French writer, watched the Choctaw removals while in Memphis in 1831. He wrote:

“In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn’t watch without feeling one’s heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but sombre and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas were leaving their country.

" ‘To be free,’ he answered, could never get any other reason out of him. We ... watch the expulsion ... of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples.”

Southern Tribes: Trail of Tears

Nation Population east of the Mississippi before removal treaty Removal Treaty
(year signed)
Years of major emigration Total number emigrated or forcibly removed Number stayed in Southeast Deaths during removal
Choctaw 19,554  + white citizens of the Choctaw Nation + 6000 black slaves Dancing Rabbit Creek (1830) 1831–1836 12,500 7,000 2,000–4,000+
Creek 22,700 + 900 black slaves Cusseta (1832) 1834–1837 19,600 100s 3,500 (disease after removal)
Chickasaw 4,914 + 1,156 black slaves Pontotoc Creek (1832) 1837–1847 over 4,000 100s 500–800
Cherokee 21,500
+ 2,000 black slaves
New Echota (1835) 1836–1838 20,000 + 2,000 slaves 1,000 2,000–8,000
Seminole 5,000 + fugitive slaves Payne's Landing (1832) 1832–1842 2,833 250–500  

The Northern Tribes

Tribes in the Old Northwest were much smaller and more fragmented than the Southern Tribes, so the removal process was piecemeal. Bands of Shawnee, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Sauk, and Meskwaki (Fox) signed treaties and relocated to the Indian Territory.

In 1832, a Sauk chief named Black Hawk led a band of Sauk and Fox back to their lands in Illinois. In the Black Hawk War, the U.S. Army and Illinois militia defeated Black Hawk and his army.

The Iroquois were also supposed to leave. The Treaty of Buffalo Creek arranged for them to be removed to land in Wisconsin and Kansas. However, a land company reneged on purchasing those western lands. Later treaties in 1842 and 1857 returned most of the Iroquois' reservations untouched.

additional sources: wikipedia