Trail of Tears: The Native American Genocide

On May 28, 1830, the Indian Removal Act was enacted, allowing US President Andrew Jackson to negotiate the removal of Native American tribes from east of the Mississippi River to its west, freeing these territories from exploitation. This transmutation proved catastrophic for the five tribes who left their lands, having to travel thousands of miles to their new homeland. This road claimed thousands of lives, with severe conditions and disease being the main culprits in their deaths.

This mass migration was called by one of the participants “The Path of Tears” the name by which this genocide has remained known to this day. Life for Native Americans before the enactment of the 1830 Act was very harsh as they were not offered much freedom. From the 17th century, when the first colonies were established in the present territory of the United States, until the 19th century, the lands belonging to various Native American tribes came into the possession of the new European inhabitants.

From the perspective of American leaders at the time (such as Jefferson Davis and Andrew Johnson), they legally came into possession of Native American lands. The ways in which they appropriated these lands, however, were largely abusive. In the early 19th century, the United States federal government designated the five Native American tribes – the Chicksaw, Chocktaw, Muscogee-Creek, Seminole and Cherokee – as the “Five Civilized Tribes.”

Their degree of development relative to other Native American populations, their cooperation with the federal government, and their adoption of European culture gave them the advantage of a special status in the young federal republic of the United States of America. These tribes today had designated territories in the southeastern United States, enjoying some autonomy.

Civilized Tribes at the Wyoming Reservation, 1800s. (Source: National Archives)

Thus, they maintained their old mode of tribal organization, being, at the same time, integrated into the American model of economic organization, practicing large-scale agriculture based on African slaves. However, expanding trade and the growing need for land for plantations drove Americans to expand westward. The territories of the Five Tribes have been targeted in this expansion. US President Thomas Jefferson believed that with the integration of Native Americans into the American cultural pattern, including agriculture, the tribes would rid themselves of territories used for hunting, later taking possession of American lands.

Jefferson’s prediction partially came true, with few tribes willing to abandon their homeland, and American authorities were forced to take increasingly harsh measures to expel Native Americans from their desired areas. The first ideas for giving Native Americans east of the Mississippi River territories of equal value west of the river appeared in 1803.

The first implementation dates back to 1817, when the Cherokee Indians agreed to surrender two portions of their land for equal sized parcels in the West. The limited success of this method has led to the emergence of other methods, which are as effective as they are abusive. In the U.S. Congress, discussions began about the legitimacy of tribal self-governing territories.

The argument of the territorial integrity of the United States seemed to be the one adopted by most leaders of the former colonies, starting with the elimination of all forms of state organization of Native Americans. Moreover, not having American citizenship, the members of these tribes were not legally authorized to own property on American soil.

This legal framework was used by American leaders to take possession of Indian territories. During President James Monroe’s tenure, Secretary of State John C. Calhoun began organizing the plan to remove Native Americans from affected areas. Thus, in 1824, Calhoun received the green light from the President to implement the plan, and in 1825, the Arkansas Territory and the Indian Territory were created for this purpose. These are the areas where Native American populations were to be moved. Future president John Quincy Adams presented Calhoun’s plan to Congress. Although his plan specified that Native Americans would be relocated voluntarily, Georgian delegates opposed the plan.

In 1829, Andrew Jackson was elected the seventh president of the United States. From the start of his tenure, he took a hard line against the American Indians, refusing to accept the existence of Indian nations and wanting to forcibly displace these tribes east of the Mississippi. The same year, at his request, the Indian Relocation Act was discussed in Congress. In early 1830, the law was approved by Congress, signed into law on June 30, 1830 by the President. Although it did not provide for the forced resettlement of Native Americans, the law authorized Jackson to negotiate the resettlement of any Native American tribe from the United States.

Native Americans of the Choctaw tribe from the beginning of the 19th century (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Choctaw tribe was the first to be affected by this law. On September 27, 1830, the tribal leaders signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, by which they agreed to move to territories west of the river. This was the first movement by a Native American tribe after the law was enacted, but also the first in which no incidents were recorded between tribesmen and authorities.

The road traveled by the Choctaw tribe was disastrous, according to oral sources, with a Choctaw tribal leader calling it “a road of tears and death. The French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville witnessed the relocation of this tribe, recording in his book Democracy in America the external and internal misfortunes that the individuals who had to walk this long path have gone through.

During the relocation of the Cherokee tribe, the first abuses against the right of Native Americans to decide to leave their lands took place. As part of the New Echota Treaty, a small portion of the Cherokee Council negotiated the transfer of land to US authorities. The rest of the council, as well as its leaders, condemned this action and decided to refer the case to the Supreme Court of Justice, but without success.

Seminoles wearing traditional dress, c. 1926. (Source: Library of Congress, Washington, DC)

The Seminole tribe distinguished itself in this process by armed resistance against the American authorities. Under Osceola’s command, the Seminole Indians refused to cede land in 1835, sparking a war with American authorities. Although they had the advantage of knowing the marshy areas of Florida and the effect of surprise, the Seminole Indians were defeated in 1837, their leader, Osceola, being taken prisoner by the Americans. Some of these Native Americans agreed to move west, with others remaining in their homelands and continuing the struggle to preserve the land.

Jackson’s Law was not the first time the Muscogee (Creek) Indians were displaced. They were forced, after losing the war against the American army in 1814, to settle today on a narrow piece of land in eastern Alabama. In 1832, the Creek National Council accepted under the Treaty of Cusseta the transfer of land received in 1814 in exchange for resettlement in Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. Most of them were forced to move in 1834, during the migration that took place on the “Trail of Tears”.

The Ethnic Cleansing of the Cherokee Nation by the US Army, 1838. This painting, The Trail of Tears, was painted by Robert Lindneux in 1942. (Source: Public Domain)

A unique case was that of the Chickasaw Indians, who were to be compensated by the United States with three million dollars for their territories east of the river. After five years of debate, the tribal leaders decided to use this money to buy the western part of their homeland from the Chocktaw tribe. The Chickasaw Indians paid the Chocktaw Indians $530,000 before the last of them left their territory on the Road of Tears. However, the US state has honored its payment of three million dollars just over thirty years after the conclusion of the compensation agreement.

The enormous distances of thousands of miles between the homelands of the five tribes and between Arkansas and the Indian Territories exposed the Native Americans to many hardships. The absence of a home and the journey of weeks, even months, to travel through unknown and wild regions led to the death of many participants in this forced migration. European diseases undoubtedly caused most deaths among Native Americans. Lack of immunity to these relatively new diseases, along with harsh road conditions, have killed thousands of people.

Representation of Native Americans on the “Trail of Tears”, walking for miles in difficult conditions, (source: Native America Today)

A small part of these tribes decided to refuse the relocation, organizing themselves into smaller communities on their former territory and putting up armed resistance to any attempt by the Americans to drive them out. They survived throughout the 20th century, their resistance eventually being defeated and later organized into reserves.

Many Christian missionaries who preached the faith to Native American populations opposed this law. Missionaries such as Jeremiah Evarts protested American actions to displace Native Americans. Evarts also stood out in the case of the Cherokee Indians, advising them to challenge the abuses they suffered in the Supreme Court.