The Trail of Tears

The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail is associated with the forced removal of the Cherokee people of Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and other parts of the Southeast to lands west of the Mississippi River in the late 1830s. Thousands traveled on foot, on horseback, and in wagons through Southern Illinois on the Golconda-Cape Girardeau Trace (now Illinois Route 146) during the freezing winter of 1838-1839. The sixty mile journey between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers took almost three months, and they were unable to cross the Mississippi until the spring thaw. Those who lost their lives were buried along the way.

Map of the Trail of Tears in Southern Illinois
Map of the Trail of Tears in Southern Illinois, from the United States Forest Service

The Politics of Removal 

Early American leaders sought to live in peace with Native Americans by converting them to Christianity, teaching them about property ownership, and promoting English literacy. Although the Cherokee and a number of other tribes adopted white customs, attacks on Native Americans persisted where white settlers coveted valuable land and mineral resources.

Map of the Louisiana Purchase
Map of the Louisiana Purchase by William Morris

In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase added millions of acres to the United States west of the Mississippi River. President Thomas Jefferson suggested that the eastern tribes might wish to relocate to the new territory to live without intrusion from whites. A voluntary relocation plan was enacted into law in 1824, and some chose to move west. Others remained in their homelands, increasingly threatened by white settlers.

Portrait painting of Sequoyah by Henry Inman
Portrait painting by Henri Inman of Sequoyah displaying his Cherokee syllabary

The Cherokee were one of the last remaining tribes. Many had adopted the culture of white settlers, some owning plantations and slaves. By 1821, Sequoyah, a Cherokee silversmith living in Georgia, had invented a way to write the Cherokee language by adapting letters from English, Greek, and Hebrew to create a syllabary of 86 symbols for syllables and sounds, enabling rapid development of native language literacy among the Cherokee and publication of the bilingual Cherokee Phoenix newspaper in 1828.

Read a copy of the Cherokee Phoenix HERE.

American policy toward Native Americans changed dramatically when Andrew Jackson became President of the United States in 1829. Known for his military leadership against Native Americans during and following the War of 1812, Jackson initiated the policy of removal.

Lake at Dahlonega, Georgia
Lake at Dahlonega, Georgia, photographed by Panoramio user Chanilim714. Named after the Cherokee word for “yellow”, signifying the presence of gold, Dahlonega was founded in 1833 in violation of the 1819 Treaty of Washington that defined the Cherokee lands.

The discovery of gold in 1829 on Cherokee land near present-day Dahlonega, Georgia, prompted the first significant gold rush in the United States. Conflict between illegal miners and Cherokees led Georgia to seek full control over Cherokee lands within its borders. Supporting the state’s greed, Jackson drafted the Indian Removal Act in 1830, leading to forced removal of all remaining groups east of the Mississippi River on what became known as "nunahi-duna-dlo-hilu-i" or "the trail where they cried". Although Jackson had previously made treaties with the Cherokee, and the U.S. Supreme Court in 1832 upheld the Cherokee as a sovereign nation, Jackson refused to enforce the ruling. That same year, Jackson’s Black Hawk War seized millions of acres from tribes in Northern Illinois.

Portrait painting of David Crockett
Portrait painting by Chester Harding of Tennessee Congressman David Crocket in 1834

Jackson’s policy of removal was notably opposed by frontiersman “Davy” Crockett when he served as a U.S. congressman from Tennessee. Although his grandparents had been killed by Creeks and Cherokees and he had served as a scout for Jackson during the Creek War from 1813 to 1814, Crocket called the Indian Removal Act unjust. His stance on removal and other Jacksonian policies ultimately cost him his political seat. After Crocket was defeated for reelection in 1835, he left the United States for Texas, where he sacrified his life defending the Alamo in 1836.

The Cherokee were divided on negotiating with the federal government. A small group who feared that removal was inevitable formed the Treaty Party and negotiated for compensation in return for moving west.

The Treaty of New Echota, signed in 1835 by members of the Treaty Party, but not by any Cherokee Nation officials, sold all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi for five million dollars and gave the Cherokee two years to vacate their land. In addition to monetary compensation, the agreement specified they would receive more than a hundred thousand dollars for education and permanent ownership of land in Indian Territory equal to lands ceded. Crucial to the agreement was a clause providing the opportunity for Cherokees who wished to remain to instead become citizens of the states in which they resided, with allotments of 160 acres of land each. President Jackson later refused to honor the clause.

On May 10, 1838, Major General Winfield Scott issued a proclamation compelling the Cherokee to respect the Treaty of 1835 by leaving immediately. Two weeks later, Scott led an army of seven thousand soldiers into Cherokee territory to drag families from their homes and imprison them in military camps before forcing them to march west.

The majority made the long journey to their new western lands on foot, divided into twelve detachments of about a thousand each. Among several routes, the major path led from Rattlesnake Springs near present-day Chattanooga, through Nashville and Clarksville, through Hopkinsville, and entered Illinois after crossing the Ohio River at Golconda.

The weeks spent crossing Southern Illinois were the deadliest of the march. Many landowners refused to allow the Cherokee to camp on their land or cut firewood for warmth and hot food. When they finally reached the Mississippi, it was frozen solid except for the center, where huge blocks of ice crashed together in the current.  They had to wait more than a month to cross the river to Missouri.

Cherokee National Capitol Building
Cherokee National Capitol in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, photographed by Walter Smalling for the Historic American Buildings Survey, circa 1930. Established in 1869, the Capitol is a National Historic Landmark and now serves as the Cherokee Nation Courthouse.

Arriving in Oklahoma during the spring of 1839, survivors began to rebuild their lives. Although there were difficulties, the Cherokees adapted to their new homeland and established their own system of government. The new tribal government was headquartered in Tahlequah with a constitution, an elected principal chief, and a legislature known as the National Council. They developed a bilingual school system and worked to maintain their cultural identity. Their experiences are commemorated on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail and by the Trail of Tears State Forest in Union County.

Many other tribes were removed in addition to the Cherokee. Between 1830 and 1850, approximately 100,000 Native Americans living east of the Mississippi River were forcibly relocated westward to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. Among the relocated tribes were the Seminole, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Quapaw, Osage, and the Illini Confederation.

Map of the Trail of Tears
Map of the routes taken to remove Native Americans from the Southeastern United States between 1836 and 1839, developed by Wikimedia Commons user Nikater