The Trail of Tears

When Andrew Jackson took office as President in 1829, he pursued a policy of removing Native Americans from their ancestral lands. This was done to make room for white settlers and speculators who made large profits from the purchase and sale of land.

In 1830, Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which forcibly relocated most members of the Native American tribes in the South to Indian Territory in the west. While Jackson and other politicians attempted to put a positive spin on Indian removal in their speeches, the removal was in fact often brutal. There was little the Indians could do to defend themselves. In 1832, a group of about a thousand Sac and Fox Indians led by Chief Black Hawk returned to Illinois, but militia members easily drove them back across the Mississippi. The Seminole resistance in Florida was more formidable, resulting in a war that began under Chief Osceola and lasted into the 1840s.

The Cherokee of Georgia, on the other hand, used legal action to resist. The Cherokee people were by no means frontier savages. By the 1830s they developed their own written language, printed newspapers and elected leaders to representative government. When the government of Georgia refused to recognize their autonomy and threatened to seize their lands, the Cherokees took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court and won a favorable decision. John Marshall’s opinion for the Court majority in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia was essentially that Georgia had no jurisdiction over the Cherokees and no claim to their lands. But Georgia officials simply ignored the decision, and President Jackson refused to enforce it. Jackson was furious and personally affronted by the Marshall ruling, stating, “Mr. Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it!”  

Finally, federal troops came to Georgia to remove the tribes forcibly. As early as 1831, the army began to push the Choctaws off their lands to march to Oklahoma.

In 1835, some Cherokee leaders agreed to accept western land and payment in exchange for relocation. With this agreement - the Treaty of New Echota - Jackson had the green light to order Cherokee removal. Other Cherokees, under the leadership of Chief John Ross (seen to the left), resisted until the bitter end.

About 20,000 Cherokees were marched westward at gunpoint on the infamous Trail of Tears. Nearly a quarter perished on the way, with the remainder left to seek survival in a completely foreign land. The tribe became hopelessly divided as the followers of Ross murdered those who signed the Treaty of New Echota. According to legend, a Cherokee rose, the state flower of Georgia, grew in every spot a tear fell on the Trail of Tears. Today, the flowers grow along many of the trails that the Native Americans took West.