People of Native American heritage know the story well. They call it “Nunna daul Tsunyi” the “trail where they cried.”
Pressured To Relocate
These five nations, all living in the American south, considered themselves as autonomous. For years the Cherokee and Choctaw had been making serious efforts to assimilate culturally with white, European-descended Americans.
In spite of the generally peaceful atmosphere between Native Americans and the white population of the south, the desire for gold, furs, and especially land was strong. Conflicts between the Cherokee, who were the most culturally compatible, and the State of Georgia began to grow over property boundaries.
In 1830, the “Indian Removal Act” was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Andrew Jackson. While greatly supported in the south, many Christian groups, Abraham Lincoln, and even Davy Crockett opposed the law. The passage of the law and its enforcement seemed inevitable, however, to most of the Nations. Its primary premise was to exchange Tribal lands in the east for newly available lands west of the Mississippi River.
The first removal treaty, agreed to by the Choctaw, was an exchange of land east of the Mississippi for land in a new “Indian Territory” (Oklahoma). A similar treaty was agreed to by the Cherokee in 1835. Subsequent treaties ceded 25 million acres of land for white settlement. The white southern society was largely rural and agrarian, and needed vast tracts of land on which to grow crops such as cotton.
Beyond the great River Mississippi, your Father has provided a country large enough for all of you, and he advises you to move to it. There, white brothers will not trouble you; they will have no claim to the land, and you can live upon it, you and all your children, as long as the grass grows or the water runs, in peace and plenty. It will be yours forever.”
Some Nations would not agree to signing treaties under any conditions and resisted removal. The Seminole, related closely to the Creek, refused and the “Seminole War” resulted in 1835, with 3,000 casualties. Never the less, the inevitable occurred. The Choctaw were removed in 1831, cooperative Seminoles in 1832, the Creek in 1834, the Chickasaw in 1837, and finally the Cherokee in 1838.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous philosopher and chronicler of American culture observed the Choctaw at Memphis. He recorded the following, “In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction. . . The Indians were tranquil, but somewhat somber and taciturn. . . I asked (one of the Tribe) why the Choctaw were leaving their country. ‘To be free’ he answered.”
One group was moved northward overland through northeast Louisiana then across southern Arkansas to Fort Towson in the Oklahoma Territory on the Red River, just west of today’s Oklahoma- Arkansas border.
Another group travelled by water south on the Mississippi River then northward into southern Arkansas along the Arkansas River. Floating ice stopped their movement for a number of weeks during the winter. Food was running low and had to be rationed in very small amounts. They finally travelled by land across Arkansas to Fort Towson. Their final destination was along the Oklahoma-Arkansas Territory border running south to the border with Mexico (now Texas).
As many as 13,000 Choctaw made the journey and over 4,000 died. Almost 5,000 remained in Mississippi after 1831 but faced severe harassment for generations.
In 1832, the Seminole agreed to move west. They were to be co-located with the Creek and absorbed into that Nation. Years before, the Seminole had deserted the Creek Nation and many felt that to be reunited with them meant almost certain death.
When military force was used to make them comply, armed conflict resulted. While most Seminole were forcibly moved, some retreated into the Florida swamps - never to relinquish their autonomy to this day.
The Seminoles, who were moved, travelled overland to the Gulf of Mexico coast. Next they sailed to New Orleans. They travelled by boat northward on the Mississippi River to the Arkansas River, taking this westward all the way to Fort Gibson. They were settled in the central Oklahoma Territory just west of the Choctaw and north of the Chickasaw. They were forcibly co-located with the Creek.
CREEK, also known as MUSCOGEE (1834-36)
Enter Andrew Jackson again. While the Creek had allied with Jackson during the
War of 1812, he downplayed their involvement and questioned their loyalty.
In 1825, Jackson forced the Creek to agree to a treaty ceding almost all their
lands in Georgia to the government.
The following year, President John Quincy Adams nullified this unfair treaty.
Georgia, however, ignored the new treaty and began removing the Creek per the
original treaty. Adams, fearing a civil war, declined to intervene. The Creek in
government, until violence finally erupted. The “Creek War of 1836” was brutally
put down by the U.S. Army and the forced relocation began.
The Creek in Alabama were organized into three groups. Each group took a separate path moving overland through Alabama, then through southern Tennessee and northern Mississippi. They rejoined at Memphis. Some went by water down the Mississippi River to the Arkansas River finally moving northwest along the Arkansas River to Fort Gibson in the Oklahoma Territory. One group was moved overland west to the Arkansas River.
A fourth group travelled by water southward along the Alabama River to Mobile. They sailed to New Orleans. Finally, they sailed northward on the Mississippi River to the Arkansas River which they took west all the way to Fort Gibson. They were settled in the central Oklahoma Territory just west of the Choctaw and north of the Chickasaw. They were to share this area with the Seminole.
In 1836, the Chickasaw Nation agreed to purchase the land previously occupied
by the Choctaw and in turn ceded it to the U.S. Government in exchange for land
in the west.
At this time, the Chickasaw were spread across northern Mississippi from the Alabama border to the Mississippi River. The entire displaced group was moved southwest by land to northeastern Louisiana. Next they were moved by water northward to the south central Arkansas Territory. They finally travelled by land across southern Arkansas to Fort Towson in the Oklahoma Territory. During their journey, more than 500 Chickasaw died of dysentery and smallpox.
They were settled to the west of the Choctaw lands between the Canadian River and the Red River (the border with Mexico). Later, efforts to consolidate the Chickasaw and Choctaw failed and both exist independently.
When gold was discovered in the mountains of Georgia (1829), the State attempted to put Cherokee land under the laws of Georgia. In 1837, a lawsuit was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court. The John Marshall court ruled that Georgia could not impose any laws in Cherokee territory.
President Andrew Jackson disagreed with the court and said, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!” Later, he added, “Build a fire under them (the Cherokee), when it gets hot, they’ll go.”
Under the Indian Removal Act, Jackson pressured the Cherokee into accepting a relocation treaty. The new President, Van Buren, sent an armed force of 7,000 troops to take into custody 13,000 Cherokee and place them in guarded camps. Cherokee living on private white-owned property were not subject to removal. Sometimes these groups had 200-400 people. For most, their homes were burned and their farms were sold by lottery to white settlers.
The Cherokee journey to Oklahoma has been most closely identified with the expression “Trail of Tears.” They departed in the winter without proper clothing. Blankets given to them had been used during a small pox outbreak and not sufficiently cleaned causing widespread suffering. Because of the fear of small pox, the migrating Cherokee were not allowed to pass through towns along their route. Floating ice in rivers and streams caused them to stop for long periods in bitter cold.
One group (made up of two parties) travelled northwest overland through central Tennessee and southwest Kentucky, then across the southern tip of Illinois. At that point, one party went southward into the central Arkansas Territory then westward overland to Fort Gibson. The other party went westward across Missouri then south to Fort Gibson.
A second main group travelled by water south and west on the Tennessee River; then northward to the Ohio River. Next they were moved southward again on the Mississippi River, and finally west on the Arkansas River to Fort Gibson. All of the Cherokees were rejoined and settled in the northern area of the Oklahoma Territory along the border of a yet to be organized territory (Kansas).
What was the human cost? (by 1838)
The number remaining in the southeastern states is 8,900.
The number of deaths due to removal or resistance is 17,000 (28%)
Latter Movements West
As of 1838 there were about 8,900 members of these Nations who were able to stay behind in the east. Most were living on white-owned land or were able to buy some small plots for themselves. By 1861 that number would have grown to around 15,000.
At the start of the Civil War (1861) these five tribes became as divided as did the country. The Chickasaw and Choctaw supported the Confederacy while the Creek and many Seminole supported the Union. The Cherokee fought a civil war within their own nation with tribe members tragically split in their loyalties.
The Final Question
Was the forced relocation of these Five Civilized Tribes an American “ethnic genocide”? It was not until the 20th Century that this kind of question was even asked.
In 1948, The United Nations, General Assembly, Resolution #260 (Article 2) was an attempt to define genocide in an objective manner. They defined it as:
“Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group” such as:
1. Killing members of the group.
2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.
3. Deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction.
4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.
5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
To what extent was the American government responsible for the human suffering?
#1 Killing members of the group. This certainly happened, but was it because of an order by the government or by individuals for their own reasons?
#2 Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group. This also happened without question. Many factors contributed to the injury of Native Americans, including undependable food supplies, incompetent guides, and poor execution of the plan.
#3 Deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about physical destruction. To what degree could this be intentionally done? Bad weather and disease susceptibility could not have been included in some master plan.
Both #4 and #5, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group, is also not supported by any reputable proof.
What is not convincing is that the American government purposely created a scenario that would insure that damage was done. There are no documents or records that support any position saying that the government ordered the death of any members of these tribes.
Does the act of causing the relocation of these Tribes, even forcefully, constitute genocide? Among some historians and legal scholars the jury is still out. You will have to decide for yourself.