Researched and written by Kelly Gregg and edited by Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM
THE CHEROKEES’ TRAIL OF TEARS
A few people each summer seek to follow some of the many famous trails that crisscross the United States in memory of epic journeys of the original travelers. These include the Oregon Trail, the Lewis and Clark route and the Trail of Tears.
Many of our ancestors experienced hardships in the settlement of this country, particularly Native Americans. Although there are many examples, none is more poignant than the Cherokee’s famous Trail of Tears and the forced relocation that occurred during the winter of 1838.
The Cherokee homeland once occupied much of the southern Appalachians. This included the western sections of North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, most of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, and the northern portions of Georgia and Alabama. Although generally rugged or mountainous, this region contained large tracts of fertile farmland, as well as valuable timber and mineral resources.
This natural bounty attracted land-hungry white settlers throughout most of the 1600s and 1700s. In 1830, after the Cherokee had already endured more than 200 years of encroachment by Europeans and Americans, the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act. This act, which applied to all tribes in the United States, initiated legal processes that forced Native Americans to abandon their lands and relocate to Indian Territory in the present-day state of Oklahoma.
The Cherokee managed to delay their removal until 1838, when the United States Army invaded their lands. Even in the face of this overwhelming force, a small number of people avoided relocation by taking refuge in the rugged mountains of Western North Carolina. Their descendants form the nucleus of today’s Eastern Cherokee Reservation.
The vast majority of Cherokee–more than16,000–were driven from their lands and forced into crowded, unsanitary and poorly provisioned internment camps while they awaited transportation arrangements to Indian Territory. Due to an unfortunate combination of bad planning, poor weather and government corruption, this journey was a major human disaster.
Four different removal routes were used. The first group to depart, about 3,000 people, made the journey by boat, embarking on the Tennessee River at Chattanooga, Tennessee, or Waterloo, Alabama. They floated down the Tennessee, the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers to the confluence with the Arkansas River, and from there upstream to Fort Smith, Arkansas. It had been a long, hot, dry summer and the rivers were very low. The journey took much longer than expected, with the Cherokee suffering greatly from disease and exposure, many dying enroute.
When reports of these difficulties reached the Cherokee still waiting to depart their tribal lands, they petitioned the federal government to allow them to make the trip to Indian Territory by land routes. Many walked the entire distance. When viewed on a map, the land routes taken may seem to be somewhat indirect, but the large groups of Cherokee men, women and children had to follow existing roads, avoid mountainous areas and periodically pass through major towns in order to obtain supplies.
Although small groups used other routes, by far the majority of Cherokee, perhaps 12,000, made the journey along what is called the Northern Route. This route began near Charleston, Tennessee. The trail proceeded northwest, passing through Nashville and into western Kentucky. After crossing the Ohio River at Golconda, Illinois, the trail continued across Illinois, reaching the Mississippi River north of Cape Girardeau. Taking a broad swing to the northwest to avoid the worst of the Ozark Plateau, the trail passed through Rolla and Springfield, Missouri, and entered Arkansas north of Fayetteville. The trail continued west into Oklahoma, a total distance of nearly 1,000 miles.
The Cherokee originally anticipated that this journey would only take about two months. The combined effects of bad roads, freezing weather, malnutrition, sickness and death, however, resulted in some Cherokee taking as long as four months to reach their destination.
For the Cherokee, the journey west was called the Nunahi-Duna-Dlo-Hilu-I, roughly translated into English as “The trail where they cried” or “The Trail of Tears.” Although estimates vary, at least 4,000 died along the trail. If those who died during internment and shortly after arrival in Oklahoma’s Indian Territory are included, some believe as many as 8,000 Cherokee may have perished.
Having arrived in their new lands and still suffering from devastating problems related to the removal process, the Cherokee immediately began to rebuild their lives and their nation. Although having experienced tremendous difficulties, this new Cherokee Nation survives today with its capital at Tahlequah, Oklahoma. The Cherokee are the second-largest Native American group in the United States, with the federal government recognizing more than 260,000 individuals. In addition, much larger numbers of Americans proudly claim at least partial Cherokee ancestry.
A vehicle route of the Cherokee Trail of Tears has been designated by the National Park Service in tribute to the hardships endured by the people of the Cherokee Nation in the early days of this country’s history.
And that is Geography in the News.
(Author Kelly Gregg is a Professor of Geography at Jacksonville State University and has mapped the geographic details of the Cherokee Trail of Tears,)
Co-editors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.