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The Five Civilized Tribes and the “Trail of Tears” Essay

The Indian Removal Act and the “Trail of Tears” was one of the worst tragedies in American history. It shows that the US government was forcing Native Americans to move from their homelands and endure great hardships of famine, cold and harsh weather, long treks on foot, and unfamiliar places with no regards to their safety, culture, history and wellbeing. Since the settling of North America by European colonists, relations between Native Americans and their increasing neighbors had been a bone of contention. While various groups were able to maintain peaceful relationships for a short time, the most general and often remembered state is one of hostility and disagreement. Both before and after its forming, the United States would encroach upon lands owned by Native Americans, ignoring treaties and guarantees made prior. In the more pleasant cases, settlers simply moved in and claimed land. In some less pleasant situations, whole tribes were killed or forced to move. The Native Americans had to leave their homelands, were forced on a dangerous, deadly journey, and shoved in a new land with which they were not comfortable.

One such removal was that of the Cherokee and other tribes in the southeastern portion of the United States. The removal was a direct result of the Removal Act signed by President Andrew Jackson on May 28, 1830. The Act stated that “no state could achieve proper culture, civilization, and progress, as long as Indians remained within its boundaries.” It authorized the United States government to negotiate with the five civilized tribes for their move to federal territory west of the Mississippi River in exchange for their homelands in the southeast. The Act then forced five Indian tribes, the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, (Muskogee)-Creek and Seminole tribes, to move to the Indian Territories, in Oklahoma.

The Cherokee’s removal is the one most famous and most often remembered. The Cherokee Indians experienced a lifetime of hardships in just a few short years. From having their traditional lives that generations had grown accustomed to taken from them to enduring a painful journey across the country. The Cherokees had attempted to reason and compromise, offering and signing treaties to keep peace and protect their land, but the United States ignored all of this. In the spring of 1838, the U.S. Army forced around fifteen thousand Cherokees from their homes in the South Eastern United States. The Cherokees traveled over a thousand miles to areas of modern day Oklahoma.

Many Cherokees walked the entire trip with little clothing and nothing on their feet. Food was scarce; They brought little and received even less. Much of the food that was available was of poor quality, often spoiled, and made many sick. Many more along the way died as a result of terrible illnesses. Their bodies were thrown in unmarked graves at the most convenient stop along the trail. The journey was called “Nunahi-Duna-Dlo-Hilu-I” by the Cherokees, which translates in English to the “Trail Where They Cried,” known today as the Trail of Tears.

When the Cherokees arrived in Oklahoma, they found a country very different than which they were used to. These reservations were not the lush, fertile lands of the southeast. Instead the land was flat and dry. The Cherokee had to adapt their farming methods to fit the land. There was less food available than in their native lands, and the food that was there was new and usual to the Cherokee. Thousands of Natives continued to die on the reservations in Oklahoma. 3The U.S. government also called for the removal of the Choctaws from Mississippi to what is now southern Oklahoma. It was determined that the best method of handling the removal was to move about one-third of the Choctaws per year, starting on November 1, 1831. The Choctaws moving from the north were to be gathered at Memphis, Tennessee, and those from the south were to be gathered at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Across the Mississippi river from Memphis and Vicksburg, supplies, like wagons, were being prepared to take the Choctaws west.

The Choctaws were allowed a few weeks prior to gather their crops and their personal property and sell their houses and goods, and told be at the two ferry points on November 1, however, because of the urging of the state of Mississippi, the Choctaws were ordered to leave all of their livestock and promised that they would be furnished new livestock when they reached the new “Choctaw Nation in the West.” 4 Special incentives were offered to any Choctaw willing to walk to the new land. Anyone who decided to walk would be paid $10 in gold, given a new rifle and three-month supply of powder and ammunition. They were promised to be fed along the way. About three hundred of the Choctaws took this offer. However, abundant rains came and flooded the Mississippi river and surrounding valleys. These floods would make the roads impassable. The original plan of taking the Choctaws west by wagon or by foot was impossible.

The only alternative left was to make the removal by steamboat. While these boats were gathered and sent downstream, the Choctaws were forced to wait outside of Memphis and Vicksburg, quickly eating all of the available rations. The 300 Choctaws who had decided to walk were ferried across the Mississippi, and then turned over to some guides who would lead them to the new land. The approximately 2,000 Choctaws waiting at Memphis would be taken by steamboat up the Arkansas River, and from there by wagon to their new territory. They were soon dumped off in Arkansas, when strong, cold northerly winds and snow set in. Most of the Choctaws had very little clothing and some of the children naked. There was few tents for shelter and rations were in very short supply. Traveling west in wagons and on foot, Choctaws tried suffer through the cold and unpleasant conditions. Many froze to death and died of pneumonia.5 Similarly, the Seminole removal was also a “trail of tears.”

Through a period of several small wars between the Seminoles and the United States, the US government spent almost forty million dollars on the removal of three thousand men, woman, and children from their native Florida to Oklahoma. Compared to the Cherokee and Choctaw removals, the Seminole Trail of Tears began sooner, and lasted almost twenty years longer. However, the human suffering and death toll was equally profound. Thousands of Seminoles, many who had tried to fight for their land, were loaded onto ships, taking through New Orleans and up the Mississippi river. They were dumped off and forced to walk the rest of the way to their new land in Oklahoma. Others were carted over land to Fort Gibson in Arkansas, and then trekked on to the unfamiliar and dangerous lands which were to be their new homes.

Unlike the other civilized tribes, the majority of the Chickasaw people suffered minimally throughout their removal. Initially the Chickasaw refused to leave their land in Mississippi, but they and the U.S. worked out an agreement. The United States government offered to buy the Chickasaws native land in Mississippi (and a little in Alabama), about six million acres, for three million dollars. The Chickasaw leaders agreed to hand over their land for money exchange by signing the Treaty of Washington in 1834. By 1838, eighty percent of the Chickasaw people had left the southeastern United States and moved to the Indian territory in Oklahoma. However, in their new home the Chickasaws faced the loss of national identity and both internal and external threats. Most immigrants remained in camps, consuming rations and slowing the construction of permanent settlements. These setbacks were preventing the Chickasaw nation from prospering in the new land. Fear of attacks from the western tribes, especially the Kiowa, Comanche, and Pawnee, also slowed Chickasaw settlement on their land and threatened their safety.

The Creek Indians suffered a forced removal as well. The Creeks had occupied parts of the modern day state’s lands of Alabama and Georgia for hundreds of years, but like the aforementioned tribes, were driven out of their native lands at bayonet point. Beginning with the Creek War (1813-1814), relationships between the Creeks and whites were hostile. The war was ended when American armies assaulted the Creek lands, leading to major destruction and a treaty that would strip the Creek of thousands of acres of their homeland. After the Creek War there was continued pressure on the Creek people to abandon their lives in Alabama and leave the area for good. The Creeks attempted to resist, but it was useless. U.S. troops and state militias gathered tens of thousands of Creek people and sent them into concentration camps. From these camps, the people were driven west. Thousands of Creek men, women and children suffered and died on the trail.

The Trail of Tears began a period of westward expansion that continued to push the Native Americans west. The toll in human suffering was profound. The honor of many great Native American nations was stained and can never be erased. The United States forced Native Americans to move from their homelands, hunted them with bloodhounds, rounded them up like cattle, and forced them onto ships, wagons, or on foot, enduring great hardships of famine, cold and harsh weather taking them across the Mississippi river to unfamiliar and inhospitable new lands, in a fierce competition with the other tribes for the scarce resources which they all needed to survive. The Trail of Tears was one of the worst tragedies in American history.


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