The Cherokee & the Trail of Tears: History, Timeline & Summary

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  • 0:01 Cherokee History
  • 2:09 Indian Removal Act &…
  • 4:48 Removal, 1838
  • 5:51 Trail of Tears, 1838-1839
  • 9:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Michael Knoedl

Michael teaches high school Social Studies and has a M.S. in Sports Management.

Many Indian tribes live on reservations that cover at least part of the land they originally inhabited, but one tribe was forced thousands of miles away from their homes. Learn about the Cherokee Indians and the Trail of Tears in this lesson.

Cherokee History

When white Europeans began showing up in the 16th century, the Cherokee were a thriving tribe of people with a very large population. They inhabited the Southern Appalachian Mountains, including parts of present-day Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The Cherokee lived in mud and clay homes, and later, log homes. They were very agricultural and grew many vegetables, including squash, beans, and corn.

The Cherokee were a very religious tribe. They mainly worshipped the sun and prayed for great harvests. The moon was also a religious focus. The tribe believed that the 'good' people would go to a pleasant place after they die and the 'bad' people would go to a place of torture.

In the mid-1500s, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto came into contact with the Cherokee. Hernando de Soto spent very little time with the Cherokees, even though the tribe provided his expedition with food and clothing. His expedition also brought European diseases, which the Cherokee had no immunity against.

Small pox, a contagious and sometimes fatal infectious disease, was especially deadly to the Cherokee, who had no immunity against it. By the late 1600s, the Cherokee population was estimated to have dwindled from 200,000 to 50,000. In the early 1700s, another wave of small pox hit the Cherokee, bringing their total population down to an estimated 25,000.

The people that were left in the early 1800s grew to understand that they needed to live the 'white way' or they would likely not survive. The Cherokee adopted a constitution, built schools, arranged courts, and even adopted the fashion of the whites. They also began using African slaves in an attempt to hold their land.

Indian Removal Act and Treaty, 1827-1836

The attempt to appease the white settlers could not hold back the whites' lust for gold. Gold mining would prove to the Cherokee that the whites still did not see them as equal. With new gold being discovered in the Cherokee's land, whites were pouring into the area for mining.

The Cherokee wanted to retain their lands and exist as a sovereign, or independent, nation. They mounted a non-violent campaign to resist displacement, but the state of Georgia did not see them as sovereign and refused their request in 1827. State laws in Georgia led to confiscated lands, the prohibition of Cherokee meetings, and many other restrictions on the native people.

In 1830, the U.S. passed the Indian Removal Act. This act allowed the U.S. government to negotiate the relocation of Indian Territory to west of the Mississippi River in exchange for land east of the Mississippi River. Any Indians that did not move west were to be considered citizens of the state they lived in and subject to the laws of the state and U.S. The act was controversial and caused bitter debates. It was strongly supported by President Andrew Jackson and people who wanted access to lands occupied by the Cherokee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek tribes, but opposed by many missionaries, politicians, and other people.

In 1831, the Cherokee went to the Supreme Court for help, and the Supreme Court determined that the Cherokee has a right to self-government and declared Georgia's extension of state law over them to be unconstitutional. President Andrew Jackson did not agree with the Supreme Court's decision and would not enforce it.

In 1834, fearing a large war, Cherokee leader Major Ridge went to Washington D.C. to work on a treaty for the purchase of land. Major Ridge and a few Cherokee signed the Treaty of New Echota, in which the U.S. government agreed to purchase all Cherokee land for $5 million. However, Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross and his supporters declined to sign the treaty.

President Jackson saw Major Ridge's signature and moved forward to remove all remaining Indians out West. Chief Ross petitioned, but the Supreme Court ignored his petition, and the Treaty of New Echota was ratified by the U.S. government in 1836. The remaining 18,000 Cherokee had two years to move west.

Removal, 1838

When 1838 arrived, only 2,000 of the remaining Cherokee had moved west. Jackson's successor, President Martin Van Buren, gave the order to begin removal. Nearly 7,000 military and militia, with rifles and bayonets, charged through the Cherokee camps forcing them away from their homes. Most Cherokee were not allowed to gather their belongings and were forced to walk away. Homes were set on fire or quickly looted.

The Cherokee were taken to special forts built specifically to house the leftover Indians in Tennessee and Alabama. After seeing how his people were being treated, Chief Ross asked President Van Buren to allow the Cherokee to oversee their own removal. President Van Buren agreed, though he kept the U.S. military there to help operations and ensure the Cherokee fulfilled their obligation. To begin the removal, Chief Ross divided the Cherokee into 16 detachments of almost 1,000 each.

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