The Trail of Tears was a series of forced relocations of Native Americans in the United States from their ancestral homelands in the Southeastern United States, to areas to the west (usually west of the Mississippi River) that had been designated as Indian Territory. The forced relocations were carried out by government authorities following the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830. The relocated peoples suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while en route to their new designated reserve, and many died before reaching their destinations. The forced removals included members of the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations, as well as their African slaves. The phrase “Trail of Tears” originates from a description of the removal of many Native American tribes, including the infamous Cherokee Nation relocation in 1838.
Between 1830 and 1850, the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee people (including mixed-race and black slaves who lived among them) were forcibly removed from their traditional lands in the Southeastern United States, and relocated farther west. Those Native Americans who were relocated were forced to march to their destinations by state and local militias. The Cherokee removal in 1838 (the last forced removal east of the Mississippi) was brought on by the discovery of gold near Dahlonega, Georgia in 1828, resulting in the Georgia Gold Rush. Approximately 2,000–8,000 of the 16,543 relocated Cherokee perished along the way.
In 1830, a group of Indians collectively referred to as the Five Civilized Tribes (the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole tribes) were living as autonomous nations in what would be later called the American Deep South. The process of cultural transformation, as proposed by George Washington and Henry Knox, was gaining momentum, especially among the Cherokee and Choctaw.
American settlers had been pressuring the federal government to remove Indians from the Southeast; many settlers were encroaching on Indian lands, while others wanted more land made available to European (‘Caucasian’/’white’) settlers. Although the effort was vehemently opposed by some, including U.S. Congressman Davy Crockett of Tennessee, President Andrew Jackson was able to gain Congressional passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which authorized the government to extinguish Indian title to lands in the Southeast.
In 1831, the Choctaw became the first Nation to be removed, and their removal served as the model for all future relocations. After two wars, many Seminoles were removed in 1832. The Creek removal followed in 1834, the Chickasaw in 1837, and lastly the Cherokee in 1838. Some managed to evade the removals, however, and remained in their ancestral homelands; some Choctaw are living in Mississippi, Creek in Alabama and Florida, Cherokee in North Carolina, and Seminole in Florida. A small group of Seminole, fewer than 500, evaded forced removal; the modern Seminole Tribe of Florida is descended from these individuals. A small number of non-Native Americans who lived with the tribes, including some of African descent (including over 4,000 slaves, and others as spouses or freedmen), also accompanied the Indians on the trek westward. By 1837, 46,000 Indians from the southeastern states had been removed from their homelands, thereby opening 25 million acres (100,000 km2) for predominantly European settlement.
Prior to 1838, the fixed boundaries of these autonomous tribal nations, comprising large areas of the United States, were subject to continual cession and annexation, in part due to pressure from squatters and the threat of military force in the newly declared U.S. territories—federally administered regions whose boundaries supervened upon the Native treaty claims. As these territories became U.S. states, state governments sought to dissolve the boundaries of the Indian nations within their borders, which were independent of state jurisdiction, and to expropriate the land therein. These pressures were exacerbated by U.S. population growth and the expansion of slavery in the South, with the rapid development of cotton cultivation in the uplands following the invention of the cotton gin.
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