TRAIL OF TEARS–A Tale of Injustice
By Robert James Taylor
During the winter of 1838-39 the Cherokee Indian Nation was forcibly evicted from their ancestral native lands in northwest Georgia, and it was carried out in such fashion, that would defy the imagination, seen as incomprehensible today: it was undoubtedly one of the worst disgraces in American history.
After the American Revolution the US implemented a policy of ‘civilization’ toward Indian nations living within its borders. This meant they were encouraged to adopt the Anglo-American ways of life, in order to harmonize within the sphere of accepted norms of society. For years the Cherokee nation had shown a willingness to do so, and their assimilation of the American settler culture was remarkable. They were a proud, peaceful, resourceful nation, industrious, builders of churches and schools, who published a newspaper in English and Cherokee and they had already formed a government modeled on that of the United States.
But their territorial sovereignty became a heated issue with white settlers. The whites increasingly coveted their large fertile farmlands and when the Cherokee decided to stop selling any more land to the settlers, the whites endeavored to take the land away from them. The whites in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee insisted that their state governments remove them- their greed was intensified when gold was discovered on Cherokee land.
In 1829 Congress passed, by four votes, the Indian Removal Act, which was a clear departure from previous policy which respected the rights of Native Indians. President Andrew Jackson had hitherto hoped to win voluntary emigration to the lands west of the Mississippi, but could see which way the wind was blowing and any previous friendship and loyalty he had for the Cherokee nation seemed to dissipate.
The Cherokee had fought alongside Jackson in the battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, that mattered little to Jackson: now he would deceive them. In 1828 the Georgia legislature annexed Cherokee territory which led the Cherokee to argue in the courts, their status as a sovereign nation: the matter reached the Supreme Court which found that the Georgian government had no jurisdiction over the Cherokee lands: they were under Federal congressional custody. However the Georgians, and Andrew Jackson himself, ignored the court’s decision. Jackson said “Mr. Marshall (Chief Justice) has made his decision, now let him enforce it.”
Andrew Jackson was one of the most controversial Presidents in US history. He certainly was the most rapacious: acquiring large tracts of lands after his military conquests in Tennessee and Alabama that he and his cronies managed to acquire through intimidation when dealing with Treaties over Indian land. Through stealth he increased his domain of thousands of acres on which his over a hundred slaves toiled. Jackson was a slave holder who stood on the wrong side of the fundamental moral issues of his times, and of human bondage: he referred to the abolitionists as ‘monsters’ and decried the anti-slavery movement as the “wicked design of demagogues.” His doctrine preached white supremacy.
And so, the expulsion of the oppressed Cherokee nation was inevitable. On December 2th, 1835, an unauthorized small faction of the Cherokee signed the Treaty of New Echota, whereby they would cede their territory east of the Mississippi in return for $5 million dollars and homelands in the Western territory. It was an act of betrayal- the vast majority chose to stay. In May 1838, the Georgia militiamen invaded the homes of the Cherokee at gunpoint, and forced all men, women and children into prison stockades, where they would be held until every native Indian was rounded up.
Lawless citizens plundered and burned the Cherokee’s homes and stole all their contents. The imprisoned tribes were de-moralized: many died that summer from the poor conditions and disease. Starting in October 1838, lasting until March 1839, some 15,000 Cherokees were forced to commence the 1000 mile journey to the lands west of the Mississippi. Poorly supplied, with insufficient clothing, starvation and disease, the death toll increased daily.
The elderly and the children, being the most vulnerable would be the first to perish: alongside the trail there would be over 4000 unmarked shallow graves before the journey had ended. And so, as a country formed fifty years earlier on the premise “….that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among these the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness….” brutally closed the curtain on a culture that had done no wrong.
Modern historians have described this brutal act of aggression as ethnic cleansing and genocide. Jealousy, greed and racism all contributed to such an unspeakable chapter in American history. Although many Americans denounced the removal the new President, Martin Van Buren made the following speech in his 1838 message to Congress: “It affords me sincere pleasure to apprise the Congress of the entire removal of the Cherokee Nation of Indians to their new homes west of the Mississippi. The measures authorized by Congress at its last session have had the happiest effect. By agreement concluded with them…their removal has been principally under the conduct of their own chiefs, and they have emigrated without any apparent reluctance”
And so, now the perpetrators, the politicians, their avarice satisfied, could no doubt find some comfort from such an insidious proclamation.
The Trail of Tears is a story of conquest, but it is also a story of victory. To commemorate the event the US Congress designated the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail in 1987- it stretches across nine States. In February 2008 the Senate passed a Joint Resolution whereby the United States offered an apology to all Native Peoples for “all ill conceived policies.”