The Trail of Tears refers to the US government enforced relocation of the Cherokee Native Americans from their native lands in Georgia to Tahlequah, Oklahoma. This march was a devastating and deadly one for the Cherokee Nation — over 4,000 deaths occurred during the march and afterwards in Oklahoma. Roughly 20% of the Cherokee Nation died, either during the march or shortly afterwards, due to diseases like dysentery.
To the Cherokee Nation, this event is called the Nunna daul Isunyi, or the Trail Where We Cried. The journey was exceptionally difficult, spanning over 1,000 miles (about 1,600 km). At least 2,000 people died during the march, so cause for weeping is not hard to understand.
The issues that led to this devastating decision by the US government started long before 1838, when the forced march began. Expansion and land treaties in the areas surrounding Georgia in the 1800s resulted in the Compact of 1802. Part of this compact was an agreement to relocate Native American populations living on lands defined as Georgia.
The Cherokee Indians, who declared themselves in 1827 to be a distinct nation, protested this relocation decision. Several lawsuits went before the US Supreme Court contesting the right of the US government to forcibly relocate members of the Cherokee Nation, and not all Americans were in support of these actions. In particular, Davy Crockett and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson objected to the actions taken by the US government, and either spoke or wrote impassioned appeals on behalf of the Cherokees.
The treaty that was ratified by the US government, ostensibly giving up claim to any lands east of the Mississippi by the Cherokees, was not signed by any Cherokee leaders. Presidential support, first by Andrew Jackson and then Martin Van Buren, was for the forced relocation, however. As a result, the Cherokee people were removed from their homes at gunpoint in 1838 and set off to march on the Trail of Tears.
Most of the Cherokee Nation, about 17,000 people, were forced to march, and much of the relocation was actually conducted and supervised by Cherokee leaders. It should be noted that the Cherokee group was extremely westernized as compared to some of the other Native American groups. They lived in villages, made use of the American political system, and wealthy Cherokee people might own slaves. In fact, 2,000 slaves also marched on the Trail of Tears with their Cherokee owners.
About 1,000 Cherokee people were exempt from the enforced march because they lived on lands already owned by people who opposed the march. Also, about 400 Cherokee people in North Carolina also evaded the journey. Most people in the Cherokee Nation endured the indignities and the suffering of this forced march, however.
Perhaps because of the Cherokee’s strength as a nation, and ability to work with the US government, the Cherokee Nation recovered from their devastating losses and has remained one of the largest groups of Native American people in modern days. Efforts have since been made to commemorate and compensate for the intense suffering inflicted on the Cherokee Nation by the US government.
A 2,000 mile (3,218.69 km) trail called the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail was dedicated in 1987. The path crosses through nine states and serves as a reminder of the injustices committed by the US government toward the first Americans.