In the first part of the 19th century, the Cherokee Nation, led by John Ross, took steps toward their own assimilation into American culture, in an effort to live peaceably with. They had a comparable system of government to that of the federal and state governments around them, and they even had a constitution that sounded very similar to the one Andrew Jackson was supposed to follow. It would have been very easy for Jackson to leave the Cherokee, who posed no threat to their neighbors, as they were. Unfortunately for them, southerners coveted Cherokee land as well land belonging to other Native Americans. Many Greedy land speculators and politicians (Andrew Jackson falling in both categories) sacrificed principle in their unscrupulous land grab, as they cast their sights on acquisition of the Cherokee land.
Cherokee leader John Ross bravely struggled in vain for a peaceful resolution to the problem. He even appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and it looked as if the court might come to the aid of his cause. But Jackson disregarded his constitutional obligations and abandoned his commitment to democracy when it came to Native Americans, as he engaged in a number of despicable practices to ensure that the voices and votes of the Cherokee people were never allowed to be heard or counted.
On May 28, 1830, Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act. This legislation authorized the removal of native American tribes from their homes and ordered their relocation to federal territory west of the Mississippi River.The tribes affected included the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole (sometimes collectively referred to as the "Five Civilized Tribes").
Jackson proposed the Indian Removal Act in a speech he gave in 1829. Native American removal was, in theory, supposed to be voluntary, but in fact great pressure was put on Native American leaders to sign removal treaties. While there was some resistance at the time, some Native American leaders who had previously resisted removal reconsidered their positions after Jackson's landslide re-election in 1832.
The Removal Act was strongly supported in the South (by white Americans), where states were eager to gain access to lands inhabited by the Five Civilized Tribes. In particular, Georgia, the largest state at that time, was involved in a contentious jurisdictional dispute with the Cherokee nation. Jackson hoped removal would resolve the Georgia crisis.
Although many Americans favored the passage of the Indian Removal Act, there was also significant opposition. Many Christian missionaries, most notably missionary organizer Jeremiah Evarts, protested against passage of the Act. Future U.S. President Abraham Lincoln also opposed the Indian Removal Act. In Congress, New Jersey Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen and Congressman Davy Crockett of Tennessee also spoke out against the legislation.
The Removal Act paved the way for the forced migration of tens of thousands of American Indians to the West. The first removal treaty signed after the Removal Act became law was the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek on September 27, 1830, in which Choctaws in Mississippi ceded land east of the river in exchange for payment and land in the West. A Choctaw chief called Thomas Harkins or Nitikechi, was quoted in the Arkansas Gazette as saying the 1831 Choctaw removal was a "trail of tears and death". The Treaty of New Echota, signed in 1835, resulted in the removal of the Cherokee.
The Seminoles did not leave peacefully. Along with fugitive slaves they resisted the removal. The Second Seminole War lasted from 1835 to 1842 and resulted in the forced removal of the Seminoles.
Some of the Native Americans sought recourse in the courts. In the case of Johnson v. M'Intosh, the Supreme Court handed down a decision which stated that Indians could occupy lands within the United States, but could not hold title to those lands. Later, in the 1832 decision of Worcester v. Georgia, the court held that the Georgia criminal statute that prohibited non-Indians from being present on Indian lands without a license from the state was unconstitutional. The court ruled that the Cherokee Nation was a "distinct community" with self-government "in which the laws of Georgia can have no force." It established the doctrine that the national government of the United States, and not individual states, had authority in American Indian affairs.
But winning the case was of little value because Jackson refused to enforce the court's ruling. He is quoted as having said "[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it!"
Jackson was not alone in perpetrating this atrocity. After Jackson's second term ended, his Vice-President Martin Van Buren became president in 1837 and he continued the policy. In 1838, the U.S. Army forcibly relocated the Cherokee to Indian Territory (part of present-day Oklahoma), in what would become known as the Trail of Tears. Van Buren allowed Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama an armed force of 7,000 made up of militia, regular army, and volunteers under General Winfield Scott to round up about 13,000 Cherokees into concentration camps at the U.S. Indian Agency near Cleveland, Tennessee before being sent to the West. Approximately 4000 Cherokees died, with many of the deaths occurring from disease, starvation and cold in these camps. The homes of the Cherokees were burned and their property was destroyed and plundered. Farms which had belonged to the Cherokees for generations were won by white settlers in a lottery. One of the soldiers involved in the forced removal, Private John G. Burnett, later wrote:
"Future generations will read and condemn the act and I do hope posterity will remember that private soldiers like myself, and like the four Cherokees who were forced by General Scott to shoot an Indian Chief and his children, had to execute the orders of our superiors. We had no choice in the matter."
In the winter of 1838 the Cherokee began the 1,000-mile march with inadequate clothing, most on foot without shoes or moccasins. The march began in Red Clay, Tennessee, which had been the location of the last Eastern capital of the Cherokee Nation. Because of the disease which was prevalent among the Native Americans, they were not allowed to go into any towns or villages along the way. Many times this meant traveling much farther to go around these places. After crossing Tennessee and Kentucky, they arrived at the Ohio River across from Golconda in southern Illinois about the 3rd of December 1838. They were charged a dollar a head to cross the river on "Berry's Ferry" (which typically charged twelve cents). Many died at Mantle Rock waiting to cross. Several Cherokee were murdered by locals. The killers even filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Government through the courthouse in Vienna, suing the government for the cost of burying the murdered Cherokee.
They crossed southern Illinois on December 26, in what Commissary Agent Martin Davis, called "the coldest weather in Illinois I ever experienced anywhere." It eventually took almost three months to cross the 60 miles on land between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The trek through southern Illinois is where the Cherokee suffered most of their deaths.
Removed Cherokees initially settled near Tahlequah, Oklahoma. The population of the Cherokee Nation eventually rebounded, and today the Cherokees are the largest American Indian group in the United States.
An excellent account of this sad historic event can be found in Steve Inskeep's outstanding 2015 work Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross and a Great American Land Grab, reviewed here.