American Crime Case #44: The Trail of Tears, 1838-39

Bob Avakian has written that one of three things that has “to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better: People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” (See “3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better.”)

In that light, and in that spirit, “American Crime” is a regular feature of revcom.us. Each installment focuses on one of the 100 worst crimes committed by the U.S. rulers—out of countless bloody crimes they have carried out against people around the world, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day.

See all the articles in this series.

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Trail of Tears

THE CRIME:

From 1838-1839, approximately 15,000 Cherokee and 2,000 Black slaves that they owned were forcibly removed from Cherokee lands in Georgia and force-marched by the military 800 miles to the new “Indian Territory” in an area that later became Oklahoma. On that march, it has been estimated that 2,500-4,000 people died.1 That seven-month march has become known as The Trail of Tears.

After almost 30 years of discussions of how to remove the Native Americans from the Southeastern U.S., President Andrew Jackson in 1829 called for an Indian Removal Act. It was passed in 1830, thus beginning the removal process.2

BAsics cover 600

BAsics from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian   

In the U.S. you have many different nationalities of people, and one of the key factors in making a revolution in this country is going to be developing the struggle, including among white people, to take on and uproot the whole history of oppression of Black people, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, Native Americans, Asians, and so on. You are never going to make a revolution in this country without that being central and pivotal. But you’re also never going to make a revolution without a vanguard that bases itself on a scientific approach to these questions—and to every other decisive question—a vanguard in which everybody contributes and struggles with each other on the basis of striving to grasp that scientific approach, and on that basis battles out what is required to make revolution and to transform society and the world, to put an end to all oppression.

—Bob Avakian, BAsics 3:15

In 1833, a small group of Cherokees, who illegally claimed to be the leaders of the Cherokee Nation, signed a removal treaty with the United States. Cherokee Chief John Ross and 15,000 Cherokees signed a petition of protest. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to accept their demands and ratified the treaty in 1836, and gave the Cherokees two years to voluntarily migrate to the West.

In the fall of 1838, 7,000 troops were sent by the U.S. government to Georgia to forcibly remove the Cherokees. The Cherokees were put into stockades at bayonet point, and they were not allowed to take most of their belongings. After they were forced out, white people in the area looted their homes.

The brutal conditions of the march were described by John Ehle in Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation:

There was scarce room in the wagon for the weary and the ill, once the sickness fell. Walking day after day was torture for the elderly, and the babies were weakened by the trip too. The main enemy was not exertion, but disease, which chose the weaker Indians and blacks and humbled them. Dysentery, diarrhea, head and chest colds were common. It was rare for any travelers not to have intestinal cramps and other pains, and the diet provided ... was cheap and lacking in variety or nutrition....

Then too, there was the sun torturing the people by day. The cold of the night caused their teeth to chatter, the tongues to stutter.3

A white traveler from Maine described what they saw:

We found them in a forest camped for the night ... under a severe fall from rain accompanied by heavy wind. With their canvas for a shield from the inclemency of the weather, and the cold wet ground for a resting place, after the fatigue of the day, they spent the night ... many of the aged Indians were suffering extremely from fatigue of the journey, and the ill health consequent upon it.... Several were then quite ill, and an aged man we were informed was then in the last struggles of death.... We learned from the inhabitants on the road where the Indians passed, that they buried fourteen or fifteen at every stopping place.4

President Martin Van Buren summed up the final horrific removal of the Cherokees in an unbelievable message to Congress: “It affords me sincere pleasure to be able to apprise you of the entire removal of the Cherokee Nation of Indians to their new homes west of the Mississippi. The measures authorized by Congress with a view to the long-standing controversy with them have had the happiest effect, and they have emigrated without any apparent resistance.5

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Routes of southern removals map (Credit: Wikipedia)

This brutal and forced removal of the Cherokees is just one part of what should be known about the Trail of Tears. The Trail of Tears is actually the removal of five “civilized” tribes from their native lands in Southeastern U.S. to the West: the Choctaws from Mississippi, the Seminoles from Florida, the Chickasaw from Tennessee, the Creek from Alabama, and the Cherokees from Georgia.

It was during the removal of the Choctaws from their native lands in the early 1830s that “one of the Choctaw Chiefs (thought to be either Thomas Harkins or Nitikechi) was quoted as saying that the removal to that point had been a ‘trail of tears and death.’ The ‘Trail of Tears’ quotation was picked up by the eastern press and widely quoted. It soon became a term analogous with the removal of any Indian tribe and was later burned into the American language by the brutal removal of the Cherokees in 1838.”6

It has been estimated that over 12,000 Choctaws either immigrated or were forcibly moved to the West, and 2,000-4,000 died along their Trail of Tears.

Four of the tribes ended up signing treaties that led to their removal. But the Seminoles refused to move and resisted, leading to the Second Seminole War, where 1,500 U.S. forces and 700 Seminoles were killed. During the Second Seminole war, runaway slaves fought beside the Seminoles, who had taken them in.7 After the war ended, 3,000 Seminoles were moved to the West.

A small band of 300 Creeks also refused to move and fought against the Alabama and Georgia militias in the Second Creek War of 1836. After the war, more Creeks were sent west.

Even the Cherokees did not go willingly; there were reports of hundreds of Cherokees escaping during the first stages of the march.8

After the removal process ended, approximately 9,000 Native Americans remained in their original homelands in the Southeast, with the largest grouping being 7,000 Choctaws.

In total, from 1830-1842, the U.S. removed approximately 60,000 Native Americans and 2,000 Black slaves9 from the Southeast. Between 8,000 to 16,000 are estimated to have died during the removal marches.10

Deaths resulted from multiple diseases—cholera, malaria, smallpox, pellagra, dysentery, diphtheria, typhoid, tuberculosis, and pneumonia.

Read more on "The extermination and dispossession of Native American people"

THE CRIMINALS:

President Andrew Jackson aggressively supported and called for the removal of the Native Americans in the Southeast. He supported and worked to bring about the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Despite the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court to protect the territory and rights of the Cherokees (Cherokee Nation v. Georgia 1830-1831), Jackson refused to respect the court ruling as he supported the illegal and violent activities of the state vigilante groups in Georgia, who were forcing the Cherokees from their lands.

From 1814 to 1824, Jackson was instrumental in negotiating nine out of eleven treaties which forced the Southeastern tribes to give up their native lands in exchange for lands in the West.

By 1837, the Jackson administration had removed 46,000 Native American people from their land east of the Mississippi, and had secured treaties which led to the removal of a slightly larger number.

President Martin Van Buren followed Jackson. He oversaw the final stages of the removal process from 1837-1841, and he was in charge of the 1838 Cherokee removal. Van Buren, who had been Jackson’s vice president, continued Jackson’s removal policy throughout his presidency.

General Winfield Scott commanded the 7,000 troops that rounded up the Cherokees and force-marched them to the West.11

The State of Georgia legislature in 1828 passed a resolution requesting the governor to ask the president of the United States to remove all Indians from the state. The state “adopted legislation which extended state control over all Cherokee lands within the state. The new legislation declared all Cherokee laws to be null and void and prohibited Indians from testifying against non-Indians. As a result, groups of non-Indians invaded Cherokee country, taking Cherokee cattle and horses, assaulting those who resisted, and taking possession of Cherokee homes.”12

THE ALIBI:

Andrew Jackson put forward the racist view of Native Americans as children needing guidance. He professed that his removal policy was going to save them from the white Americans who were hostile towards them and wanted to seize their lands and property and commit further genocide against them. In a message to Congress in 1830, he called his removal policy “benevolent,” declaring:

It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community....

And is it supposed that the wandering savage has a stronger attachment to his home than the settled, civilized Christian? Is it more afflicting to him to leave the graves of his fathers than it is to our brothers and children? Rightly considered, the policy of the General Government toward the red man is not only liberal, but generous. He is unwilling to submit to the laws of the States and mingle with their population. To save him from this alternative, or perhaps utter annihilation, the General Government kindly offers him a new home, and proposes to pay the whole expense of his removal and settlement.13

THE REAL MOTIVE:

In the early 19th century, the U.S. was expanding deeper, further, and wider in the Southeastern part of the country. The seizure of land to raise cotton and expand slavery was critical for the growth of the economy of the South and for the whole United States. What stood in the way of this expansion were the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole nations and their native lands.

Further, gold was discovered in 1829 on Cherokee land in Georgia, causing a gold rush and a further need for those white people who were seeking riches and for the state of Georgia to get the Cherokees off the land.

The question of states rights was bound up in the removal of the Native Americans. The state of Georgia had formed militias and vigilantes to drive the Cherokees from their land. As a way to support Georgia’s rights to do this, Andrew Jackson proposed the Indian Removal Act. This allowed a compromise between those who supported federalism (support for the Supreme Court’s decision that restrained the state of Georgia from breaking federal treaties guaranteeing the Cherokees their land) and those who supported states rights and the Georgia laws to remove the Cherokees.14

All of these motives were bound up with enforcing and strengthening white supremacy by removing Native Americans. “The Jacksonian mainstream, so insistent on the equality of white men, took racism for granted.... Although informed by constitutional principles and genuine paternalist concern, the Jacksonian rationale for territorial expansion assumed that Indians ... were lesser peoples.”15

 

Selected Bibliography

Coates, Julia, Trail of Tears, Greenwood, 2014.

Ehle, John, Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation, Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1988.

Trail of Tears from Mississippi walked by our ancestors,” choctawschool.com.

Indian Removal,” Wikipedia

Indian Removal Act,” Wikipedia

Indian removal 1814 - 1858,” PBS

_______________

FOOTNOTES:

1. In Trail of Tears, Julia Coates writes:

“Popular belief and many historic texts have placed the number of Cherokee deaths on the Trail of Tears at 4,000. But as contemporary scholars and researchers have delved more deeply into the subject, the number ‘seems highly speculative.... Today, the best estimates are that somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 Cherokees died, either in the camps, on the march itself, or after arriving at the Indian Territory, but as a result of the conditions of the march. However, researchers also acknowledge that there are probably 1,000-1,500 people who simply could not be accounted for” when the march arrived at the Indian Territory.” [back]

2. “Indian Removal Act,” Wikipedia [back]

3. Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation, by John Ehle, p 353 [back]

4. Ehle, pp 357-358 [back]

5. Ehle, p 392 [back]

6. See “Trail of Tears from Mississippi walked by our ancestors,” choctawschool.com. [back]

7. “Indian removal 1814-1858,” PBS [back]

8. Coates, p 118 [back]

9. Native Americans owned Black slaves. See “Pain of ‘Trail of Tears’ shared by Blacks as well as Native Americans” by Tiya Miles. [back]

10. “Indian Removal,” Wikipedia [back]

11. Ehle, p 325 [back]

12. “Georgia, the Cherokee, and the Execution of Corn Tassel,” nativeamericannetroots.net [back]

13. “Transcript of President Andrew Jackson’s Message to Congress ‘On Indian Removal’ (1830),” ourdocuments.gov [back]

14. Coates, p 182 [back]

15. “Jacksonian Democracy,” history.com [back]

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