Connect with ProQuest
Remembering the Trail of Tears
The enduring legacy of Indian removal policies in the U.S.
“In recent weeks, the state has militarized my reservation...It's a familiar story in Indian Country. This is the third time that the Sioux Nation's lands and resources have been taken without regard for tribal interests. The Sioux peoples signed treaties in 1851 and 1868. The government broke them before the ink was dry.”
David Archambault II, The New York Times,“Taking a Stand at Standing Rock” August 24, 2016
September 16 commemorates the forced migration of nearly 125,000 Native American people in the 1830s. From the millions of acres of their ancestral land in the southeastern U.S., Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek and Cherokee tribes (known as the “Five Civilized Tribes” as they adopted attributes of the white settlers’ culture) – were driven from their homes and sent west of the Mississippi to “Indian Territory” in present day Oklahoma.
The “Trail of Tears” refers to the journey endured by these Five Tribes, most specifically to the treacherous journey traveled by the Cherokees.
Reading the recent New York Times editorial by Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archambault II regarding protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, his account of events calls to mind a “familiar story” of Native Americans struggling with broken promises, lawsuits and militant force over 180 years ago.
Indian Removal Act of 1830
By the turn of the 19th century, the U.S. government’s attitude toward Native Americans was to encourage their assimilation to Anglo-European culture. The “Five Civilized Tribes” inhabiting Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and Florida were generally allowed to remain in their homelands. They were also expected to convert to Christianity, speak and read English, become landowners and participate in an agriculture-based economy.
But even then, many white settlers weren’t comfortable co-existing with Natives. Plus, the Natives’ held land desirable for growing cotton, and the discovery of gold led to the “Georgia Gold Rush” in 1829. These events contributed to interest in enacting a law for Indian removal from the southeastern states.
Andrew Jackson signed such an act in 1830 after overcoming fierce congressional debate. There was significant opposition to the law, which some considered unconstitutional and a renege on the promise of Native sovereignty. The Indian Removal Act* gave the federal government power to exchange Native-held land east of the Mississippi for land to the west.
In theory, migration was supposed to be voluntary, but there wasn’t really a choice. Native leaders who previously resisted such policies acquiesced under pressure to sign removal treaties.* Of course, the case was made that migration would be to their advantage – Jackson believed resettlement would protect the Five Tribes from extinction.
Plus, he promised this “Indian Territory” would be theirs for keeps.
The territory eventually became known as Oklahoma, Choctaw for “red people” and opened up to white settlers under the Indian Appropriations Act of 1889.*
The Treaty of New Echota
One of the staunchest opponents to Indian removal was the Rev. Samuel Worcester, missionary to the Cherokee people. He took his case to the Supreme Court, and Worcester v. Georgia (1832)* became one of the most influential decisions in Indian law. The court affirmed sovereignty for the Cherokee people and found the Indian Removal Act to be invalid, illegal and unconstitutional.
But President Jackson flouted the court’s decision and the government negotiated a removal treaty with the Cherokee Nation. A vicious rift erupted among the Cherokee people. The Treaty of New Echota* was not approved by the Cherokee National Council, nor by Principal Chief John Ross, but signed by representatives of a minor Cherokee political faction and U.S. officials in 1835. It became law, despite protests, in 1836.
One of the terms of the agreement required the Cherokee to depart for Indian Territory within two years.
Martin Van Buren, elected president in 1837, was determined to carry out his predecessor’s removal policy. On May 23, 1838, when the deadline for voluntary migration expired, he ordered General Winfield Scott to head about 7,000 soldiers from the U.S. Army and state militia to forcefully remove the Cherokee people from their homes.
The New Yorker’s take on these events in July 1838, reflected the bitter disappointment many Americans felt toward the government’s handling of this conflict:
[The Cherokee] have generally refused to move until the soldiers were upon them – idly clinging to the hope that no such monstrous violation of our National faith as well as their most precious rights could be really perpetrated by the United States, and regarding all that had been done merely as intended to frighten them into an acknowledgement as valid of that black falsehood and planned fraud, the Treaty of New Echota, with a mere handful of renegades. Up to the last hour they have hoped against hope that our Government could not seriously mean to enforce against them by the bayonet the conditions of that notorious instrument, which that Government’s own agents have time and again reported as no more a treaty than a counterfeit note is a true bill.
The displaced Cherokees were put into crowded internment camps for the summer until cooler weather would make the journey west less hazardous. By November, 12 groups of about 1,000 people each had set off on a “Trail of Tears,” the 1000-mile+ march through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas into Indian Territory.
It’s estimated that over 4,000 people died on the journey as a consequence of brutal weather conditions, dangerous terrain, hunger, and sickness.
Fast Forward to 2016
“A protest of a four-state, $3.8 billion oil pipeline turned violent Saturday after tribal officials say construction crews destroyed American Indian burial and cultural sites on private land in southern North Dakota,” The New York Times reported on September 3, 2016.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has been fighting against the Dakota Access Pipeline which is set to cross the nearby Missouri River. Environmentalists and other activists have joined the tribe in protest out of concern that the project will contaminate drinking water for the thousands of people living on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and millions of other people downstream.
Tribe members are also concerned that the proposed pipeline interferes with several sacred cultural sites. According to The New York Times, Archambault said construction crews have already removed topsoil from a 2-mile stretch of land.
"This demolition is devastating," Archambault said. "These grounds are the resting places of our ancestors. The ancient cairns and stone prayer rings there cannot be replaced. In one day, our sacred land has been turned into hollow ground."
On September 9, 2016, a federal judge ruled against the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s request for a preliminary injunction to halt construction on the pipeline. And once again, the government acted in defiance of the court.
Only this time, it’s on the side of the Native Americans. For now.
The U.S. Departments of Justice, the Interior and the Army issued a joint statement announcing that the Corps is halting authorization for construction of the pipeline while it reviews its decisions regarding the large reservoir.
In addition, the federal government also stated that this case highlights a need for "nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes' views on these types of infrastructure projects."
*Replicas of removal treaties, along with the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the Indian Appropriations Act, as well as documents related to Supreme Court rulings on the political standing of Indian nations, are available in the ProQuest Indian Claims Insight database.
Historical and contemporary issues of The New York Times, along with historical issues of the New Yorker magazine, are available on the ProQuest platform.
In addition, ProQuest’s History Vault includes a number of collections on the interactions between Native Americans and the U.S. government in the 19th century in the module entitled “American Indians and the American West, 1809-1971.” This module includes a section called “Indian Removal to the West,” which contains letters by Indian agents and other government employees regarding the removal process, as well as letters from individual Indians and other citizens related to the removals.
And, discover information from the Indian Claims Commission in ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global:
McMillen, C. W. (2004). Rewriting history and proving property rights: Hualapai Indian activism and the law of land claims in the 20th century.
Pinkoski, M. (2007). Julian steward and American anthropology: The science of colonialism.
Rosenthal, H. D. (1976). Their day in court: A history of the Indian claims commission.
Learn more at www.proquest.com by searching “Indian Claims,” “History Vault,” “Executive Orders and Presidential Proclamations” and “Historical Newspapers”.
Plus, see the Libguides for these resources.