Trail of Tears Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The removal to the western Indian Territory of the Five Civilized Tribes was one of the most tragic developments in U.S. history.

Summary of Event

Soon after the American Revolution ended in 1783, demands began for the removal of all Native Americans from the southeastern part of the new United States. After a brief renewal of violent resistance, led by warriors such as Dragging Canoe Dragging Canoe of the Cherokees and Alexander McGillivray McGillivray, Alexander of the Creeks, most tribes were peaceful but firm in their efforts to remain in their ancestral lands. The exception was the Seminoles Seminoles;removal of in Florida. Many early treaties were negotiated to persuade these tribes to move west voluntarily. When the desired result was not achieved, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830 Indian Removal Act of 1830 , paving the way for forced removal. President Andrew Jackson Jackson, Andrew [p]Jackson, Andrew;and Indian removal[Indian removal] , an old foe of the southeastern tribes, signed the bill, which became law on May 28, 1830. Trail of Tears Cherokees;Trail of Tears Native Americans;removal of Cherokees;removal of [kw]Trail of Tears (1830-1842) [kw]Tears, Trail of (1830-1842) Trail of Tears Cherokees;Trail of Tears Native Americans;removal of Cherokees;removal of [g]United States;1830-1842: Trail of Tears[1500] [c]Human rights;1830-1842: Trail of Tears[1500] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;1830-1842: Trail of Tears[1500] [c]Indigenous people’s rights;1830-1842: Trail of Tears[1500] Jackson, Andrew [p]Jackson, Andrew;and Indian removal[Indian removal] Ross, John Colbert, Levi Menewa Osceola Pushmataha

Artist Robert Lindneux’s painting Trail of Tears is somewhat misleading, as most of the Indians forced to move made their arduous journey on foot.

(Wollaroc Museum, Bartlesville, Oklahoma)

The first tribe to experience forced removal was the Choctaw Choctaws;removal of of southeastern Mississippi. Preliminary treaties with the Choctaws, whose population was about twenty-three thousand, began with the Treaty of Mount Dexter in 1805. Individual Choctaws had been encouraged to incur debts at government trading posts that were beyond their ability to pay. At Mount Dexter, Choctaw leaders were forced to cede four million acres of their land in return for the cancellation of those debts. The first exchange of Choctaw land for land in the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River was approved by the Treaty of Doak’s Stand Doak’s Stand, Treaty of (1820)[Doaks Stand, Treaty of (1820] in 1820. Pushmataha Pushmataha , the principal chief and able diplomat of the Choctaws, negotiated this treaty with General Andrew Jackson Jackson, Andrew [p]Jackson, Andrew;and Indian removal[Indian removal] . However, since white settlers already occupied much of the new Choctaw land, the treaty had little effect.

The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek Dancing Rabbit Creek, Treaty of (1830) , signed on September 27, 1830, was the first negotiated under the Indian Removal Act. It provided for the exchange of all Choctaw land for land in the Indian Territory. Choctaw acceptance of this treaty was facilitated by intratribal conflicts and by the duplicity of the self-proclaimed Choctaw spokesperson, Greenwood Leflore Leflore, Greenwood . By the end of 1832, about two-thirds of the Choctaws had emigrated to their new homes. Most others migrated over the next twenty years. A few, including Greenwood Leflore, remained in Mississippi.

The Choctaw removal became a pattern for the removal of the remaining tribes in the Southeast. The next to experience the process were the twenty-three thousand Creeks Creeks;removal of of eastern Alabama. Alabama;Indian removal Led by Menewa Menewa and other chiefs, the Creeks bitterly resisted removal. In 1825, Menewa carried out the execution for treason of William McIntosh Treason;William McIntosh[MacIntosh] , a half-breed chief who had favored removal. By 1831, Creek chiefs such as Eneah Micco, although vigorously protesting the invasion of their land by white squatters, realized that only removal could save their people from destruction. The Treaty of Washington Washington, Treaty of (1832) , signed on March 24, 1832, provided for complete removal to the Indian Territory. Although the generous provisions of this treaty soon were ignored, conditions in the Creek Nation became intolerable and they began their sad trek to the West.

Trail of Tears, After 1830





Creek migration was interrupted in May, 1836, by reprisal raids against white settlements. This action brought in the U.S. Army, with orders to forcibly remove all Creeks from Alabama. By 1838, the removal was complete. An ironic footnote is that during the course of their removal, several hundred Creek men were impressed into the army for service against their Seminole cousins in Florida.

The least controversial of the Trail of Tears removals was that of the five thousand Chickasaws Chickasaws;removal of from the northern parts of Mississippi Mississippi;Indian removal and Alabama. Alabama;Indian removal For thirty years, the government worked to transform the Chickasaws from a hunting society into an agricultural society that would require less land. By 1830, the process seemed complete, but the result had been widespread poverty. It also produced friction between the “full-bloods” who resisted the process and the “part-bloods” who favored it.

The Chickasaw removal process was initiated by the Treaty of Pontotoc Creek Pontotoc Creek, Treaty of (1832) in 1832. It was agreed that the Chickasaws would move west when suitable land could be obtained. Finding such land was difficult, however, with the best possibility being part of the Choctaw domain already established. Levi Colbert Colbert, Levi , the most prominent of several Chickasaw chiefs, was ill and not present when the Treaty of Pontotoc Creek was signed. He protested the use of coercion by General John Coffee Coffee, John , the leading government negotiator, to get the other chiefs to sign. However, he cooperated with the removal process in order to secure the best possible land and to ease the burden on his people. The Chickasaw removal followed the signing of the Treaty of Doaksville Doaksville, Treaty of (1837) in January, 1837. Land was secured and most of the tribe moved during that same year. Unlike other tribes, they were able to take most of their possessions with them, and few died along the way. However, after arrival in the Indian Territory, they faced the typical problems of intertribal conflicts, substandard food, and a smallpox Smallpox;and Native Americans[Native Americans] epidemic.

In 1830, about sixteen thousand Cherokees Cherokees;removal of still lived on their ancestral lands in northern Georgia Georgia;Indian removal and southeastern Tennessee. Tennessee;Indian removal Their removal, first called the “trail where they cried,” is the source of the name Trail of Tears Trail of Tears . The federal government’s efforts to remove the Cherokees began with the signing of the Georgia Compact in 1802, Georgia Compact (1802) when President Thomas Jefferson Jefferson, Thomas [p]Jefferson, Thomas;and Indian removal[Indian removal] agreed to seek reasonable terms for removing the Cherokees in a peaceful manner. In 1828, when gold was discovered on Cherokee land in Georgia, the process was facilitated, but not on the reasonable terms that had been stipulated by Jefferson. The state of Georgia nullified Cherokee laws and incorporated a large portion of the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokees responded with a legal defense led by their democratically elected principal chief, John Ross Ross, John , who took their case to federal court. Although a decision by Chief Justice John Marshall Marshall, John [p]Marshall, John;on Native Americans[Native Americans] favored the Cherokees, President Jackson refused to enforce it. Georgia;Indian removal

A small group of proremoval Cherokees, led by Major Ridge Ridge, Major , signed the New Echota Treaty in December, 1835. Following ratification by the U.S. Senate in May, 1836, the entire tribe had two years to move to the Indian Territory. John Ross and the majority protested the treaty and refused to move. Forced removal began in June, 1838. When the journey ended in March, 1839, four thousand unmarked graves had been left behind along the route. About one thousand Cherokees escaped removal by fleeing into the southern Appalachian Mountains Appalachian Mountains;Cherokee settlements . The final tragedy of Cherokee removal was the murder in the Indian Territory of the proremoval leaders who had reluctantly signed the treaty.

The Seminoles Seminoles;removal of of central Florida, descendants of Creeks who had moved there to escape harassment in the eighteenth century, provide the last chapter in the Trail of Tears. Their population of about six thousand people included many African Americans, both freemen and runaway slaves from the southern states. The desire to cut off that escape route for slaves had been part of the incentive for Jackson’s Jackson, Andrew [p]Jackson, Andrew;in Florida[Florida] invasion and the resulting acquisition of Florida from Spain in 1819 under the Adams-Onís Treaty Adams-Onís Treaty (1819)[Adams Onis Treaty] . The demand to move the Seminoles to the Indian Territory soon followed.

In Florida;Indian removal 1832, an unauthorized group of Seminoles signed the Treaty of Payne’s Landing Payne’s Landing, Treaty of (1832)[Paynes Landing, Treaty of (1832)] , declaring that all would give up their land and move west. Opposition to the treaty was led by Osceola Osceola and Cooacoochee Cooacoochee (Wildcat). The result was the Second Seminole War, in 1835. Seminoles captured during that war were immediately sent to the Indian Territory. By 1842, the war was over and the remaining Seminoles slowly migrated west. By 1856, the only Seminoles left in Florida were those in the nearly inaccessible swamps of the Everglades.


The Trail of Tears removals rank among the most tragic episodes in United States history. The policies of three American leaders reveal the changing attitudes on how to best accomplish the removals. After Thomas Jefferson’s peaceful persuasion and reasonable terms failed, John C. Calhoun, as secretary of war under President James Monroe, favored educating Native Americans to accept the need for removal. In the end, it was Andrew Jackson’s policy Jackson, Andrew [p]Jackson, Andrew;and Indian removal[Indian removal] of forced removal that completed the distasteful task.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">DeRosier, Arthur. The Removal of the Choctaw Indians. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1970. Discusses removal circumstances. Includes maps and portraits.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehle, John. Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation. New York: Doubleday, 1988. Covers Cherokee history from 1770 to 1840. Details the intratribal conflicts relating to removal policy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foreman, Grant. Indian Removal: The Emigration of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1932. Surveys the treaties and leaders of removal. Maps and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibson, Arrell. The Chickasaws. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971. Puts removal in context with Chickasaw history from the eighteenth century to 1907.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jahoda, Gloria. The Trail of Tears. New York: Wings Books, 1995. Sympathetic history of the forced removal and resettlement of the Cherokees to west of the Mississippi River.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Missall, John, and Mary Lou Missall. The Seminole Wars: America’s Longest Indian Conflict. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004. Fascinating study of the three Seminole wars that examines their causes and their impact in U.S. history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Remini, Robert V. Andrew Jackson. 3 vols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. Nearly definitive biography of the most fervid and effective advocate of Indian removal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Jeanne. “The Cherokees.” In Trails of Tears: American Indians Driven from Their Lands. Dallas, Tex.: Hendrick-Long, 1992. Puts Cherokee removal in the context of the similar experiences of the Comanches, Cheyennes, Apaches, and Navajos.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wright, J. Leitch. Creeks and Seminoles: The Destruction and Regeneration of the Muscogulge People. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986. Discusses removal and resettlement in the West. Extensive bibliography.

Creek War

Seminole Wars

Adams-Onís Treaty Gives the United States Florida

Cherokee Phoenix Begins Publication

Congress Passes Indian Removal Act

Cherokee Cases

Congress Passes Preemption Act of 1841

Apache and Navajo War

Apache Wars

Long Walk of the Navajos

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

John C. Calhoun; Andrew Jackson; Osceola; John Ross. Trail of Tears Cherokees;Trail of Tears Native Americans;removal of Cherokees;removal of

Categories: History