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The Trail of Tears

Cătălina Cîrnațu, X D

Trail of Tears commemorates the horrific tragedy when, in the 1830s, the United States government forcefully evicted southeastern Native Americans from their homelands and transported them to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Over 10,000 Native Americans were killed during deportation or shortly after arriving in Indian Territory.

From its inception, the United States government faced a paramount challenge: selfish residents and politicians in the southeast were determined to acquire the valuable lands occupied by the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, Seminole, and other Native American groups. Following the Louisiana Purchase (a massive acquisition of territory west of the Mississippi in 1803), President Jefferson assumed that Native Americans might be convinced to give up their homes in exchange for more land further west.

Following Jefferson's lead, President Andrew Jackson advocated for enacting the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The act authorised the United States government to use monies to negotiate removal treaties with tribes. Tribal leaders were pushed into signing these treaties by the federal government. As many people rejected giving up their land, factions formed within the tribes. Cherokee Chief John Ross even travelled to Washington to explore alternatives to removal and begged the administration to right the wrongs of these treaties. The US government listened but did not budge from its policy.

President Jackson negotiated the agreements, but President Martin Van Buren implemented them. The Choctaw were the first to feel the effects of the removal. They were evicted from their Mississippi properties beginning in 1831. Creeks, Chickasaws, Cherokees, and Seminoles were forced from their homes and relocated to Indian Territory between 1836 and 1838.

Some citizens in the United States disagreed with the government's activities. Tennessee Congressman David Crockett allied with the Native Americans. The Indian Removal Act was also opposed by Christian missionaries. They spoke out against the policy's injustice. "Will not those who have the power to right Indian wrongs wake up to their responsibility?" In 1839, Lucy Ames Butler wrote to her friend Drusilla Burnap, "Will they not think of the multitudes...swept into Eternity by the cupidity of the 'white man' who is in the enjoyment of wealth and freedom on the original soil of these oppressed Indians?" Elizur Butler, a well-known missionary, was Lucy's spouse. He joined the Cherokee as their doctor and calculated that approximately 4,000 people (a fifth of the Cherokee population) died along the road.

The US government’s actions towards the Native Americans in the 1830s influenced not only the US and its future development, but also altered the course of history for the rest of the world. Today, the Cherokee Nation is the largest tribe in the United States with more than 380,000 tribal citizens worldwide.

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