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When Andrew Jackson’s legislation passed and soldiers ordered Nations on the deadly Trail of Tears to Indian Territory, Natives proved resilient in the most challenging circumstances imaginable, rebuilding livelihood from next to nothing.

It’s early summer – the month of the Green Corn Moon, a few weeks before the harvest. Suddenly, 7,000 soldiers arrive. They order Native families outside at gunpoint, throwing aging grandparents into the mud, hurling the belongings of Georgian Cherokee onto the moist soil of their ancestral homeland.

Some tribesmen, facing a thousand-mile forced march, have no time to fetch a second pair of shoes. Others wear ragged clothing appropriate only for the mild Georgian spring. Anything needed for the arduous trek to a new home – extra garments, family heirlooms – they’ll have to carry on their backs.

Those who resist are savagely beaten. Dragged to holding camps. Locked into chains and marched single-file.

Terrified children in packed wagons raise their hands and wave goodbye to a homeland they’ll never see again.

It was June 1838, and U.S. Army soldiers under Gen. Winfield Scott had begun the forcible removal of thousands of Cherokee. The orders were devised for efficiency. The deadline for mandatory removal – May 26 – had come and gone. And now government officials were in no mood to waste any more time.

Eight years earlier, President Andrew Jackson had signed into law the Indian Removal Act, billed a “termination policy” by some historians. Translation: Thousands of Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek and Chickasaw in the Southeastern United States were forcibly marched west in the months and years to follow. The Seminole in Florida, the last of the Five Tribes to face relocation, temporarily escaped by retreating to the swamps of the Everglades.

So began the Trail of Tears, a harrowing journey of broken treaties and empty promises deliberately handed down by government officials. For the Cherokee, it all started in 1832, with Worcester V. Georgia. The landmark case saw Jackson openly defy a Supreme Court order that protected Cherokee legal rights. Instead, government troops forcibly removed a sovereign people, in the eyes of U.S. courts, from their ancestral homeland.

Trail of Tears 3

“That’s the beginning of Georgia trying to expand its dominion over the Cherokees,” said Phil Morgan, author and historian with the Chickasaw Press.

In northern Georgia, soldiers gather women and children first. They hold them hostage to lure men to the stockades. Gen. Scott knows some tribal members will pose problems: infants, elderly, sickly women. But soldiers openly disobey the accommodations for these parties. Instead, they chain them together, marching them to holding camps where disease is rampant. Already, diarrhea, dysentery and a mysterious fever have begun decimating the population.

“Poor creatures,” Gen. Scott would later write.

Eventually, hundreds freeze to death as they wait for frozen rivers to thaw. The starving Natives use rocks to hack away at inch-thick ice for the fish and fresh water. Some white residents, angry at the sudden influx of Indian people near their property, shoot them point blank.

Before it ends, many captives will board a train, then another boat, then walk a few dozen miles, then board another boat, then …

Their eventual destination: a fruitless plain in the heart of the Great American Desert. Uninhabitable, as described by explorer Zebulon Pike. It was a place, Jackson believed, where Indians would go to die.

And before the campaign concluded – in the harrowing years from 1831 to 1838 – at least 4,000 Cherokee, 3,000 Choctaw and thousands more Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole fulfilled his prophecy.

In all, 46,000 Natives endured the perilous journey from lands they had legally owned to a place called Oklahoma.

Trail of Tears (white wagon)

In late October 1828, a white Georgian settler was celebrating his birthday by tracking deer when he noticed something unusual on the ground. Benjamin Parks stopped in his tracks that day and stooped over. He immediately purchased the acreage and later discovered that entire fields of his new property were laced with the yellow money he had stumbled upon.

In more ways than one, prosperity now lay beneath the fertile lowlands of the Cherokee Nation, hundreds of miles east of the barren American Desert.

In another time, historians say, such a discovery might have been a blessing. But with Andrew Jackson, a widely acknowledged “Indian killer” on the verge of the presidency, the unearthing of gold in an already cotton-rich plain meant only one thing for Indians: impending doom.

In fact, slave-owners in the South had long sought a campaign of Indian removal. With the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, they saw a lucrative opportunity for economic expansion. And now there was constant tension between Indians and whites amid the imminent inauguration of a pro-settler president. It all added up to a perfect storm for Indian removal.

We lived with white neighbors for a duration, and we weren’t going to turn on them. They knew that, so they turned on us. Dr. Phil Morgan

So when Benjamin Parks dug up those clumps of gold in 1828, he didn’t just enrich himself, he also helped lure 10,000 prospectors into Cherokee territory – crazy men, thieves, gamblers, murderers – all desperate to claim their fortunes.
And they wreaked havoc, foreshadowing a small taste of the carnage to follow, according to A.J. Langguth, author of “Driven West: Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to the Civil War.”
The Phoenix, the first Native American newspaper, “reported instances of white prospectors’ shooting Cherokee horses and cattle for the sport of it,” Langguth wrote.

The “Great Intrusion” stripped Cherokee families of livestock and household goods, horses, cattle and precious metals they never had a chance to own. But for Cherokee and other Native people, there was more to come.

“Indian Removal was viewed as the ultimate resolution,” said Bill Savage, a longtime Native historian at the University of Oklahoma. “If you and I are having an argument and I kill you, the argument’s over. It’s been resolved. That’s what the federal attitude was.

“Once we get these people across the river, that’s it, we won’t ever have to worry about them again.”

For decades, President Thomas Jefferson’s more benign vision of Indian removal had gone unfulfilled. The third president had long sought to justify the Louisiana Purchase and the relocation of Natives, in his eyes, was one way to do so. But for Jackson, the third president’s eventual heir, the discovery of gold in Georgia was the final straw: now the Indians simply had to go. And he would do it in a way that had never occurred before or since – by openly flouting the highest law in the land.

In 1832, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation in its landmark ruling, Worcester V. Georgia. But Jackson soon began enforcing his own policy: removal by force – by any means possible.
“(Chief Justice) John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it,” Jackson reportedly said.

Summed up historian Savage: “What Jackson is saying is I don’t care about the constitution, I don’t care about anything. These Indians are going.”

The Choctaw of Mississippi were the first to go, anticipating Jackson’s hostility if they didn’t. After tribal leaders signed a relocation treaty, a group of early marchers set off for southern Oklahoma on Nov. 1, 1831.

Awaiting them was one of the most brutal winters in history, according to Dr. Morgan.

That winter, a group of about 6,000 marched through freezing winds, snow and sleet across a desolate stretch of Arkansas. In the bitter cold, with thousands exhausted and fighting pneumonia, rations quickly depleted. The food – rotten pork stored in barrels and spoiled, wet grain – made the Indians sicker.

Observed Savage: “You have commanding officers who go to some town and say to the green grocer, ‘The government has allotted me this much money. Why don’t you sell me rotten vegetables at the fresh vegetables’ price, and then send me the kickback under the table? We both win.’”

Even soldiers went hungry, so tensions kept mounting.

“There was also rape,” Savage said. “If you had a baby, it would be thrown in the back of a wagon and if it died, who cared?

“You’re irritated about having to (accompany them) if you’re a soldier. Anybody who gives you any trouble is going to get smacked, or killed or whatever you feel like doing to them. And there’s nothing anybody can do about it.”

Along the Trail of Tears, migrants died of malnutrition, exposure, disease and bullet wounds from angry settlers. Elderly Choctaws died because they were too weak to walk any farther. Children died because they had no resistance to the fever.

“They were bogged down in swamps across southern Arkansas, they had difficult river crossings, they had to camp in cold places without enough tents and wait for supplies,” Morgan said.

Nearly 2,000 Choctaw died in that first migration alone. Morgan said the Choctaw experience, in which as many as 6,000 perished, was among the most brutal of the Trail of Tears.

In a campaign where resisters regularly were threatened at knifepoint and beaten with rifle butts, the Creek faced an additional indignation: Marched to Oklahoma in chains – as prisoners of war.

This punishment resulted from their initial unwillingness to leave Alabama. When Gen. Scott became aware of the Creek War of 1836, a tribal effort to resist Indian removal, he moved to end the violence by ordering a forced relocation.

And so, as historian Savage explained, a blacksmith was summoned to lock thousands of prisoners in chains. That measure, Savage noted, did little to expedite removal. In fact, in certain situations, the sheer frequency of burials halted westward movement.

“So if, on the first day, your mother happens to be on the chain in front of you and she dies you have two choices,” Savage said. “You can pick her up and you can carry her until the Army allows you to bury her, or you can have the blacksmith cut her off the chain and leave her on the side of the trail for the critters.”
Meanwhile, the Chickasaw, tribal relatives of the Choctaw, faced a similar fate.

In 1832, seeing removal as inevitable, tribal leaders signed a treaty that promised safe habitation until they moved. But again, Morgan said, the government reneged on a pledge. Federal authorities never found them suitable land.

Eventually, the Chickasaw bought Choctaw land west of the Mississippi with their own money, and they left their ancestral homeland in 1837. Nearly 5,000 marched into present-day southeast Oklahoma, many accompanied by their black slaves.

As bad as removal was for all the tribes, historians say, none was tricked, taunted and tormented more than the Cherokee.

“The Cherokees very quickly find out that every time they play the game by the white man’s rules and won, the white man changed the rules so that they lost,” historian Savage said.

Believing removal inevitable, a prominent member of the Cherokee Nation, John Ridge, signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835. Ridge was a tribal outsider doing something “highly illegal,” according to Patti Jo King, an instructor at the University of North Dakota’s Indian Studies Department.

“He doesn’t understand really their traditions because he was never part of it,” she said.

Indian Removal was viewed as the ultimate resolution. If you and I are having an argument and I kill you, the argument’s over. It’s been resolved. That’s what the federal attitude was. Bill Savage

The treaty surrendered Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi. But other members of the tribe, headed by Principal Chief John Ross, regarded those who signed the treaty as traitors.

Three years later, government officials used the document to justify Cherokee removal. Another instance, Savage said, of getting “five or six signatures and passing that off as the will of the tribe. It simply wasn’t the case and when people found out about it, they said, ‘We’re not leaving.’”

But in early summer 1838, 7,000 federal troops rounded up 17,000 Cherokee, chained them to one another and, at gunpoint, turned their faces west.

The Rev. Daniel Sabin Butrick, a missionary ordered to accompany the Cherokee west, recorded his observations in a journal. He mentioned “a vast amount of sickness, and many deaths.” From a Dec. 28 and 29, 1838 excerpt: “Six have died within a short time in Maj. [James] Brown’s company, and in this detachment of Mr. Taylor’s there are more or less affected with sickness in almost every tent,- and yet all are houseless & homeless in a strange land, and in a cold region exposed to weather almost unknown in their native country.”

Around this time, government agent Martin Davis, labeled it “the coldest weather in Illinois I ever experienced anywhere.”

Sterling Evans, a University of Oklahoma history professor, described a scene where starving prisoners were forced to pay a dollar tax (more than $20 today) to ferry across the Ohio River.

Whites wishing to cross got priority. Meanwhile, the Indians camped out in Southern Illinois, blanketless, either awaiting their turn to cross or for the river to thaw. Some starved to death. Others froze.

“It was wretched beyond belief,” Evans said. “They didn’t have any food and now they had to come up with a dollar a person.”

Although turmoil accompanied the tribes to Oklahoma, prosperity eventually followed for some Natives. It came in the form of thriving schools, fruitful harvests and renewed trade. But it came at a cost.

In Tahlequah, tribal opponents assassinated Maj. Ridge and his son John for their role in signing the treaty that triggered the removal. On June 22, 1839, pro-Ross attackers stabbed John Ridge 48 times.

Meanwhile, the Chickasaw and Choctaw met initial opposition from Plains tribes whose land they eventually settled onto. But those conflicts ultimately were resolved with little bloodshed, Morgan said.

Eventually, 46,000 new immigrants began to thrive off of a land once deemed uninhabitable. By the 1850s, Morgan said, the Chickasaw had redrafted their constitution. They quickly established farms and schools. They grew cotton and raised livestock.

“Our farm system was the envy of the nation,” Morgan said.

Evans described a resilience allowing the Indians to adapt to the new lifestyle.

“They tried to just redo what they had already going on in the Southeast,” he said.

A few decades later, Savage said, Tahlequah evolved into a metropolitan center, with thriving schools that were among the nation’s best.

By the mid-1870s, one might jaunt down a main street of the Cherokee stronghold, and, except for the complexion of those on the sidewalks, think he was in an eastern city. Or, Savage said, a European city.

Shops lined the streets, carrying the latest Parisian fashions. Men wore suits. Women donned long skirts and large hats.

Like the fertile lowlands of northern Georgia, prosperity, it seemed, had arisen from nothing. Victims of the elements, targets of Jefferson and Jackson, stalked by backwoods agents across the South, tens of thousands of Indians now lived off the very land that was supposed to kill them.In the end, Morgan said, it was President Andrew Jackson’s worst nightmare.

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Tawna Little