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The term "Trail of Tears" refers to the difficult journeys that the Five Civilized Tribes took during their forced removal from the southeast during the 1830s and 1840s. The Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole were all marched out of their ancestral lands to Indian Territory, or present Oklahoma. Although the removal of American Indians began long before the nineteenth century, the Trail of Tears is mostly associated with the forced removals that took place after the 1830 Indian Removal Act.

The Trail of Tears differed for each of the nations, but all Indians suffered. The marches usually began when federal troops rounded up those who resisted removal. The journeys, usually more than one thousand miles, lasted several weeks. A shortage of wagons, horses, food, and other supplies made the marches difficult. Some traveled by boat, but the conditions there were usually no better. The U.S. government did not provide enough supplies to sustain the travelers during their march and after their arrival.

An exceptionally harsh winter plagued the Choctaw, the first nation to face the forced migration. Leaving in several groups in 1831, more than fourteen thousand Choctaws left Mississippi. French observer Alexis de Tocqueville described one journey as a "sight [that] will never fade from my memory." He noted that "The snow was hard on the ground, and huge masses of ice drifted on the river. The Indians brought their families with them; there were among them the wounded, the sick, newborn babies, and old men on the point of death. They had neither tents nor wagons, but only some provisions and weapons." Hundreds of Choctaws died.

For other Indians disease and malnutrition proved equally devastating. After losing the Creek War of 1836-37 with the United States, more than 14,500 Creek Indians faced the additional indignation of being forced off of their lands and marched west, often in chains. Several hundred Creeks died during the journey, and approximately thirty-two hundred died from disease, malnutrition, and exposure after their arrival in Indian Territory. Disease also took a toll on the Chickasaw, who lost more than five hundred men, women, and children to smallpox. The Cherokee experience was perhaps the most severe. As many as one out of four Cherokees died because of their westward journey.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Grant Foreman, Indian Removal: The Emigration of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indians (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1932). Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green, ed., The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1995). Arthur H. DeRosier, Jr., The Removal of the Choctaw Indians (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1970).

Andrew K. Frank

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