The Cherokee Indians settled in what is now modern Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama in the mountains and valleys of the southern Appalachian chain. In 1540 they had their first encounter with white men when Hernando DeSoto saw them in the mountains. The result of this encounter was most unfortunate for the Cherokees as their numbers by 1715 had been reduced from 44,000 to 11,000 because of exposure to smallpox.
During the colonial years the Cherokee supported the British in their struggles with France and again took the side of the British during the American Revolution. Through a 1791 treaty the Cherokee ceded part of their land to the United States. The intense push to relocate American Indians west of the Mississippi River did not come until after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. White settlers moving into these lands pushed the U.S. government to do something about the Indian presence. Several thousand Cherokees migrated west of the Mississippi River between 1790 and 1819.
By 1820 the Cherokee had established a republican form of government that they modeled after the U.S. government. They had a constitution, an elected principal chief, a senate and a house of representatives. In addition, the Cherokee adopted European style clothes and built European style homes and farms. They also developed a written language and established their own newspaper. Ultimately, however, none of these attempts toward assimilation by the Cherokee would save their land.
The Georgia state government appealed to the U.S. to remove the Cherokee from Georgia land in 1819. The appeal failed, but in 1828 Georgia passed a law declaring all laws of the Cherokee Nation to be null and void. Gold had been discovered in 1828 on Cherokee land in northwestern Georgia, eastern Tennessee and southwestern North Carolina. President Andrew Jackson rejected Cherokee appeals for federal protection.
In 1832 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Cherokee in Worcester v. Georgia. Again, Jackson refused to abide by the decision. His now famous line on hearing of the decision was, "John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it."
In 1835 a group of Cherokee led by Major Ridge signed the Treaty of New Echota. Despite opposition by Principal Chief John Ross and the majority of the Cherokee people, the eastern lands of the Cherokee were sold to the United States for $5,000,000 and the Cherokee were to move to Indian Territory, west of the Mississippi River. By 1838 President Martin Van Buren ordered federal troops to implement the treaty and forcibly evict the Cherokees.
Under the command of General Winfield Scott, troops began rounding up the Cherokees and putting them in stockades for the impending move west. Thirty one forts were built as temporary housing for the Cherokees. During the round up so many of the Cherokee were abused and their possessions stolen that Principal Chief John Ross begged the government to allow the Cherokee to oversee their own removal. By late summer, with the exception of a small band of Cherokees who eluded their captors by hiding in the mountains of North Carolina, all the Cherokees had been rounded up.
Three groups of Cherokee (2,800 people) took a water route that started on the Tennessee River and headed north to the Ohio River. The steamboats traveled the Ohio River to the Mississippi River, then on to the Arkansas River. The Arkansas River led northwest to Indian Territory and finally to Salisaw Creek near Ft. Coffee (Oklahoma). The first group arrived in June of 1838, but the other two groups did not arrive until the end of the summer. These last two groups suffered from a severe drought and disease.
The remainder of the Cherokee groups traveled by land on existing roads. Supplies provided to each band of 700 to 1,600 persons included flour, corn, salt pork, coffee, and sugar. Generally these provisions were of very poor quality. Severe drought reduced the forage for the draft animals that hauled possessions, so the Cherokee people walked.
Mortality rates for the trip were substantial. Of the approximately 16,000 Cherokees forced to make the journey by land or water, it is estimated that approximately 8,000 died on the trip or shortly thereafter. They died from hunger, disease, exposure and attacks from bandits. They died awaiting removal from the stockades. They died in Indian Territory from disease or food shortages. The trip and its aftermath were truly a "Trail of Tears."