Life on the Trail

Martin Van Buren

President Martin Van Buren

Nearly 125,000 Native Americans lived on millions of acres of land in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and Florida at the beginning of the 1830s, land their ancestors had occupied and cultivated for generations. For those who believed this land to be rightfully theirs, they stayed and hoped for compromise, unfortunately that was not an option as Andrew Jackson's Manifest Destiny was taking the nation by storm. The Cherokee tribe was opposed their removal but in turn only brought themselves into more conflict. In 1838-39 President Martin Van Buren sent over 7,000 troops led by General Winfield Scott into Cherokee territory and forced them to hit the road. Scott and his troops forced the Cherokee into stockades with bayonets pointed at them while his troops and other white settlers of the land began to loot homes and belongings. Accepting of their defeat the Cherokee then marched to their new Indian territory with the rest of the Five Civilized Tribes. For those who embarked on the brutal journey, they quickly found out it would be no walk in the park.  

Men with Broken Hearts

Painting by Donald Vann, 1994

The journey the tribes were forced to embark on was nothing short of a disaster. Poor weather, disease, disorganization and famine plagued the tribes traveling to their new land. During the winter on the trail it is said that the weather was unbearable cold, which caused many difficulties for the tribes. With the freezing weather and snow falling down on them, as well as being removed from their hunting territories, it became incredibly difficult and exhausting to sustain the mass amounts of travelers; hunting for buffalo and deer, an abundant food source for the Indians, was a very large challenge and forced the tribes to live even more minimalistcally. People on the trail were rationed water and very unfulfilling "meals" so everyone could eat and keep their energy and immune systems up.

Unfortunately, the rationing which occurred only postponed the inevitable for some. With the lack of nutrition, as well as harsh winter weather, tribes began losing members to disease and famine. The diseases encountered on the journey range from pertussis (whooping cough) to typhus. Among the other deadly diseases were smallpox, measles, influenza, cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, mumps, yellow fever, and syphilis. With no shelter or time to rest and heal, tribes began losing members at an alarming rate; the death count totaled over 4,000 tribe members just for the Cherokees. 

Historical caricature of the Cherokee nation

"By 1840, tens of thousands of Native Americans had been driven off of their land in the southeastern states and forced to move across the Mississippi to Indian territory. The federal government promised that their new land would remain unmolested forever, but as the line of white settlement pushed westward, “Indian country” shrank and shrank. In 1907, Oklahoma became a state and Indian territory was gone for good." (History.com Staff.)

There is no doubt that the Five Civilized Tribes in America during the 1800s were taken advantage of for the "bigger picture" of white America. Stripping them of their lands, sending them on a deadly journey and even ignoring their lawful rights were all actions led by Andrew Jackson on his mission for Manifest Destiny. The deaths of these tribes and relocation of them will not be forgotten, but definitely fly under the radar of today's population.

Life on the Trail