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The Five Civilized Tribes of the American Southeast tried to assimilate into the European settlers’ society to keep their lands. But the outsiders who coveted their territory didn’t seem to care if the Indians were civilized, and eventually forced them to take the disastrous Trail of Tears far to the west.
The Five Civilized Tribes first tried fighting the colonists and settlers. Then, in a bid for acceptance, they tried living like Europeans and Americans. But in the end, they took the Trail of Tears to a designated Indian Territory. Thousands of Indians died from cold, hunger, hardship, and disease along the way. The survivors of the Trail of Tears, with no way to support themselves, were now in the Great Plains that were much different from their own wooded lands.
The Trail of Tears started in 1831, the year after President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act he had pushed through the U.S. Congress.
‘Trail of Tears.’ (makseph/ Deviant Art )
Contact with Europeans
The Cherokee people first made contact with the Spanish in 1540. By 1840, most of their people and the Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole tribes were already driven to what the U.S. government called Indian Territory. Later, this area was called Oklahoma, several hundred miles west of the tribes’ homelands in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Tennessee.
Similar tragedies happened to other Native American tribes. The pattern was: contact with Europeans, then a decimation of Indian populations through warfare, disease, hunger, and slavery. Then they were forced West. It happened to the Sioux and the Ho Chunk around the Great Lakes and other tribes as well.
Five Civilized Tribes
Some Indian tribes, notably the Five Civilized Tribes, took up European culture many years after contact in an attempt to live in peace in their native lands.
Some early American leaders, including the first president, George Washington, wanted to “civilize” the tribes to end hostilities. The colonists called the conflicts between Europeans, the early U.S. citizens, and the native Americans “the Indian problem.”
The goal of “civilizing” the natives was to reshape Indian society into a system that resembled European American society. In theory, this would end the raiding the Indians did and also bring peace into frontier areas that were rife with violence and warfare.
‘Chief of the Taensa Indians Receiving La Salle. March 20, 1682.’
Indian Removal Led to the Trail of Tears
Another program that the Americans proposed was Indian removal, whose foremost proponent was Andrew Jackson. He became president after trying to force out the Indians for years. Under Indian removal, the natives would be forced to move elsewhere to make room for settlers who wanted their land. Sometimes when Indians went to new territory, they were decimated by warfare and disease there too. PBS.org, in an article about Indian removal, states:
“From 1814 to 1824, Jackson was instrumental in negotiating nine out of eleven treaties which divested the southern tribes of their eastern lands in exchange for lands in the west. The tribes agreed to the treaties for strategic reasons. They wanted to appease the government in the hopes of retaining some of their land, and they wanted to protect themselves from white harassment.”
As a result of the treaties, the United States gained control over three-quarters of Alabama and Florida, as well as parts of Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky, and North Carolina. This was a period of voluntary Indian migration, however, and only a small number of Creeks, Cherokee, and Choctaws actually moved to the new lands.
As you can see, there was more than one trail, and not all routes were over land. Some were by river, and the Seminole were taken west by sailing the Gulf of Mexico part way.
Other early American leaders offered different approaches to the conflict. Some even publicly proposed that the United States annihilate the Indians. And some tribes did in fact die out or were absorbed into other tribes and are known only through the accounts of other peoples.
The Five Civilized Tribes learned to read and write, adopted the alien concept of land ownership, and some converted to Christianity. Some Indians in the Southern United States assimilated so much that they “owned” slaves.
Sequoia, a Cherokee, made an alphabet of his people’s language and many natives learned to read and write their own language and English.
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Sequoia with a tablet depicting his writing system for the Cherokee language. 19th-century print of a painting.
Greedy Settlers Didn’t Care if Indians were Civilized
The settlers didn’t actually care if the Indians were civilized. Settlers were greedy for Indian lands, which were quite valuable.
First there was a gold rush in northern Georgia. Then settlers coveted Indian lands so they could grow cotton or sell Indian lands to cotton growers. The settlers stole livestock, squatted on land so they could come into possession of it and looted towns and individual Indian houses.
Some tribes, notably the Seminoles, went to war over the encroachment on their territory. Other tribes, the Cherokee prominent among them, appealed to the U.S. courts and had some success there. But Andrew Jackson went against a Supreme Court ruling and taunted Chief Justice Marshall, saying if he could enforce a ruling favoring the Indians he was welcome. Of course, the Supreme Court has no militia and has to rely on the executive branch to enforce its rulings.
Portrait of Seminole Chief Tuko-See-Mathla.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830
After doing all he could to dispossess the Indians earlier in his career, including war, as president Andrew Jackson signed an act of Congress called the Indian Removal Act that he had pushed through both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The Indian Removal Act allowed U.S. officials to negotiate trading Indian lands in the East for lands in Indian territory, in what is now called Oklahoma.
A Trail of Tears and Death
The first tribe forced out of its autonomous region was the Choctaw nation in 1831. The Choctaw had been in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. The famous French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville described the removal of the Choctaws , which he witnessed:
“In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn't watch without feeling one's heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but sombre and taciturn.
There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas were leaving their country. "To be free," he answered, could never get any other reason out of him. We ... watch the expulsion ... of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples.”
— Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
It was a Choctaw chief who referred to the removal as a “trail of tears and death.” Some of his people were bound in chains for the trek. The Chickasaw nation left their lands later and merged with the Choctaws in Indian territory.
Screenshot from NativeVillage.org discussing the removal treaties of various Native American tribes.
The Seminoles went to war over removal and some resisted into the 1840s. Eventually, most of the Seminole Indians left Florida for Indian territory.
The Creeks also had a big territory, from which they were forced out over the years. On the Trail of Tears, about 3,500 Creeks of the original 15,000-plus on the trail perished from hunger, thirst, cold, and disease.
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Portrait of Muscogee (Creek) Se-loc-ta.
The Cherokee were among the last to leave, though they did not hold out as long as the Seminoles. History.com writes of their demise in Georgia:
“By 1838, only about 2,000 Cherokees had left their Georgia homeland for Indian territory. President Martin Van Buren sent General Winfield Scott and 7,000 soldiers to expedite the removal process. Scott and his troops forced the Cherokee into stockades at bayonet point while whites looted their homes and belongings.”
The Trail of Tears Memorial in New Echota, Georgia, remembers the 5,000 Cherokee Indians who died on the trail. ()
The troops marched the Cherokee Indians more than 1,200 miles (1931.21 km) to Oklahoma. Their numbers were decimated by starvation, cholera, dysentery, whooping cough, and typhus. Estimates of the numbers of Cherokee people who died on the way range upwards of 4,000 or even 5,000.
Top I mage: Max D. Stanley’s painting “The Trail of Tears.” Source: Max D. Stanley
By Mark Miller