One of the greatest and most tragic failures in American history was the Trail of Tears. The forced relocation of Native Americans from their tribal lands in the southeastern United States (mainly Georgia) to reservations in present-day Oklahoma serves as both a blemish on American history, and a reminder of the legacy of racism that condoned the mistreatment of Native Americans by the earliest white settlers of the young Republic.
In 1838, thousands of Native Americans of the Cherokee tribe were forced from their homeland in Georgia by about 7,000 US troops, who were ordered to speed up the removal process of Cherokees by General Winfield Scott, under the Executive Order of then-President Martin van Buren. Men, women, and children were forced to march at bayonet-point nearly 1,200 miles to present-day Oklahoma -- with most of them in stockades. Along the route, it is estimated that some 5,000 Native Americans died from starvation, cholera, dysentery, and whooping cough. The Trail of Tears, as it has become known, is an unforgettable, and perhaps unforgivable, failure made during the early years of the newly-formed nation.1
The Trail of Tears did not happen in an apolitical, nonmilitary vacuum. The Trail of Tears was a direct effect of the Indian Removal Act, which can be traced back to the racist vision of President Andrew Jackson. The Indian Removal Act was passed by the US Congress in 1830,
and ensured the white settlers that neighboring tribes would be asked to leave, or forcibly removed. Most tribes left their homeland after the act was passed, but some fought the US Government on the battlefield, namely, the Seminole, while the Cherokees chose the legal avenue -- the Supreme Court.
1. History.com Staff, Trail of Tears. (A+E Networks, 2009),
In 1831, the Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokees had the legal right to govern themselves on their own tribal lands. However, both President Jackson and the State of Georgia refused to enforce the controversial decision.2
Ultimately, Jackson resorted to trickery to get his way, and get the Cherokees out of the way of white settlers. An illegitimate treaty, called the Treaty of New Echota, was signed in 1833 by a small number of Cherokees who misrepresented themselves as tribal leaders. However, a second petition, signed in protest, followed on its heels. Led by Chief John Ross, more than 15,000 Cherokees signed the petition. Nonetheless, the protests landed on deaf ears, as the Supreme Court ratified the Indian Removal Act in 1836, and the Federal Government gave the remaining Cherokees (those who were not paid to leave or grew weary of fighting the government) only two years to leave their tribal lands. By 1838, the moment of truth had arrived for 16,000 Cherokees, as 2,000 had already left on their "own volition". The Trail of Tears did not require any altercations between white man and Native American, and simply went on as Jackson had planned.3
The Trail of Tears marks one of the most solemn moments in the history of Native Americans, but it also reveals something about the man whose countenance now graces the American $20 bill. Not only did President Andrew Jackson rebuff the judicial authority of the US Supreme Court in its earlier decisions to allow the Cherokee to stay in Georgia, he revealed a hand that was doubly racist. After all the southeastern Native American Tribes were forcibly re-
2. ushistory.org, U.S. History Online Textbook. (n.p., 2015),
3.pbs.org, Indian Removal: 1814-1858. (n.p., n.d.),
moved or killed, more land was made available for white settlers and their slaves. Thus, his campaign against the Native American had succeeded. Jackson's racist vision was limitless, as the land of the "Indians" he so despised was now cleared away for African slaves and expansive plantations. Indeed, the Trail of Tears nearly decimated the Cherokee tribe, but it has also left a stain of blood on the fabric of racism's legacy in America. It was racism that enabled the Trail of Tears, and it was tolerance that could have prevented the needless deaths and sorrow of a tribe whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
History.com Staff. "Trail of Tears," History.com. http://www.history.com/topics/native-
"Indian Removal: 1814-1858." pbs.org. Accessed June 25, 2015.
"U.S. History Online Textbook." ushistory.org. Accessed June 25, 2015.