The Trail of Tears Short Summary

            The “Trail of Tears” is one of the bleakest and most tragic moments in the history of the United States. The symbolic name of the “Trail of Tears” is given to the removal of the Native Americans from their territories in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama and yet a few other states in the Southern part of the country and their forced emigration for over eight hundred miles towards the Indian territory in Oklahoma. The removal of the American Indians was an unjust and tragic political act that led to the death more than a third of the people who were sent on the road. Moreover, this act constituted an attack on the political and cultural independence of the Native Americans, who had inhabited the areas from which they were removed for hundreds or even thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans on the continent. This forced emigration therefore not only caused a lot of casualties among the Native Americans due to sickness, deprivation and the exhaustion suffered during their travels, but also threatened their sovereignty as a free people that should be entitled to its own laws. The 1830 Removal Act can therefore be qualified as an act of political and culture aggression of the United States against the Indians.

            The Native Americans and especially the Cherokees actively fought this forced displacement from their homelands, either through court trials and memorials addressed to the Congress with the requirement to reverse the Removal Act (Justice, 110) Most notably, the Removal was also an act of discrimination against the Native Americans who were considered savage by their oppressors. Paradoxically therefore, the political men of the day considered this removal of the Indians as a necessary solution that would save them from being completely sacrificed to the advancement of civilization: “Jackson and his supporters claimed that the ‘savage’ Native American culture must inevitably give way to the onslaught of civilization. They believed that efforts to civilize Native Americans within European American culture had been entirely unsuccessful. The only hope for Native American survival, according to these supporters, was to be moved outside the reach of civilization.”(Patterson, 197) Thus, under veiled claims that the removal would benefit the Indians, several tribes were forcibly driven out of their land and signatures of Indian leaders were forged.

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The Cherokees especially addressed several memorials to the United States Congress urging them to desist the process of removal and attempt to maintain the cordial and harmonious relationship between the Indian nation and the United States nation: “The Cherokees cannot resist the power of the United States, and should they be driven from their Native American land, then will they look in melancholy sadness upon the golden chain presented by President Washington to the Cherokee people as emblematical of the brightness and purity of the friendship between the United States and the Cherokee nation.”(Justice, 112) Outside the official documents, the literature left by the Indians is also a powerful token of the tragic and scarring effect of the removal on the Indian nation. The oral and the written traditions preserved vivid accounts of the Trail of Tears and its impact on the Indian culture. In a beautiful poem entitled The Legend of the Corn Beads Edna Chekelelee summarizes the traumatic experience of the removal with a short legend about corn. The corn as both a staple food of the American Indians and a symbol for their culture is here personified into a plant that has the ability to shed tears over the forced removal of the tribes from their land. According to the legend, the corn grew smaller because of the teardrops that it shed for the Indians: “In the 1800’s,/ During the Trail of Tears/ the corn stalks were eight feet tall,/ and corn was twelve to eighteen inches long./ The corn stood back and watched/ as the Indian people were getting pushed and shoved/ by the white soldiers./ And the corn cried and cried./ And the teardrop landed on the corn fodder, / and the corn dropped down to three feet tall.”(Duncan, 131-132) This legendary transformation of the corn symbolizes on the one hand the close connection between the Indian culture and nature and, on the other hand, it depicts the deep impact of the removal on the Indian nation.

Thus, while the momentum and the injustice of the removal are easily perceived from the historical account, the actual recollections of the event as left by the Indians are probably the closest to the actual importance and tragic impact of the event. In either actual accounts or in later recollections, the Trail of Tears appears as one of the most devastating experiences in the history of the Native American people. Unable to resist the power of the government through force, the Indians were forced sometimes at gunpoint by the army to leave their territories and line up on the road to Oklahoma where they were supposed to relocate. The event is therefore virtually an uprooting of the people from their homes. The travelling as well as the camping was done under improper circumstances and the people rapidly became victims of starvation and diseases for which at that time there was no cure. The whole process is perhaps similar to or even more appalling than the one described by John Steinbeck in his Grapes of Wrath and which describes the inhuman conditions and the tragic impact of a later removal: that of the minor landowners and farmers in Oklahoma under the pressure of the growing industrialization. Both of these experiences were the destructive and inhuman effects of “civilization”, which sacrificed the connection of man to the land and to nature in the name of progress.

The Trail of Tears, 1838, 1942. Painting by Robert Lindneux of the forced journey to Indian Territory, during which over four thousand Cherokees died. Lindneux’s illustration is the most renowned; no contemporary depictions are known to have survived. The Granger Collection, New York (Patterson, 198).

In another Cherokee verse recollection, entitled simply The Trail of Tears, Freeman Owle recounts episodes from the experience of his own family upon being evicted from North Carolina. This account furnishes real things trials the Indians underwent during the removal. The mass removal did not take into consideration individual needs, and so the people became victims of very poor conditions of living and were made prisoners of this new destiny that was prescribed for them:

“He and his wife and small baby were taken to Murphy, North Carolina,/ put into a stockade,/ stayed there for six weeks./ There was no roof, only a line of poles/ encircling the stockade./ They say that/ the mud was deep,/ there wasn’t much food,/ no one had anything to cover themselves with,/ but the baby survived because the mother was feeding it.”(Duncan, 222) It is through these actual accounts and recollections of the events that the tragic Trail of Tears can be better perceived and comprehended. The families were brutally torn from their quiet life and their possessions and then forcibly driven into camps and into travels that made countless victims and practically decimated the population. This nightmarish experience constitutes therefore one of the most challenging moments in the history of the Indian nation.

Works Cited:

Duncan, Barbara R. Living Stories of the Cherokee. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Filler, Louis and Allen Guttmann. The Removal of the Cherokee: Manifest Destiny or Dishonor?.
Lexington, D. C. Heath, 1962.

Justice, Daniel. “Cherokee Memorials.” American History Through Literature 1820-1870. Eds. Janet Gabler-Hover and Robert Sattelmeyer. Vol. 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006.

McLoughlin, William G. After the Trail of Tears: The Cherokees’ Struggle for Sovereignty, 1839-1880.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Patterson, Sara M. “Indian Removal Act (1830).” Major Acts of Congress. Ed. Brian K. Landsberg. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. 3 pp. 3 vols

Wing, Jennifer. “Trail of Tears.” American History Through Literature 1820-1870. Eds. Janet Gabler-Hover and Robert Sattelmeyer. Vol. 3. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006.


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