The removal, or forced emigration, of Cherokee Indians occurred in 1838, when the U.S. military and various state militias forced some 15,000 Cherokees from their homes in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee and moved them west to Indian Territory (now present-day Oklahoma). Now known as the infamous Trail of Tears, the removal of the Cherokee Nation fulfilled federal and state policies that developed in response to the rapid expansion of white settlers and cotton farming and that were fueled by racism. The Cherokees lost approximately one-fourth of their people to disease, malnourishment, and hardship during the exodus to Indian Territory. Those who survived made a new life in the west, and a few hundred Cherokees who had previously agreed to become North Carolina citizens remained in the western North Carolina mountains.
Indigenous Lands in Alabama The initiative to remove Indians began as an alternative to diplomacy in the earliest days of the American republic. Initially, under Pres. George Washington, the federal government encouraged Indians to embrace mainstream white American customs, such as Christianity and individual property ownership, and to learn English so they could assimilate into American society. Under this plan of civilization, as it was popularly known at the time, the Department of War paid federal agents to teach Indian men to farm rather than hunt and Indian women to spin and weave rather than farm. The agents also encouraged the Indians to parcel out lands and resources that were traditionally held in common and, instead, to acquire private property and individual wealth. Government-supported missionaries taught English and preached Christianity in Indian communities. Many among the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, and other southeastern tribes accepted aspects of the civilization plan, such as English literacy, Christianity, slaveholding, and male-headed households. But they retained many of their own cultural traditions, including women’s rights to property, ceremonial and social dances, the ball game and its rituals, and reliance on medicine men and women. Missionaries and federal agents considered the Cherokees especially successful in adopting mainstream European American culture.
Benjamin Hawkins and the Creek Indians An official removal policy began to take shape in 1802 when Pres. Thomas Jefferson’s administration signed the Georgia Compact, an agreement to buy all Indian land in Georgia as soon as possible. At the time, Georgia’s land claims extended to the Mississippi River and included the present-day states of Alabama and Mississippi. Creeks and Cherokees occupied much of the area claimed by Georgia. In 1803, Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase, which provided western land for Indian resettlement. Identifying the area as Indian Territory, all federal administrations thereafter encouraged Indians to emigrate west. Because Indian nations were considered sovereign, that is, not under the authority of any state or nation, their lands could be acquired only by treaty with the federal government. In the early 1800s, the federal government repeatedly pressured and bribed southeastern Indian nations, including the Cherokees, into signing land cession treaties. Under these treaties the Indians typically sold some of their land and were guaranteed sovereignty and the right to keep all their remaining territory. They believed that their sovereignty and the federal treaties protected their remaining land from further incursions.
Pressure to cede intensified for those Indian nations with rich agricultural lands in present-day Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee. White farmers in those states clamored for more acreage to grow cotton. When Alabama became a state in 1819, its white residents eagerly anticipated the eventual expulsion of Indians. As white populations increased across the South in the 1820s, they began to argue that Indians were racially inferior and incapable of land management because they viewed land holding very differently from European Americans. State leaders began to insist that Indian nations were not really sovereign and that they occupied land rightfully owned by the states. Georgia officials increasingly demanded that the federal government fulfill its 1802 agreement by removing the Creek and Cherokee nations. To encourage Indian emigration, the federal government began offering western territory in exchange for Indian homelands. In 1817, the Cherokee Nation made its first land exchange, accepting a western tract in present-day Arkansas for one in present-day Georgia. Most Cherokees refused to emigrate, however, and by the 1820s the Cherokee Nation had vowed it would not give up one more foot of land. At that time, the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation still extended into parts of Tennessee, Georgia, and the new state of Alabama.
John Ross Between 1817 and 1828, Cherokees took determined steps to avoid removal. They established a national capitol at New Echota, Georgia, and a governing system with legislative, judicial, and executive branches. They codified their laws, drafted a constitution modeled after that of the United States, and elected John Ross as principal chief. In 1828, however, Andrew Jackson was elected president and declared Indian removal a national priority. Two years later, Congress and Jackson approved the Indian Removal Act, which gave the president authority and funds to negotiate voluntary removal treaties.
Confident of Jackson’s support, legislators in southern states enacted harsh laws restricting Indian rights and liberties. Between 1827 and 1833, Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia extended state laws over the Cherokee Nation. Alabama authorized state-built roads, bridges, and ferries in Cherokee territory and criminalized Cherokee laws and customs. Georgia required all whites working among the Cherokees to sign a loyalty oath to the state. A missionary named Samuel Worcester challenged Georgia’s requirement and sued Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1832, the court affirmed Cherokee sovereignty and ruled that Georgia (and therefore Alabama and Tennessee) had no right to extend state laws over the Cherokee Nation.
Jackson would not enforce the court decision, however, and several Cherokee leaders who reluctantly decided that removal was inevitable negotiated with the government for the best possible treaty. Under the guidance of Major Ridge, his son John, and his nephew Elias Boudinot, a small group of Cherokees signed the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, which ceded all Cherokee Nation land east of the Mississippi and stated that the Cherokees would remove in two years. Not one signer, however, represented the Cherokee government. Although Principal Chief John Ross, the Cherokee National Council, and 15,000 Cherokees strenuously protested, the U.S. Senate approved the treaty in the spring of 1836. Two years later, the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation began.
Major Ridge In April 1838, Gen. Winfield Scott took command of Cherokee removal and divided the Cherokee Nation into three districts, assigning a military commander to each. Gen. Abram Eustis of the Eastern Military District would collect the North Carolina Cherokees, Gen. Charles R. Floyd, commander of the Middle Military District, took charge of most of the Cherokee Nation in Georgia, and Col. William C. Lindsay, commander of the Western Military District, was responsible for the Cherokee Nation in Alabama as well as portions of east Tennessee and northwest Georgia. Calling for a force of 3,700 militia soldiers, including one regiment of ten Alabama infantry companies, Scott made the Cherokee Agency in Charleston, Tennessee, his removal headquarters. At least 33 military posts and camps were established for Cherokee removal: six in North Carolina, fourteen in Georgia, eight in Tennessee, and five in Alabama. The Alabama posts were Ft. Payne in Rawlingsville (now Fort Payne in DeKalb County), Ft. Morrow at Gunter’s Landing (now Guntersville), Ft. Likens in Broomtown Valley, Ft. Lovell at Cedar Bluffs near Turkey Town, and Bellefont, which was a mustering and supply depot.
Scott ordered the soldiers to treat the Cherokees humanely as they rounded them up and marched them to detention camps near one of three emigration depots: Ross’ Landing at present-day Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Cherokee Agency at Charleston, Tennessee, or Gunter’s Landing. Wagons were to be provided for the elderly and infirm, and all others were expected to walk. Scott planned for military escorts to move the Cherokees in groups of 1,000 each on overland and river routes. Several routes followed the Tennessee River through Alabama, passing Bellefont in Jackson County, Huntsville in Madison County, Gunter’s Landing in Marshall County, Tuscumbia in Colbert County, and Waterloo in Lauderdale County.
Removal operations began first in Georgia. On May 26, 1838, General Floyd’s military companies swiftly rounded up more than 3,000 Cherokees from their north Georgia homes and sent them to the Tennessee camps. By late June, the last of the Georgia Cherokees had been sent from the state. On June 12th, campaigns began in Alabama, North Carolina, and Tennessee. To round up the approximately 1,200 Alabama Cherokees, their slaves, and intermarried whites, Col. Lindsay ordered ten infantry companies from the Bellefont base to Ft. Morrow, Ft. Payne, Ft. Likens, and Ft. Lovell. The soldiers worked quickly and by the end of June, some 700 Alabama Cherokees waited in the Tennessee detention camps for their final removal to the west. Facing an overwhelming military force, they offered almost no resistance.
Trail of Tears Commemorative Motorcycle Ride With such a rapid accumulation of Cherokees as prisoners, the camps quickly became overcrowded and unsanitary. Outbreaks of measles, cholera, whooping cough, dysentery, and typhus, insufficient food and water, and exposure to the elements caused great suffering and death. The same conditions so drastically afflicted the three detachments that left for the west that Scott postponed further removal until the fall. Scott also agreed to John Ross’s request that the remaining Cherokees be permitted to travel without military overseers.
In June, approximately 500 Alabama Cherokees, led by John Benge and George Lowrey, gained permission to make camp near Ft. Payne in Rawlingsville rather than wait in Tennessee internment camps through the summer. They pledged their good conduct and willingness to surrender when removal resumed and asked for protection from the white settlers and whiskey sellers who were harassing them. As the summer progressed, the number of Ft. Payne Cherokee prisoners swelled to include 200 who had been recaptured after escaping from wagon trains and rail cars, 300 sent from Ft. Morrow, 30 from Ft. Lovell, and 300 from the Tennessee camps. Although many Cherokees at Ft. Payne contracted diseases and several died, most remained healthier than the majority of the Cherokee Nation held in the crowded Tennessee camps, where conditions worsened in the summer heat.
By mid-summer, most of the Alabama militia was mustered out, leaving command of the few remaining Alabama posts to the regular army. On September 28, 1838, the Benge party of more than 1,100 Cherokees departed Ft. Payne, crossed the Tennessee River, and left Alabama for the west. The entire party survived the journey. Another eight contingents left the Tennessee camps in October, and the final nine departed in November. Traveling in inadequate clothing through an unusually harsh winter, these contingents suffered terribly and hundreds died. By the end of December, the removal of some 15,000 members of the Cherokee Nation was complete. The forts and camps in Alabama were abandoned and the property was sold at public auction.
On September 28, 2013, the Etowah Historical Society’s Heritage Museum in Gadsden dedicated a memorial and exhibit to commemorate the 175th anniversary of Cherokee removal. The installation, located at the Elliot Community Center, includes artwork and photographs in the exhibit space and a permanent fountain and informational plaques about Cherokee history and the removal process.
- Anderson, William L., ed. Cherokee Removal, Before and After. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991.
- Foreman, Grant. Indian Removal. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972.
- Perdue, Theda, and Michael D. Green. The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s Books, 2005.