The 1830 Indian Removal Act required all Native Americans to move west of the Mississippi River within five years, but it was 1838 before federal troops forcibly removed thousands of Cherokee in the southeastern United States from their land. As they travelled between 800 and 1000 miles over the next six months, more than 25 percent of the Cherokees lost their lives, with some estimates ranging as high as twice that number. This volume in Lucent’s American History series chronicles that exceptionally dark moment in our national collective memory.
The Trail of Tears is presented as an outgrowth of two cultures in conflict, as settlers systematically ignored governmental treaties and encroached upon the Cherokee’s hunting grounds and the towns and villages established centuries before European settlement. The U.S. Supreme Court, describing the Cherokee nation as a dependent entity rather than a sovereign one despite treaties to the contrary, disallowed the Cherokees any legal recourse as the state of Georgia imposed its laws on tribal land.
The volume opens with a larger discussion of Cherokee culture, which was matrilineal and highly social, with advanced systems of government, agriculture, and trade. The author stresses "in many ways, the Cherokee people were indistinguishable from whites in the South," (p.33) with Cherokee owning 1,600 black slaves by 1830. The creation of a standard Cherokee alphabet contributed to the survival of first-hand information about the removal and the political machinations that preceded it in diaries, correspondence, and a national newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix.
Among the earliest Cherokees to head west were many of the well-off and influential members of the community, including many of those who signed the treaties ceding ancestoral land. That act would lead to many of them being sentenced to death after the re-establishment of the Cherokee Nation. Among the later 1838 removals forced by the government, each group was headed by a Cherokee leader and accompanied by a doctor. There was no set path, and each caravan varied its route involving combinations of wagons, trains, and flatboats, though the journey required the groups to travel an average of ten miles each day on foot. The book is peppered with harrowing stories of exploitation by provisioners of food and alcohol along the route and the absence of government foodstuffs promised to last through their first harvest. There are also examples of resistance, as some Cherokee escaped the round-up, fleeing into the mountains or escaping from the groups en route.
The volume opens with a double-page timeline of relevant historical dates, from de Soto’s first contact with the Cherokee in present-day Georgia to the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act allowing for casino gaming on tribal lands. An interesting chart examines the makeup of each Cherokee detachment upon departure and arrival after the Trail of Tears, documenting attrition due to the fatal nature of the journey, as well as suggesting regrouping as the parties made their way west.
Direct quotations are cited appropriately in endnotes, and the many letters and speeches taken from primary sources enrich the text with immediacy. The volume features a variety of full-color images and maps and bibliographies of related books, Internet sources, and websites, as well as a keyword index. Recommended for school libraries.