Like many Indian societies, the Cherokee engaged in hunting,
trading, and agriculture--and their lands covered a large portion
of what is now southeastern United States. As scholars have
put, spiritual forces shaped the Cherokee world. It was a world
where spiritual power resided not only in plants and animals, but
also in the rivers, caves, and mountains. Their's was an interaction
with the land and the life in it. The seven clans of the Cherokee
partly reflect this: Bird, Paint, Deer, Wolf, Blue, Long Hair, and
By the late 18th century European settlers began arriving in the
lands of the Cherokee. There were battles, and the Whites also
brought disease. The Cherokees were decimated, as the settlers
expanded their stakes. And eventually the tribe was forced to
sign over much of their land, first to the British and latter to the
In due course the American Government decided to relocate the
Indians. The idea of relocation was actually first broached by
Thomas Jefferson, but it was enacted in full force by Andrew
Jackson. The Cherokee--as well as other Eastern Indian tribes--
were to be transported to Oklahoma, west of the Mississippi
This proved a sad situation, because the Cherokee had tried
to adapt to the Euro-American Culture. They began farming,
successfully so, they wore western clothes, some became
highly educated, and one Cherokee scholar devised a Cherokee
alphabet that could record their language. Basically, they were
trying to be solid citizens in this New World that fell on them!
But the White avarice for land eventually spelled doom for the
Cherokee. There was rumor of gold to be found, too! The
Indians had to go, thus relocation was legally enacted--and the
Cherokee were to be moved to Oklahoma. Thus, the tragedy
of the "Trail of Tears" began.
First the Cherokee were gathered in stockades, waiting for the
trek west. The journey began as early as 1834. The "Trail of
Tears" was not just one particular trail. The earliest detachment
went by river, but the 900 who went on boats suffered immensely.
The river boat crews--as reported by one overseer--made the
boats "nurseries and receptacles of idleness, drunkenness, and
vice." Measles broke out. And then the boats ran into trouble
when they began ascending the Arkansas River. Low water
forced the passengers to abandon both the boats and their
provisions. The Cherokee has to walk the rest of the way.
Affliction was everywhere. Cholera struck. Entire families died.
These detachments of Cherokee continued, repeating the
disastrous water routes where drought make it impossible
to continue. More Cherokees had to disembark and walk.
Then the rains came, as well as snow. Sickness followed.
And little children died.
A few years later American soldiers came and literally removed
the remaining Cherokee from their land. (Some did escape
into the mountains and never made the trip to Oklahoma. Today
they are recognized as the "Eastern Cherokee.") But most of
the Cherokee were rounded up, put under guard at forts, and
finally marched to Oklahoma. As one departing Indian put:
"we are now about to take our final leave and kind farewell to
our native land the country that the Great Spirit gave our Fathers."
Again exposure and fatigue plagued the Cherokee as they
walked on the "Trail of Tears." More diseases--besides measles
they suffered whooping cough, dysentery, and respiratory
infections. As put: "children and elders died in disproportionate
The Cherokee arrived in Oklahoma--in the designated Indian
territory--"exhausted and dispirited." But their tribe were survivors!
Eventually they began to thrive in Oklahoma, and the Eastern
Cherokee fugitives came out of the mountains and returned to
small areas of their ancestral lands.
But in the end, tragedy oft rules for so many of these American
Indian tribes. The Cherokee and the "Trail of Tears" will always
be a constant reminder of this fact.