The 1830s were years of tremendous growth for the young United States. They were also years of horrific injustice. The sad chapter of America’s past we know as the “Trail of Tears” began with the enactment of the Indian Removal Act on May 28, 1830. This federal law was championed by President Andrew Jackson. It provided for the forced removal of native Americans from their ancestral lands. The Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, Creek and Chickasaw Indian nations were the primary targets of this policy. Members of more than a dozen others were also victims.
The IRA authorized the relocation of these native Americans from the southeastern United States to an “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma. This was a journey of up to 2,200 miles. Approximately 100,000 men, women and children were forced to walk the entire distance. The period of forced removals began following the passage of the IRA. It continued until March, 1839. The native Americans were under guard. Some were in chains. Historians estimate that about 30 percent perished along the Trail of Tears. They died due to violence on the part of their captors, disease, starvation and exposure.
The Oxford-Cambridge Companion to United States History is blunt. What happened was genocide. This assessment has been echoed by numerous historians. In his book “Don’t Know Much about History,” bet-selling historian Kenneth C. Davis explains that the Indian nations had no chance. They faced a white strategy that combined treachery, superior numbers and advanced weapons. President Andrew Jackson was no help. His prejudice against Indians was widely known. He stated publicly that Indians were an inferior race, and hat they lacked morals and intelligence. He believed they were destined to disappear.
In addition to the terrible cost in lives, the Trail of Tears had other ugly aspects. It was one of the largest land grabs in history. About 26 million acres of fertile land were seized by whites. The descendants of European settlers did not stop with taking native American lives and land. In the years following the removal to Oklahoma, the survivors of the journey faced a constant assault on their culture. They were forced to speak English, cut their hair and convert to Christianity. Children were forcibly sent to schools run by whites. The European institution of private property was imposed in an effort to eradicate native American ideas of communal sharing.
Andrew Jackson did not use the name “native Americans.” The original inhabitants were called Indians as a result of an error made by Christopher Columbus. When he reached the islands of the Caribbean, he believed he had reached India. Whatever name they were called, the indigenous population was not the only casualty of the Trail of Tears. Escaped slaves had for years taken refuge among native tribes. Many African-Americans made the long journey to the Indian Territory with their new brethren.
From time to time, people have suggested that some good came from the suffering and injustice. The native Americans supposedly befitted from the many advantages of progressive white civilization. Perhaps the best comment concerning this rationalization came from a native American in 1933. Chief Luther Standing Bear observed that it was doubtful if a civilization that brought death and robbery to entire nations could be considered an example of benevolent progress.