What Is the Significance of the Trail of Tears?

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The Trail of Tears remains one of the worst human rights disasters to befall Native American peoples in United States history. Between 1838 and 1839, 15,000 Cherokees were taken from their ancestral homes in Georgia and placed on a forced march, finally ending up in the future state of Oklahoma. According to PBS, more than 4,000 of their number ultimately perished en route, due to the horrid conditions.

The expulsion of the Cherokee was the result of a proposed Indian removal policy that had its roots in the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. It was Andrew Jackson, a man who demonstrated considerable antipathy toward Native Americans throughout his military and political careers, who finally implemented the policy. White desire for Cherokee land was spawned by several factors. First was the opportunity of new room for settlement and land speculation. The second, according to the Cherokee Nation website, was the discovery of gold in the northern part of Georgia.

Despite a successful Cherokee appeal to the Supreme Court to protect their land, the federal government moved forward with Cherokee relocation anyway, with Andrew Jackson infamously taunting the chief justice, John Marshall, to try and enforce his own ruling. As noted on ushistory.org, by 1835, some Cherokee willingly decided to leave Georgia in exchange for land promised in Oklahoma. Others, led by John Ross, adamantly refused to be evacuated and were forcibly removed. This forced march became known as the Trail of Tears where, according to PBS, the Cherokee migrants faced such privations as “hunger, disease and exhaustion.” One final tragedy wrought by the Trail of Tears was the bloody civil war that broke out among the Cherokees in Oklahoma, between those who had followed Ross and those who had removed voluntarily. The violence that erupted would divide the already wounded tribe for generations to come.