Exploration and Settlement
Lewis and Clark
What was the Trail of Tears?
The Trail of Tears was the government-enforced western migration of the American Indians, which began March 25, 1838. As an increasing number of white settlers moved inland from the coastal areas, they laid claim to Indian homelands; conflicts ensued. The government’s solution was to relocate the Indians to make room for the pioneers. As many as 17,000 members of the Cherokee Nation were forced from tribal lands in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee and were escorted west by federal troops under the command of General Winfield Scott (1786–1866) along an 800-mile trail that followed the Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi, and Arkansas Rivers to Indian territory in Oklahoma, north of the Red River.
The journey took between 93 and 139 days, and the movement westward was called the Trail of Tears not only because it was a journey the native people did not wish to make, to a place where they did not wish to go, but because an estimated 4,000 people —mostly infants, children, and the elderly—died en route. The deaths were caused by sickness, including measles, whooping cough, pneumonia, and tuberculosis.
Escorted in waves, it was a full year (spring of 1839) before the Cherokee had been relocated; some 1,000 had refused to leave their tribal lands in the southeast. The forced migration thus resulted in the fragmentation and weakening of the tribe.