Posted by Crista Cowan on November 12, 2014 in Research

Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country and philanthropy has long been busily employed in devising means to avert it, but its progress has never for a moment been arrested, and one by one have many powerful tribes disappeared from the earth. … But true philanthropy reconciles the mind to these vicissitudes as it does to the extinction of one generation to make room for another … Philanthropy could not wish to see this continent restored to the condition in which it was found by our forefathers. What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?

This statement made by President Andrew Jackson in his second annual message to Congress sums up the sentiment that led to the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This law authorized the president to grant unsettled federal lands west of the Mississippi to the Five Civilized Tribes in exchange for their lands within existing state borders.

Lands assigned to emigrant Indians west of Arkansas and Missouri (Photo Credit - Library of Congress, 1836)
Lands assigned to emigrant Indians west of Arkansas and Missouri (Photo Credit – Library of Congress, 1836)

By this time, most of the native tribes in the northeastern United States had been driven to near extinction by the westward expansion of the white man. The Iroquois, Pequot, Powhatan, and Miami were among those tribes already becoming distant memories. Intermarriage and assimilation meant they lost their language and thus their culture within just a generation or two. According to many historians, President Jackson believed that this new policy for dealing with the Indian nations in the southern United States would allow them to maintain their identity, culture and language.

The Five Civilized Tribes – so called because they had already adopted many of the colonists’ customs, had many members in their tribes who spoke English, and, generally, had good relations with the white man – were the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, and Seminole. At the time of removal, they occupied their native lands in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Florida.

The removal act was signed into law on 28 May 1830 by President Andrew Jackson. By the end of September, the Choctaw had signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, conceding to removal, though not before causing deep rifts within the tribe.

More than 14,000 Choctaws (plus 1,000 slaves) were to be removed to Indian Territory in three separate government-supervised migrations over the course of three years. Beginning in mid-October 1831, Army wagons were sent throughout Mississippi gathering up the Indian families set to head west with the first group. However, rains turned heavy, heavy rain turned into flooding and removal by wagon became impossible. Steamboats were rounded up while the Choctaw waited in soggy encampments outside of Memphis and Vicksburg.

The delay meant that all available rations were used up before the group had even crossed the Mississippi River. Once boats were secured, the group was taken up the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers only to be dropped off at Arkansas Post because the military needed the boats. The storms of the weeks previous then turned into a blizzard. The post, not expecting several thousand additional people, was low in rations and only had 60 small army tents to provide as shelter to the scantily clothed, sometimes naked, almost entirely shoeless group of refugees.

They remained in these conditions for eight days before 40 government wagons arrived with food and blankets to convey them the remainder of their journey. When the group reached Little Rock, a reporter spoke with one of the Choctaw chiefs who was quoted as saying that their removal to that point had been a “trail of tears and death.”

More groups would follow in subsequent months and years. Some took a southern route and avoided some of the weather, but very few preparations were made to care for them during their migration. There were not enough rations. Most were forced to walk several hundred miles. To make matters worse, as they were exposed to military personnel and local white men in their travels, they were also exposed to diseases to which they had not built up any immunities, diseases such as typhoid, dysentery, cholera, and diphtheria.

A 400-mile forced march without shoes. Ill-informed guides, ill-prepared rations, and ill-advised stops and detours. Blizzards, disease and starvation. It is not then surprising, perhaps, that when the final report was made after three years of removal, there were only about 8,000 Choctaw reported as residing in the their new homeland. The journey to that place had been a “trail of tears and death” indeed.

Crista Cowan

Crista has been doing genealogy since she was a child. She has been employed at since 2004. Around here she's known as The Barefoot Genealogist. Twitter


  1. Len St. Onge

    Stories likes this just shows how cruel we were to Native Americans. We should be ashamed as to the continued treatment that we still impose on these people, maybe we should take care of them instead of the billions being wasted elsewhere. Christa did a nice job writing the facts, it’s the subject matter does not make me proud to be an American.

  2. Robert Pulse

    You really need to know the difference between Oklahoma State University (OSU) and Oklahoma University (OU). The treaty database is at the Oklahoma State University (OSU) digital library, and the Pioneer papers are at the Oklahoma University (OU) website. Easy to tell if you look closely at the URL’s.

  3. Genifer Groff

    I have been trying to figure out how to find my family’s native american ancestor’s origins. When interviewed by the dawes committee, they said they were from Mississippi, “Injuns” and that it was through their ancestor was Permelia Ward. They did not have “documentation” so they were all turned down, but my brother and I are of a dark olive complexion, my daughters and I have many physical features of native american origin with documents that all show Irish/European descent. I am lost trying to find where in Mississippi they were speaking of and the Permelia Ward I found to be related to me was born in North Carolina. Where do I start?

  4. liz

    Andrew Jackson is now known for his cruel and unjust policies of genocide of indigenous people. The continued lack of respect shown toward Native Americans and their culture is a sad part of American history.

  5. Deanna

    I love the what you wrote. My father when he was alive search for his grandmother. My sister and I are tring to finish it to, but we have all the roll books. And all are searches so far have not found her. She was Cherokee. And we would like to know what else we can do to find her. Thank you. And you did a wonderful job with the story.

  6. Indian removal is interesting but what about those who hid out and weren’t removed? I have an Elizabeth R. KEEN (or KEENE) b.1819 SC, d.1891 Choctaw Co., MS who we suspect was indian. She m.1838 in MS to Jared N. COMMANDER. So far I have not found hide nor hair of her in the regular census or indian records but I don’t know much about indian records. Family tradition says she was Choctaw but if she was born in SC then I suspect Chrokee. My KEEN web page is at Any help appreciated. Peace,

  7. Glenn Miller

    Like other Acts, the Native Americans was forced or put down as being Whites; etc. If not, their land was gone or their lives/

  8. Amanda

    Interesting. I am Choctaw. My great grandmother was an original enrollee. (Folsom & Durant descent.) My family has also traced our genealogy back to Pocahontas. (direct descendant) Although the Powhatan, Iroquois and Pequot tribes are considered extinct, I say “no”. A little part of the Powhatan tribe lives in me. Just as there must be a part of the Iroquois and Pequot tribes living in others. We are not gone.

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