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.
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.