In September 1838, a new phase of Congress’s ongoing effort to remove Native Americans from their ancestral lands in the East began. In response to the Indian Removal Act, passed in 1830, more than 15,000 Cherokee Indians were forced from their homes in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee by the United States Army, beginning in May 1838. After being held in removal forts and then internment camps under poor conditions during the summer, many Cherokee began a forced march to what is now Oklahoma in September.
The Cherokee’s journey took them more than a thousand miles. In the fall, heavy rains made wagon roads impassable. Winter proved even worse, as most of the Indians had inadequate clothing, and food was scarce. Disease became rampant, and many people fell sick.
Long time we travel on way to new land. People feel bad when they leave old nation. Women cry and make sad wails. Children cry and many men cry, and all look sad like when friends die, but they say nothing and just put heads down and keep on go towards West. Many days pass and people die very much. We bury close by Trail.
—Survivor of the Trail of Tears
One group of Cherokee stayed in the mountains of North Carolina, later joined by others who escaped from the march to Oklahoma. This group became the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, which today has more than 12,000 enrolled members.
Most estimates say that more than 4,000 Cherokee died during the forced march. The survivors who reached Oklahoma in January, February, or March 1839 were weak and malnourished. The descendants of those survivors now make up the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, with a membership of more than 165,000.
To learn more about the Trail of Tears:
- Take an auto tour of Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, overseen by the National Park Service, to get a better feel of the Cherokee’s journey. The North Carolina Chapter of the Trail of Tears Association Web site, found at http://www.nctrailoftears.org/, offers a map and other information about the trail.
- To learn more about the Cherokee, visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, completely renovated in 1998. The museum is located at the southern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the North Carolina entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; for more information, call 828-497-3481. You can also tour the Oconaluftee Indian Village located nearby (828-497-2315). You can also visit the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians website at http://visitcherokeenc.com/eastern-band-of-the-cherokee/.
Ideas for teaching your students about the Trail of Tears:
- Have your students compare the journey of the Cherokee and other tribes to current events. Do similar situations exist today? Have they happened for similar reasons?
- Invite someone from the Cherokee community to share Cherokee culture with your class. If possible, hold a “Cherokee day” under the guidance of your guest, incorporating Cherokee culture as much as possible into your daily activities. This could include preparing and eating traditional Cherokee food, reading Cherokee myths out loud, playing a game that Cherokee children play, and learning a craft of the tribe.