In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which required the various American Indian tribes in today’s southeastern United States to give up their lands in exchange for federal territory located west of the Mississippi River. Sixty thousand Indigenous people were forced to migrate.
The impact of the resulting Trail of Tears was devastating.
On Nov. 1, 1831, the Choctaw Nation was forced to move from Mississippi to what is now known as Oklahoma. One of every three people died in that move. Most Indigenous communities fiercely resisted this policy, but as the 1830s wore on, most of the major tribes — the Choctaws, Muskogee Creeks, Seminoles and Chickasaws — agreed to be relocated to Indian Territory.
The Cherokee were forced to move because a small faction of the tribe signed the Treaty of New Echota in late 1835, a treaty that the U.S. Senate ratified in May 1836. This action — the treaty signing and its subsequent Senate approval — tore the Cherokee into two implacable factions: a minority who were allied with the “treaty party,” and the majority that bitterly opposed the treaty signing.
In May 1838, the Cherokee removal process began. U.S. Army troops, along with various state militia, moved into the tribe’s homelands and forcibly evicted more than 16,000 Cherokee people from their homelands in Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and Georgia. “They were first sent to so-called ‘round up camps,’ and soon afterward to one of three emigration camps,” according to the Trail Of Tears National Historic Trail.
Once there, the U.S. Army gave orders to move the Cherokee west. In June 1838, three detachments left southeastern Tennessee and were sent to Indian Territory by water. Difficulties with those moves, however, led to negotiations between Principal Chief John Ross and U.S. Army General Winfield Scott.
Later that summer, Scott issued an order stating that Ross would oversee all future detachment movements. Ross, honoring that pledge, orchestrated the migration of 14 detachments, most of which traveled over existing roads, between August and December 1838.
More than a thousand Cherokee — particularly the old, young and infirm — died during their trip west. Hundreds more deserted from the detachments, and an unknown number, perhaps several thousand, perished from the consequences of the forced migration. One in three Choctaw died as well. The number of other members of the other tribes who died are not recorded but one can imagine that the numbers are like those of the Cherokee and Choctaw.
“The tragic relocation was completed by the end of March 1839, and resettlement of tribal members in Oklahoma began soon afterward,” according the Trail of Tears website. The Cherokee, and the other Indigenous tribes, in the years that followed struggled to reassert themselves in the new, unfamiliar land. Yet, they are proud, independent tribes, and their members recognize that despite the adversity they have endured, they are resilient and invest in their future.
Why should we remember the Trail of Tears? Because it reminds us of how cruel we can be as well as how resilient we can be. Understanding our American history does not separate us but informs us and equips us for the future. We become more aware of how racial injustice is not just a “Black-White thing,” it is the historical reality of all people of color who reside in America.
Serious critical race theory addresses these vital facts. To not support a rigorous critical race theory is to act foolishly and dangerously. To refuse to acknowledge the wrongs of the past will cause us to repeat them in the present and the future.
The Rev. C.W. Dawson Jr. was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy at MU. He teaches at Columbia College and Moberly Area Community College and writes for the Missourian.
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