Often in discussions of United States history, mentions of the Trail of Tears come up as a considerable blight, as well as treatment of the native people on the whole. But we know that a great many things about U.S. history are blown far out of proportion to make the nation seem evil. So how horrible was the Trail really? Well, research reveals that not only was the Andrew Jackson-led U.S. seizing of Native American lands in the 1830s unimaginably brutal, senseless, and unjust, but it was outright illegal - and nobody ever answered for it!
In the early-mid 1800s, enterprise in the budding United States of America was rich. A new generation of thinkers, bankers, innovators, and entrepreneurs had swept the country, and with this growth in economic success came the directly proportional yearning for ever more, especially more land to own - specifically, in the case of the growing America, the land beyond the states' borders to the west, in Indian territory. The primary issue with this desire is that it was just that - the land of the natives. Americans were not satisfied. Despite the existence of established treaties and borders, new settlers routinely ignored the agreements, crossing the border to claim their own territory and disregarding the native population's right to the land. When they were met with resistance, they stole livestock, burned and looted houses and towns, committed mass murder, and squatted on land that did not belong to them. Even state governments were joining and supporting this infringement of the indigenous population.
It did not seem to matter at all to the statesmen that the tribespeople they were assaulting were often just as civilized as themselves. During the early years of America, many leaders, including George Washington, stated their belief that they would like for the native tribes to become westernized to match the civilization of the previously-European U.S.A. A number of the tribes actually did, converting to Christianity, speaking and reading English, adopting western styles of property and law, newspapers, and a written constitution, among others - and thus the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek, and Cherokee peoples became known as the Five Civilized Tribes. "Many proposals have been made to us to adopt your laws, your religion, your manners and your customs. We would be better pleased with beholding the good effects of these doctrines in your own practices, than with hearing you talk about them".
~Old Tassel, Chief of the Cherokee
Naturally, such violations of their basic liberties did not sit well with tribes that conformed to many of the same western ideas as their attackers. One issue, however, was that the settlers did not know which tribespeople spoke for their whole crowd when making negotiations - therefore, whichever one best fit the settlers' plan was the one representatives tended to accept as legitimate.' This can be seen in an incident in 1825, when a group of Creek Indians agreed to sell their tribe's land for $5 million and support for the journey west - despite not being actual representatives of the Creek. A petition to nullify the deal reached over 15,000 signatures, but it mattered little to the whites who had just gained hundreds of acres.
When the Cherokee people were assaulted in the aforementioned fashion, they decided to sue for peace. In 1832, The Cherokee Nation v. Georgia case was presented to the Supreme Court. The Cherokee claimed that they were a sovereign nation, and the U.S. should treat them in the same manner that they would other foreign states. The Supreme Court rejected the appeal for sovereignty, as the Cherokee resided entirely within United States borders, however, they agreed to have a hearing on other grounds. Thus, in 1832, the Worcester v. Georgia case ruled in favor of the so-called Indians. The Court ruled that because the Cherokee's land rights were protected by the jurisdiction of the federal government, the states had no right to infringe upon it. The main issue with this ruling is that president Andrew Jackson did not agree with it, reportedly muttering John Marshall has made his ruling, now let him enforce it. He then proceeded to completely disregard the ruling, sending General Winfield Scott and an army to forcibly evict the Cherokee in 1838. The chiefs attempted to plead against the removal, but it was entirely fruitless. The Cherokee were occasionally held in disease-ridden internment camps before being marched at bayonet-point along more than 1,200 miles of arduous trails to their designated reserve, often without food or assistance. From the combined effects of whooping cough, typhus, cholera, dysentery, starvation, and other similarly colorful causes, an estimated 4,000-5,000 of the 15,000 Cherokee died along the Trail of Tears and Death. Half the infants, six months or a year, and all the aged over 60 had been killed directly, and one fourth of the remainder. There seems to be no place, nor means, nor time for the recovery of any who are now sick.
-Cherokee missionary Daniel S. Butrick on the prison camps
The story is one of greed and injustice. The whites wanted land and didn't care about the harm caused in attaining it. Even treaties and pacts and the law of the land didn't affect anything, as president Jackson was well known for disregarding the law when it pleased him - and he was never held accountable for this breach of rights. I could not but think that some fearful retribution would come upon us. The scene seemed to me like a distempered dream, or something worthy of the dark ages rather than a present reality.
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