The Trail of Tears describes the routes taken by five Native American tribes after they were forced from their homes by the United States government. Beginning in 1831, tens of thousands of men, women and children were forced to move west from the Deep South to what is now Oklahoma. The motivations for this forced removal, and subsequent developments in the five tribes' homelands, highlight the magnitude of the trail's historic importance.
What Led Up to the "Indian Removal"
The "Indian Removal" of the early 19th century was the result of persistent pressure on and by successive United States governments. The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek and Seminole peoples inhabited large areas of land which became increasingly financially valuable. As the land became more valuable, the states that included it put pressure on the federal government to make it available to them. This increasing pressure eventually led to the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
Immediate Gains and Losses
The terms "Trail of Tears" and "The Place Where They Cried" refer to the suffering of Native Americans affected by the Indian Removal Act. It is estimated that the five tribes lost 1 in 4 of their population to cholera, starvation, cold and exhaustion during the move west. The United States government, meanwhile, gained millions of square miles of territory, and put an end to the tribes' decades of legal and military attempts to protect their lands.
The Removal and the Development of Slavery
The Indian Removal Act freed up land to be farmed for the most important cash crop in the Deep South: cotton. Cotton production in the South rose from almost none in 1787 to 3.6 million 500 pound bales by 1860. This explosion in production depended on an increase in the numbers of slaves to harvest the cotton. The Southern economy’s reliance on slavery, and increasing Northern opposition to it, would eventually lead to secession of 11 Southern states from the Union, and eventually to the American Civil War.
The tribes on the Trail of Tears were described as the "Civilized Tribes" because they had largely agreed to live peacefully alongside European settlers, and had adopted settler culture as it helped with co-existence. That the government forcibly removed them afterward led to an abiding lack of trust between the tribes and the United States, and subsequent laws, from the Dawes Act which led to massive acquisition of native lands by European speculators, through the Termination of the Reservations in the 1960s, have -- it can be argued -- ensured this alienation is still felt today.