In 1838, President Martin van Buren (1782-1862) forced 16,000 members of the Cherokee tribe to leave their ancestral homelands in Georgia and relocate to Oklahoma. The Cherokees’ unwilling journey westward – more than 1,200 miles on foot – is often referred to as the Trail of Tears. During the trip, thousands of Cherokee died of dysentary, road accidents, and exhaustion.
Before the arrival of European settlers, the Cherokees were one of the most powerful tribes in the Southeast. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, more than 20,000 Cherokees lived in present-day Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama.
In the early 1800s, however, the federal government and the state of Georgia decided that the Cherokee should be “relocated” to make room for more white settlers. Cherokee chiefs refused to leave and declared themselves an independent nation. The Supreme Court sided with the Cherokees, but President Andrew Jackson famously dismissed the court’s opinion, declaring, “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made the decision; let him enforce it now if he can.”
The final order to evacuate was issued by Van Buren, Jackson’s successor, in May 1838. About 7,000 soldiers were dispatched to Cherokee territory that spring to round up the tribe at gunpoint, despite vociferous protests from may Americans who sympathized with the tribe’s plight. The brutal march west would kill between 2,000 and 8,000 Cherokees.
The tribe had no connections to Oklahoma, which the federal government had designated as Indian Territory, but those who survived were eventually able to adapt to their new surroundings. According to the 2000 census, the Cherokees are now the largest tribe in the United States, with about 730,000 members.
One reason for the sudden federal interest in the Cherokees was the discovery of gold near tribal lands in Dahlonega, Georgia, in 1829, which set off the nation’s first gold rush.