by Emilee Dehmer
It’s a Tuesday. The sun is shining brightly in the sky and the weather is the perfect temperature outside. You are playing with your sibling when you see someone in the distance. It looks like they are wearing a uniform. It looks like they have a gun. You run inside to tell your parents, when the stranger in the distance starts shouting. As they come closer to your house, you hear them say “Everybody out!” Your parents quickly try to gather some things, but the strangers, who you now realize are soldiers, are impatient.
Your mother grabs your hand and leads you out of the house. She has a small bag filled with some clothes, but that is all. You ask if you can bring some of your favorite toys, but she says no. You must leave everything else behind. Your family follows the soldiers. When you try to ask questions, you are told to be quiet. You walk for what feels like forever, and then you finally reach your destination.
There are hundreds of families all together in a big field by a river. Some of them have tents set up, but you see many people asleep on the ground. Some of them are not wearing any clothes. Some of them look very sick. Your parents tell you that this is where you will be living for a while. They are not sure how long. Soon, they say, you will go on a big journey to a new home, many miles away. You are not sure what was wrong with your old home, but you know not to ask any more questions. Instead, you lie down next to a fire, and go to sleep.
What you just read might sound like something made up in a fiction book, but it’s not. It is what thousands of Southeastern Indians, like the Cherokee, actually lived through in the 1830s.
Then, President Andrew Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act that forced Cherokees out of their homes in places like Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. It made them move to new homes to the west in Arkansas and Oklahoma. Many Cherokee did not want to leave their homes and refused, so the government sent soldiers to force them.
Once the Cherokee left their homes, they would end up in places called camps to wait until they could leave for the long journey. These camps were not like what you might expect. There were no swimming pools, tire swings, or games. These camps did not have enough places for everyone to sleep and did not have enough food for everyone to eat. People got very sick and many of them died. Many people did not know what had happened to their friends or family. Some of them would never see their loved ones again.
Sometimes the Cherokees would have to wait many months in the camps. When it finally came time to leave for their new homes, things weren’t much better.
It’s Saturday. You have been walking since the sun came up and it’s now starting to set. You didn’t eat breakfast. You haven’t had breakfast in three days. Lunch was a piece of cornbread and some roasted corn. Maybe for dinner they will give you a piece of buffalo meat, but it’s probably all gone. You’re thirsty too, but the nearest clean water is more than an hour away. You walk next to the wagon and wish you could ride inside, but you’re not allowed. You have to walk. Everyone has to walk. Except for the soldiers - they ride horses.
While it sounds scary, that was real life for the Cherokee. They had to walk between 13-20 miles per day and only got to eat once, maybe twice, a day. This journey took months to complete. When they finally reached the end, they were in a place they had never been before, with few supplies. They had to make a brand new home. The Cherokee lost their homes, their friends and family along this journey. The journey they called “The Trail of Tears.”
It’s Thursday. You’ve been walking for four months. You finally made it to the new home your parents told you about when you arrived at camp a year ago. It doesn’t look like home. You’ll have to build a house, farm the land, and start over. You’re one of the lucky ones though – you, and your family, survived.
This Cherokee deer hide jacket was made about 1825 and was worn during removal of the tribe to Oklahoma in 1838.
State of Georgia Deed. This paper tells who owns a piece of land. When Cherokees were forced from their homes, the government gave white men the land instead. This deed was probably a piece of land that once belonged to the Cherokee.
Sibling: A brother or sister
Impatient: Not wanting to wait on something or someone
Fiction: A made-up story
Cherokee: A certain group of Southeastern Indians. Southeastern Indians are the native people who lived on lands that would become states like Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina.
Indian Removal Act: A law passed by the United States government, without Southeastern Indian approval, that gave the Indians new land to the west, but took the land they were living on in the east.
1. Why were the Cherokee made to leave their homes?
2. Why do you think the Cherokee called their journey the Trail of Tears?
3. Do you think the Cherokee were treated fairly? Why or why not?
Complete the National Park Service Junior Ranger Page on the Trail of Tears:
Tennessee Social Studies Standards:
4.18: Analyze the impact of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, including the Indian Removal Act, Trail of Tears, and preservation of the union.
5.38: Analyze the impact of Andrew Jackson’s presidency on the American Indian population of Tennessee, including the Indiana Removal Act, Trail of Tears, Treaty of Echota, and John Ross.
8.47: Describe the impact of the Indian Removal Act and the struggle between the Cherokee Nation and the U.S. government, including the significance of Worchester v. Georgia and the Trail of Tears
Emilee Dehmer is a Tennessee State Museum Educator