The Trail Of Tears 1831-42

From the turn of the 19th century, land-hungry American settlers were driving westwards, into territory that would become Alabama and Mississippi. Native American peoples already living in this territory were seen as an impediment to western expansion and legal means were sought to displace them. President Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, by which the government offered land west of the Mississippi to Indian tribes who agreed to give up their homelands. The resettlement areas were in unorganized territory in a band traversing present-day Texas, northwards to Iowa. There followed the almost entirely involuntary displacement to the West of Native Americans with homelands ‘east of the Mississippi River’, as the US government used persuasion, bribery, coercion and threats to remove the recalcitrant tribes. A few of the tribes went peacefully, but many resisted relocation.

Jackson’s immediate targets were the ‘Five Civilized tribes’ (Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole). He sought a veneer of legality by securing treaties agreeing transfers with coteries within the affected tribes In the winter of 1831, under threat by the US army, the Choctaw became the first nation to be expelled from their homeland. They made the arduous journey to their new territory on foot, some bound in chains, and thousands of people died on this “trail of tears”. Expulsions escalated and by 1838 only the Cherokee remained on their ancestral lands (although a Seminole rearguard was fighting a guerrilla war against deportation). They were placed under military escort, grouped in parties of up to a thousand, completing the 1,000-mile (1,600-km) journey to the Okalahoma reservation by a variety of routes on foot or by barge. Some 13,000 were deported, of which c. 30 per cent died en route from disease, malnutrition, exposure and attacks from settlers.

The Seminole of Florida had also resisted pressure from American settlers. When a handful of Seminole chiefs concluded the Treaty of Payne’s Landing (1832), by which they agreed to give up their Florida homelands for land in the West, there were many tribespeople who repudiated the agreement. Like many Seminole, Osceola was mixed race, son of a Welsh trader and a Creek mother. He led the opposition to the Treaty of Payne’s Landing and, on 28 December 1835, he ambushed and killed Wiley Thompson, the agent organizing the Seminole deportation. Meanwhile another war party ambushed a contingent of US troops in the ‘Dade Massacre’, events that triggered the Second Seminole War. The Seminole laid waste to plantations and besieged forts, repulsing the efforts of a succession of US generals to dislodge them. Osceola was taken captive in late 1837, and died soon afterwards, but the war continued under other leaders, such as John Horse, Halleck Tuskenuggee and Chakaika. At Okeechobee and Lockahatchee, the Seminole matched US army opposition.

At war’s end (1842), Seminole diehards still held out in an informal reservation in in southwest Florida. Here they maintained an uneasy truce with the growing number of white settlers, limiting their contact with them as much as possible. But it was not to last; the Third Seminole War of 1855-58 led to further expulsions westward, leaving just a few hundreds Seminole living around Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.