How Many People Died on the Trail of Tears?

By: Dave Roos
Cherokee Retracement at Pea Ridge National Military Park, Garfield, Arkansas
People walk part of the original "Trail of Tears" route at Pea Ridge National Military Park, Garfield, Arkansas. National Parks Service

Of all of the tragic chapters in Native American history, none reveals the brutal, state-sanctioned persecution of native peoples quite like the Trail of Tears. In 1838 and 1839, tens of thousands of Native Americans were forcibly removed from their tribal homelands in the American Southeast and shipped like cattle to "Indian Territory" west of the Mississippi. Historians estimate that up to 15,000 men, women and children died en route to these first Indian reservations.

Gregory Smithers is a professor of American history at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he specializes in indigenous histories, particularly the Cherokee, whose homelands used to stretch from North Carolina and South Carolina through Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Texas. Smithers explains that from the birth of the United States, federal and state governments wrestled to establish a workable "Indian policy."


The ultimate goal of such an Indian policy was to gain access to fertile farming lands held by native tribes in the Eastern United States, Smithers says. The proposed methods for acquiring those lands ranged from violent confrontation to peaceful diplomacy to underhanded coercion.

George Washington's administration favored an "integration" approach, avoiding armed conflict by "civilizing" the tribes and integrating them into the American economy and political system. Thomas Jefferson voiced his ulterior motives for supporting the civilization of tribes, arguing that if Indians could be convinced to buy goods on credit, they'd become indebted and be forced to sell off their lands.

The integration method quickly lost favor by the early 19th century, says Smithers, and growing segments of Americans in the Midwest and the Southeast were "unhappy that the U.S. was spending what they saw as their 'treasure' on Indians that couldn't be reformed and didn't have the same capacity to live in a republican society as White people."


The Indian Removal Act

As slave-owning expanded aggressively in the 19th century, slaveholders became desperate to get their hands on native lands. They pressured their state representations to lobby the federal government for legislation to force Native tribes off their lands. Those representatives found a sympathetic ear with President Andrew Jackson, no respecter of Indian sovereignty, who signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830.

The Act itself didn't authorize the mass removal of native peoples, but it created a process by which the federal government could sign treaties with individual native tribes in exchange for land in the newly minted Indian Territory in modern-day Oklahoma. Many tribal leaders "saw the writing on the wall," says Smithers, knowing that if they didn't sign the treaties, they'd likely be chased out anyway. At least these treaties, as unfair as they were, carried the hope of starting a new life on new lands.


The Cherokee were one of the fiercest and longest holdouts. They fought the Indian Removal Act all the way up to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the relocation scheme was unconstitutional. Upon hearing the decision, a dismissive President Jackson reportedly said, "[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; let him enforce it now if he can."

In 1835, a small group of Cherokee slave-owners went against the wishes of the tribe and signed the Treaty of New Echota, which handed over all Cherokee lands East of the Mississippi to the U.S. government in exchange for $5 million and promised new land in Indian Territory.

With the traitorous treaty signed, the federal government began a brutally bureaucratic campaign of relocating an estimated 100,000 Native Americans, including members of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaws, Creek and Seminole tribes. The government built strategically placed forts across the Southeastern states and used them as processing sites. Tribal peoples were stripped of all their possessions and taken to collection points like Fort Hembree in North Carolina, where they would wait in squalid conditions, many dying from dysentery even before the punishing westward trek began.


The Trail West

Smithers says that the popular notion of the Trail of Tears being a forced march on foot isn't entirely accurate. About half of the forcibly removed native peoples were shipped out on flatbed barges that followed a twisting river route out West. For the overland routes, most traveled in ox-drawn wagons. But that doesn't mean that the journey was any less traumatic or deadly.

"The river routes were notorious for people becoming very sick very quickly and contagious disease spreading quite rapidly," says Smithers, author most recently of "Native Southerners: Indigenous History from Origins to Removal." "It didn't spare anyone."


Food was scarce and disease ran rampant on the overland routes as well, which proceeded in spite of lethal cold or searing heat for more than 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers). In some cases, men were marched in double-file lines with shackles on their feet and hands. A Choctaw leader described the experience to an Alabama newspaper as a "trail of tears and death."

The final death toll of the Trail of Tears is impossible to verify, says Smithers, he notes that contemporary historians believe that between 4,000 and 8,000 Cherokee perished during the forced removals in 1838 and 1839, as well as 4,000 Choctaw (a third of the entire tribe) and 3,500 Creek Indians.

Smithers says that the traumatic legacy of the Trail of Tears still reverberates within tribal communities. Tragically, it wouldn't be the last time that the U.S. government imposed its will on native peoples, just one of the worst. Despite promises that the tribes would be left alone after this forced removal, white settlers continued pushing against "Indian Territory," which eventually became Oklahoma. The state was admitted to the Union in 1907.