Military Order Beginning the Trail of Tears

Cherokees at the Cherokee Indian Reservation in 1936. Image from the State Archives.

On May 10, 1838, General Winfield Scott issued a proclamation to eastern Cherokees, by order of President Martin Van Buren, to evacuate their ancestral homeland. The subsequent military-enforced migration to what is now Oklahoma became known as the Trail of Tears.

The events leading to the migration were set in motion eight years earlier, in 1830, with the passage of the Indian Removal Act by the U.S. Congress. The act gave the president authority to exchange unsettled land west of the Mississippi River for Indian land in existing states.

In 1835, an unauthorized group of Cherokee leaders entered into the Treaty of New Echota in Georgia with the Federal government, giving all Cherokee territory in the South to the Federal government in exchange for land in the west. Chief John Ross, with more than 15,000 Cherokee signatures, petitioned the Senate not to ratify the treaty. The effort was to no avail; the treaty was ratified in 1836.

Two years later, in 1838, with the Cherokee still occupying their lands, General Scott came to issue the ultimatum to evacuate, backed by more than 5,000 troops. His May 10 proclamation read in part:

Cherokees! The President of the United States has sent me, with a powerful army, to cause you, in obedience to the Treaty of 1835, to join that part of your people who are already established in prosperity, on the other side of the Mississippi. . . . The full moon of May is already on the wane, and before another shall have passed away, every Cherokee man, woman and child . . . must be in motion to join their brethren in the far West.

Cherokee people were initially placed in internment camps in western North Carolina where many died prior to the tragic exodus.

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