The Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears: Cause, Effect and Justification

Students use maps, excerpt of a Presidential speech, oral testimony, and a painting to examine the political reasoning behind the Indian Removal Act as well as the public portrayal and personal impact of the Trail of Tears on the Cherokee nation.

Guiding Question: Are Native American lands separate “nations”? If so, what does that mean legally, politically, socially and economically? If not, what are they? 

In 1830 Congress, urged on by President Andrew Jackson, passed the Indian Removal Act which gave the federal government the power to relocate any Native Americans in the east to territory that was west of the Mississippi River. Though the Native Americans were to be compensated, this was not always done fairly and in some cases led to the further destruction of many of the already diminishing numbers of many of the eastern tribes.

The Cherokee Nation was allocated land in Georgia as a result of the 1791 treaty with the U.S. Government. In 1828, not only did whites for settlement purposes desire their land, but gold was discovered. Georgia tried to reclaim this land in 1830, but the Cherokee protested and took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court decided in favor of the Cherokee, however, the President and Congress forced the Native Americans to give up their land. 1838 called in federal troops in to “escort” approximately 15,000 Cherokee people to their new home in Indian Territory. On the way, approx. 1/3 of the Cherokee people died. This event, known to the Cherokee as “The Trail Where They Cried”, is better known as the Trail of Tears in U.S. History textbooks.

Students will

Step One:
Compare the following maps that illustrate the land holdings of the Cherokee people at specific times in history and answer the question on your activity sheet.

Cherokee Lands prior to European Colonization

Cherokee Lands at the end of the American Revolution

Cherokee Lands prior to 1838 Removal

Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma (Boundaries and Districts in Indian Territory)

Based on the maps, what observations can you make about the extent of Cherokee lands from the time period before European colonization through the mid 19th century? What do you think are possible reasons for the changes?

Step Two:
Briefly scan Andrew Jackson’s 7th Annual Message to Congress regarding Indian Removal. On you activity sheet, find at least 3 examples of how Jackson “justifies” the Indian Removal Act.

Andrew Jackson’s 7th Annual Message to Congress, December 7, 1835

Next, explore the general effect of the Indian Removal Act on eastern Native American tribes, as well as the background to the Trail of Tears. On your activity sheet, how is the removal of the Cherokee people different from other eastern tribes?

The Trail of Tears

Step Three:
Read the oral history of Samuel, regarding his memories of the Trail of Tears. On your activity sheet, take notes about specific things that happened on the Trail of Tears that he remembers. Also, speculate as to some of the possible long-term effects of this action on the Cherokee people. (List at least 4)

Samuel’s Story

Now, examine the following painting that illustrates the Cherokee people on their way to Indian Territory. On your activity sheet, list at least 5 things that this painting shows about their experience.

Trail of Tears Painting

Step Four:
Think about the official and unofficial reasons that the United States Government had for not only passing the Indian Removal Act in 1830, but also forcing the removal of the Cherokee people to Indian Territory, even though it was against a Supreme Court decision. Remember that the majority of the American people at the time viewed Native Americans as uncivilized and savage. Also, keep in mind that the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States was ignored in the case of the Cherokee people. In addition consider the consequences of these actions on the Cherokee nation, including the Trail of Tears.

Considering the unit essential question: How successful was the United States in promoting the ideals?


Adapted from History Matters