What Life On the Trail of Tears Was Like (2023)


The Trail of Tears, the forced migration of Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Seminole tribe members, and many others, from their ancestral lands in the US Southeast to allowed territory in Oklahoma, resulted in the deaths of over 4,000 Native Americans along the way. What was everyday life on the Trail of Tears like? Thanks to many surviving first-hand accounts of the Trail, we have records of the harsh, brutal realities of daily life during over 1,000 miles of hard traveling.

#TrailOfTears #USHistory #WeirdHistory


The Trail of Tears was the forced migration of numerous Indigenous American tribes from their ancestral lands in the US Southeast to new territory in Oklahoma.

The journey resulted in the deaths of over 4,000 Native Americans along the way, but what was everyday life on the Trail of Tears like? Well, today, we're going to take a look at some of the brutal realities of everyday life on the Trail of Tears.

But before we get started, be sure to subscribe to the Weird History channel.

After that, we'd be much obliged.

If you would leave a comment and let us know what other Indigenous American topics you would like to hear.


OK, let's walk down this trail of tears.

On May 28, 1830, US, President, Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act.

A document that authorized the American government to extinguish Indian titles to lands in the nation's Southeast.

That act also authorized the president to negotiate with native tribes in order to gain access and make improvements to their lands, as well as offer resettlement funds to those tribes and groups willing to move west.

Even in its own time.

The act was highly controversial.

While many Americans, particularly those in the South and the largest state, Georgia, supported its passage.

Many others opposed the act, including a large number of Christian missionaries and several sitting members of Congress.


It was only after a long, bitter series of debates that the act finally was passed by the legislature.


Its ultimate goal was to turn those lands over to settlers.

The Indian Removal Act did not explicitly grant Jackson permission to forcibly remove Native inhabitants.

Nonetheless, the five so-called Civilized Tribes, which included the Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seminole, as well as the Wyandot, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Shawnee, and Lenape, were all ultimately removed from their lands, and force was often a major factor.

The tribes were sent west on a trip that would eventually become known as the Trail of Tears.

Native Americans, still ubiquitously known as Indians among the White population.

At the time, weren't terribly popular in many of the states, the Trail of Tears took them through.

Therefore, at numerous points along the journey.

They were forced to go many miles off the main route in order to avoid towns and cities where residents simply did not want them to come.


In, some of these places, the landowners would charge them fees to cross over their lands, and not surprisingly.

Those fees, weren't cheap., For example, after traveling, through Tennessee and Kentucky, the Cherokee reached Southern Illinois, but they had to cross the Ohio River to get there.

To cross the river on a ferry.

The Cherokee were charged $1, a head, the equivalent of $22.26 today.

Other users of the ferry, meanwhile, typically paid a mere $0.12, which was the equivalent of $2.67 today.

A soldier named John G Burnett, a private in Abraham McClellan's company, who was assigned to help translate on the Trail of Tears, recorded his memories of the Trail on his 80th birthday.

In, those memoirs.

He pulled no punches.

And based on his firsthand knowledge.

He characterized the Trail as, "The.

Most brutal order in the history of American warfare." While Burnett's recorded memories provide many deeply moving and personal details from the Trail.

It is his recollections of the brutal weather faced by the travelers that he refers to the most, and the natives, who walked the Trail were, indeed, forced to face harsh weather.

In May of 1838, for example.

The Cherokee were rounded up and put into stockades in Cleveland, Tennessee, until October of that year.

When they finally began, the Trail.

This means that they had to complete the 1,000-mile journey.

In the dead of winter As Burnett remembers, "many were forced to walk in bare feet, with only the thinnest blankets for warmth, as the sleet and snow fell on them.

Due to the cold and exposure, many contracted illnesses like pneumonia, and untold numbers succumbed as a result.

Picture, this scene, after being removed from their ancestral homelands and forced by the US government to head to an unknown place in order to survive, hundreds of sick and dying Native Americans struggled to travel across miles of freezing desolate land.

And as they persevere, spectators stand along the sides of the road offering, no help or relief, but rather staring on in silence, watching for their own interest.

It sounds cruel, but that's exactly the way it happened.

Consider, for example.

The testimony of Samuel Cloud, who turned nine years old on the Trail of Tears.

His story was recorded by his great-grandson, and among the many sad reminiscences that Cloud recounts, the very ending of his story stands out in its perversity.

Cloud recalled that by the end, he hated, "the White people who lined the roads in their woolen clothes that kept them warm, watching the Indians pass." Native Americans weren't, the only ones who wound up walking the Trail of Tears.

Piling one injustice on top of another.

Many of the Cherokees brought their slaves along the Trail with them, as they moved from their homeland in Tennessee to the land allotted to them in Oklahoma., These, enslaved, African Americans were not only tasked with dealing with the incredibly inhospitable conditions of the Trail, but they also had to serve their Cherokee masters, while they traveled.

They hunted for food and prepared it, washed clothes, cared for the sick, guarded camps, and served as scouts along the Trail.


The Trail, pretty much every essential was in short, supply.

Travelers, had no regular or easy access to food, water, shelter, clothes, or medicine, and very little game could be found and killed along the Trail to supplement the meager available.


As, a result, many died of starvation along the way, and even coffins for the dead weren't readily available.

In addition.

There was a terrible drought that same year, and the first group dispatched along the Trail in August of 1838 had to return to the base camp in present-day Chattanooga, Tennessee, because the creeks and rivers were dried.


Dehydration, along with starvation, wound up killing.

Many on the Trail of Tears.

Private, John Burnett remembers taking part in only one confrontation on the Trail, one with a teamster who was whipping an elderly man to hurry along into a wagon.

Private Burnett would later write that the sight of that old and nearly blind creature quivering under the lashes of a bullwhip was too much for him.

Having reached his breaking point with the cruelty.

The private started a fight with a teamster in order to defend the man, sustaining an injury to his face.

In the process, and Burnett's account, isn't the only one of its kind.

Conflicts, either with brutal teamsters or with local militias, were regular dangers to those that walked.

The Trail of Tears.

Many accounts of the Trail of Tears include a discussion of the lack of wagon space available to the travelers.


There weren't enough wagons, like, pretty much every other necessity on the Trail.

Only the very young, the very old, the sick, and nursing mothers were allowed to ride in them.

As a result, the majority of those forcibly relocated along the Trail, were forced to cover 1,000 miles on foot, and, if that wasn't bad enough, many were forced to make the walk without shoes.

A traveler from Maine happened upon one of the caravans in Kentucky and wrote that even aged females, apparently nearly ready to drop into the grave, were traveling with heavy burdens attached to the back in their bare feet.

The route that most Cherokee took west used.

What is now called the Northern Route, which wound its way from through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas, before reaching Oklahoma.

The distance totaled, roughly 1,000 miles.

The Cherokee anticipated this route, taking two months for completion.

However, as a result of the terrible traveling conditions, meager, rations, and illnesses.

The journey took nearly four months to complete.

If, you do the math.

It means that the travelers had a meager daily mileage of between 8 and 9 miles.

The passage of the Indian Removal Act didn't leave the Native Americans with a lot of great options.

Their choices were basically to move or to stand and fight against an overwhelmingly more powerful force.

Most chose to relocate, but not all.

In Florida, for example, the Seminole Indians decided to go to war against the US government, rather than be removed from their homeland.


The US Army arrived in Florida in 1835, ready to enforce the treaty requiring the Seminoles to give up their land.

They were ambushed by 180 Seminole warriors.

In response.

The US government spent over $20 million in war expenses battling the Seminoles.

The war, which lasted until 1842, left more than 1,500 soldiers dead and resulted in the removal of many Seminoles.


Some Seminoles were able to remain, setting up communities deep in the Florida Everglades.

Historians estimate that roughly 4,000 Cherokees died on the Trail of Tears.

Some died from exposure to the elements, others from starvation, others from illness, and still others from their advanced age.

Coupled with the brutal conditions.

Because of the frigid temperatures and wintry conditions, those who were buried were interred in shallow graves.

With very little ceremony along the way.

By, the 1840s, tens of thousands of Indigenous Americans had been forcibly relocated from their ancestral lands in the Southeast to their new home across the Mississippi River, which was known as Indian territory.

At, the time.

The US government repeatedly swore that this new location would never be encroached on by settlers.

But, as we know, today, it did not go that way.

As the United States continued to pursue its manifest destiny and expand further westward.

The so-called Indian territory got progressively smaller and smaller.

Finally, on September 17, 1907, Oklahoma became the 46th US State, and the Indian territory was, officially, no more., The path of the Trail of Tears ran through nine separate states, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

Now, known as the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.

The route is maintained and run by the National Park Service.

While it is no longer possible to walk the entire Trail as it was traveled by Native Americans and African Americans at the 1830s.

Various portions of the path are still accessible on foot, by bicycle, on horseback, or in a car.


What do you think?? What was the most surprising thing you learned? Let us know in the comments below and while you're at it, check out.

Some of these other videos from our Weird History.


What Life On the Trail of Tears Was Like? ›

The Cherokee people called this journey the "Trail of Tears," because of its devastating effects. The migrants faced hunger, disease, and exhaustion on the forced march. Over 4,000 out of 15,000 of the Cherokees died. This picture, The Trail of Tears, was painted by Robert Lindneux in 1942.

What kind of people were in the Trail of Tears? ›

Some 100,000 American Indians forcibly removed from what is now the eastern United States to what was called Indian Territory included members of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole tribes.

What was daily life like for Cherokees? ›

People led the life of subsistence farmers with simple log cabins, small cornfields and fruit orchards, and ranged livestock. Their lives contrasted with those of wealthy Cherokee planters, a small minority who owned regal homes, extensive plantations, slaves, and ferries.

What was life like for the Cherokee before the Trail of Tears? ›

Before European contact, Cherokees practiced subsistence-based living; they grew, gathered, and hunted for what they needed for their communities to thrive, not for personal profit or surplus trade. As these practices depended on a flourishing environment, the tribe controlled more land than they lived upon.

Was the Trail of Tears a good or bad thing? ›

Removal from their land represented a sheer loss of Native American culture as well, with so much of their beliefs and their tradition tied to the land. The Trail of Tears was a genocide for these very reasons, as it was a systematic removal of Native Americans and destruction of their culture.

Who cried on the Trail of Tears? ›

The journey became a cultural memory as the "trail where they cried" for the Cherokees and other removed tribes. Today it is widely remembered by the general public as the "Trail of Tears".

What happened to the dogs on the Trail of Tears? ›

Miriam (played by movie actress Dianne Wiest) continues as several of the students are seen crying, telling them that the dogs howled and leaped into the river, and drowned while trying to reach their families.

What was the social life of the Cherokee? ›

Cherokee society is historically a matrilineal society and clanship is attained through the mother. Prior to Oklahoma statehood, the women were considered the head of household, and the home and children belonged to her should she separate from a husband.

Were the Cherokee peaceful? ›

The Cherokee tribe was one of the largest eastern tribes, and they didn't want to leave their homeland. The Cherokees were peaceful allies of the Americans, so they asked the Supreme Court for help.

What were the gender roles in the Cherokee tribe? ›

The Cherokee men and women shared responsibilities. Cherokee men were in charge of hunting, war, and diplomacy. Cherokee women were in charge of farming, property, and family. Men made political decisions for the tribe, and women made social decisions for the clans.

What happened to the natives during the Trail of Tears? ›

In the 1830s the United States government forcibly removed the southeastern Native Americans from their homelands and relocated them on lands in Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). This tragic event is referred to as the Trail of Tears.

What was the death rate on the Trail of Tears? ›

It is estimated that of the approximately 16,000 Cherokee who were removed between 1836 and 1839, about 4,000 perished. It is estimated that of the approximately 16,000 Cherokee who were removed between 1836 and 1839, about 4,000 perished.

How did most Cherokee died along the Trail? ›

Whooping cough, typhus, dysentery, cholera and starvation were epidemic along the way. Historians estimate that more than 5,000 Cherokee died as a result of the journey.

What were some of the horrors on the Trail of Tears? ›

In May 1838, Federal troops and state militias began the roundup of the Cherokees into stockades. In spite of warnings to troops to treat the Cherokees kindly, the roundup proved harrowing. Families were separated-the elderly and ill forced out at gunpoint - people given only moments to collect cherished possessions.

How long did it take to walk the Trail of Tears? ›

These Cherokee-managed migrations were primarily land crossings, averaging 10 miles a day across various routes. Some groups, however, took more than four months to make the 800-mile journey.

Did anyone survive the Trail of Tears? ›

Around 1,000 Cherokee from Tennessee and North Carolina managed to escape the forced removal and after the Civil War gained recognition as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in 1866. Dave Roos "How Many People Died on the Trail of Tears?" 30 May 2019.

Why was the Trail of Tears wrong? ›

It was morally wrong because the arguments used to justify the move were based on falsehood. It stripped property rights from a minority that lacked the means to defend itself and redistributed their property to people who wanted it for themselves. It was legally wrong on Constitutional and judicial grounds.

Were people buried on the Trail of Tears? ›

More than 4,000 died and many are buried in unmarked graves along “The Trail Where They Cried.” Visit the museum and immerse yourself in the history and culture of the Cherokee people.

Who was forced to walk the Trail of Tears? ›

The Trail of Tears was the forced relocation during the 1830s of Indigenous peoples of the Southeast region of the United States (including the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole, among others) to the so-called Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River.

Did Indians keep dogs as pets? ›

It is estimated that there were more than 300,000 domesticated dogs in America when the first European explorers arrived. Indians assiduously raised, bred and trained their dogs to protect families, to hunt, to herd, to haul, and to provide companionship.

What did the Cherokee eat? ›

The tribal diet commonly consisted of foods that were either gathered, grown, or hunted. The three sisters – corn, beans, and squash – were grown. Wild greens, mushrooms, ramps, nuts, and berries were collected. Deer, bears, birds, native fish, squirrels, groundhogs, and rabbits were all hunted.

What is a Native American funeral like? ›

Each tribe is different and has its own rich history and culture around death. In some tribes, death rituals include painting the faces of the dead red, the color of life. Others wash the body of the deceased with yucca before burial. Sometimes, feathers are tied around the head of the deceased as a form of prayer.

What did Cherokee people do for fun? ›

Cherokee adults played two major games: basket dice, a game of chance, and stickball, a form of lacrosse.

How tall were the Cherokee? ›

Of the 238 measured Cherokees, 182 were males. The 113 adults aged 20 years and over had an average height of 172.3 cm. This places the Cherokee men near Prince and Steckel's “tallest in the world” height for Plains Indians and 2 cm taller than Carlson and Komlos' three estimates of Native height.

Does the Cherokee tribe still exist today? ›

Today, the Cherokee Nation is the largest tribe in the United States with more than 450,000 tribal citizens worldwide. More than 141,000 Cherokee Nation citizens reside within the tribe's reservation boundaries in northeastern Oklahoma.

How did the Cherokee deal with death? ›

When an individual died, their surviving family and everything in their home was considered unclean. Personal belongings that were not buried with the deceased were often burned at the grave site. Fire is sacred to the Cherokee and after a death, it is used to purify the uncleanliness that remains.

Who was the Cherokees biggest enemy? ›

Their traditional enemy was the Chickasaw (see entry) tribe.

Did Cherokee men have more than one wife? ›

Marriages were usually monogamous, but polygyny was permitted and occasionally practiced. In the eighteenth century the marriage ceremony was an informal affair in which a man obtained the consent of the prospective bride and her mother before accompanying her to a previously prepared dwelling place.

What did the Cherokee girls do? ›

Cherokee women did most of the farming, harvesting crops of corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers. Cherokee men did most of the hunting, shooting deer, bear, wild turkeys, and small game. They also fished in the rivers and along the coast.

Who was the most famous Cherokee woman? ›

Activist, leader, and writer Wilma Mankiller was the first woman Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. She revolutionized the Cherokee healthcare system and created long-lasting community-oriented policies. Wilma Mankiller was born on November 8, 1945, in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

How many Native Americans did not survive the Trail of Tears? ›

At Least 3,000 Native Americans Died on the Trail of Tears | HISTORY.

What tribe had the most deaths in the Trail of Tears? ›

Trail of Tears
DeathsCherokee (4,000) Creek Seminole (3,000 in Second Seminole War – 1835–1842) Chickasaw (3,500) Choctaw (2,500–6,000) Ponca (200)
Victims"Five Civilized Tribes" of Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Ponca and Ho-Chunk/Winnebago nations
7 more rows

How many miles did they walk in the Trail of Tears? ›

The trail extends from North Carolina through Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Illinois, Arkansas, Missouri, and ends in Oklahoma. The trail is 5,043 miles long (8114 km) with water and land routes.

How many soldiers were on the Trail of Tears? ›

Washington, D.C., had decreed that they must be driven West and their lands given to the white man, and in May 1838, an army of 4000 regulars, and 3000 volunteer soldiers under command of General Winfield Scott, marched into the Indian country and wrote the blackest chapter on the pages of American history.

What was the main cause of death on the Trail? ›

Death on the Trail

Death was an ever-present companion. It is estimated that as many as 1 in 10 emigrants died on the trail—between 20,000 and 30,000 people. The majority of deaths occurred because of diseases caused by poor sanitation. Cholera and typhoid fever were the biggest killers on the trail.

Who saved countless lives on the brutal Trail of Tears? ›

Scott agreed and Ross divided the people into smaller groups so they could forage for food on their own. Although Ross may have saved countless lives, nearly 4,000 Indians died walking this Trail of Tears.

Was the Trail of Tears hard? ›

The journey lasted into the winter months making it very difficult and dangerous. Along the way, thousands of Cherokee died from diseases, starvation, and the cold. Historians estimate that at least 4,000 Cherokee died on the Trail of Tears.

Did the Native Americans have food on the Trail of Tears? ›

The food on the Trail of Tears was very bad and very scarce and the Indians would go for two of three days without water, which they would get just when they came to a creek or river as there were no wells to get water from.

Who were the people on the Cherokee Trail of Tears? ›

During the harsh winter of 1838-1839 over 15,000 Cherokee Indians passed through southern Illinois on their Trail of Tears. Many hundreds perished from cold and hunger on this long and tortuous trek from their homeland near the Smokey Mountains to new government-designated lands in eastern Oklahoma.

What race was the Trail of Tears? ›

The iconic tragedy of Indian Removal: the Cherokee Trail of Tears that relocated thousands of Cherokees to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), was also a Black migration. Slaves of Cherokees walked this trail along with their Indian owners.

What was the experience like for Native Americans on the Trail of Tears? ›

Severe exposure, starvation and disease ravaged tribes during their forced migration to present-day Oklahoma. In the early 1800s, the sovereign Cherokee nation covered a vast region that included northwest Georgia and adjacent land in Tennessee, North Carolina and Alabama.

Who were the people walking during the Trail of Tears? ›

Thousands of Cherokees and hundreds of Creeks and African Americans traveled together on their way to unknown homes in the west. The “Trail of Tears Walk” was organized by Muscogee Creek Tribe member Melba Checote-Eads and has been held for the past 15 years.

What were the hardships of the Trail of Tears? ›

The Cherokee people called this journey the "Trail of Tears," because of its devastating effects. The migrants faced hunger, disease, and exhaustion on the forced march. Over 4,000 out of 15,000 of the Cherokees died.

What are some important facts about the Trail of Tears? ›

Between 1830 and 1850, about 100,000 American Indians living between Michigan, Louisiana, and Florida moved west after the U.S. government coerced treaties or used the U.S. Army against those resisting. Many were treated brutally. An estimated 3,500 Creeks died in Alabama and on their westward journey.

How did most Americans feel about the Removal Act? ›

A surprising number of Americans opposed Indian removal. (The first bill in Congress passed by only 103 votes to 97.) But the demand for new lands was high, and former Army officers such as Andrew Jackson used their experiences as Indian fighters to gain political popularity and get elected to office.

How many slaves walked the Trail of Tears? ›

According to estimates based on tribal and military records, approximately 100,000 Indigenous people were forced from their homes during the Trail of Tears, and some 15,000 died during their relocation.

How long did the Trail of Tears take? ›

Guided by policies favored by President Andrew Jackson, who led the country from 1828 to 1837, the Trail of Tears (1837 to 1839) was the forced westward migration of American Indian tribes from the South and Southeast.

How did Native American tribes survive? ›

The Native Americans used natural resources in every aspect of their lives. They used animal skins (deerskin) as clothing. Shelter was made from the material around them (saplings, leaves, small branches, animal fur). Native peoples of the past farmed, hunted, and fished.

Who was the most important person in the Trail of Tears? ›

Did it make you cry? John Ross had to lead the Cherokee people 1,000 miles away from their ancestral home in Georgia. So many people died along the way that the forced march became known as the "Trail of Tears."

Can you walk the whole Trail of Tears? ›

The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail passes through the present-day states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Due to the trail's length, you may decide to travel its entirety or just one or two sites.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Ray Christiansen

Last Updated: 20/07/2023

Views: 5323

Rating: 4.9 / 5 (49 voted)

Reviews: 80% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Ray Christiansen

Birthday: 1998-05-04

Address: Apt. 814 34339 Sauer Islands, Hirtheville, GA 02446-8771

Phone: +337636892828

Job: Lead Hospitality Designer

Hobby: Urban exploration, Tai chi, Lockpicking, Fashion, Gunsmithing, Pottery, Geocaching

Introduction: My name is Ray Christiansen, I am a fair, good, cute, gentle, vast, glamorous, excited person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.