The Trail of Tears and American Genocide

History Nov 24, 2020

Written by Maeve McGuire

Long before the “Trail of Tears” occurred, Native Americans were forcibly removed from their land in the name of conquest and American Manifest Destiny, or the belief that white settlers had the right to expand and occupy all territory in the Western hemisphere. This belief of conquest was ingrained in American culture, rearing its ugly head time and time again in American history. But the Trail of Tears was one of the most jarring incidents of Native American genocide, and not only left thousands of Native Americans dead, but destroyed vibrant culture.

The Trail of Tears began in the early 1830s, where the sociopolitical climate of the United States fostered western expansion as a right of any white American citizen. There are multiple reasons for this expansion, but it was chiefly justified by the concept of Manifest Destiny. President Andrew Jackson was a large proponent of this notion. Jackson was viewed by many as a national hero because of his military feats, most notably against numerous Native American tribes. Elected president in 1829, he declared to Congress his intention of removing Native Americans from their land, particularly in the American south. Jackson told Congress that the removal "should be voluntary, for it would be as cruel as unjust to compel the aborigines to abandon the graves of their fathers, and seek a home in a distant land”. Jackson wanted to subdue Native Americans through his address in Congress, creating a false sense of security that he would only unravel a couple of months later. He always intended to remove Native Americans from their land, as he was a staunch believer in Manifest Destiny. Numerous tribes were removed forcibly the following year, and often violently, from their land. This removal was an intentional act to destroy Native Americans’ lives and customs. The US federal government directed intentional violence against Native Americans, forcing thousands to relocate from their ancestral lands. 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. The 1830 “Indian Removal Act”, which Jackson lobbied and pushed through the Senate, passed and was used as a justification for the sheer brutality that the federal government inflicted upon Native Americans. It is important to note that the Indian Removal Act did not have a provision “authorizing the seizure of land that Indians declined to cede by treaty” (Cave 1333), yet Jackson went over the heads of the legislative branch and ordered the removal of all Native Americans from eastern lands. This was a flat out “abuse of presidential power” (Cave 1332). Federal troops were deployed to enforce the removal, and the President threatened to use force against those who would not willingly leave.

As a result of President Jackson’s executive action, as many as “100,000 American Indians were removed from eastern homelands” (Thornton 289), with many dying as a result. One of the most jarring examples of how deadly this forcible removal was the Cherokees’ dramatic population shift. According to research done by the Duke University Press, “more than 10,000 additional Cherokees would have been alive during the period 1835 to 1840 had Cherokee removal not occurred” (Thornton 298). The Cherokee nation originated in the southeastern part of what is now the United States, on land which has been very valuable and highly contested since European colonization. This land was so valuable because it was fertile and made excellent farmland, as well as being rich with minerals. In Georgia specifically, it was said that there was gold on Cherokee land, making it highly valued by white settlers. But white Georgians could not legally extract this gold, as the land was clearly agreed upon, under the 1785 Treaty of Hopewell, to be Cherokee land. However, the political climate changed with the election of Jackson, thereby causing conflict in the area under the Indian Removal Act. As a result, white Georgians began to illegally settle in Cherokee territory, spurring on the Cherokees to legally challenge the Indian Removal Act. The Cherokees, trying to assert their right to their land based on the Treaty of Hopewell, brought their case to the US Supreme Court in 1828, in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. The court subsequently ruled that the Cherokees “did not have legal standing due to their status as a ‘domestic, dependent nation.’” Therefore they could not be incorporated into the United States’ legal system. A year after the ruling, another US Supreme Court case, entitled Worcester v. Georgia, ruled that Georgia could not encroach into Cherokee territory as per the treaty’s design. Jackson completely ignored this, abused his power, and ordered the removal of Native Americans anyway, with the Cherokee nation bearing the brunt of it. This was targeted genocide, motivated by the fact that the land the Cherokee occupied was so valuable, and that the Cherokee actively resisted the Removal Act. It is important to note that Cherokee resistance contributed to the “removal debate [and] […] dialogue built around sovereignty, state’s rights, and constitutional authority” (Bowes 75). Jackson clearly wanted Cherokee land for white expansionism, and the Cherokees’ petitioning of the court put a target on their back.

Many Cherokees were forced out of Georgia “at gunpoint” (Bowes 72). But the removal process was not quick whatsoever, and there is said to have been “thousands of Cherokees [dying] during the round-up and months spent in stockades awaiting removal” (Thornton 292), in addition to the thousands killed by the journey and its aftermath. The systematic removal was also delayed because of the amount of disease that Cherokees, as well as other Native American tribes, faced, as a result of germ warfare. It was so severe that the Cherokee National Council asked General Scott, a US General under Jackson’s orders, to allow the Cherokees to “remove themselves in the fall, after the sickly season had ended” (Thornton 291). Germ warfare was a common tactic used against Native American by white settlers in the United States, and contributed to heavy Native American losses. The exposure to disease during this time is in no doubt contributed to the harsh conditions that Native Americans were subjected to by settler governments. After being rounded up, Native Americans did not receive adequate provisions, and were placed in poorly kept stockades. The journey itself left thousands exposed to the harsh conditions, and no doubt many died because of the exposure and lack of provisions. If someone survived these harsh conditions, they still “face[d] disease and/or starvation in the new homelands” (Thornton 291). The journey took months, and Native Americans were left without food or transportation. Many died on the journey because they lacked these basic items, further highlighting the brutality of the American government. Once Native Americans reached their destination, they had to quickly provide and shelter themselves for the upcoming winter, but since the land allocated to them lacked rich natural resources, starvation and death were common. Besides facing this crisis, the diseases that were passed onto them at the start of the journey continued to plague Native populations when they settled, resulting in a staggering death toll.

Although the exact number of Native Americans that died during the Trail of Tears is hotly contested, it is assumed to be between 4,000 to 10,000 deaths, with the latter half of the spectrum being more realistic. Besides the sheer loss of life, many aspects of Native American culture were forever lost, as so many died and those left were far from home. The removal did not just remove the physical person, but it removed “livelihood and language, […] security and self-esteem,[…] religion and respect” (Lyons 8). The removal was systematic, and contributed to the large loss of life of Native Americans. The Trail of Tears constitutes a genocide because it was deliberate in its removal, targeted a specific population, and led to the death of thousands of Native Americans. But the brutality of the Trail of Tears is not an isolated case of violence against Native Americans in the US; rather, the Trail of Tears is a representative case of the violence faced by Native Americans since white colonization began in the fifteenth century.


Bens, Jonas “‘Domestic Dependent Nations’ and Indigenous Identity: Cherokee Nation v. Georgia.” The Indigenous Paradox: Rights, Sovereignty, and Culture in the Americas, University of Pennsylvania Press, PHILADELPHIA, 2020, pp. 51–69. JSTOR, Accessed 7 Nov. 2020.

Bowes, John P. “American Indian Removal beyond the Removal Act.” Native American and Indigenous Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2014, pp. 65–87. JSTOR, Accessed 7 Nov. 2020.

Cave, Alfred A. “Abuse of Power: Andrew Jackson and the Indian Removal Act of 1830.” The Historian, vol. 65, no. 6, 2003, pp. 1330–1353. JSTOR, Accessed 7 Nov. 2020.

Lyons, Scott Richard. X-Marks: Native Signatures of Assent. NED - New edition ed., University of Minnesota Press, 2010. JSTOR, Accessed 7 Nov. 2020.

Richardson, James D. A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 10 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1896-99). The Online Books Page, Accessed 7 Nov. 2020.

Thornton, Russell. “Cherokee Population Losses during the Trail of Tears: A New Perspective and a New Estimate.” Ethnohistory, vol. 31, no. 4, 1984, pp. 289–300. JSTOR, Accessed 7 Nov. 2020.