Trail of Tears


The route along which the United States government forced several tribes of Native Americans, including the Cherokees, Seminoles, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Creeks, to migrate to reservations west of the Mississippi River in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s. Those on the march suffered greatly from disease and mistreatment.

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The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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What was the Trail of Tears?

The Trail of Tears was the forced relocation of approximately 100,000 Native Americans in the 1830s, in which thousands of indigenous people lost their lives. It’s remembered today as a great human rights atrocity and a shameful period in the oppression of native peoples by the United States Government.

How is Trail of Tears pronounced?

[ treyl uhv teers ]

History of the Trail of Tears

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which aimed to “move” indigenous populations out of their ancestral lands on the east coast of North America in order to make way for white settlers.

Though many tribes and nations were displaced (with suffering and death accompanying their movement), the Cherokee were one of the largest native groups in America, and their removal took the longest. The Cherokee were forced to leave their homes and march more than 5,000 miles inland to present-day Oklahoma. Beginning in the summer of 1838 and continuing on into the winter, approximately 15,000 Cherokee were relocated, and more than 4,000 died from disease, exhaustion, or exposure. In the Cherokee language, this event is referred to as “the trail where they cried,” giving rise to the English term Trail of Tears.

The Trail of Tears remains a horrific chapter in the history of indigenous Americans, because of its unspeakable cruelty and the crippling effect it had on the power and spirit of the removed peoples. Today, the Trail of Tears is remembered in museums and by plaques along its route. It has also been documented by the National Parks Service, which provides a guide for visitors who want to understand more about the Trail of Tears and its history.

Examples of Trail of Tears

“Several news organizations reported that some Greenfield-McClain High School cheerleaders held up the banner at a Friday night game against the Hillsboro High Indians. It read: ‘Hey Indians, Get Ready for a Trail of Tears Part 2.’ The reference was to the 19th century forced relocation of Indians. Thousands died of starvation, illness or exposure.”
—Associated Press, “Ohio high school apologizes after ‘Trail of Tears’ banner displayed at football game,” Fox News, October 30, 2016

“Evicted from their Southeastern homeland by the federal government in the 1830s, Native Americans were sent on forced marches to eastern Oklahoma that became known as the Trail of Tears, an ordeal of disease, starvation and death. Now a study of Cherokee remains suggests that the stress interfered with the normal growth of their skulls.”
—Sindya N. Bhanoo, “The Trail of Tears, and of Damaged Skulls,” New York Times, April 21, 2014

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.