What is the Trail of Tears?

The events surrounding the "Trail of Tears" are some of the most tragic in the history of the United States government's treatment of the Native American people. In 1830, the U.S. enacted the Indian Removal Act, which forced the Native Americans in the eastern portion of the country to relocate to western territories. The provisions of the act called for the signing of the Treaty of New Echota in 1838; however, most of the Cherokee tribes did not accept the treaty and refused to leave. Therefore, President Martin Van Buren dispatched troops to gather approximately 17,000 Cherokees into camps and then force their relocation west. An estimated 4,000 Cherokees died during the relocation — most in the camps from disease.

The phrase "Trail of Tears" — or as the Cherokees call it, "The Trail Where They Cried" — can also refer to the forced relocation of other Native American tribes — most notably the Choctaw Nation, which also suffered thousands of deaths in its removal from Mississippi to Oklahoma in the 1830s.

The actual Trail of Tears site is a historic park in Kentucky along the trail the Cherokees followed on their long migration west. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that made the Trail of Tears a National Historic Trail. You can find out more about the Cherokee Trail of Tears Commemorative Park at TrailofTears.org.