Indian Removal: The Cherokee Trail of Tears

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright June 2013


The 1830's and 40's were a swirling, complex time in America. There was a lot of change going on in the social structures of the original thirteen states, the newly created states, and the newly acquired territories of the United States, and this change was confusing and scaring a lot of people. The Second Great Awakening in the upstate New York area is one example of new the experimenting going on in this time of change -- there were a hundred new religions and lifestyles being created and experimented with. The Erie Canal, completed in 1825 and spanning upstate New York, is an example of the technological and economic change that was revving up all this social experimenting.

One backlash result of all this change and uncertainty was the support of prescriptive policies as to how the social affairs of the nation should be conducted. Immigration restrictions (No Nothing Movement), religious persecutions (chasing off the Mormons) and the Indian Removal activities (Trail of Tears) are all children of this strong emotional desire to "Do things right... The way we've always done them."

This essay will deal specifically with Indian Removal.

Thoughts on the Primary Sources

The primary sources described in the assignment and the class lecture (Emerson, Scott, and Burnett on the web site) provide evidence of a lot of heated rhetoric and anecdotal descriptions of the Cherokee Trail of Tears event, but little about the specifics of what happened, or the social, technological or economic contexts within which this event happened. I was disappointed.

Burnett as a primary source document was particularly disappointing. This was a document written by a 79 year-old man to entertain his children and grandchildren on his 80th birthday. It was written sixty years after the events transpired. Burnett was a young army private when the events transpired and prior to that he had been a mountain man during his childhood and teen years. This is not the kind of background that is going to produce cool-headed, big picture reporting on such a chaotic and emotional event.

But this is one of the highlight examples from the source? My thought: "This is the best they can come up with?"

In the same vein the Winfield Scot proclamations are the culmination of something that has been brewing for years. Using this as primary source material is like reading a cop report on a domestic dispute that has already produced black eyes and bruises before the cops show up. It's not saying much about what caused the problem in the first place or what alternative solutions were not carried out.

In his own words, Emerson is writing about something "rumored to be happening" in a land quite distant to him.

My opinion: As primary source documents go, this is a pretty weak collection. This is far, far away from what I experienced reading William L. Shirer's "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich". What I'm reading on is preaching to the choir stuff -- propaganda. That said, on with the analysis.


Burnett tells a good story. The first half describes personal encounters, but I find his descriptions too consistently melodramatic to be believable. And a couple of specific details bother me. Terrible snowstorms in the South in mid-November? Even in Ohio, where I grew up, a colder and snowier climate, heavy snowstorms were a post-Christmas event. A bullwhip, if it's the style shown in Western movies and Indiana Jones, is designed to make scary noises over the heads of cattle, not inflict damage. If this McDonal guy is using it on people he's being a show-off sadist. If he uses it on Burnett he's being a fool as well, as Burnett then demonstrates in his story. For this reason it does not sound real.

The second half of the story is all hearsay. This second half is not a primary source by any measure.


Emerson is not famous yet. He's writing a long letter to a president he doesn't know. And he describes it as being based on rumors floating around Massachusetts, a three week journey or more from the North Georgia wilderness where the Cherokee live. And at the end he writes, "Yes, you may think this is some kind of joke." I think Van Buren would agree, if he ever even saw the letter. More likely his secretary read it and trashed it.

Why is this considered some kind of important primary source document? Van Buren certainly would not consider it important.


Scott's proclamation says in effect, "I'm just following orders, but I'm going to kick your ass while doing so if you don't follow these orders I'm giving you." As I pointed out earlier, this proclamation happens way late in the process of deciding to make this happen.

To give some more context, by this time Americans are proficient at migrating west. This is not some strange new experience. In this decade the Oregon Trail opens up to wagon trains headed all the way to the Pacific coast, and the Mormons make the migration from Illinois to Utah using their own resources. So, yes, this is a government-sponsored SNAFU. It turns out Scott promised a lot more than the government delivered, but that's no surprise in something as apparently stop-and-go and emotional as this was.

What a secondary source reveals

After reading these primary sources I still had a lot of questions about the big picture within which these events were happening, so I turned to a secondary source: Wikipedia on Indian Removal Act. This provided a lot more answers, specifically, it explained much better why Jackson got behind this Indian Removal program. From Wikipedia:

In the 1823 case of Johnson v. M'Intosh, the Supreme Court handed down a decision which stated that Indians could occupy lands within the United States, but could not hold title to those lands. Jackson, as was common before the Civil War, viewed the union as a federation of sovereign states. He opposed Washington’s policy of establishing treaties with Indian tribes as if they were foreign nations. Thus, the creation of Indian jurisdictions was a violation of state sovereignty under Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution. As Jackson saw it either Indians comprise sovereign states (which violated the constitution) or they are subject to the laws of existing states of the Union. Jackson urged Indians to assimilate and obey state laws. He believed he could only accommodate the desire for Indian self-rule in federal territory and that required re-settlement west of the Mississippi River on federal land.


These primary documents posted on seem much less convincing and offer much less explaining power than the Wikipedia secondary source documents I reviewed. They may be primary, but they have not impressed or convinced me of anything, except that the Cherokee seem to have a deep scarcity of supporting primary documents on this Trail of Tears issue.


--The End--