Weird History
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Brutal Realities of Everyday Life on the Trail of Tears

Updated April 11, 2019 200.2k views10 items

The Trail of Tears, the forced migration of Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seminole tribe members 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.

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, a document that authorized the US government to to extinguish Indian titles to lands in the Southeast. The Treaty authorized the President to negotiate with Indian tribes in order to gain access and make improvements to their lands and offer resettlement funds to tribes and groups willing to move west. The treaty did not, however, grant him permission to forcibly remove Native inhabitants. The Trail of Tears was the result of treaties, forced government interventions, and wars between different tribes and the US government. This list documents some of the features of daily life on the Trail.

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  • There Was Very Little Food and Water

    Along the Trail, pretty much every essential was in short supply. Food, water, shelter, clothes, medicine, even coffins - none were readily available. And very little game could be found and killed along the Trail to supplement the meager available rations. As a result, many died of starvation along the way. In addition, there was a terrible drought the 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 up. Dehydration, along with starvation, killed many on the Trail of Tears.

  • The Teamsters Who Drove the Wagons Were Cruel

    Photo: Russell Lee / via Wikimedia

    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. He writes that the "sight of that old and nearly blind creature quivering under the lashes of a bull whip was too much for me.” So he got into a fight with the teamster 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, followed those on the Trail.

  • There Weren’t Enough Wagons to Go Around

    Many accounts of the Trail of Tears include a discussion of the lack of wagon space available on the Trail. Because 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 the thousand miles on foot, many 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 Trip Took Twice as Long as Expected

    Photo: John Chamberlain / US Library of Congress

    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, giving the travelers a daily mileage of between 8 and 9 miles.