Brutal Realities of Everyday Life on the Trail of Tears

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

  • Cherokees Were Charged Tolls on a Walk They Were Forced to Take

    Cherokees Were Charged Tolls on a Walk They Were Forced to Take
    Photo: Emmet Starr / via Wikimedia

    At many points on the Trail of Tears, migrating Indians were forced to go many miles off the main route to avoid towns and cities where residents did not want them to come through. In some places, landowners would charge them fees to cross over their lands. And the fees weren't cheap. For example, after traveling through Tennessee and Kentucky, the Cherokee reached Southern Illinois, but they had to cross the Ohio River to get there. To cross the river on a ferry, the Cherokee were charged a dollar a head (the equivalent of $22.26 today). Other users of the ferry, meanwhile, typically paid 12 cents (the equivalent of $2.67 today).

  • It Was Freezing Cold

    It Was Freezing Cold
    Photo: US Library of Congress

    A soldier named John G. Burnett, a captain in Abraham McClellan’s company who was assigned to help translate on the Trail of Tears, recorded his memories of the Trail on his 80th birthday. He refers to the Trail as the “most brutal order in the History of American Warfare.”

    While his recorded memories provide many deeply moving and personal details from the Trail, the weather is perhaps the brutal element of the Trail that he refers to the most. In May of 1838, the Cherokee were rounded up and put into stockades in Cleveland, Tennessee, until October of that year, when they finally began the Trail. This means that they completed the thousand-mile journey in the dead of winter. As Burnett remembers, many were forced to walk in bare feet with only the thinnest blankets for warmth as the sleet and snow fell on them. Due to the cold and exposure, many contracted illnesses like pneumonia and died as a result.

  • It Was Treated as a Spectator Sport

    Samuel Cloud turned nine years old on the Trail of Tears, and his story was recorded by his great-grandson. Among the many sad reminiscences that Cloud recounts, the very ending of his story stands out in its perversity. Cloud writes that he hates “the white people who lined the roads in their woolen clothes that kept them warm, watching [the Indians] pass.”

    If we picture this scene, sick and dying Native Americans are struggling over miles of freezing, desolate lands, removed from their ancestral homelands, forced by the US government to an unknown place in order to survive. And, as they struggle, white spectators stand along the road, offering nothing, staring on in silence.

  • It Wasn’t Just an Indian Migration

    Many Cherokees brought their slaves along the Trail of Tears with them as they moved from their homeland in Tennessee to the land allotted to them in Oklahoma. These African-American slaves were not only tasked with dealing with the incredibly inhospitable conditions of the Trail, but they also had to serve their Cherokee masters while they traveled. They hunted for food and prepared it, washed clothes, cared for the sick, guarded camps, and served as scouts along the Trail. 

  • 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

    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.