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How Many Trails of Tears Were There?

Jeffrey Ostler—

When Donald Trump recently tweeted that he looked forward to seeing Elizabeth Warren “on the trail,” everyone knew he was mocking Warren’s claim to Cherokee ancestry by making a joke out of the Cherokee Trail of Tears—the 1838-39 forced march of Cherokees from their homes in Georgia to what would become Oklahoma. Those who care about historical injustices have long been appalled by the trail of tears, which killed several thousand. Most people don’t realize, however, that it was not a singular event. There were many trails of tears.

Although most textbooks focus on the Cherokee Trail of Tears with a brief mention of the other so-called Civilized Tribes in the South (along with Cherokees, the Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles), Native nations were removed from homelands in both southern and northern states. In addition, the United States forced communities west of the Mississippi to move, partly to make room for eastern Indians being forced west and partly to allow white settlement.

Some trails of tears predated the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Consider the Quapaws, a nation with homelands in what is now Arkansas. As soon as Arkansas became a territory in 1819, territorial officials began a campaign to evict the Quapaws from Arkansas. Seven years later, the federal government forced the Quapaws to the Red River in northwestern Louisiana. Although few died during their journey, sixty perished when floods wiped out their crops. Many Quapaws returned to Arkansas, and their leader, Chief Hecaton, traveled to Washington to appeal to newly elected President Andrew Jackson to let them stay, but this appeal was denied. The Quapaws endured a second trail of tears on their way to a small reservation in the northeastern part of what would later become Oklahoma.

The Sauks and Mesquakies (Foxes) also suffered multiple trails of tears. Historians have written many books about the 1832 Black Hawk War, which occurred when the United States demanded that the Sauks vacate their beloved town of Saukenuk on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River in Illinois and relocate to Iowa. This was their first trail of tears. But what happened to the Sauks and Mesquakies after the Black Hawk War is usually neglected. For a time, the Sauks and Mesquakies lived along the Des Moines River, but Iowa became a territory in 1838 and so officials decreed that the Sauks and Mesquakies had to go. Unable to decide on a new place for them, the federal government ordered these two allied nations to move temporarily to western Iowa, their second trail of tears. In 1845, officials informed the Sauks and Mesquakies that their “permanent home” would be in Kansas and dispatched them there, a third trail of tears. By this time, the Sauks and Mesquakies had become increasingly impoverished and vulnerable to multiple diseases, including malaria, cholera, dysentery, smallpox, and alcoholism. From a population of 6,500 in 1830, Sauk and Mesquakie numbers had fallen to 2,100 by 1853, a catastrophic decline.

Nations with homelands in the west were also forced to relocate to make room for eastern Indians. In 1846, for example, the federal government ordered the Kanza nation (indigenous to Kansas) to vacate a small reservation along the Kansas River to make room for the arrival of Potawatomis who had been forced from their homes in northern Illinois, northern Indiana, and southern Michigan. The Kanza trail of tears was not a long one—only fifty miles. But their new home was in a perilous place, smack in the middle of the Santa Fe Trail. Over the next several years, the Kanza reservation was an open house to U.S. troops on their way to fight in the Mexican War, Forty-Niners seeking fortunes in California, proslavery border ruffians from Missouri, Fifty-Niners rushing to Colorado for Pike’s Peak gold, and an assortment of scoundrels and thieves. Whiskey, cholera, and smallpox were the gifts they brought. From 1841 to 1860, the Kanza population was cut in half (from 1,600 to 800), another horrific loss and one virtually unknown.

How many trails of tears were there? Those so far mentioned—Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Seminoles, Creeks, Quapaws (two), Sauks and Mesquakies (three), and Kanzas—add up to eleven. There were at least twenty additional trails of tears involving nations in the eastern and midwestern United States—Ohio Senecas, Delawares, Kickapoos, Shawnees, Ottawas, Wyandots, Ho-Chunks, Caddos, Ioways, Osages, Stockbridges, Haudenosaunees (Iroquois), Ojibwes, and Potawatomis (who call one of their trails of tears a trail of death). Some of these nations were forced to move more than once. Not all trails of tears were equally deadly, but they add up to a catastrophe of genocidal proportions.

If we expand our compass beyond the areas directly affected by the Indian Removal Act, we will see many more trails of tears. In 1850s Oregon, many Native nations, some already partially annihilated through genocidal war, were expelled from the Rogue River and Willamette Valley. During the Civil War, the Army marched the Diné (Navajos) from their homes in northern Arizona to a desolate reservation in New Mexico, a traumatic event known among the Diné as the Long Walk. After the Civil War, although federal treaties had guaranteed them “permanent homes,” the United States shoved most of the nations living in Kansas into Oklahoma. The Sauks and Mesquakies suffered their fourth trail of tears. And, as part of the so-called Indian wars of the 1870s, federal officials punished communities that had resisted dispossession—Modocs in northern California, Cheyennes in Montana, and Nez Perces in the interior Northwest—by exiling them to Oklahoma.

In the end, it may be impossible to say just how many trails of tears there were, but the exact number may not be so important. The larger point is that by treating the Cherokee trail of tears as a unique disaster, we lose sight of the fact that the United States regularly and systematically evicted Indians from their homelands. We should never forget the Cherokee Trail of Tears, but we should also remember the many dozens of unknown trails of tears and the thousands of lives lost on them.


Jeffrey Ostler is Beekman Professor of Northwest and Pacific History at the University of Oregon and the author of The Lakotas and the Black Hillsand The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee


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Featured photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

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