Following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, members of tribes with ancestral homelands in the Deep South were illegally forced to move to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River and forfeit their land to white settlers. Members of Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations, who chose not to assimilate or flee, were forced to travel thousands of miles to new designated areas. By 1837, 46,000 American Indians from the southeast had been removed from their lands.
The Cherokee removal was one of the last, and it is estimated that 3,000–4,000 of the 16,500 Cherokee across the 17 detachments died during the passage, earning it the name Trail of Tears. Four detachments of Cherokees traveled by river, while the rest took one of several overland routes. Drought, road conditions, illness, starvation and the harsh winter in southern Illinois meant death was an everyday occurrence. Today, the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail includes more than 5,000 miles of trail across nine states (N.C., Ga., Tenn., Ill., Mo., Ala., Ky., Ark. and Okla.) and marks the forced removal of Cherokee people.
Planning your trip:
- Whether driving, biking, hiking or boating, the Official Map and Guide for the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail is a helpful tool to start planning your trip.
- There are dozens of certified sites along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. Locate these sites by state using the interactive Places to Go map on the National Park Service website.
- Distinctive Trail of Tears road signs have been placed across the trail to help you find original routes, trail crossings and local sites; pick up one of these recommended guidebooks to assist with interpretation.
- Chattanooga, Tennessee: More than 2,000 individuals departed from this point on the Tennessee River. Take a driving tour to trace the original route.
- Cherokee Trail of Tears Commemorative Park in Hopkinsville, Kentucky: Individuals camped here in 1838 and 1839, and two chiefs are buried in the park.
- Green’s Ferry across the Mississippi River: The Trail of Tears State Park in Missouri contains a park road that follows the original trail and a commemorative gravesite.
- Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, Oklahoma: Tahlequah signaled the end of the Trail of Tears; there are many historic buildings and museums around town.