In the 1830s, Native Americans were forced to leave their land in the southeastern United States and to embark upon a long, treacherous, and sometimes deadly journey across the Mississippi River to a designated “Indian territory.” Nearly 125,000 Native Americans lived on lands of their ancestors in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida. However, by the end of the 1830s, very few remained as the federal government gave this land to white settlers to grow cotton. The Trail of Tears—a forced migration of over 1,200 miles to what is present-day Oklahoma—took the lives of thousands of Native Americans.
The Trail of Tears resulted from the 1830 Indian Removal Act signed into law by President Andrew Jackson, a longtime proponent of “Indian removal.” Some Native American leaders decided not to resist, but many others refused the migration until forced by the US military. Leaders from the Cherokee nation fought back using the legal system. In Worcester v. Georgia, the Supreme Court confirmed the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation. Jackson, however, ignored the ruling. Through the bitter fall and winter of 1838 to 1839, it is estimated that 4,000 of the 18,000 Cherokee people who embarked on the journey died.
The federal government promised that the Native Americans that settled in the established Indian Territory would be guaranteed ownership of this land. Indian Country became smaller and smaller, however, until Oklahoma was declared a state in 1907, disregarding all agreements. The head of the Cherokee nation remains located in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.