Did Your Ancestor Travel The Trail of Tears?

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

History is full of parallels, but they sometimes crop up unexpectedly. I am currently reading David Craig’s On the Crofters’ Trail (Birlinn, 2010) on the Highland clearances of the early to mid-nineteenth century. The author links these Scottish clearances to others that occurred in Europe and the Middle-East, but I was suddenly reminded of a new client research project dealing with a family story proclaiming that an ancestor was a Cherokee who traveled the so-called Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. It became clear to me that the relocation of the Cherokee (along with the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, the Creek, and the Seminole) was clearly no less poignant than that of the Scottish crofters. While my research into the client’s research request has only just begun, I began where all such research should begin – by learning about the historical context within which specific events were said to take place.

The years following the War of 1812 were characterized by the desire for more and more land on the part of settlers. There were increasing calls to open up Indian lands for settlement, with many notable politicians embracing the concept of removal, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe among them. This pressure increased in 1828 with the election of pro-removal Andrew Jackson. Within two years, Congress had passed the Removal Act of 1830, and the “letter of the law” sounded far better than what would become reality. 1 [I have added the underlining below for emphasis.]

That it shall and may be lawful for the President of the United States to cause so much of any territory belonging to the United States, west of the river Mississippi…to be divided into a suitable number of districts for the reception of such tribes or nations of Indians as may choose to exchange the lands where they now reside and remove there…

…it shall and may be lawful for the President solemnly to assure the tribe or nation with which the exchange is made, that the United States will forever secure and guaranty to them, and their heirs, or successors, the country so exchanged with them…

…if, upon any other lands now occupied by the Indians, and to be exchanged, for, there should be any improvements as add value to the land…it shall and may be lawful for the President to cause such value to be ascertained by appraisement…and to cause such ascertained value to be paid to the person or persons rightfully claiming such improvements.

…if shall and may be lawful for the President to cause such aid and assistance to be furnished to the emigrants as may be necessary and proper to enable them to remove to, and settle in, the country for which they may have exchanged…

The Choctaw were the first to emigrate, beginning in 1831. Their westward path would take them either (1) from northern Mississippi, across Arkansas into the southern portion of Indian Territory, or alternatively; or (2) from central Mississippi into southern Arkansas where they would join the first trail. Their progress west was followed by that of the Seminole in 1832, and the Creeks in 1834 (their lands falling almost entirely into white hands by 1836). The Chickasaw, who began their journey in 1837, followed the Choctaw’s northern route. All three removals were underfunded, poorly organized, and seldom voluntary. Clearly, it may have been lawful for the President to act according to the stipulations the 1830 act, but that didn’t mean he had to, nor that those who worked for the government had to.

By far the most difficult removal, however, was that of the Cherokee, the easternmost of the Five Civilized Tribes. Long feared, the possibility of removal was brought to a head by the discovery of gold in Dahlonega, Georgia, in July 1829. (Ironically, as I write this article, the Georgia State Archives is closing its doors to public researchers, thus making local research difficult for this time period.) During that same year, the Georgia legislature passed legislation confiscating all Cherokee lands, prohibiting Cherokees from mining gold, abolishing tribal government and voiding its laws. Not satisfied, legislation also prohibited Cherokees from testifying against whites in court, forbade meetings, and punished any Cherokee speaking against emigration with imprisonment.

The Cherokee nation did not take this treatment sitting down, appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled in 1831 and 1832 that the Georgia laws were unconstitutional. Despite these Pyrrhic victories, the pressure for removal continued. Political machinations on the part of the Jackson administration resulted in a removal treaty, the Treaty of New Echota, in 1835. The treaty was ratified by Congress in 1836, after much debate and public opposition, including this letter written by Ralph Waldo Emerson to President Martin Van Buren in 1836: “…It now appears that the government of the United States choose to hold the Cherokees to this sham treaty, and are proceeding to execute the same…and are contracting to put this active nation into carts and boats, and to drag them over mountains and rivers to a wilderness at a vast distance beyond the Mississippi. As a paper purporting to be an army order fixes a month from this day as the hour for this doleful removal. In the name of God, sir, we ask you if this be so…Such a dereliction of all faith and virtue, such a denial of justice, and such deafness to screams for mercy were never heard of in times of peace and in the dealing of a nation with its own allies and wards, since the earth was made…The soul of man, the justice, the mercy that is in the heart in all men from Maine to Georgia, does abhor this business.”2 Only a small number – 2,000 – Cherokees had emigrated by the treaty’s removal deadline of April 1837, leaving about 16,000 remaining, now in violation of the law. The government did not wait long to act. In May 1838, Major General Winfield Scott led a roundup of the Cherokees who remained, assisted by five regiments and 4,000 militiamen.

The refugees were initially moved to temporary camps and later to internment centers in Alabama and Tennessee, where they would remain until forced to continue their ordeal in early June 1838. The last Cherokee would reach Indian Territory almost a year later in March 1839. They traveled either by land or by water. The principal land route stretched from eastern Tennessee through southwestern Kentucky, southern Illinois, and through Missouri and Arkansas, ending in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. A second one followed a similar route, but remained further south, not going as far north as Illinois, but also ending in Tahlequah. The third followed a much more southerly route along the southern Tennessee border into Arkansas, where it ended at Evansville. The water route followed the Tennessee, Mississippi and the Arkansas Rivers, ending at Fort Smith, Arkansas. The trip was characterized by heat, dust, rain, mud, hunger, illness, and desolate misery. The death toll would reach an estimated 4,000.

Further information about the Trail of Tears is available through such sources as the Trail of Tears Association; the Cherokee Heritage Center; the Digital Library of Georgia; John Ehle’s Trail of Tears: the Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation (Doubleday, 1988); Vicki Rozema’s Voices from the Trail of Tears (John F. Blair, 2003); and Daniel Black Smith’s An American Betrayal: Cherokee Patriots and the Trail of Tears (Henry Holt, 2011). For solid genealogical information on the Five Civilized Tribes prior to removal, consult Rachal Mills Lennon’s Tracing Ancestors Among the Five Civilized Tribes: Southeastern Indians Prior to Removal (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2002). Lennon “outlines a method of research that can carry you from the colonial period to the great tribal rolls of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, using the unique records kept by American, English, French, and Spanish governments.”

What, then, about my client and her family story of possible ancestral Trail of Tears participation? I have been provided with a partial pedigree chart, spanning several generations, but with missing dates, locations, and spouses; with an indication of the specific family (Graham) with the alleged Cherokee connection. The family story, which gives me pause, states that Abner Graham was a full-blooded Cherokee who married a Scottish school teacher (Nancy Graham) “and took her name because he was so ashamed of his Indian blood.” (At least there is no princess involved!) The information states that Abner died in Lafayette County, Missouri ca. 1825. His son, Daniel, is said to have been born in 1810 and died in 1888 in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. At face value, this information does not seem to support a Cherokee Trail of Tears participant in 1838-39, but we shall see what research yields. I’ll write about the outcome in a future article.

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1          U.S. Congress, “An Act to Provide for an Exchange of Lands with the Indians Residing in Any of the States or Territories, and for Their Removal West of the River Mississippi,” 21st Cong., 1st sess., Ch. 148. 1830, digital images, Library of Congress, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 (http://memory.loc.gov : accessed 1 October 2012).

2          Ralph Waldo Emerson to Martin Van Buren. Letter, 1836. Cherokee Nation: the Official Site           of the Cherokee Nation (http://www.cherokee.org/AboutTheNation/History/TrailofTears/24500/

Information.aspx : accessed 1 October 2012).

1 Comment


  1. The story concerning Abner Graham is opposite of the way I heard/read it. I understand that some descendants of Abner & Nancy think she was the Cherokee Indian. A direct descendant of Abner & Nancy, Dr. Robert Albert Graham (identified as R.A. Graham) has written a book “3 Families in the Westward Expansion” which details the family’s migration. I made contact with Dr. Graham when I learned our DNA matched at 35 of 37 markers in hopes of trying to find our common ancestor. He is a descendant of Abner’s son Hiram. I have also been in contact with a lady who is a direct descendant of Abner’s son Daniel, and she is convinced that Nancy was half Cherokee. It appears that Dr. Graham’s books are no longer for sell, but my cousin in TX was able to obtain a copy through an inter-library loan. If anyone knows where I can buy copies of his genealogical books, please let me know. Thanks

    Quote | Posted October 8, 2012, 3:19 pm

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