Much has been written about the Trail of Tears in the last century. Yet aside from facing incredibly harsh psychological hardship by their untimely banishment from American land, Native Americans also suffered through a challenging terrain to reach their destination. This historical essay, written by a top Ultius writer, illustrates the many challenges Native Americans faced to arrive in Oklahoma.
Geographic and Climatological Characteristics of the Trail of Tears
The Trail of Tears era of Indian removal in the Eastern and Central United States is a dark and infamous period of American history. Much has been written about the trials and tribulations faced by the tribes who were forced to leave their homes and cross hundreds of miles to Oklahoma. While considerable attention has been given to the personal stories of many individuals on both sides of the operation, attention must also be paid to the environmental issues faced when moving a population that large so far in an era of relatively little infrastructure. The climate and geography of the Trail of Tears only compounded the psychological hardship suffered by entire nations of Native Americans.
After The War of 1812 had concluded nineteenth century America could finally look to domestic matters and the expansion of it territory. The American frontier was not very far from the original colonies. There was a lot of space and there were a lot of natural resources to be claimed and everyone was eager to get a piece. However, the frontier was not empty. Various Indian tribes were settled in the very places that the white frontiersmen wanted to go and were organized internally and among each other. These five civilized tribes occupied large parts of:
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
An important part of why they were able to be so organized and stable is that much of their territory was the best farmland in the region (Crewe 8). Both the climate and the terrain were well suited to agriculture and made it possible for the tribes to maintain year-round settlements.
Inability to integrate the indigenous tribes
When the United States government decided to take this natural bounty for its white citizens, the only two options were moving the massive populations or killing them all. Integration was apparently out of the question, according to President Jackson,
“’That those tribes can not exist surrounded by our settlements and in continual contact with our citizens is certain… Established in the midst of another and a superior race… they must necessarily yield… and ere long disappear’” (Crewe 15).
In light of that opinion, the tribes are probably lucky they were not just exterminated. So it became a matter of moving them all over hundreds of miles of rugged, untamed country through one brutal season after another.
The Road to Oklahoma
There was no easy road to Oklahoma in those days. The Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River served as major geographic barriers, but the simple names for those landmarks do not describe the challenge of traversing them which every tribe except the Seminoles, who were shipped across the Gulf of Mexico, had to do (Crewe 18). Though a variety of water routes also existed for the Choctaws, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Muscogee tribes, most did not benefit from such a rapid or relatively easy journey.
The Nothern route
The most northern, and most common, route in particular suffered particular hardship. This route passed through several states, beginning in Tennessee, crossing Kentucky and Illinois, then over the Mississippi in Missouri and through Arkansas to finally arrive in Oklahoma (ToTA). This route, like the many others, faced the immediate challenge of working its way out of the Appalachian Mountains. While most of the tribes were familiar with the mountainous terrain as they had lived there for generations, it presented new challenges in the context of a mass exodus. The area was mountainous and heavily wooded, making it a challenge for pack animals and travelers of less-than-perfect health. While the Trail of Tears route did stick to established roads, it must be remembered that these are early 19th century roads in the wilderness and many would be little more than broken trails by today’s standards (ToTA). Once they broke free of the mountains, the topography became considerably gentler, though. This continuing trek across the unforgiving terrain was well documented throughout American literature and shaped the way in which Native Americans were presented as steadfast and noble people.
Continued hardships beyond the mountains
While there were plenty of challenges remaining on the majority of the route, mountains were no longer one of them after the trail left Tennessee. The geography of most of Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and some parts of Arkansas is much flatter than that of Tennessee (ToTA). There were still considerably changes in elevation made throughout the course of the journey. The northern Trail began at around 800 feet above sea level, but promptly had to rise to over 2,000 before dipping back down as it entered Kentucky and Illinois, reaching as low as a 200 feet or lower (geology.com). Lowland travel was likely easier in terms of both weather and terrain, but it would not last. After crossing the Mississippi River, not an easy task when it’s thousands of people in the 1800s, the elevation started to rise again. Through the last leg of the journey the Trail rose back up to almost 2,000 feet through Missouri, Arkansas, and into Oklahoma (netstate.com). Any journey of thousands of miles would have been hard enough without having to climb up a hill into thinner air at the end, but that was the final step.
When it came time to move the the Cherokee people, there was a considerable heat wave and serious drought. The other tribes who had gone before had faced similar difficulties, water and food shortages because of heat and drought and subsequent sickness and death, so the Cherokee won a reprieve and were allowed to wait until Fall (Byers 46).
The Climate and Weather: A Horror Story
The real hardships came in terms of climate. Any journey that lasts several months is going to have to face the weather of different seasons and in the time of the Trail of Tears, the weather was being particularly cruel. In this way the brutal summers of the both the South and the Midwest were avoided by at least one tribe. There was no way to avoid the climatological hardships, however, and the weather was unforgiving. By leaving in the fall, the Cherokee instead faced the challenges of winter:
“By November, winter weather had arrived, and the frozen rivers were impossible to cross. Food was scarce” (Byers 46).
Dry summers compounded with a harsh and relatively early winter made the journey of the Cherokee people one of the worst as all the difficulties of navigating broken or heavily forested terrain and crossing rivers became compounded by ice, snow and deadly cold. The ability to grow and forage for food was also compromised by these conditions. Both those who traveled in the summer and winter faced the challenge of feeding their pack animals and themselves because the areas they traveled through were uncultivated and poorly suited to supporting that kind of concentrated demand (Byers 46). If it had been only one group traveling, it may not have mattered, but the land was taxed to its limit by repeated trips and particularly harsh weather year round.
The Trail of Tears contained no shortage of horror stories and hardship for Native Americans. It needed no help from the very environment through which it passed to add to the hostility. Both terrain and climate combined upgraded the hardship to a nightmare. Though they followed roads, mountain, forest, and frontier roads were poor improvements on the naturally challenging terrain of the Trail, especially the early parts in the Appalachian Mountains. The continued trek accross the land beyond the mountains, unfortunately provided little comfort with constant changes in elevation and unforgiving weather through seasonal changes. The journey tooks its toll upon the people who suffered at its hands and the very existence of the Trail of Tears as an event in American history remains both a point of contention with surviving Native Americans and a blight on the reputation of this country.
Byers, Ann. The Trail of Tears: a primary source history of the forced relocation of the Cherokee Nation. New York: Rosen Pub., 2004. Print.
Crewe, Sabrina, and D. L. Birchfield. The Trail of Tears. Milwaukee: Gareth Stevens Pub., 2004. Print.
ToTA. “The Story | Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.” The Trail of Tears Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2012. .
Geology.com. “Tennessee Physical Map and Tennessee Topographic Map.” Geology.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2012. .
Netstate.com. “Arkansas Base and Elevation Maps.” NetState. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2012. .
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