Illustration of Native Americans forced to journey from their land

Illustration by Winona Nelson

Remembering the Trail of Tears

Members of the Cherokee Nation retrace the journey made by their ancestors more than 180 years ago.

They trudged over rough terrain, battling snow, sleet, and chilling winds. Many traveled by foot—often without shoes. At night, they slept on the frozen ground. They had hardly anything to eat. 

The marchers were some of the thousands of Cherokee people who had been driven from their homeland by the U.S. government. During the brutal winter of 1838, they were ordered to walk hundreds of miles to unknown lands. Their tragic journey is known as the Trail of Tears.

“They were forced out of their houses and off their land,” explains Whitney Roach, age 23. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. “They had to leave a lot of their belongings and take what they could on their backs.”

To honor her ancestors, Roach took part in the annual Remember the Removal Bike Ride last June. During the nearly three-week trip, she and eight other cyclists retraced the Trail of Tears (see Map It Out, bottom). 

“Seeing where our people had been and what they went through is a heavy thing to hold in your heart,” says Roach. “I’ve never felt closer to my ancestors.”

Forced From Home

Like so many other Indigenous groups, Cherokees have lived in what is now the United States for thousands of years. But by the 1800s, White settlers had taken over most Native lands on the East Coast and were pushing west. 

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act. The goal was to force Indigenous groups in the Southeastern U.S. to move west of the Mississippi River.

At that time, the heart of the Cherokee Nation was in the state of Georgia. Cherokees had made several treaties in which the U.S. government recognized them as their own country. They did not believe the U.S. had the right to make them move. In 1832, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Cherokees’ favor.

But in the end, that victory didn’t matter. In 1838, U.S. Army soldiers burst into Cherokees’ homes and herded them like animals into camps. More than 16,000 Cherokees had no choice but to abandon the homeland of their ancestors. 

Soon they were forced to march more than 900 miles to present-day Oklahoma. Along the way, about 4,000 Cherokees died from starvation, disease, and exposure to the bitter cold. 

Members of four other Native nations were forced to follow their own Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. In all, about 100,000 Indigenous people were forced off their land in the Southeast during the 1830s. 

Josh Newton/Cherokee Nation (Remember the Removal riders); Stephanie Remer/Cherokee Nation (Whitney Roach)

Whitney Roach (circled) was one of nine Remember the Removal riders.

A Sign of Strength

During the ride, the cyclists stopped at many historic sites to learn more about the hardships their ancestors faced. 

“It’s heartbreaking to see firsthand,” Roach says.

Despite the tragedy of the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee people rebuilt their lives in Oklahoma. Today, Chuck Hoskin Jr. is the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. He says it’s important to learn the story of his ancestors. 

“They had great determination, and they overcame great obstacles,” Chief Hoskin says. “Any young person would benefit from thinking about what our people went through, whether you’re Cherokee or not.”

Roach agrees that everyone should know about that sad chapter in American history. 

“The ride brings awareness to others that Cherokee people are still here,” Roach says. “We’re still striving, and we’re strong and resilient.”

1. Who is Whitney Roach, and what details does she add to the article?

2. What effect did the Indian Removal Act have on the Cherokee people when it was enforced in 1838?

3. What is the purpose of the map on page 5?

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Skills Sheets (2)