Alabama Trail of Tears History

Alabama can trace its rich Native American history back at least 10,000 years. By the time Europeans arrived in the state, Native Americans had formed tribal groups that had unique linguistic and cultural characteristics. These tribal groups, such as the Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks had settled all across the state by the time of European arrival. Almost as soon as Europeans began to arrive in the sixteenth-century, Native Americans were subjected to the threat of white explorers and settlers moving onto their tribal homelands.

Native American removal has its origins in the earliest days of the American republic, beginning with the so-called Plan of Civilization. The Plan of Civilization was a federal development program with origins in the 1790’s which sought to teach Native American ranching, farming, and other small industries. The goal of the Plan of Civilization was to assimilate Native American people into American society. Assimilation, in turn, would cause Native Americans to settle on individual homesteads and thus be more willing to sell land to white settlers for farming purposes. The Plan failed to consider the resistance Native American tribes would present when forced to give up their culture. This was especially evident amongst the Creek tribe which was divided in its support of the Civilization Plan. The split in the tribe led to a civil war, called the Creek War which took place between 1813 and 1814. Fearing a rebellion, the United States sent federal troops, led by General Andrew Jackson to end the Creek War at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. This military conflict had changed the prevailing ideology of how to quickly deal with the “Indian Problem”. Instead of advocating for assimilation many American officials now sought the forcible removal of Native Americans off their tribal lands in the Southeast all the way to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma.

When Andrew Jackson was elected President in 1828, he declared that Indian removal was going to be a national priority. Just two years later, Congress and Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act. The passage of the act prompted many states to restrict the Native American rights and liberties. In Alabama, state funded roads, bridges, and ferries were built in Cherokee territory and Cherokee laws and customs were made illegal. In 1835, The Treaty of New Echota was passed –without representation by the Cherokee government. This treaty ceded all Cherokee land east of the Mississippi River to the American government and promised that all Cherokee would remove within two years’ time.

On June 12, 1838, Cherokee removal began in Alabama led by Colonel William C. Lindsay. Five military posts were established in Alabama for the purpose of Cherokee removal: The Alabama posts were Ft. Payne in Rawlingsville (now Fort Payne), Ft. Morrow at Gunter’s Landing (now Guntersville), Ft. Likens in Broomtown Valley, Ft. Lovell at Cedar Bluffs near Turkey Town, and Bellefont, which was a supply depot. The soldiers were ordered to treat the Cherokee humanely as they were ordered to march them to detention camps. The detention camp in Alabama was located at Gunter’s Landing. Wagons were provided for the elderly and infirm, but most were required to walk the 1,000-mile journey to Oklahoma. The Cherokee were removed in groups of 1,000 via overland and water routes which followed the Tennessee River.

Conditions on the journey west were miserable. Outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and typhus, lack of food and water, and poor weather resulted in a dramatic number of casualties on the now infamous Trail of Tears. By the end of December, more than 15,000 members of the Cherokee tribe had been removed from the Southeast. The forts and camps in Alabama were abandoned and sold at public auction.

Suggested Reading

Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab

by Steve Inskeep
New York: Penguin Books, 2015

Trail of Tears

by Julia Coates
Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2014

Cherokee Removal, Before and After

by William L. Anderson
Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991

Indian Removal

by Grant Foreman
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972

The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents

by Theda Perdue &
Michael D. Green
Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's Books, 2005