Click here for photos

(Cherokees were not originally a plains tribe but I decided to add them to my "tribes list" anyway. -Frank)

Since first contact with European explorers in the 1500s, the Cherokee Nation has been recognized as one of the most progressive among American Indian tribes. Before contact, Cherokee culture had developed and thrived for almost 1,000 years in the southeastern United States--the lower Appalachian states of Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and parts of Kentucky and Alabama. Life of the traditional Cherokee remained unchanged as late as 1710, which is marked as the beginning of Cherokee trade with the whites. White influence came slowly in the Cherokee Country, but the changes were swift and dramatic. The period of frontier contact from 1540-1786, was marked by white expansion and the cession of Cherokee lands to the colonies in exchange for trade goods.

Migration from the original Cherokee Nation began in the early 1800s as Cherokees wary of white encroachment moved west and settled in other areas of the country's vast frontier. White resentment of the Cherokees had been building as other needs were seen for the Cherokee homelands. One of those needs was the desire for gold that had been discovered in Georgia. Besieged with gold fever and with a thirst for expansion, the white communities turned on their Indian neighbors and the U.S. Government decided it was time for the Cherokees to leave behind their farms, their land and their homes.

The U.S. Government used the Treaty of New Echota in 1835 to justify the removal. The treaty, signed by about 100 Cherokees and known as the Treaty Party, relinquished all lands east of the Mississippi River in exchange for land in Indian Territory and the promise of money, livestock, and various provisions and tools.

When the pro-removal Cherokee leaders signed that treaty, they also signed their own death warrants. The Cherokee National Council earlier had passed a law that called for the death penalty for anyone who agreed to give up tribal land. The signing and the removal led to bitter factionalism and the deaths of most of the Treaty Party leaders in Indian Territory.

Opposition to the removal was led by Chief John Ross, a mixed-blood of Scottish and one-eighth Cherokee descent. The Ross party and most Cherokees opposed the New Echota Treaty, but Georgia and the U.S. Government prevailed and used it as justification to force almost all of the 17,000 Cherokees from the southeastern homelands.

Under orders from President Jackson, the U.S. Army began enforcement of the Removal Act. Around 3,000 Cherokees were rounded up in the summer of 1838 and loaded onto boats that traveled the Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi, and Arkansas Rivers into Indian Territory. Many were held in prison camps awaiting their fate. In the winter of 1838-39, 14,000 were marched 1,200 miles through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas into rugged Indian Territory. An estimated 4,000 died from hunger, exposure and disease. The journey became an eternal memory as the "trail where they cried" for the Cherokees and other removed tribes. Today it is remembered as the Trail of Tears.