The Trail of Tears

DURATION: 45 minutes



In 1838 Major General Winfield Scott was put in command of 7,000 soldiers whose job was to remove Cherokee Indians from their lands in Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama.
There were around 15,000 Cherokees left in this area.  Ever since the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Indians had been leaving the southeastern U.S. and traveling to west of the Mississippi River to lands that had been designated for them in Oklahoma.
In May 1838, Scott’s soldiers rounded up all the Cherokees from their homes and imprisoned them in stockades. There were three stockades located in Tennessee at Cleveland, Calhoun and Ross’s Landing.

The Indians weren’t allowed to bring very many of their possessions. A Baptist minister wrote, “Multitudes were allowed no time to take anything with them except the clothes they had on.”
John Ross met with Gen. Scott in Washington about the removal. Later Ross was able to get Scott to agree to let the Cherokee divide themselves into groups and travel with Cherokee guides. Ross also requested more supplies from Scott which were approved.
When Ross returned home, he found the Cherokee penned up in the stockade like cattle. Most of them were sick and stricken with grief over losing their homes and possessions. Ross’s wife Quatie became sick and would later die on the trail from pneumonia.

The original plan had been to move the Indians by water. The first group left by water but ran into problems due to low river levels caused by a drought. The other groups were ready to leave in September overland, but due to the water shortage, didn’t leave until October. Unfortunately this meant most of the trip would be undertaken during cold weather.
There were several trails used, but the main one went through McMinnville, Murfreesboro, Nashville, and Port Royal before entering Kentucky. From Kentucky, the groups traveled into Illinois and across Missouri before reaching their land in Oklahoma.
Despite efforts by Ross and the other Cherokee leaders, the Cherokees underwent great hardship on the trail. The groups suffered from weather, accidents, disease, and death on the trail. One of the Cherokee guides, Jesse Bushyhead reported on October 21 near the Sequatchie Valley that “We have a large number of sick and very many extremely aged and infirmed persons in our detachment.” 
Out of the 18,000 Cherokees who went west after the Treaty of 1835, it is estimated that approximately 4,000 died in the stockades or on the trail. The Cherokees call it Nunna-da-ul-tsun-yi, which means the place where they cried. In history it is known as the Trail of Tears.       
After most of the Cherokees arrived in their new western lands, they faced many problems. Divisions between people who favored accepting removal and those who fought against it remained. Cherokees faced a time of violent struggle. By the late 1840s, the tribal leadership became more unified. The Cherokees began to rebuild their society. 
Today, the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail is maintained by the National Park Service. Preserving the routes southeastern tribes traveled when removed to the West helps people today learn about this important part of our nation’s history. 

Guiding Questions: 

  • What was it like for the Cherokees that traveled to Oklahoma as part of The Trail of Tears?

Objectives:  Students will 

  1. Trace the routes taken by the Cherokees on a map.
  2. Imagine the experience from the point of view of a child.


  • Pretend the students are Cherokees on the Trail of Tears. Have them right three journal entries from three different days as they travel along the route. Make sure they use examples from Rebecca Neugin’s story.   


  1. Ask if anyone in the class has ever traveled from Tennessee to Oklahoma, Arkansas, or Texas riding in a car.
  2. Have them share how long it took them and what the trip was like. (What did they pack, what did they do along the way, what and where did they eat, and where did they sleep?)
  3. Ask students to share experiences on camping trips. (What did they pack, what did they eat, and where did they sleep?)
  4. Explain that, in 1838, Cherokee Indians left their homes in Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama forever and traveled to Oklahoma by one of 4 routes, camping all along the way.
  5. Pass out copies of the Trail of Tears map.
  6. Have students use different color pens or pencils to trace each of the 4 routes from East Tennessee to Oklahoma.
  7. Explain that some people traveled on boats, or on horses, or in wagons pulled by oxen, but many walked the entire way!
  8. Explain that the trips began in October and lasted several months!
  9. Ask them to imagine walking all the way across Tennessee or camping in December or January.
  10. Pass out copies of Rebecca Neugin’s story, or read it aloud to the class.
  1. Explain unfamiliar terms. (An “emigrant” is someone who is leaving a particular place. A “stockade” was a sort of jail. “Salt pork” was like ham, which did not require refrigeration. “Whooping cough” was an infectious disease that we prevent today by vaccinating babies.)
  2. Hold a class discussion about the story. (Why did some people have to walk? Why did they leave many of their possessions behind? Why did they get tired of eating salt pork? Why did they try to camp near water? Why was it called the Trail of Tears.)
  3. Encourage students to think about how they would have felt in a similar situation.

Extensions:Have students

  • Have students explore the “slideshows” in the Indians section of the Age of Jackson Era on the Tn4Me website. (See the Using the Tennessee 4 Me Website lesson.)
  • Visit a portion of the Trail of Tears in Tennessee. You can find historic locations along the trail at


  • Tennessee Social Studies Standards:
    Grade 4 Social Studies:
    4.5.spi.12. Read and interpret a passage about the Trail of Tears.


            National History Standards:

STANDARD 5: The causes and nature of various movements of large groups of people into and within the United States, now, and long ago.
Standard 5A: Demonstrate understanding of the movements of large groups of people into his or her own and other states in the United States now and long ago.  
Grade Level
Therefore, the student is able to
Gather data in order to describe the forced relocation of Native Americans and how their lives, rights, and territories were affected by European colonization and the expansion of the United States, including examples such as … Cherokee Trail of Tears… [Obtain historical data]