In 1838, the Cherokee of the American southeast, one of the Five Civilized Tribes, were forced out of their farms and towns and relocated eight hundred miles to the west, in Indian Territory. A caravan of about 16,000 people set off across the rough roads and forests of the Midwest. In the snows of winter, many died. The journey became known as The Trail of Tears. Broadcaster Philip Coulter retraces the trail, asking questions about how the past shapes our present, and what it means to be a nation.
This was the Trail of Tears, the great Cherokee removal, a move on the political chessboard of the young United States that was to have long repercussions. The Cherokee were an independent nation, but in the great game of the building of America, they were disposable. Cheated out of their lands in the east, the Cherokee were forced to relocate a thousand miles to the west, in Indian territory, beyond the Mississippi. The long march of the Cherokee, through the bitter winter of 1838, had a dreadful toll: maybe as many as 4,000 dead - of exposure, disease, sickness, the whole episode a great human tragedy, a betrayal of ideals, both American and Cherokee, that ripples down to our own time.
Documentary maker Philip Coulter travelled along the Trail of Tears, asking questions about how such a thing could happen, how the past shapes the present, what the legacy is today.
Map of The Trail of Tears
Trail of Tears National Historic Trail Map, National Park Service.
Some of the Cherokee went south, through Memphis and Little Rock. Others went by water, along the Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers, and the great majority took the northern route, up through Tennessee and Kentucky, across the bottom of Illinois and through Missouri before dipping down through Arkansas into what is now Oklahoma.
Trail of Tears by John Ehle, published by Anchor Books, 1988.
The Path to Snowbird Mountain: Cherokee Legends by Traveller Bird, published by Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 1972.
Living Stories of the Cherokee by Barbara Duncan, published by University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
The Cherokee Nation: A Troubled History by Duane King, published by Tennessee Press, 1979.
The Cherokees by Theda Perdue, published by Chelsea House, 1989.
The Cherokee Trail of Tears by Duane King, published by Graphic Arts Books, 2007.
Cherokee Removal, The Journal of Rev. Daniel S. Butrick, published by Trail of Tears Association. Oklahoma Chapter, 1998.