The Trail of Tears

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 12264

Often when you take a walk it's for pleasure or to get somewhere nearby. How would you like to be forced to walk hundreds of miles and never come back home? Learn which Americans were made to migrate!


United States

learning style
personality style
Lion, Beaver
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5), Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • What is the farthest distance you have ever had to walk?
  • How did you feel when you were finished walking?
  • What if you had to walk because you were kicked out of your home?

Pretend the home you live in has been a part of your family for at least one hundred years, and it was once lived in by your great, great grandparents.

Then, one day the government tells you that you can no longer live in your family home! They force you to move to a new home, located hundreds of miles away. Even worse, they do not help you move. Rather, they make you leave all of your belongings behind and walk to the new home they have assigned to you.

Discuss how this situation would make you feel.

  • What feelings would you have towards the people forcing you from your home?

Sadly, this situation describes exactly what happened to the Native Americans who once lived in the southeastern United States.

In this lesson, you will learn why the government forced the Native Americans to move, and about the trail they traveled to get to their new land.

Native Americans walking along trail

Image by Alfred Boisseau, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

As the United States grew, new states were added and Americans began to spread out. In the early 1830s, there were large populations of Native Americans living in the states of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida. This land was considered valuable because it was full of fertile soil, or soil that was good for growing crops. The increasing number of white Americans moving to the Southeast wanted the Native Americans to leave the region because they wanted to use their land to grow cotton. Some southerners used extreme measures to force the Native Americans from their land, such as stealing their livestock, burning their homes, and taking over parts of the land without permission. The state governments even supported and encouraged these efforts to force the Native Americans out.

Not all Americans agreed with the way the Native Americans were being treated in the South. The law required government officials to peacefully negotiate removal treaties with the Native Americans, where the Native Americans were given something in return for their land. There was even a treaty that said no white settlers would ever settle on Cherokee land. The Cherokees were a large Native-American tribe located in the southeastern part of the United States. In addition, the Supreme Court oversaw two cases regarding the removal of Native Americans and declared Native Americans to be their own nation and, therefore, not subject to the laws created by the states.

Still, some Americans chose to ignore the law. Andrew Jackson became president of the United States in 1829. He believed the Native Americans should be removed from the land and did not care what measures were taken to move them. In 1830, he signed the Indian Removal Act, that allowed the president to give unsettled lands west of the Mississippi River to Native Americans in exchange for their existing land.

Unfortunately, Jackson did not give the Native Americans a choice in whether or not they wanted to leave. In 1831, the first Native-American tribe was forced out of the Southeast. They were forced to walk to the newly formed “Indian Territory,” located west of the Mississippi River in present-day Oklahoma.

In 1836, the largest Native-American removal began when the government began forcing the Cherokees, a Native-American tribe, from their land. If a group refused to leave their land, the president had soldiers burn their homes and force them to leave at gunpoint. Over the course of three years, about 16,000 Cherokees were forced to move to the “Indian Territory.” Depending on the state the Cherokees were leaving from, the distance they could be forced to walk was up to 2,200 miles. They were forced to make the entire journey on foot and were given little food or supplies. Thousands died from sickness, starvation, and exhaustion. It is estimated around 4,000 Cherokees died during the removal process.

The Indian-removal trail that led west of the Mississippi River became known as the Trail of Tears after a Native-American leader told a newspaper it was “a trail of tears and death.”

  • How does the Trail of Tears compare to the memory you recalled of walking a long distance?

Discuss your response with your teacher or parent. It probably does not seem that bad after reading about the Trail of Tears!

Look at the map of the United States. Find the states of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida, located in the southeast region of the United States. Then, find Oklahoma. Write a few sentences describing how far the Native Americans had to travel and what obstacles they may have faced along their journey:

map of the U.S.A with distance scale

Image by Wapcaplet and edited by Andrew c, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Share what you wrote with your teacher or parent. Discuss what feelings arise within you as you learn about the Trail of Tears. Then, watch How the Brutal Trail of Tears Got Its Name from Smithsonian Channel (below) to learn more about the Trail of Tears and to see the land that was once occupied by the Cherokees:

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As you can see by watching the video, some Cherokee have returned to their homes in the southeast United States.

  • What are these tribes doing to preserve their tribal heritage and legacy?

When you have finished discussing the question, move on to the Got It? section to take a short interactive quiz to review what you have learned.

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