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File:Trail of tears sign.jpg

Sign for the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.

The Trail of Tears was the forced relocation and movement of Native Americans, including many members of the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, and Choctaw nations among others in the United States, from their homelands to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) in the Western United States. The phrase originated from a description of the removal of the Choctaw Nation in 1831.[1] Many Native Americans suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while on route to their destinations, and many died, including 4,000 of the 15,000 relocated Cherokee.[2]

In 1831, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, and Seminole (sometimes collectively referred to as the Five Civilized Tribes) were living as autonomous nations in what would be called the American Deep South. The process of cultural transformation (proposed by George Washington and Henry Knox) was gaining momentum, especially among the Cherokee and Choctaw.[3] Andrew Jackson continued the removal of the Native Americans with the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. In 1831 the Choctaw were the first to be removed, and they became the model for all other removals. After the Choctaw, the Seminole were removed in 1832, the Creek in 1834, then the Chickasaw in 1837, and finally the Cherokee in 1838.[4] After removal, some Native Americans remained in their ancient homelands - the Choctaw are found in Mississippi, the Seminole in Florida, the Creek in Alabama, and the Cherokee in North Carolina. A limited number of non-native Americans (including African-Americans - usually as slaves) also accompanied the Native American nations on the trek westward.[4] By 1837, 46,000 Native Americans from these southeastern states had been removed from their homelands thereby opening Template:Convert/e6acre for settlement.[4]

Choctaw voluntary removal


In 1832 a young twenty-two year old Harkins wrote the Farewell Letter to the American People.

The Choctaw nation was in what are now the U.S. states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. After a series of treaties starting in 1801, the Choctaw nation was reduced to Template:Convert/acre. The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek ceded the remaining country to the United States and was ratified in early 1831. The removals were only agreed to after a provision in the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek allowed some Choctaw to remain. George W. Harkins would write to the citizens of the United States before the removals were to commence:

It is with considerable diffidence that I attempt to address the American people, knowing and feeling sensibly my incompetency; and believing that your highly and well improved minds would not be well entertained by the address of a Choctaw. But having determined to emigrate west of the Mississippi river this fall, I have thought proper in bidding you farewell to make a few remarks expressive of my views, and the feelings that actuate me on the subject of our removal ... We as Choctaws rather chose to suffer and be free, than live under the degrading influence of laws, which our voice could not be heard in their formation.

—-George W. Harkins, George W. Harkins to the American People[5]

File:Trails of Tears en.png

Map of United States Indian Removal, 1830-1835. Oklahoma is depicted in light yellow-green.

Secretary of War Lewis Cass appointed George Gaines to manage the removals. Gaines decided to remove Choctaws in three phases starting in 1831 and ending in 1833. The first was to begin on November 1, 1831 with groups meeting at Memphis and Vicksburg. A harsh winter would batter the emigrants with flash floods, sleet, and snow. Initially the Choctaws were to be transported by wagon but floods halted them. With food running out, the residents of Vicksburg and Memphis were concerned. Five steamboats (the Walter Scott, the Brandywine, the Reindeer, the Talma, and the Cleopatra) would ferry Choctaws to their river-based destinations. The Memphis group traveled up the Arkansas for about Template:Convert/mi to Arkansas Post. There the temperature stayed below freezing for almost a week with the rivers clogged with ice, so there would be no travel for weeks. Food rationing consisted of a handful of boiled corn, one turnip, and two cups of heated water per day. Forty government wagons were sent to Arkansas Post to transport them to Little Rock. When they reached Little Rock, Choctaw chief (thought to be Thomas Harkins or Nitikechi) quoted to the Arkansas Gazette that the removal was a "trail of tears and death."[6] The Vicksburg group was led by an incompetent guide and was lost in the Lake Providence swamps.

File:Alexis de tocqueville.jpg

Alexis de Tocqueville, French political thinker and historian.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French philosopher, witnessed the Choctaw removals while in Memphis, Tennessee in 1831,

In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn't watch without feeling one's heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but sombre and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas were leaving their country. "To be free," he answered, could never get any other reason out of him. We ... watch the expulsion ... of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples.

—- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America[7]

Nearly 17,000 Choctaws made the move to what would be called Indian Territory and then later Oklahoma.[8] About 2,500–6,000 died along the trail of tears. Approximately 5,000–6,000 Choctaws remained in Mississippi in 1831 after the initial removal efforts.[9][10] The Choctaws who chose to remain in newly formed Mississippi were subject to legal conflict, harassment, and intimidation. The Choctaws "have had our habitations torn down and burned, our fences destroyed, cattle turned into our fields and we ourselves have been scourged, manacled, fettered and otherwise personally abused, until by such treatment some of our best men have died."[10] The Choctaws in Mississippi were later reformed as the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and the removed Choctaws became the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

Seminole resistance

The U.S. acquired Florida from Spain via the Adams-Onís Treaty and took possession in 1821. In 1832 the Seminoles were called to a meeting at Payne's Landing on the Ocklawaha River. The treaty negotiated called for the Seminoles to move west, if the land were found to be suitable. They were to be settled on the Creek reservation and become part of the Creek tribe, who considered them deserters; some of the Seminoles had been derived from Creek bands but also from other tribes. Those among the tribe who had sprang from Creek bands did not wish to move west to where they were certain that they would meet death for leaving the main band of Creek Indians. The delegation of seven chiefs who were to inspect the new reservation did not leave Florida until October 1832. After touring the area for several months and conferring with the Creeks who had already settled there, the seven chiefs signed a statement on March 28, 1833 that the new land was acceptable. Upon their return to Florida, however, most of the chiefs renounced the statement, claiming that they had not signed it, or that they had been forced to sign it, and in any case, that they did not have the power to decide for all the tribes and bands that resided on the reservation. The villages in the area of the Apalachicola River were more easily persuaded, however, and went west in 1834.[11] On December 28, 1835 a group of Seminoles and blacks ambushed a U.S. Army company marching from Fort Brooke in Tampa to Fort King in Ocala. Out of 110 army troops only 3 survived, this came to be known as the Dade Massacre.


Seminole warrior Tuko-see-mathla, 1834

As the realization that the Seminoles would resist relocation sank in, Florida began preparing for war. The St. Augustine Militia asked the War Department for the loan of 500 muskets. Five hundred volunteers were mobilized under Brig. Gen. Richard K. Call. Indian war parties raided farms and settlements, and families fled to forts, large towns, or out of the territory altogether. A war party led by Osceola captured a Florida militia supply train, killing eight of its guards and wounding six others. Most of the goods taken were recovered by the militia in another fight a few days later. Sugar plantations along the Atlantic coast south of St. Augustine were destroyed, with many of the slaves on the plantations joining the Seminoles.[12]

Other warchiefs such as Halleck Tustenuggee, Jumper, and Black Seminoles Abraham and John Horse continued the Seminole resistance against the army. The war ended, after a full decade of fighting, in 1842. The U.S. government is estimated to have spent about $20,000,000 on the war, at the time an astronomical sum. Many Indians were forcibly exiled to Creek lands west of the Mississippi; others retreated into the Everglades. In the end, the government gave up trying to subjugate the Seminole in their Everglades redoubts and left fewer than 100 Seminoles in peace. However, other scholars state that at least several hundred Seminoles remained in the Everglades after the Seminole Wars.[13][14][15]

Creek dissolution

After the War of 1812, some Muscogee leaders such as William McIntosh signed treaties that ceded more land to Georgia. The 1814 signing of the Treaty of Fort Jackson signaled the end for the Creek Nation and for all Indians in the South.[16] Friendly Creek leaders, like Selocta and Big Warrior, addressed Sharp Knife (the Indian nickname for Andrew Jackson) and reminded him that they keep the peace. Nevertheless, Jackson retorted that they did not "cut (Tecumseh's) throat" when they had the chance, so they must now cede Creek lands. Jackson also ignored Article 9 of the Treaty of Ghent that restored sovereignty to Indians and their nations.

Jackson opened this first peace session by faintly acknowledging the help of the friendly Creeks. That done, he turned to the Red Sticks and admonished them for listening to evil counsel. For their crime, he said, the entire Creek Nation must pay. He demanded the equivalent of all expenses incurred by the United States in prosecuting the war, which by his calculation came to Template:Convert/acre of land.

—- Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson[17]


Selocta (or Shelocta) was a Muscogee chief who appealed to Andrew Jackson to reduce the demands for Creek lands at the signing of the Treaty of Fort Jackson.[18]

Eventually, the Creek Confederacy enacted a law that made further land cessions a capital offense. Nevertheless, on February 12, 1825, McIntosh and other chiefs signed the Treaty of Indian Springs, which gave up most of the remaining Creek lands in Georgia.[19] After the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty, McIntosh was assassinated on May 13, 1825, by Creeks led by Menawa.

The Creek National Council, led by Opothle Yohola, protested to the United States that the Treaty of Indian Springs was fraudulent. President John Quincy Adams was sympathetic, and eventually the treaty was nullified in a new agreement, the Treaty of Washington (1826).[20] Writes historian R. Douglas Hurt: "The Creeks had accomplished what no Indian nation had ever done or would do again — achieve the annulment of a ratified treaty."[21] However, Governor Troup of Georgia ignored the new treaty and began to forcibly remove the Indians under the terms of the earlier treaty. At first, President Adams attempted to intervene with federal troops, but Troup called out the militia, and Adams, fearful of a civil war, conceded. As he explained to his intimates, "The Indians are not worth going to war over."

Although the Creeks had been forced from Georgia, with many Lower Creeks moving to the Indian Territory, there were still about 20,000 Upper Creeks living in Alabama. However, the state moved to abolish tribal governments and extend state laws over the Creeks. Opothle Yohola appealed to the administration of President Andrew Jackson for protection from Alabama; when none was forthcoming, the Treaty of Cusseta was signed on March 24, 1832, which divided up Creek lands into individual allotments.[22] Creeks could either sell their allotments and received funds to remove to the west, or stay in Alabama and submit to state laws. Land speculators and squatters began to defraud Creeks out of their allotments, and violence broke out, leading to the so-called "Creek War of 1836". Secretary of War Lewis Cass dispatched General Winfield Scott to end the violence by forcibly removing the Creeks to the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River.

Chickasaw monetary removal

File:Village Creek State Park Wynne AR Trail of Tears.theora.ogv

Fragment of the Trail of Tears still intact at Village Creek State Park, Arkansas (2010)

Unlike other tribes who exchanged land grants, the Chickasaw received financial compensation from the United States for their lands east of the Mississippi River. In 1836, the Chickasaws had reached an agreement that purchased land from the previously removed Choctaws after a bitter five-year debate. They paid the Choctaws $530,000 for the western most part Choctaw land. The first group of Chickasaws moved in 1837 was led by John M. Millard. The Chickasaws gathered at Memphis on July 4, 1837, with all of their assets—belongings, livestock, and slaves. Once across the Mississippi River, they followed routes previously established by Choctaws and Creeks. Once in Indian Territory, the Chickasaws merged with the Choctaw nation. After several decades of mistrust, they regained nationhood[citation needed].

Cherokee forced relocation


Principal Cherokee Chief John Ross. Image capture in the late 1800s.

In 1838, the Cherokee Nation was removed from their lands in the Southeastern United States to the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) in the Western United States, which resulted in the deaths of approximately 4,000 Cherokees.[23] In the Cherokee language, the event is called Nunna daul Isunyi—“the Trail Where They Cried”. The Cherokee Trail of Tears resulted from the enforcement of the Treaty of New Echota, an agreement signed under the provisions of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which exchanged Native American land in the East for lands west of the Mississippi River, but which was never accepted by the elected tribal leadership or a majority of the Cherokee people.

Tensions between Georgia and the Cherokee Nation were brought to a crisis by the discovery of gold near Dahlonega, Georgia, in 1829, resulting in the Georgia Gold Rush, the first gold rush in U.S. history. Hopeful gold speculators began trespassing on Cherokee lands, and pressure began to mount on the Georgia government to fulfill the promises of the Compact of 1802.

When Georgia moved to extend state laws over Cherokee tribal lands in 1830, the matter went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), the Marshall court ruled that the Cherokees were not a sovereign and independent nation, and therefore refused to hear the case. However, in Worcester v. State of Georgia (1832), the Court ruled that Georgia could not impose laws in Cherokee territory, since only the national government — not state governments — had authority in Indian affairs.


Elizabeth "Betsy" Brown Stephens, a Cherokee Indian who walked the Trail of Tears. (1903)

John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it! ... Build a fire under them. When it gets hot enough, they'll go.

—-Andrew Jackson, 1832, The Trail of Tears Across Missouri.[24]

Jackson probably never said this, but he was fully committed to the policy.[citation needed] He had no desire to use the power of the national government to protect the Cherokees from Georgia, since he was already entangled with states’ rights issues in what became known as the nullification crisis. With the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the U.S. Congress had given Jackson authority to negotiate removal treaties, exchanging Indian land in the East for land west of the Mississippi River. Jackson used the dispute with Georgia to put pressure on the Cherokees to sign a removal treaty.[25]

Nevertheless, the treaty, passed by Congress by a single vote, and signed into law by President Andrew Jackson, was imposed by his successor President Martin Van Buren who allowed Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama an armed force of 7,000 made up of militia, regular army, and volunteers under General Winfield Scott to round up about 13,000 Cherokees into concentration camps at the U.S. Indian Agency near Cleveland, Tennessee before being sent to the West. Most of the deaths occurred from disease, starvation and cold in these camps. Their homes were burned and their property destroyed and plundered. Farms belonging to the Cherokees for generations were won by white settlers in a lottery. After the initial roundup, the U.S. military still oversaw the emigration until they met the forced destination.[26] Private John G. Burnett later wrote "Future generations will read and condemn the act and I do hope posterity will remember that private soldiers like myself, and like the four Cherokees who were forced by General Scott to shoot an Indian Chief and his children, had to execute the orders of our superiors. We had no choice in the matter."[27]

File:Portrait of Marcia Pascal, daughter of Col. Pascal.jpg

Portrait of Marcia Pascal, a young Cherokee woman. (1880)

I fought through the War Between the States and have seen many men shot, but the Cherokee Removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.

—- Georgia soldier who participated in the removal,[28]

In the winter of 1838 the Cherokee began the thousand mile march with scant clothing and most on foot without shoes or moccasins. The march began in Red Clay, Tennessee, the location of the last Eastern capital of the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee were given used blankets from a hospital in Tennessee where an epidemic of small pox had broken out. Because of the diseases, the Indians were not allowed to go into any towns or villages along the way; many times this meant traveling much farther to go around them.[29] After crossing Tennessee and Kentucky, they arrived in Southern Illinois at Golconda about the 3rd of December, 1838. Here the starving Indians were charged a dollar a head to cross the river on "Berry's Ferry" which typically charged twelve cents. They were not allowed passage until the ferry had serviced all others wishing to cross and were forced to take shelter under "Mantle Rock," a shelter bluff on the Kentucky side, until "Berry had nothing better to do". Many died huddled together at Mantle Rock waiting to cross. Several Cherokee were murdered by locals. The killers filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Government through the courthouse in Vienna, suing the government for $35 a head to bury the murdered Cherokee.[29]

On December 26, Martin Davis, Commissary Agent for Moses Daniel's detachment wrote: "There is the coldest weather in Illinois I ever experienced anywhere. The streams are all frozen over something like eight or twelve inches thick. We are compelled to cut through the ice to get water for ourselves and animals. It snows here every two or three days at the fartherest. We are now camped in Mississippi swamp four miles from the river, and there is no possible chance of crossing the river for the numerous quantity of ice that comes floating down the river every day. We have only traveled sixty-five miles on the last month, including the time spent at this place, which has been about three weeks. It is unknown when we shall cross the river...."[30]

File:Portrait (Front) of Lillian Gross, Niece of Susan Sanders (Mixed Blood) 1906.jpg

Lillian Gross, a young multiracial Cherokee. (1906)

Removed Cherokees initially settled near Tahlequah, Oklahoma. When signing the Treaty of New Echota Major Ridge had said "I have signed my death warrant." Now the resulting political turmoil led to the executions[31][32] of Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot; of the leaders of the Treaty Party, only Stand Watie escaped death.[33] The population of the Cherokee Nation eventually rebounded, and today the Cherokees are the largest American Indian group in the United States.[34]

There were some exceptions to removal. Perhaps 100 Cherokees evaded the U.S. soldiers and lived off the land in Georgia and other states. Those Cherokees who lived on private, individually owned lands (rather than communally owned tribal land) were not subject to removal. In North Carolina, about 400 Cherokees, known as the Oconaluftee Cherokee, lived on land in the Great Smoky Mountains owned by a white man named William Holland Thomas (who had been adopted by Cherokees as a boy), and were thus not subject to removal. Added to this were some 200 Cherokee from the Nantahala area allowed to stay after assisting the U.S. Army hunt down and capture the family of the old prophet Tsali (Tsali faced a firing squad). These North Carolina Cherokees became the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation.

See also


  1. Len Green. "Choctaw Removal was really a "Trail of Tears"". Bishinik, mboucher, University of Minnesota. Archived from the original on 2008-06-04. Retrieved 2008-04-28.
  2. Nancy C., Curtis. Black Heritage Sites. United States: ALA Editions. p. 543. ISBN 0838906435.
  3. Perdue, Theda. "Chapter 2 'Both White and Red'". Mixed Blood Indians: Racial Construction in the Early South. The University of Georgia Press. p. 51. ISBN 0-8203-2731-X.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Indian removals 1814 - 1858.
  5. Harkins, George (1831). "1831 - December - George W. Harkins to the American People". Retrieved 2008-04-23.
  6. Chris Watson. "The Choctaw Trail of Tears". Retrieved 2008-04-29.
  7. de Tocqueville, Alexis (1835-1840). "Tocqueville and Beaumont on Race". Retrieved 2008-04-28.
  8. Satz, Ronald. "The Mississippi Choctaw: From the Removal Treaty of the Federal Agency". In Samuel J. Wells and Roseanna Tuby. After Removal: The Choctaw in Mississippi. University Press of Mississippi. p. 7. ISBN 0878052895.
  9. Baird, David. "The Choctaws Meet the Americans, 1783 to 1843". The Choctaw People. United States: Indian Tribal Series. p. 36. Library of Congress 73-80708.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Walter, Williams. "Three Efforts at Development among the Choctaws of Mississippi". Southeastern Indians: Since the Removal Era. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press.
  11. Missall. pp. 83-85.
  12. Missall. pp. 93-94.
  13. Covington, James W. 1993. The Seminoles of Florida. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida. ISBN 0-8130-1196-5. pp. 145-6.
  14. Morris, Theodore. 2004. Florida's Lost Tribes. Universities Press of Florida State Universities, p. 63
  15. Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Volume I. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1984. ISBN 0-8032-3668-9.
  16. Remini, Robert. "The Creek War: Victory". Andrew Jackson. History Book Club. p. 231. ISBN 0965063106.
  17. Remini, Robert. "The Creek War: Victory". Andrew Jackson. History Book Club. p. 226. ISBN 0965063106.
  18. Remini, Robert. "The Creek War: Victory". Andrew Jackson. History Book Club. p. 228. ISBN 0965063106.
  19. Oklahoma State University Library. "INDIAN AFFAIRS: LAWS AND TREATIES. Vol. 2, Treaties". Retrieved 2009-01-25.
  21. Hurt, R. Douglas (2002). The Indian Frontier, 1763-1846 (Histories of the American Frontier). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. p. 148. ISBN 0826319661.
  22. Oklahoma State University Library. "INDIAN AFFAIRS: LAWS AND TREATIES. Vol. 2, Treaties". Retrieved 2009-01-25.
  23. Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma:
  24. Gilbert, Joan. "The Cherokee Home in the East". The Trail of Tears Across Missouri. University of Missouri Press. p. 14. ISBN 0-8262-1063-5.
  25. Remini, Andrew Jackson, p. 257, Prucha, Great Father, p. 212.
  26. Myths of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees By James Mooney, p. 130.
  27. "Birthday Story of Private John G. Burnett, Captain Abraham McClellan’s Company, 2nd Regiment, 2nd Brigade, Mounted Infantry, Cherokee Indian Removal, 1838-39", Cherokee Nation official site,
  28. Remini, Robert. "Invasion". The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America. Grove Press. p. 170. ISBN 0-8021-3680-X.
  29. 29.0 29.1 Illinois General Assembly - HJR0142.
  30. Adams, Mattie Lorraine. Family Tree of Daniel and Rachel Davis. Duluth, Georgia: Claxton Printing Company, 1973.
  31. Corlew, Robert Ewing. Tennessee: A Short History. United States: University of Tennessee Press. p. 153. ISBN 0870496476.
  32. Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. "Cherokee Heritage Trails". Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Retrieved 2010-08-16.
  33. Ed Hooper. "Chief John Ross". Tennessee History Magazine. Retrieved 2010-08-16.
  34. "Top 25 American Indian Tribes for the United States: 1990 and 1980". U.S. Bureau of the Census. August 1995.


  • Anderson, William, ed. (1991). Cherokee Removal: Before and After. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0820314822.
  • Carter, Samuel (1976). Cherokee Sunset: A Nation Betrayed. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-06735-6.
  • Ehle, John (1989) [1988]. Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation. New York: Anchor Books. ISBN 0-385-23954-8.
  • Fitzgerald, David; King, Duane (2008). The Cherokee Trail of Tears. Graphic Arts Books. ISBN 978-0882407524.
  • Foreman, Grant (1989) [1932]. Indian Removal: The Emigration of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indians (11 ed.). Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-1172-0.
  • Mooney, James (2007) [1888]. King, Duane. ed. Myths of the Cherokee. New York: Barnes & Noble. ISBN 978-0-7607-8340-5.
  • Perdue, Theda; Green, Michael (2008) [2007]. The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-311367-6.
  • Prucha, Francis (1984). The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln, Nebraska: Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-3668-9.
  • Remini, Robert (2001). Andrew Jackson and his Indian Wars. New York: Viking. ISBN 0-670-91025-2.
  • Wallace, Anthony (1993). The Long, Bitter Trail: Andrew Jackson and the Indians (Hardback ed.). New York: Hill and Wang. ISBN 0-8090-6631-9.
  • Wilson, James (1998). The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America. New York: Grove Press. ISBN 978-0-8021-3680-0.



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