Cherokee Families of Rusk County, Texas

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Eastern Cherokee Removal (1837-1839)

It is impossible to fully capture in words the tragic quality of this forced migration of an entire people.  However, the famous Trail of Tears painting by the noted artist Robert Lindneux probably communicates the pathos of the journey better than I or any other wordsmith ever could.


This map depicts the main routes taken by the 13 migration groups that were led by the Cherokees themselves in 1838-1839. Included is the unique route taken by John Benge.


After considerable coercion, some Cherokee leaders finally signed the infamous Treaty of New Echota on 29 December 1835.  This treaty required the Cherokees to cede their last remaining land east of the Mississippi River and relocate westward to the so-called Indian Territory.  The deadline for such removal was two years after the date of Senate ratification of the treaty.  The United States Senate ratified the treaty on 23 May 1836, thus the Cherokee removal was supposed to be completed no later than 23 May 1838.  A census of the Cherokees, conducted by the Federal Government in 1835, indicated that there were 16,542 Cherokees in the eastern Nation.  The U.S. Government immediately began preparations for the removal of these Cherokee people to the lands in the west, an area which is now in the State of Oklahoma. However, most Cherokees resisted removal.

In 1837 there were two fairly sizeable groups of Treaty Supporter Cherokees, who voluntarily removed under Government supervision, and several other smaller bands that removed to the west under their own cognizance.  The known statistics for these groups are summarized as follows:

Group Leader

Date of Departure Number Departed Date of Arrival Number Arrived Number of Deaths Reported on Trip Number of Days On the Trail

Dr. John S. Young

03 Mar 1837 466 28 Mar 1837 466 0 25

Lieutenant B. B. Cannon

14 Oct 1837 365 30 Dec 1837 350 15 78

Miscellaneous Small Bands

1837 1272 1837 1272 Unknown Unknown

Total - All Groups

  2103   2088 Unknown  


A report to Congress from the Secretary of War, dated 08 January 1838, stated that only 2103 Cherokees had moved west to Indian Territory in 1837.  Given the 1835 census of 16,542 Cherokees, at least 14, 500 Cherokees still remained within the eastern Cherokee Nation. It was obvious that the 23 May 1838 deadline for removal of all Cherokees would not be met.

On 06 April 1838, President Martin Van Buren ordered Major General Winfield Scott and 2200 U.S. Army troops to report to the Cherokee Agency and commence action to remove the remaining Cherokees.  Finally, in June 1838, three groups of Cherokees, about 2745 people, were forcibly removed under close U.S. Army supervision. These groups made the trip west by water and experienced a high rate of deaths and desertions.  The known statistics for those groups that traveled under Government supervision in 1838 are summarized as follows:

Group Leader

Date of Departure Number Departed Date of Arrival Number Arrived Number of Deaths Reported on Trip Number of Days On the Trail
Voluntary Removal by U. S. Army:            

Lieutenant Edward Deas*

05 April 1838 250** 28 Apr 1838 248 2 23
Forced Removals by U. S. Army:            

Lieutenant Edward Deas*

06 Jun 1838 800 19 Jun 1838 489*** 0 13

Lieutenant R. H. K. Whiteley

13 Jun 1838 875 05 Aug 1838 602*** 70 53

Captain G. S. Drane

15 Jun 1838 1070 07 Sep 1838 424*** 146 84

Sub-Total - Forced Removals

  2745   1515 216  

Total - All Removals by Army

  2995   1763 218  
*I consider Lt. Deas's performance on his two trips to be little short of miraculous!   ** Mostly Treaty Supporters   ***Many Cherokees escaped    


The Cherokees then asked to be permitted to conduct the remainder of the migration under their own supervision. The request was granted and,  later in the year, thirteen detachments of Cherokees, each under their own leadership, made the trip.  These forced movements of people to Indian territory over what came to be called the Trail of Tears.  The table , shown below, summarizes the extant statistical data associated with each of the 13 Cherokee managed detachments. Most of the information depicted was extracted from the following two books:

1)  Book entitled The Cherokees - A Population History by Russell Thornton (first published 1990).

2)  Book entitled The Cherokee Nation - A History by Robert J. Conley (first published 2005).

Detachment Leader

Date of Departure Number Departed Date of Arrival Number Arrived Number of Deaths Reported on Trip Number of Days On the Trail

1.  Hair Conrad

23 Aug 1838 729 17 Jan 1839 654 57 143 Days

2.  Elijah Hicks

01 Sep 1838 858 04 Jan 1839 744 34 126 Days

3.  Jesse Bushyhead

03 Sep 1838 950 27 Feb 1839 898 38 178 Days

4.  John Benge

28 Sep 1838 1200 17 Jan 1839 1132 33 106 Days

5.  Sitywakee

07 Sep 1838 1250 02 Feb 1839 1033 71 149 Days

6.  Old Field

24 Sep 1838 983 02 Feb 1839 921 57 153 Days

7.  Moses Daniel

30 Sep 1838 1035 02 Mar 1839 924 48 164 Days

8.  Choowalooka

14 Sep 1838 1150  01 Mar 1839 970 Not Reported Not Reported

9.  James Brown

10 Sep 1838 850 05 Mar 1839 717 34 177 Days

10. George Hicks

07 Sep 1838 1118 14 Mar 1839 1039 Not Reported 189 Days

11. Richard Taylor

20 Sep 1838 1029 24 Mar 1839 942 55 186 Days

12. Peter Hildebrand

23 Oct 1838 1766 24 Mar 1839 1311 Not Reported 154 Days

13. John Drew

05 Dec 1838 231 18 Mar 1839 219 Not Reported 104


  13,139   11,504    


By way of final summary, the following table gives total numbers for the entire migration period from March 1837 through March 1839:

Groups Number Departed Number Arrived

Voluntary Migrations by Treaty Supporters - Government Supervision

2,353 2,336

Voluntary Migrations by Treaty Supporters - Cherokee Supervision

1,272 1,272


3,625 3,608



Forced Migrations - Government Supervision

2,745 1,515

Forced Migrations - Cherokee Supervision

13,139 11,504


15,884 13,019



Totals for All Cherokee Removals

19,509* 16,627



Number of Eastern Cherokees per the 1835 Census

16,542 16,542

Variance from the Census

+2,967* +85

*These numbers probably double count many Cherokees who escaped from the Army supervised migration groups and returned to their homeland, only to be sent west again under their own leadership.


Professor Russell Thornton, in his book The Cherokees - A Population History (pages 73-76), says:

How many Cherokees died as a result of the Trail of Tears?  William H. Thomas, an attorney for the Eastern Cherokees, asserted 2,000 had died by 1838. ... The figure of 4,000 deaths directly related to removal is generally accepted by more recent scholars, though some consider it too high. ... Our knowledge at the moment makes it impossible to state the mortality of the Trail of Tears with any precision ...

I completely disagree with those scholars who estimate that 4,000 people died on the trip.  Based on the figures shown in my tables, given above, it would appear that the number of Cherokees who died on the Trail of Tears has been greatly exaggerated!  If we assume that the Cherokee Census of 1835 was reasonably accurate, then the losses on the trail were much smaller than 4,000.  The officially reported deaths for each group total up to only about 660 deaths on the trail, with four of the Cherokee detachments not reporting their number of deaths.  If we make a reasonable addition for the deaths experienced by these four other detachments, I doubt that we could arrive at a total of more than about a thousand deaths for the entire removal period.  Per the above table,  85 more Cherokees actually arrived in the west during the two-year period 1837-1839 than were in the 1835 enumeration.  I can not believe that there was a population increase among the Eastern Cherokees of more than about a thousand individuals from 1835 to 1839.  Accordingly, an estimate of about 1,000 deaths due to the removal is certainly not unreasonable.  Also, we must not forget that at least a thousand Cherokee escaped to the mountains of western North Carolina during that same period.  Most of these people were allowed to remain in that rugged mountain area.  In summary, there is no way for figures of 2,000 to 4,000 deaths to be realistic.

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