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This article is from the Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. Copyright © 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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by William L. Anderson and Ruth Y. Wetmore, 2006.
Additional research provided by John L. Bell.

See also: John Ross

Part i: Overview; Part ii: Cherokee origins and first European contact; Part iii: Disease, destruction, and the loss of Cherokee land; Part iv: Revolutionary War, Cherokee defeat and additional land cessions; Part v: Trail of Tears and the creation of the Eastern Band of Cherokees; Part vi: Federal recognition and the fight for Cherokee rights; Part vii: Modern-day Cherokee life and culture; Part viii: References and additional resources

Part v: The Trail of Tears and the Creation of the Eastern Band of Cherokees

In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, setting the stage for the forced removal of the Cherokee and the infamous Trail of Tears. In 1835, a small, unauthorized group of about 100 Cherokee leaders (known as the Treaty Party) signed the Treaty of New Echota (Georgia), giving away all remaining Cherokee territory in the Southeast in exchange for land in northeastern Oklahoma. Principal Cherokee Chief John Ross collected more than 15,000 signatures, representing almost the entire Cherokee Nation, on a petition requesting the U.S. Senate to withhold ratification of this illicit treaty. The Senate, however, approved the treaty by a margin of one vote in 1836. The treaty gave the Cherokee people two years to vacate their mountain homeland and go west to Oklahoma.

By May 1838, few Cherokees were prepared to move, so President Martin Van Buren, who had succeeded Jackson in 1837, dispatched federal soldiers commanded by Gen. Winfield Scott to round up Cherokees in North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama and place them in various internment camps and stockades. The horrible conditions facing his people at these poorly planned facilities led Ross to appeal to the president for a delay in the removal until fall, when water and game would be more plentiful. Van Buren agreed, and between October 1838 and March 1839, the Cherokee moved west. The journey was mismanaged; there was a shortage of supplies; and the troops rushed the Indians onward, refusing to allow them to minister to their sick or bury their dead. Of the approximately 15,000 who began the trek, an estimated 4,000 perished.

Approximately 300 to 400 Cherokees remained in North Carolina, hiding in the mountains. One of their leaders, Tsali, was captured and executed for killing two federal soldiers pursuing him and his family, but some of his followers and other Cherokees (who had possibly aided in Tsali's capture) were allowed to remain. Between removal of the Cherokee Nation in 1838 and the end of the Civil War, many Cherokees gave their money to William Holland Thomas, their agent and later their only white chief, to purchase land for them. Thomas acquired many of the tracts that would make up the modern-day Qualla Boundary, the official name of the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina. These Cherokees—together with the hundreds who had hidden in the mountains, who already legally owned land through the Treaty of 1817, or who had escaped the Trail of Tears and returned--formed the nucleus of what would become the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.





Keep reading > Part vi: Federal recognition and the fight for Cherokee rights keep reading

Image credits:

"Map of Trail of Tears National Historic Trail," 2009. National Park Service, U.S. Department of Interior. Online at:

U. S. Census Office. "Map of the Qualla Indian Reserve (Boundary) N.C.," 1890. ID: MC.183.C522.1876t. North Carolina Maps. Online at:,1055



Chief Davis
I have been trying to help my Mother in love find information on her Great Grandfather who is Ruebottom Sheets who is supposed to be a Cherokee Chief and was on the Trail of Tears do you have any recommendations for me? Thank you in advance for your help.


I was told by a representative of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma that absolutely no one escaped from the Trail of Tears.


That was incorrect information. Here are two other sources where you can read about the land-owing Cherokees who remained legally, and others who illegally escaped and hid in the mountains:


Dear Chief Davis,
I have been trying to find my Grandmother's roots. She came from the N.Carolina eastern shore area. I saw a picture of a group of Cherokee men, her father among, taken at a church that burned down along with the census of that time. I am trying to find out how they were able to escape the Trail of Tears and how their communities were established, what they did to survive and some possible sites where that could have been. I want to find my family.
Thank you for taking your time to read this inquiry. I hope you can help, Coni


I found this tryin to find out about my grandmother . I only met my father once but told me my grandmother was a little girl when this happen. I may not ever find out much because of my resources. But to read what she and others went thru makes me ashamed of my country, and mad that they had no compassion . Sorry. Just sayin


I found this a very will done write up and would love to see more like this. We feel that the EBC should have the only right to be called the Cherokee Nation as that is were all Cherokee Groups can find that if it was not for the EBC then there would be no other Cherokee Groups. GV


Dear Chief Davis,

Thank you very much for taking the time to read this entry and for giving us feedback.  It's very helpful for us to know this.

Could you possibly make some suggestions for us for specific topics? That would help us target important aspects of Native American history to develop.  

Thank you! and best wishes,

Kelly Agan, Government & Heritage Library

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