By the early 1800's white settlers in present-day Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee wanted the Cherokee farms, especially after the discovery of gold on Cherokee land. In 1830 the U. S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act; in 1835 three hundred Cherokee led by Major Ridge and Elias Boudinot met with two U. S. Government agents and without tribal approval signed a removal treaty which was officially rejected by Chief John Ross and 16,000 Cherokees.
President Andrew Jackson never-less signed the treaty which passed the U. S. Senate by one vote. Only about 500 Cherokees under Boudinot and Ridge left peacefully; all others refused to resettle in Indian Territory of present-day Oklahoma.
In 1838 General Winfield Scott and his soldiers rounded up over 15,000 Cherokees and herded them into stockades where hundreds died of malnutrition and disease. Some were herded onto boats and barges for removal as early as June, 1838, but many drowned when their transports capsized.
Since the summer drought had made the rivers unsafe for travel, the remaining 13,000 Cherokees and a few members of other tribes were divided into 13 groups of about 1,000 each under the guidance of a tribal leader. The separate groups journeyed on foot from October 1, 1838 until March 24, 1839 through rain and mud, sleet and snow, and across frozen creeks and icy
rivers. The route covered 1,200 miles. Traveling 10 to 16 miles per day during the exceptionally harsh and cold winter of 1838-9 with inadequate clothing and little or no shelter, many died of malnutrition, dysentery, and pneumonia and were buried along the trail as their relatives wept. A few escaped and returned to their North Carolina mountains to join other who had eluded capture.
They and their descendants have become known as the "Eastern Cherokees."
More than 4,000 of the 16,000 Cherokee died during the confinement and march. The survivors of the infamous "Trail of Tears" and their descendants are today known as the "Western Cherokee."