In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, setting the stage for the removal of Cherokees from western North Carolina and the chapter of history known as the Trail of Tears. In 1835 a small group of Cherokees signed a treaty with the United States government in New Echota, Georgia, ceding all remaining land in the southeastern United States. The treaty led the federal government under President Andrew Jackson to order the forced removal of the native people and their resettlement on Cherokee territory in Oklahoma. The forced removal was dangerous and often deadly for the Cherokee, who protested throughout that the treaty was nullified by the signers’ lack of authority.
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President Martin Van Buren upheld President Jackson’s orders, and in April 1838 ordered General Winfield Scott to orchestrate the move. Scott, a veteran commander, was ordered to conduct around 15,000 Cherokee people to land west of the Mississippi River. Supported by over 5,000 militia and other troops, General Scott forcibly evacuated the Cherokee people to temporary camps.
Camps constructed in western North Carolina were built poorly and quickly. The forts served as temporary internment camps, where most Cherokees remained for only a few days, although some people stayed for up to two weeks. Disease was widespread and epidemics of dysentery, bilious fever, measles, and whooping cough were common. The Cherokee practiced traditional medicine unsuccessfully against the diseases. Over 1,500 Cherokee people died in the camps, before beginning their trip to Oklahoma.
Scott set up his headquarters in New Echota in Georgia, and the 7,000 troops under his command for the removal operation built forts throughout the region. In North Carolina, the forts included Fort Lindsay on the south side of the Little Tennessee River, Fort Montgomery at present-day Robbinsville, Fort Hembree at present-day Hayesville, and Fort Butler at present-day Murphy.
Fort Butler, located one-quarter mile southwest of present-day Murphy in Cherokee County, served as a major gathering point for Cherokee from extreme southwestern North Carolina. Between mid-June and mid-July 1838, over 3,000 Cherokee prisoners from North Carolina and Georgia passed through Fort Butler at the beginning of the Trail of Tears. From Fort Butler the Cherokee were marched toward present-day Charleston, Tennessee, along the Unicoi Turnpike.
William G. McLoughlin, After the Trail of Tears (1993)
William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006)
John Preston Arthur, Western North Carolina History from 1730-1913 (1915)
Cherokee Heritage Trails website: http://www.cherokeeheritagetrails.org/murphy_places.html