Photo above: Independence Rock on the Oregon Trail. First mentioned by Parker in 1835, and carries an inscription on the
rock with the names of early trappers and explorers. Photo William H. Jackson, circa 1870. Right: Painting by Percy Moran, 1912, reflects the intensity of the battle of the Alamo. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.
U.S. Timeline - The 1830s
Conquering the West
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1832 - Detail
October 8-10, 1832 - The six year campaign known as the Trail of Tears begins when Washington Irving, Henry Levitt Ellsworth, and Captain Jesse Bean, at the Arkansas River, begin one of the first steps in the U.S. campaign to remove Indians from their homes on the east coast.
In essence, this was prep. And even though they may not have fully known it at the time, or quite contemplated the scope it would entail over the next decade, in actuality, the trip that Henry Leavitt Ellsworth, Washington Irving, Jesse Bean, and others took in the fall of 1832 through Indian territory was providing a blueprint for the scenes to come. What scene? The massive, uneasy, and brutal movement of the Five Civilized Tribes of the southeast USA, and others, west to Oklahoma in the Trail of Tears.
This preparation and blueprint had already been in motion for the two years prior to Henry Leavitt Ellsworth arriving at Fort Gibson in Indian Territory, today's Oklahoma, on October 8, 1832. The Indian Removal Act had been passed in 1830 under the removal policy that President Andrew Jackson had stated the year before. And they wasted no time in sending their Indian commissioners to the various tribes to coax them with treaties that would precipitate their removal. On September 27, 1830, the first of the Five Civilized Tribes, the Choctaw, had agreed in the Treaty of Dancing River Creek, which would be effective by February 24, 1831, and the first stage of removal already taken place, beginning November 1, 1831. What had they agreed to? In exchange for giving up their eleven million acres of tribal land in Mississippi, they would get fifteen million acres in Oklahoma where they could live in autonomy, and the right for those who wanted to stay in Mississippi and become citizens plus garner six hundred forty acres of land per.
As the Choctaw began their terrible journey in the harsh winter weather of 1831-1832 to their new Indian Territory home, the first mention of the term "Trail of Tears," was noted by a Choctaw chief. This was buoyed by the words of French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville.
"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."
Six thousand Choctaw were estimated as living in Indian Territory after the first emigration. Eventually, twelve thousand five hundred Choctaw would take the journey; several thousand of the tribe who started the trail never made it to Oklahoma. It is estimated that five to seven thousand remained in Mississippi, choosing to become American citizens.
The Ellsworth/Irving/Bean Tour
Authorities in Wasington, D.C., including President Jackson were making plans for additional tribes to join the Choctaw, but still had problems in the Indian Territory where they were to go with rapacious tribes already indigenous to the area. The task to pacify them, then accommodate additional tribes into the area was arduous. Jackson thought a fact-finding mission headed by Indian commissioner Henry Leavitt Ellsworth, in charge of Indian affairs in Arkansas and Oklahoma, might accomplish some of those goals. His mission would attempt to pacify the tribes, establish order and peace, study the territory, and mark the boundaries. Those boundaries would be part of the difficulty, as the remaining tribes were being forced into smaller areas to accommodate the new treaties and territory given to the Five Civilized Tribes of the southeast.
Ellsworth would be accompanied by a diverse group of travelers. One, Captain Jesse Bean, would command a troop of one hundred rangers that would tamp down any insurrections by the Indians already in the region during the journey. The mounted battalion had been established by Secretary of War Lewis Cass on June 15, 1832 to counter the horsemen of the tribes. They had enlisted for one year. In the end, there were really none major to halt. Another, Washington Irving, the noted author, would write about the adventure and, perhaps without knowing it, curry public favor. Others, including Charles Joseph Latrobe, an Englishman, and Count Albert-Alexandre de Pourtales, of Switzerland, friends of Washington Irving, accompanied them. Other guides also took the journey.
Washington Irving arrived at Fort Gibson on October 10, 1832, joining Ellsworth at the frontier fort, established in 1824 as the farthest outpost west of the American military to keep peace, which, had predominantly been accomplished in the eight years prior. The fort now was transitioning to its new purpose, as the headquarters for the removal process. Captain Bean and his rangers had arrived earlier and had already traveled into the prairies. Ellsworth and his three companions left Fort Gibson and met the rangers in the area now known as Tulsa.
For nearly one month, the party traveled along the rivers of the Indian Territory, from the Arkansas to the Cimarron (Red Fork) to the North Canadian River to the Little River to the Grand River. They arrived back at Fort Gibson on November 9, 1832 after twenty-nine days. What did the party accomplish and what did they witness? Buffalo on open prairies. A cholera epidemic. They met with the Osage and Muskogee Creek, who had arrived in 1828, plus the Pawnee and Delaware (about 3,000 in the territory at the time). They dined at the house of Sam Houston and his Cherokee Indian wife, Tiana Rogers. There was an unsettled boundary between the Cherokee already there (about 3,500) and the Creek (about 2,500) stemming from a Government treaty with the Creek in 1828 that had given Creek land to the Cherokee. That conflict still existed, it seems, after they left.
Ellsworth thought his journey would establish peace and lay those preparations for the arriving tribes. Many think his thought process was genuine, although perhaps more naieve than realized. Much of what is known of the experience of the journey was written in journal entries by Ellsworth in a letter to his wife on November 17, 1832. Washington Irving would write his book, "A Tour of the Prairies," about his experience on the adventure.
Excerpts from Ellsworth Journal
"On the morning of the 8 of Oct, we reached the north
side of Neosho or Grand River; and came in site of the
numerous little log buildings, that compose Fort Gibson
lying on the opposite side of the river - Although I had
formed no definite idea of the Fortress, yet it did not equal
my expectation - the barracks were erected in a square
form 700 by 800 feet; In some instances the walls of the
building & in others the stockades with port holes for
musketry, form the exterior."
"... October 15 - Fair day - all slept sound and arose at the sound of the
bugle, after breakfast we travelled about 4 miles and
came to the Arkansaw at the mouth of Red Fork - The
stream of Arkansaw was swift & high - the Capt proposed
to cross here - after some reflection I proposed to
him, to go up the river and try to find a better ford, for it
was certain that several horses would be lost by swimming
the stream at this place. The Gov* of course would be
the ultimate sufferers, as the horses would die in the
service of the Country - The Capt and Mr Irving
acceeded to my proposal, and followed up the Arkansaw
a short distance, where we found that the abrupt hills,
would compell us to go far into the interior to get
around them - we looked again for a ford - Billet said
he would examine - he threw off a few of his outer
garments, and waded in - the water soon rose to his
shoulders and he was wafted down the current and
swam towards the opposite shore. About half way acros
the river, he was able to touch bottom and with occasional
swimming over some deep holes, forded to the
shore - he returned in a different place, but with the
like success - The determination now was formed, to
build rafts and the axes were plied on every side - It
was at this moment, that our eyes were turned to the
Buffaloe skin, bought by Mr Pourteles of the Osage Indians.
We took it off from the horse, and speculated sometime,
whether it would be sufffcent to carry over our
plunder, much less ourselves."
"... Among trails of the poorest country, I have found places of great fertility and possessing many facilities for cultivation - Large
sections that have been condemned by travellers will yet afford land and good water for many tribes - We
are apt to overate the the necessity of having all the land
equally rich and feasible - The Indians will, when all
located, have more than 500 acres to each man woman &
child - how little of this will be wanted for cultivation?
This view of the subject is a fair one and I conceive [?] it
highly advantageous, that all the good land is not contiguous - The Indians will be protected from hostile
invasion by the U States - they may therefore and
doubtless will, select their residence rather with reference
to natural advantages than protection - It is very desireable
the lodges should be scattered - When concentrated
as the Osages are, they become lazy, filthy and
plunder each other if not by theft by such starving demands
upon hospitality, as brings all to famine, at the
same time - The Osage band under Mr Requois management
on the Neoosha, is a proff how much, can
be done by the Indians for themselves - but I am
wandering too far into the general subject of Indian
polity - On this point hereafter I shall have much to
say and hope to say it better than I can now do -"
Excerpts, Washington Irving, A Tour of the Prairies
In the often-vaunted regions of the far West,
several hundred miles beyond the Mississippi,
extends a vast tract of uninhabited country,
where there is neither to be seen the loghouse
of the white man nor the wigwam
of the Indian. It consists of great grassy
plains, interspersed with forests and groves
and clumps of trees, and watered by the Arkansas, the Grand Canadian, the Red
River, and all their tributary streams. Over
these fertile and verdant wastes still roam
the elk, the buffalo, and the wild horse, in
all their native freedom. These, in fact, are
the hunting-grounds of the various tribes of
the far West. Thither repair the Osage, the
Creek, the Delaware, and other tribes that
have linked themselves with civilisation, and
live within the vicinity of the white settlements.
Here resort also the Pawnees, the
Comanches, and other fierce and as yet independent
tribes, the nomades of the prairies,
or the inhabitants of the skirts of the Rocky
Mountains. The region I have mentioned
forms a debatable ground of these warring
and vindictive tribes. None of them presume
to erect a permanent habitation within
its borders. Their hunters and '' braves"
repair thither in numerous bodies during the
season of game; throw up their transient encampments,
formed of light bowers, branches,
and skins ; commit hasty slaughter among
the innumerable herds that graze the prairies; and, having loaded themselves with venison
and buffalo meat, retreat rapidly from the
dangerous neighbourhood. These expeditions
partake, always, of a warlike character ;
the hunters are always armed for action,
offensive and defensive, and are bound to
practise incessant vigilance. Should they in
their excursions meet the hunters of an adverse
tribe, savage conflicts take place. Their
encampments, too, are always subject to be
surprised by wandering war parties, and their
hunters, when scattered in pursuit of game,
to be captured or massacred by lurking foes.
Mouldering skulls and skeletons, bleaching
in some dark ravine, or near the traces of a
hunting-camp, occasionally mark the scene of
a foregone act of blood, and let the wanderer
know the dangerous nature of the region he
is traversing. It is the purport of the following
pages to narrate a month's excursion
to these noted hunting-grounds, a part of
which had not, as yet, been explored by
"... THE rangers' camp. The weatlier, which had been rainy in the
night, having held up, we resumed our
march at seven o'clock in the morning, in
confident hope of soon arriving at the encampment
of the rangers. We had not
ridden above three or four miles when we
came to a large tree, which had recently
been felled by an axe, for the wild honey contained
in the hollow of its trunk, several
broken flakes of which still remained. We
now felt sure that the camp could not be far
distant. About a couple of miles farther,
and some of the rangers set up a shout, and
pointed to a number of horses grazing in a
woody bottom. A few paces brought us to
the brow of an elevated ridge, from whence we looked down upon the encampment. It was a wild bandit, or Robin Hood scene. In
a beautiful open forest, traversed by a running" stream, were booths of bark and branches of
trees, and tents of blankets, temporary shelters
from the recent rain; for the rangers
commonly bivouack in the open air. There
were groups of rangers in every kind of
uncouth garb. Some Avere cooking at huge
fires made at the foot of trees; some were
stretching and dressing deer skins; some
were shooting at a mark, and some lying
about on the grass. Venison jerked, and
hung on frames, was drying over the embers
in one place; in another, lay carcasses recently
brought in by the hunters. Stacks of
rifles were leaning against the trunks of the
trees, and saddles, bridles, and powder-horns
hanging above them; while horses were
grazing here and there among the thickets.
"... A ride of a mile farther brought us to
the banks of the Arkansas. Here we found
a canoe and a number of Creek Indians,
who assisted us in ferrying our baggage
and swimming our horses across the stream.
I was fearful the poor animals would not
have strength to stem the current, but a feed
of Indian corn had infused fresh life and
spirit into them; and it was evident they were
aware of their approach to home, where they
would soon be at rest and in plentiful quarters.
They absolutely went on a hand gallop
for a great part of seven miles, that we
had to ride through the woods, and it was
an early hour in the evening when we arrived
at the Agency, on the banks of the Verdigris
River, from whence we had set off about a
While the passages from Ellsworth and Irving note an almost wistful romantic notion of their task, the outcome of what had begun, the Trail of Tears, and what would accelerate over most of the next decade, was neither. The Treaty of Cusseta had been signed on March 24, 1832, with the Creek ceding their remaining land east of the Mississippi; 19,600 would take their walk west. The Treaty of Pototoc Creek with the Chickasaw signed October 20, 1832 would force 4,000 of their tribe on the same journey. The same fate would be repeated amongst other nations. The final treaty with the Cherokee was signed December 29, 1835, the Treaty of New Echota, and end with the forced removal of the tribe from 1836 to 1839 under the authority of President Martin Van Buren and General Winfield Scott.
Image above: Montage of Fort Gibson Commanding Officer's Quarters (background), 1934, Fred Q. Casler, Historic American Buildings Survey; Henry Leavitt Ellsworth (inset left), 1902, U.S. Department of Agriculture Yearbook; and Washington Irving (inset right), 1879, James S. King. Courtesy Library of Congress. Below: Outcome of the 1832 trip of preparation and Indian removal in the Trail of Tears with lithograph of Choctaw tribe at Fort Gibson playing ball, 1844, George Catlin. Courtesy Library of Congress. Info Source: A Tour of the Prairies 21st Century, 2017, Julia Brady Ratliff; A Tour of the Prairies, 1832, Washington Irving; Henry Leavitt Ellsworth Journal, 1832, later reprinted as Washington Irving on the Prairie or A Narrative of a Tour of the Southwest in the Year 1832; Wikipedia Commons; Library of Congress.