Retracing Slavery’s Trail of Tears by Edward Ball


I have known the story of the Trail of Tears for a long time. “In 1838 and 1839, as part of Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policy, the Cherokee nation was forced to give up its lands east of the Mississippi River and to migrate to an area in present-day Oklahoma. The Cherokee people called this journey the “Trail of Tears,” because of its devastating effects.” ( However, I thought THAT was THE Trail of Tears. The story is in most U.S. history textbooks. When I taught about it, my students were often saddened and angered. However, I have learned there were other Trails of Tears.

This article is about forced migrations of a million African-Americans from the tobacco South to the cotton South. In 1807 Congress passed a law saying it was illegal to import slaves to the U.S. That did not mean that the South didn’t need more slaves. It meant that they had to grow the slaves themselves and ship them down river where they made cotton king. Edward Ball wrote an article in Smithsonian explaining how many of the slaves moved to the South went on a Trail of Tears themselves walking more than a thousand miles at the end of which they were sold in cities like New Orleans.

If you saw “Twelve Years a Slave,” then you know about slave traders, for being captured and sent south was the lot of Solomon Northup. At a time when the expression, “Black Lives Matter,” it is useful to recall how they didn’t matter except where money was concerned. Family life was destroyed with children, wives and husbands being sold apart.

It was in 1865 (after the Civil War and Emancipation) that “Former slaves–there were four million–asked by word of mouth, but that went nowhere, so they put announcements in the papers, trying to find mothers and sisters, children and husbands who were swept away from them by the Slave Trail….Year after year the notices spread–hundreds, then thousands. They continued in black newspapers until World War I, fully fifty years after Emancipation.

This is a fascinating article. Please read “Slavery’s Trail of Tears.” It is a little mentioned and terribly important part of our history.


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