Demand for land from non-native population growth led to pressure on Native American lands. After the Creek tribe was decimated in 1828, the pressure fell on the Cherokee living in northern Georgia. Georgia passed a series of anti-Cherokee measures, confiscating property, preventing natives from testifying in court, making it illegal for an Indian to speak out against immigration west, and providing for a survey of Cherokee land and a lottery to distribute such lands to whites in Georgia.
In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act which President Andrew Jackson signed into law. Georgia was confiscating land before 1831, and in the spring of 1834 confiscated John Ross's estate while he was away at Washington attempting to negotiate. The US Supreme Court reversed itself in 1832 when it ruled in favor of the Cherokee Nation in Worcester v. State of Georgia. After Jackson's re-election in 1832 some Cherokee, of their own volition, moved west to join the Old Settlers.
Despite the Supreme Court decision, Jackson took no action to uphold the Court verdict, and in fact openly defied it. He famously said, "John Marshall has made his law, now let him enforce it." As the court has no executive powers to enforce its decisions, Jackson's executive disregard of the court marked a time when the Judicial branch of government was very weak.
The Cherokee began to be divided, some of the most strident opponents of removal abruptly changed their minds, led by Major Ridge, his son, and his nephew, Elias Boudinot (aka Buck Watie) and his son Stand Watie, they became known as the Ridge Party, or the Treaty Party. The Ridge party had very little support within the Cherokee nation. Both the elected Cherokee government and the Ridge party sent independent delegations to Washington. In 1835, with the Ridge Party completely in favor of removal, Jackson appointed Rev. John F. Schermerhorn as a treaty commissioner, and the treaty that was proposed was rejected in October 1835 by Cherokee Nation meeting in full council. While Chief Ross was in Washington attempting a new discussion, Schermerhorn organized a parley of the pro-removal council members at New Echota. Five hundred Cherokees of a tribal population of at least seventeen thousand responded to the summons, and 21 proponents of Cherokee removal, among them Elias Boudinot, Stand Waite, Major Ridge and his son John, signed or left X marks on the Treaty of New Echota . All of these signators were violating a Cherokee Nation statute drafted by John Ridge, which had been passed in 1829. Not a single elected tribal official signed this document. This treaty gave up all the Cherokee land east of the Mississippi. Despite the protestations by the Cherokee National Council and principal Chief Ross, that the document was a pure fraud, Congress ratified the treaty on May 23 1836, by one vote. A number of members of the Treaty party left for the west at this time.
When the spring deadline had passed, President Martin Van Buren assigned General Winfield Scott to head the forcible removal operation. He arrived in May 1838 with 7,000 soldiers. Some 17-18,000 Cherokee of northern Georgia, Arkansas (the former Cherokee of Kentucky), Tennessee, and Alabama, along with their approximately 2,000 slaves, were removed at gunpoint from their land over three weeks and gathered together in camps with usually only the clothes on their backs. They were then transferred to departure points at Rattlesnake Springs and Ross's Landing in Tennessee. From there, they had to walk (or ride, but most people had to walk) to the Indian Territory which comprised all of Oklahoma. The Cherokee initially settled near Tahlequah, Oklahoma, a distance of around 1,200 miles along one of three routes. Around 2,500 were transferred by river - Tennessee River to the Ohio River to the Mississippi to the Arkansas River to Fort Smith on the border of the Indian Territory. Sent in twenty distinct groups, initial human losses in transit were very high and in all between 4,000-8,000 Cherokee died.
There were some notable exceptions to removal. Some Cherokee evaded removal and lived off the land in Georgia and former states. Another band, called the Eastern Cherokee, due to an interaction with William Holland Thomas, already had land in the Great Smoky Mountains and some limited state recognition, and are the Eastern Band Cherokee of today.