THE TRAIL OF TEARS
Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan.
The Cherokee Nation was one
of great respect. Their form of government was one of renown. In many
respects, they were more advanced than many of the whites at the time.
In 1808, they adopted a written legal code, and, in 1820, they divided
the Nation into judicial districts and designated judges. The first
Supreme Court of the Cherokees was established in 1822, and by 1827,
the Nation had drawn up an American-based Constitution, the leader of
this Government was 37-year old John Ross. A year later, he began a
40-year term as principal chief of his people.
However, the progress of the internal
affairs of the Nation was basically put on hold because of political
relations with the United States. Jonathan Meigs, a sympathetic man
toward the Cherokees, served as America's southern Indian agent in the
early part of the 19th century. Even with his immense authority, he
was unable to quell the unyielding pursuit of Indian Territory.
In 1802 and 1803, Georgia was forced to
abandon her claims to the Mississippi Territory. With this abandonment,
the United States agreed to extinguish all Indian titles for land lying
President Thomas Jefferson suggested a
plan for removal west to a portion of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase.
Most Cherokees hated the resolution, yet some beleaguered tribe members
made the trip to what is now Arkansas. This plan of the United States
Government basically pointed to Arkansas as the divine western land.
There were some 800 eastern Cherokees who fought alongside the Government
troops in the War of 1812, however, they recognized only the government
of the newly removed Cherokees west.
The Cherokees of the East waited. Their
daily life went on as usual while the pressures around them grew. By
1828, these pressures had reached a final showdown, which showed the
Cherokees that the final removal was on.
In the winter of 1828, an old Cherokee councilman, Whitepath, rose up
in rebellion against the new U.S. Constitution. Whitepath attempted
to persuade his 15,000 countrymen to hold fast to the ways of the past.
Localized meetings were set up which were promoted to abandon the white
religion, society, and economy. His call for the return to tribal organization
fell on deaf ears, as the younger tribe members refused this authority
and therefore his plan was doomed.
The Cherokees thus turned to John Ross
for leadership. This man of great ability possessed both elegance and
capability. These gifts enabled him to accomplish seemingly distant
goals for his people. He, along with Whitepath, also rejected any proposal
to move west. John Ross knew that his people had lived in the Smokies
far longer than the white man.
Andrew Jackson was a strict Tennessee
soldier and politician who began his career as an Indian fighter. This
zeal never left! Jackson the soldier had been aided many times by Cherokee
warriors, but Jackson the politician was determined to remove the Cherokees
west. During the Cherokee turmoil of 1828 and 1829, Jackson was elected
President of the United States.
In July of 1829, in what is now known
as Lumpkin County, Georgia, a few shiny nuggets of gold was discovered
on Ward's Creek of the Chestatee River. With news of this discovery,
swarms of folks flocked to the site to claim their riches; more than
10,000 fortune hunters squatted on Cherokee land. With the help of Jackson,
the Georgia legislature passed laws seizing Indian land, thus abolishing
Indian law and prohibiting Indian assembly.
Andrew Jackson stepped forward and asked
Congress for a general removal that would give him prime authority in
the matter. Congress passed the Removal Act, which included a half-million
dollar appropriation for that purpose. In May of 1830, Davy Crockett
was at that time an U.S. Congressman. He argued against and voted against
the bill, he being the only Tennessean to do so. Possibly due to his
action, he was defeated at his next election attempt.
Cherokee leaders sought help from the
U.S. Courts. Samuel Worchester, the long troubled missionary for the
Cherokees, fell victim to the Georgia law, "prohibiting the unauthorized
residence of white men within the Cherokee Nation." Worchester
appealed to the Supreme Court, which on March 3, Chief Justice John
Marshall read the Court's decision to a packed room; this ruling was
that all the Georgia laws against the Cherokee Nation were declared
Elias Boudinot, editor of the Phoenix,
wrote to his brother and expressed the Cherokee Nation's joy and relief:
"It is glorious news. The laws of the state are declared by the
highest judicial tribunal in the county to be void, It is a great triumph
on the part of the Cherokees."
However Andrew Jackson, in his strong
opinions, would not stand for such a settlement. Jackson thundered,
"John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it."
So far as I know, this is the only time when a President ignored a Supreme
Worchester had been imprisoned and was
thus released after appealing to the good will of the State of Georgia.
Georgia conducted a Cherokee lottery in 1832 and, therefore, thousands
of white men descended onto lots carved out of the Cherokee land.
John Ross continued to speak for the majority
who rejected any discussion of removal. By 1835, the divisions between
the John Ridge party (a supporter of the Cherokees) and John Ross' followers
had become open and concentrated. On several occasions, Ross attempted
to negotiate a sensible solution with Washington. He was perturbed at
every turn. In November of 1835, the Georgia Militia arrested Ross and
John Howard Payne.
Ross, in turn, traveled to Washington
to recommence talks. While Ross was there, A Mr. Schermerhorn and the
Ridge party drew up and signed a treaty. This contract was endorsed
by a mere one-tenth of the Nation's 16,000 Cherokees, which ceded to
the United States all eastern territory in exchange for $5 million,
and a comparable amount of western land. Ross declared fraud on the
part of these two individuals; moreover, the U.S Senate ratified the
minority "Treaty of New Echota" by one vote. A newly elected
President, Martin Van Buren, authorized Gen. Winfield Scott to begin
the removal of the Cherokees in the summer of 1838.
Scott, under orders, was determined to
carry out the removal, nevertheless, he instructed his soldiers to restrain
themselves from inflicting undue suffering to the members of the tribe.
These soldiers, however, tramped relentlessly through the Nation.
One private wrote in later years:
"Men working in the fields
were arrested and driven to the stockades. Soldiers whose language
they could not understand dragged women from their homes. Children
were often separated from their parents and driven into the
stockades with the sky for a blanket and earth for a pillow."
Thirteen stockades were built
in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. These facilities
were used as base camps, they being scattered throughout the countryside.
Within these forts was an arsenal of loaded rifles and fixed bayonets.
As the Indians were herded back toward the forts, bands of roving outlaws
burned the homes, stole the livestock, robbed the graves. The summer
had drought like conditions, and by August many of the captured Cherokees
had succumbed to sickness or even death.
Removal of the Cherokee Nation began during
the autumn. Some of the early ones had been moved out along the Tennessee
River in large double-decker keelboats. Most traveled overland. Thirteen
detachments of about 1,000 each, plus 645 wagons carrying the sick and
aged, departed from southeastern Tennessee. Winter moved in quickly!
By the time the Cherokees crossed the Mississippi River many had died
because of lack of food and warmth. The diminishing band reached what
is now Oklahoma in March of 1839. The cold, hard hand of death had taken
Four thousand Cherokees, almost one third of all who had left their
The tragedy would be recorded as the "Trail
of Tears." Along the route, old Whitepath died. The wife of John
Ross gave her blanket to a sick child and she suffered fatal exposure.
A white Georgia volunteer summed up the occurrence as "that Cherokee
removal was the cruelest work I ever saw."