The Cherokee Removal from Georgia, 1838-1839
The Trail of Tears
This subject has been much overdone, but I present it here in the hope that readers of this blog who may not know this history will find it of value. I will post some additional history later. For a map showing the various routes taken in The Removal, click here.
A brief review: In 1815, a Cherokee boy found a gold nugget along the ChestateeRiver, in Georgia. Within four years, the Cherokee were forced out of all their lands east of the Chestatee. Prospectors for gold were everywhere. Laws were made to take advantage of the Indians of Georgia. No one of any Indian blood could sue a white man or testify against whites. Any contract made between a white man and an Indian was not valid unless there were two white witnesses. All the laws and customs of the Cherokee Nation were declared null and void, and the Cherokee were forbidden to hold councils or to assemble for any purpose at all or to dig for gold on their own lands.
Georgia “annexed” all the remaining Cherokee territory inside the state, mapped it out into counties and surveyed it into 160-acre land lots and 40-acre “gold lots.” These lots were distributed by lottery tickets given to every white citizen of the state. “Winners” of the lots could and did simply force the Cherokee families off their lands and out of their homes, and any Indian resisting the white takeover of his home could be imprisoned. An Indian family might be sitting in the living room of their well-built frame house when some white man and his friends would arrive and tell them that the house and land now belonged to the white man and the family had no choice but to leave, often without any of their personal belongings.
In December of 1835, a treaty was signed at New Echota by twenty Cherokee men, agreeing to the removal of the Cherokee to Indian Territory [now Oklahoma]. Not a single one of the officers of the Tribe was present or even represented. It is very important to understand that a treaty was signed by some Cherokee men, but not one of them represented the Tribe. The Cherokee Nation did NOT make this treaty! The U.S. Congress ratified the “treaty” late in May of 1836. [You can find a copy of this false treaty at this site. The first signature on it was that of Reverend J. F. Schermerhorn, acting as a commissioner for the Federal government; the marks or signatures of the twenty Cherokee follow his signature.]
The Cherokee had strong supporters in Congress, who were aware of the fraud taking place and who opposed it strongly. These friends included Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. Davy Crockett of Tennessee was a strong friend of the Cherokee, but he had left politics in disgust a few years before after losing an election–mostly because of his support of the Cherokee–, had moved to Texas, and had died in the defense of the Alamo in March, 1836.
The governor of Georgia, who pushed very hard to have the Indians removed, was George Gilmer, for whom Gilmer County is named. Governor Gilmer even threatened to “collide” with the Federal Government if the Removal were not carried out promptly. John Ross was the chief of the Cherokee Nation at the time of the Removal.
Troops were sent in and the Cherokee were forcibly disarmed. The Indians were given until 26 May 1838 to leave. About 2000 of the 17000 people did leave by then, seeing that there was no other hope; the rest refused.
The leaders of the soldiers sent in to disarm and round up the Cherokee were sympathetic and did not want to do what they were ordered to do, but they had no choice. It became apparent, however, that most of the people were not about to leave peacefully, so General Winfield Scott was sent in to command about 7000 troops and volunteers with orders to move the now weaponless Cherokee. When he arrived in the Cherokee country, he set up headquarters at New Echota, the capital. He issued a proclamation to the Cherokee people, telling them that they must begin moving out immediately and that, before another moon had passed, every Cherokee man, woman, and child must be on the way west to Indian Territory. He warned that he had thousands of troops all around them and more on the way, that escape and resistance were hopeless, and that if they tried to hide themselves in the woods and mountains his troops would hunt them down and shed blood if needed. About 13,000 Cherokee people were rounded up into stockades and holding camps..
Here is what James Mooney wrote in his report to the Bureau of Ethnography in the 1890’s. His sources were many: official military and government records, and long interviews with those who were involved in the Removal, both white and Indian.
“The history of the Cherokee removal of 1838, as gleaned by the author from the lips of actors in the tragedy, may well exceed in weight of grief and pathos any other passage in American history. . . . Under Scott’s orders the troops were disposed at various points throughout the Cherokee country, where stockade forts were erected for gathering in and holding the Indians preparatory to removal. From these, squads of troops were sent to search out with rifle and bayonet every small cabin hidden away in the coves or by the sides of mountain streams, to seize and bring in as prisoners all the occupants, however or wherever they might be found. Families at dinner were startled by the sudden gleam of bayonets in the doorway and rose up to be driven with blows and oaths along the weary miles of trails that led to the stockades. Men were seized in their fields or going along the road, women were taken from their [spinning] wheels and children from their play. In many cases, on turning for one last look as they crossed the ridge, they saw their homes in flames, fired by the lawless rabble that followed on the heels of the soldiers to loot and pillage. So keen were the outlaws on the scent that in some instances they were driving off the cattle and other stock of the Indians almost before the soldiers had fairly started their owners in the other direction. Systematic hunts were made by the same men for Indian graves, to rob them of the silver pendants and other valuables deposited with the dead. A Georgia volunteer, afterward a colonel in the Confederate service, said, ‘I fought through the civil war and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.
To prevent escape the soldiers had been ordered to approach and surround each house, so far as possible, so as to come upon the occupants without warning. One old patriarch, when thus surprised, calmly called his children and grandchildren around him, and kneeling down, bid them pray with him in their own language, while the astonished soldiers looked on in silence. Then rising he led the way into exile. A woman, on finding the house surrounded, went to the door and called up her chickens to be fed for the last time, after which, taking her infant on her back and her two other children by the hand, she followed her husband with the soldiers.
All were not thus submissive. One old man named Tsali [Charley] was seized with his wife, his brother, his three sons and their families. Exasperated at the brutality accorded his wife, who, being unable to travel fast, was prodded with bayonets to hasten her steps, he urged the other men to join with him in a dash for liberty. As he spoke in Cherokee the soldiers, although they heard, understood nothing until each warrior suddenly sprang upon the one nearest and endeavored to wrench his gun from him. The attack was so sudden and so unexpected that one soldier was killed and the rest fled, while the Indians escaped to the mountains. Hundreds of others, some of them from the various stockades, managed to escape to the mountains from time to time, where those who did not die of starvation subsisted on roots and wild berries until the hunt was over. Finding it impracticable to secure these fugitives, General Scott finally tendered them a proposition, that if they would surrender Charley and his party for punishment, the rest would be allowed to remain until their case could be adjusted by the government. On hearing of this proposition, Charley voluntarily came in with his sons, offering himself as a sacrifice for his people. By command of General Scott, Charley, his brother, and the two elder sons were shot near the mouth of the Tuckasegee, a detachment of Cherokee prisoners being compelled to do the shooting in order to impress upon the Indians the fact of their utter helplessness. Those fugitives permitted to remain became the present eastern band of Cherokee.
In October, 1838, the long procession of exiles was set in motion. A very few went by the river route [by which the Army had taken the earlier groups]; the rest, nearly all of the 13,000, went overland. Crossing to the north side of the Hiwassee at a ferry above Gunstocker creek, they proceeded down the river, the sick, the old people, and the smaller children, with the blankets, cooking pots, and other belongings in wagons, the rest on foot or on horses. The number of wagons was 645.
It was like the march of an army, regiment after regiment, the wagons in the center, the officers along the line and the horsemen on the flanks and at the rear. They crossed the Tennessee River a short distance above Jolly’s island, at the mouth of the Hiwassee. Thence . . . through McMinnville and on to Nashville, where the Cumberland was crossed. Then they went on to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where the noted chief Whitepath, in charge of a detachment, sickened and died. His people buried him by the roadside, with a box over the grave and poles with streamers around it, that others coming on behind might note the spot and remember him. Somewhere also along that march of death—for the exiles died by tens and twenties every day of the journey—the devoted wife of John Ross was lost, leaving him to go on with the bitter pain of bereavement added to heartbreak at the ruin of his nation. The Ohio was crossed at a ferry near the mouth of the Cumberland, and the army passed on through southern Illinois until the great Mississippi was reached opposite Cape Girardeau, Missouri. It was now the middle of winter, with the river running full of ice, so that several detachments were obliged to wait some time on the eastern bank for the channel to become clear. Memories still exist of that halt beside the frozen river, with hundreds of sick and dying penned up in wagons or stretched upon the ground and only a blanket overhead to keep out the January blast. The crossing was made at last in two divisions, at Cape Girardeau and at Green’s ferry, a short distance below, whence the march was on through Missouri to Indian Territory, the later detachments making a northerly circuit by Springfield, because those who had gone before had killed off all the game along the direct route. At last their destination was reached. They had started in October, 1838, and it was now March, 1839, the journey having occupied nearly six months of the hardest part of the year.”
At least 4,000 Cherokee died as a direct result of the Trail of Tears. Hundreds died in the stockades and holding camps before the journey began. About 2,500 died on the way, and more than a thousand others died soon after arrival, because of sickness from the cold and exposure on the way.
One hundred seventy years after the people of Georgia so viciously and mercilessly forced the Cherokee people out of the state, robbing them of all they had in worldly possessions and taking even their human dignity, I notice that attitudes toward Indians have greatly changed. About every third person I meet in North Georgia wants to tell me proudly about his or her family’s Cherokee blood. And some of these family stories of a distant Indian ancestor are valid, for traces of Cherokee blood flow in the veins of many of the Appalachian mountain people. Let everyone who has that pride of a Cherokee ancestor learn more of the history of the Indians in the Southeastern United States; in that way, at least, you can pay some tribute to your heritage. Do not forget that a thousand generations of Indians lived here and their spirits walk among you. White people have lived in GilmerCounty for only half a dozen generations.
For a historical view of the Removal, as related to Ellijay, Georgia, I recommend this excellent article.
A Claymation video about the Trail of Tears, in spoken Cherokee with subtitles, can be found at this link. Another video, running about 7 minutes, which is a preview of a longer video about the Trail of Tears, but which has a good example of spoken Cherokee, with better sound, is this one. For good measure, here is a link to Amazing Grace [in Cherokee], which was sung in the hard times on the Trail of Tears. [You should be aware that the Cherokee words to the song are not merely a translation of the English words; the lyrics and a free translation are found at this link. I personally would have spelled some of the words differently, in both English and Cherokee characters; however, spelling is not standardized in Cherokee and no one who knows the language would have any trouble reading either my version or this one.]
A few days ago, I discovered this Trail of Tears song on YouTube. In it, you will hear authentic Eastern Cherokee words properly pronounced. In fact, I highly recommend that you search for work by Tsasuyeda on YouTube. There are nearly 50 highly informative videos on the Cherokee language that she has posted there. I commend her for excellent work! She also has a blog that is worth a look.
Cherokee Place Names, Part 7
During 400 years of white contact, the names of more than 200 Cherokee settlements were recorded. Most of them were clustered along rivers and other streams.
A teacher who had read some of my articles told her students that the Cherokee word for a creek is “Gusa,” and she cited me as the authority.
But, the word for a creek is “u-we-yv’ i,” and a Creek Indian is “Agusa,” shortened to Gusa and rendered Coosa in modern place names. A Creek is not a creek!
Still, a connection does exist. British traders in the 17th Century did a fair amount of repeat business with a small tribe of Muskogean-speakers whose town was on a creek of the upper Ocmulgee River. The tribe was the Ochesee, so the creek became known as Ochesee Creek. We are not sure of the location of the creek, but my guess is that it may have been somewhere in or near what is now Newton County, Georgia. In time, the Ochesee came to be called “the Creek” Indians.
Before long, of course, these Creek Indians had to move further west toward the Chattahoochee. Spread across from there into Alabama and northward were at least six dozen other small tribes, all loosely allied for mutual preservation since before the white men came. The entire collection became generically the “Creek” Indians, the Creek Confederacy. They spoke at least 8 or 10 different languages, so they were not exactly monolithic.
Most Indians in the southeastern U.S. built their settlements along or near streams. The towns were named from legendary or mythical events said to have occurred at this or that place on the stream, or they came from some natural feature of the location.
Rivers and creeks had only generic names: e-gwo-ni, river; a-we-yv-i, creek; it never occurred to anyone to give a stream its own personal name. Instead, streams may have had a dozen place names along their lengths, like strings of many-colored beads. And, it was from some of the more prominent beads that white people gave the streams the names we see on our maps today. Of course, sometimes any important river was addressed ceremonially as “Asgaya Gvnahita,” meaning “Long Man.”
I have reason to think that the Oconee River, in Georgia, takes its name from e-gwo-ni (river), but I cannot be certain of that; there was once a Creek band called the Okonee who may have lived on the river. There is better evidence that Aquone, North Carolina, on Rowland Branch near the Nantahala River, is another version of the river word.
Further to the east, the Oconaluftee River flows through the Eastern Cherokee Reservation; a town on it was called Egwonulati, from e-gwo-ni plus nu-la-ti ["beside"]. In speech, the name became Egwonul’ti, the eclipsed “a” becoming a nearly aspirated sound that made the name sound to those not fluent in Cherokee as “Uhquonulfti,” which came out as Oconaluftee [pronounced "oh-KOH-na-LUFF-tee"]. A fairly good modern translation of the old town name would be “Riverside.” The present town of Tsisquohi [Birdtown] is on about the same site.
Not far north of the Oconaluftee Indian Village is Mount Stand Watie, named in honor of the famous Cherokee Confederate general. Watie, who was born in the town of Oothcaloga–where Calhoun, Georgia, now is–was the only American Indian to rise to the rank of brigadier general in the Confederacy, and he was also the last Confederate general to surrender at the end of the Civil War. His name derives ultimately from Uweti, “Old (Person),” his father’s name. Watie’s Cherokee name was Degatoga , which can be translated roughly as “they two stand close together,” the shortened translation of which was Stand. Watie was also the principal chief of the Western Cherokee at the same time—1862-1866, to be precise. [One possible translation of Degatoga is "blood brothers," those who stand shoulder-to-shoulder in battle and life.]
There was also one American Indian brigadier general on the Union side, Ely Parker, a Seneca. After the war, President Grant appointed Parker to the position of Commissioner of Indian Affairs; he was the first non-white to hold that position.
Oconee County, South Carolina, on the other hand, is named for Ukwuni, a Cherokee town on Seneca Creek. No one remembers the meaning of U-kwu’ni. A well-made 1775 map shows the town was called Aconnee by the cartographer; it lay on a tributary of the Sennekaw River.
Seneca, South Carolina, takes its name from the once-important Cherokee town of Isuniga, or Sennekaw, which was near the junction of Coneross Creek and what used to be the Keowee River before it became Lake Keowee. The meaning of I-su-ni-ga has been forgotten, but it has nothing at all to do with the Seneca Indians of New York. I suspect that it was taken from the Catawba language and its original meaning may have been the Catawba name for a tributary of the Savannah River.
Seeing that so many of the original Indian place names can no longer be translated, we can be fairly certain that creative local chambers of commerce will devise some clever meanings, no doubt coupled with tales of warriors and forbidden loves and that sort of thing.
Now, we would assume that Coneross Creek must surely get its name from some historic site in Scotland or Ireland, but not so. Coneross is an English perversion of the name of a place on the creek, Ka-wo-na-u-lo-sv [yi], but from the now extinct Cherokee dialect which had a “r” sound instead of the “l” of the surviving dialects. It was pronounced roughly “ka-wo-nu-ro-sv,” and it came from the word for “duck,” kawona, and “where it fell,” urosvyi. The story is that a duck had a nest in a cave high above the water, so that when she left the cave, she seemed to fall into the water. There is some indication that a small settlement, Kawonurosv, may have been nearby, but I have not found it among any historical lists of Cherokee towns. Coneross is pronounced “Conna-ross” these days.
One settlement not so far away was called Kuwahiyi, from ku-wa-hi, a place with a good stand of mulberry trees. Its name meant “mulberry grove place.” Two towns bore this name: the first was a major one, now lying beneath the waters of Lake Keowee, and the other was somewhere between what are now Pickens and Easley, South Carolina. Poor English pronunciation of the first one led to the name of the Keowee River. Keowee is pronounced “KEE-uh-wee” by those who live near it.
Before the white people came, the Cherokee had two principal sources of sweetener. The obvious one was honey. The word for honeybee, in modern Cherokee, is wadulisi. By extension, it also means honey and even sorghum molasses.
The other sweetener was the sweet gum between the seeds in the large pods of honey locust, kalasetsi [Gleditsia triacanthos].
Nowadays, in the more modern form kalseji, the word is used for both sugar and candy; many speakers no longer know about the tree. A few miles to the east of Franklin, North Carolina, was the site of the old Cherokee village of Kalsetsiyi “honey locust place,” for which the Cullasaja community and the Cullasaja River, with its beautiful gorge, are named. The Cullasaja [pronounced "Culla say ja"] River joins the Little Tennessee at Franklin. There is a Sugar Fork Church in the Cullasaja community; I think it probably took its name from a translation of the Cherokee word. A good English equivalent of Kalsetsiyi ["Kulsage" in some old documents] is Sugar Town, and that name appears in places in many documents referring to Cullasaja. There used to be a Sugartown Creek close to Morganton, near the site of another Kalsetsiyi, but I believe it was swallowed by Blue Ridge Lake.
The honey locust is a close relative of mesquite [Prosopis spp.], which was long used by the Southwestern U.S. Indians in the same way the Cherokee used the honey locust. Mesquite flour is now available commercially. The sugar present in both mesquite and the honey locust is primarily fructose, which carries a lower glycemic load than sucrose.
There is a Cullasaja Branch that empties into Alarka Creek, near Alarka, North Carolina. There does not exist any record of a Kalsetsiyi in that location, so far as I can determine. The Alarka community and the creek name comes from the Cherokee word Yalo’gi, the meaning of which is not known.
Another lost word is Tuksitsi [a form of tsiksitsi], an old Cherokee village name. It lay near the forks of the Tuckasegee River, where there is now the Tuckasegee community. Locally, the pronunciation is “Tucka say gee.” There is some indication that the name is connected with the diamondback terrapin [Malaclemys terrapin], called daksi in modern Cherokee, but I don’t have any positive evidence on that point.
The Briartown community in northern Macon County, North Carolina, and Briertown Mountain, nearby in Swain County, got their name from the Cherokee town of Kanu’galo’yi, ["brier place"]. The Cherokee word kanuga was the name given to the ritual “scratcher” used by medicine people to prepare players for the ball play. In the form kanugala, it was the general name for all sorts of sorts of brier-laden berry bushes and vines. Probably somewhere near Pigeon Gap, in Haywood County, there was said to be a Cherokee town which was called Kanuga ["scratcher"]; it has left onomastic descendants in Lake Kanuga and Camp Kanuga, among others.
In Georgia’s Gilmer County is the community of Tickanetley, near Tickanetley Creek. A short distance to the northwest is Tickanetley Bald, near Rich Mountain. Somewhere on the creekside was the old Cherokee settlement of Tekanitli. No one is sure of the location, and I cannot be sure of the derivation of the name, but I can tell you that it is suspiciously like the Cherokee word di-ga-ne-tli, the plural form of the word for a bed. I think the town may have taken its name from the presence of good expanses ["beds"] of some kind of useful plant. This is just one of those mysteries that will likely never have a final solution.