The Trail of Tears: Cherokee Removal

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.

3 thoughts on “The Trail of Tears: Cherokee Removal

  1. I look forward to your next post , my family escaped the trail of tears and settled on the tennesse river where pickwick lake is now , I learned to fish , hunt and trap from my papaw, but he never spoke about his native american blood, yet it was in his every move and thought .

  2. My great grandmother was born at Hopkinsville, during the relocation of 1838-1839. It is a miracle that she and her mother survived. My great great grandfather’s name was Bear, of the Wolf Clan, he named his daughter, my great grandmother, Small Bear. This was very unusual to name a female child bear. Maybe he knew he wouldn’t survive, and wanted his name to survive? Her English Name became Louisa Neal Harness (but she was always called Bear) she married John Allen Starnes and they moved to Sullivan Co. Missouri. They are listed in the Oklahoma Territory Census. She died in 1903. I am proud of my Cherokee hertiage.

  3. Very interesting information on the Trail of Tears. I am trying to find out if one of my ancestors survived the Trail of Tears or not, do you know how I can go about finding out that information? He is not found on any more treaties after the Henderson Roll. Wa-do.

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