The road 17,000 Cherokee Indians plodded along into exile almost 170 years ago winds 1,200 miles through the heartland of America from North Carolina to Oklahoma. Today, it is a road of hope and promise, but in 1838 it was a road of misery and heartache, sickness, and death known today as “The Trail of Tears.”
A proud nation, uprooted and dispossessed, traveled it for six long, bitter months in the winter of 1838-39. Sickness broke out at every mile. One person out of every four died on the forced march. The humiliation and suffering that the Cherokee experienced on this sorrowful march have no parallel in American history. To preserve the story of that experience, the Cherokee Historical Association in 1951 sent an expedition out over the old trail. Four Cherokee tribal leaders headed the group that made the trip through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas to Oklahoma.The story of that march into exile and its cause forms one of the darkest chapters in the history of American empire building.
Betrayed by Gold:
The Cherokee were forced onto that tragic trail after years of trying to hold out against white encroachment upon their lands, years that were filled with deceit and greed and strewn with broken treaties. Their downfall was probably made inevitable by the coming of the first white man, Hernando DeSoto, in 1540, but it was not until 1815, with the discovery of gold on their land, that their doom was sealed. With that discovery their enemies moved quickly to rout them from the coveted land. The Indian Removal Act of 1830, approved by President Andrew Jackson, provided for the removal of all Indians to the West. Rage swept the majority of Cherokee chieftains when they learned of the New Echota Removal Treaty of 1835, signed by a minority group, which would have paid each man the handsome sum of $42. They declared that the majority of the Cherokee desired to remain in the land of their birth. But their fate had been determined and was not to be changed.
Herded into Stockades:
Finally, after years of bickering and fighting, it was agreed the Cherokee should be paid $5 million for their lands. General Winfield Scott was named to force the removal. Scott’s 7,000 troops moved into Cherokee country in May 1838, and began disarming the Cherokee. Stockades were built at strategic points in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama. Into them troops herded the Cherokee. From the stockade garrisons, 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. They had orders to seize and bring in all occupants as prisoners, however or wherever they might be found. A lawless rabble followed quick upon the heels of the soldiers. In many cases the captives were barely on the march before their homes were blazing under the torch. Cattle were driven off, homes ransacked. By the end of May, 17,000 Cherokee had been herded into stockades across the Cherokee Nation.
The Tragic March Begins:
Meanwhile, some 4,000 of the prisoners began the long westward trek by boat and raft from Chattanooga down the Tennessee to the Ohio and then to the Mississippi. Many died, and the Cherokee leaders pleaded for permission to lead the remainder overland to the new home. And so the great migration began, the tragic exodus of a once proud nation. The route they took was north and west, running through a region where game still abounded, game they would need as food. There were men and women, old and gnarled. There were newborn babies and unborn babies who chose just this moment to come into the world. There were the blind and the dying consumptives who had to be carried on litters. As they picked up their few belongings they looked about, gazed toward the high peaks of the Great Smokies, toward the mountains that had sheltered them. Then they moved on, heads down. They were organized into detachments of 1,000 each. There were more than 600 wagons, 5,000 horses, and 100 or so oxen.
Across the Cumberlands:
The procession crossed to the north side of the Hiawassee at a ferry above Gunstocker Creek, then moved down along the river and northwest across Tennessee through Athens, Pikesville, McMinnville, and Murfreesboro. The sick, the old, and the smaller children rode the wagons and carts, along with blankets, cooking pots, and other belongings. The others trailed along on foot or on horseback. All the groups were routed through Nashville where contractors furnished them with supplies. They passed by the home of Andrew Jackson, the man who had betrayed them, but some of the Cherokee who had helped win the Battle of Horseshoe Bend for him stopped by to pay their respects to an old soldier. They were so beaten and sick at heart they did not even think of killing the man who had given the order for their removal. As the Cherokee plodded west the rains came, and with them came cold weather. The roads, cut up by thousands of horses, cattle, and people, hundreds of wagons and carts, became an appalling morass, making travel even more difficult and dangerous.
A Gruesome Toll:
There was death every day, and new sickness almost every mile. One observer reported that the Cherokee buried 14 or 15 of their people at every stopping place. The venerable Chief White Path, who had been a great warrior, succumbed to sickness, infirmity, and hardships of the forced journey near Hopkinsville, Kentucky. He was buried near the Nashville road, and a monument of wood painted to resemble marble was erected in his memory. A tall pole with a flag of white linen flew at his grave to mark the spot for his people who were following. The procession crossed the Ohio at a ferry near the mouth of the Cumberland. The folks of Tennessee and Kentucky and Illinois saw them plodding along, heads down, sickness in their hearts and souls. In December, a traveler from Maine encountered a party led by the Rev. Jesse Bushyhead about halfway along the route to Oklahoma.
What he saw was reproduced several weeks later in the New York Observer. “We found them [about 1,100 in all] in the forest camped for the night by the side of the road...under a severe fall of rain, accompanied by heavy wind. With their canvas for a shield from the inclemency of the weather, and the cold wet ground for a resting place, where after the fatigue of the day, they spent the night. When I read in the President’s Message that he was happy to inform the Senate that the Cherokee were peaceable and without reluctance removed…, I thought I wished the President could have been there that very day in Kentucky with myself, and have seen the comfort and willingness with which the Cherokee were making their journey.”
Onward to Indian Territory:
The Cherokee moved through Southern Illinois, past Golconda, Vienna, Anna, and Ware, until they reached the Mississippi River opposite Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Their crossing was delayed by the passing ice which endangered the boats that were to ferry them. For days they were compelled to remain beside the frozen river. Hundreds were sick or dying, penned up in the wagons or stretched out upon the ground. They had only a blanket overhead to keep out the January blast. The crossing was made at last in two divisions. One was accomplished at Cape Girardeau. The other was made at Green’s Ferry, a short distance below. Safely on the other side, the miserable homeless trudged on. They crossed Missouri, past Framington, Rolla, Lebanon, Springfield, Monett, through a corner of Arkansas, and entered Indian Territory, a confused, disillusioned people who only had a great expanse of country upon which to lay their tired and weary bodies over a thousand miles from their home.
The Cherokee had come to the end of their trail into exile in March 1839. The journey had taken six months, in the hardest part of the year. More than 4,000 had died along the trail, to be buried in unmarked graves in strange and alien soil. “Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook” marking the North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee portions of the trail is available at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian Gift Shop, Cherokee, N.C.