Trail of Tears
In 1828, two events shaped the destiny of the Cherokee nation. First, Andrew Jackson was elected President of the United States. Jackson was known as the champion of the common man. Yet he was the first and last a back woodsman who boasted that he was born in a log cabin. Like many pioneers, Jackson carried with him a deeply ingrained hostility toward Indians. He could be kind to individual Indians, but as a group, he considered them inferior to and less civilized than whites. Second, gold was discovered at Dahlonega, Georgia, which was in the heart of Cherokee territory. This development had an immediate and dramatic effect on the Cherokee people.
Gold fever swept through the South. Miners, hungry for a quick fortune, invaded the Cherokee nation. Many of the miners stole Indian cattle and attacked Indian women. Neighboring whites, who wanted Cherokee land, encouraged the miners. Hoping to harass the Indians into giving up their territory, the whites organized groups called Pony Clubs. These were gangs of rowdies who rode into Cherokee country to start fires and plunder homes.
Vowing not to fight, the Cherokee people took their grievances to court. Eventually, a Cherokee lawsuit reached the United States Supreme Court. John Marshall, a justice of the Supreme Court, ruled in 1832, that the federal government must protect the Cherokee nation from it's many intruders. But, only the President of the United States had the authority to send troops. President Jackson refused to help the Indians in a conflict agaist the whites.
Raising the question of Indian Removal, President Jackson told Congress "I suggest for your consideration the propriety of setting apart an ample district west of the Mississippi...to be guaranteed to the Indian tribes as long as they shall occupy it." President Jackson's pioneer supporters cheered his words. Under his leadership, the Indian Removal Act became the law of the land.
In some parts of the South, the Indian Removal Act crushed the Five Civilized Tribes, which were the Cherokee, Creek, Choctow, Chickasaw, and Seminole. During the bitter winter of 1831, the migration of the Choctaw began. Many were barefoot, and most had no coats or blankets. Yet they were forced to cross the Mississippi River in zero degree weather. The federal government had agreed to feed and clothe the Indians during their journey, but money for the provisions was never sent. The Creek were driven out of their homes in 1836. Those who resisted were put in chains and marched double file by United States soldiers. Some thirty-five hundred Creek who started to trek died of hunger and exposure before they reached their new territory. In 1837, the Chickasaw loaded their belongings into wagons and began their sad journey westward. Only the Seminole chose to fight. However, after a long and bloody war, most of that tribe were herded to the West as well.
By battling the courts, the Cherokee people resisted migration until 1838. That year, the federal government acted on treaty agreement that had been made two years earlier. The Indian Removal Act. It's terms had given away all Cherokee land east of the Mississippi in exchange for new lands in the West.
The month of May 1838 was the beginning of a long nightmare for the Cherokee people. General Winfield Scott, who would later run for President, led an army of seven hundred troops into Cherokee territory-nearly one soldier of every two Cherokee. Without warning, the troops burst into Cherokee homes, dragged the people outside, and drove them toward staging camps. Anyone moving too slowly was prodded by a soldier's bayonet.
The staging camps held an estimated seventeen thousand Cherokee. They included sick people, disabled people, elderly men and women, crying babies, and children. Some were put on river boats for the trip west. Others were led away from the camps in small parties. But the majority of Cherokee made the long, bitter walk to the West together, along a path they called Nunna-da-ul-tsun-yi.In the Cherokee language this means,"The place where they cried."History would remember the walk as the Trail of Tears.
On a June morning, a long, ragged column of Cherokee began their westward march. Some of the Indians rode horses and wagons, but the majority walked. A Cherokee named William Coodey later wrote, "Groups of people formed about each wagon. The day was bright and beautiful, but a gloomy thoughtfulness was depicted in the lineaments of every face...Suddenly, a low sound of distant thunder fell on my ears. A dark spiral cloud was rising above the horizon and sent fourth a murmur like a voice of divine indignation for the wrong of my poor and unhappy countrymen, driven by brutal power from all they lived and cherished in the land of their fathers."
Behind the Cherokee spread the red Georgia clay and the land they had know for generations. Ahead lay an area in present-day Oklahoma that the people had never seen before. The government called the area Indian Territory. In between stretched more than eight hundred miles of forests, mountains, swamps, and tortuous wilderness roads.
Each day, the sun raged like a branding iron in the heavens. The countryside suffered from drought. The Cherokee prayed for rain, but none came. Streams and creeks dried to sand, and the people's throats burned with thirst. Still they marched. And every step took them farther away from the homeland.
Diseases such as measles and whooping cough spread from one marcher to another. Frontier settlers who saw the once-proud Cherokee nation pass sadly in front of their homes wrote their relatives back East, "The poor people. They are dying like flies."
Winter stuck. It was as cold and forbidding as the summer had been broiling. A howling wind engulfed the people in snow and sleet. A traveler from the state of Maine passed a Cherokee camp and wrote home, "Aging females, apparently nearly ready to drop into the grave, were traveling with heavy burdens attached to their backs-on the frozen ground with no covering for their feet except what nature had given them. We learned from the inhabitants on the road where the Indians passed that they buried fourteen or fifteen at each stopping place." The 800-mile journey was so harsh and difficult that a quarter of the marchers died along the route.
It took more than a year for all the people to travel the full lenght of the Trail of Tears and reach Oklahoma. It is estimated that one of every four of the Cherokee who started the 800-mile march from Georgia died along the route.
The heartbreak of the Cherokee did not end with the Trail of tears. The federal government had granted the land in Oklahoma to the Cherokee and the other Indian tribes for "as long as the grass shall grow and the streams shall run." But, just a few years after the Indians were resettled, white pioneers began to probe into their territory. The federal government did little to discourage them. After the Civil war, the white invaders became too many to count. Bit by bit, section by section, the federal government bought up a seized Indian territory and opened it officially to white farmers. By the turn of the century, the Indian nations in oklahoma held almost no land at all.
In Georgia, the Cherokee people had not been completley eradicated. A few hundred Cherokee had avoided General Scott's roundup by hiding in the hills. One of them, a man named Tslai, became a legend. Even today, the Cherokee tells his story.
Tsali killed a white soldier after he saw the soldier jabbing a bayonet at Tsali's wife. General Scott, the officer in charge, knew it would be difficult to capture Tsali and to flush out the hundreds of other Cherokee who resisted migration by living in caves. So Scott sent word to Tsali that if he would give himself up, the army would abandon its efforts to find other Indians hiding in the hills. Tsali agreed to the terms and surrendered to Scott. He was sentenced to death for killing the soldier.
On a warm summer morning, Tsali faced a firing squad. As a final act of cruelty, the army forced Cherokee prisoners to serve as his executioners. Tsali refused a blindfold. Instead, he spent his final instant on this earth gazing at the red clay of the old Cherokee nation. It is said that his last words were, "It is sweet to die in one's own country."
When the Trail of Tears started in 1838, the mothers of the Cherokee were grieving and crying so much, they were unable to help their children survive the journey. The Elders prayed for a sign that would lift the Mother's spirits to give them strength. The next day, a beautiful rose began to grow where each mother's tears fell. The rose is white for their tears; a gold center represents the gold taken from the Cherokee lands, and seven leaves on each stem for the seven Cherokee clans. The wild Cherokee Rose grows along the route of the trail of Tears into eastern Oklahoma today.
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