By: Mary Ickes
Voices from the Trail of Tears by Vicki Rozema
Considering the brutal reality of removing 16,500 (approximately) Cherokee Native Americans from the Southeast to Oklahoma within six months, Ms. Rozema’s mere two judgments against the United States are the perspective of a professional historian, not those of an outraged observer. She certainly had plenty of opportunity to include a few more well-deserved judgments. In her preface, Ms. Rozema includes a general history of forced Indian removal followed by a comprehensive history of Cherokee removal in the Introduction. Before each chapter, she reiterates just enough to place the voice into proper perspective.
Presidents George Washington through John Quincy Adams relegated Native American removal to state governments, resulting in thousands of people driven from Northern and Southern states in the 1820s and early 1830s. Congress, on May 28, 1830, passed President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, mandating the removal of all Native Americans to West of the Mississippi and delegating the War Department to negotiate tribal treaties. Negotiations with 20 wealthy and influential Cherokees produced the Treaty of New Echota, selling Cherokee land for $5 million. Congress ratified the treaty on May 23, 1836, giving the Cherokee Nation two years to voluntarily abandon Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. About 1,700 Cherokees voluntarily moved before the deadline; for their peers, duped into believing that the treaty didn’t exist, the Trail of Tears began on May 23, 1838, with the arrival of Major General Winfield Scott and 2,000 soldiers.
Beginning in Georgia, soldiers . . . picked them up in the road, in the field, anywhere they found them, part of a family at a time, and carried them to the post. At gunpoint, they forced families from their homes, permitting no time to grab even the necessities. As the soldiers progressed toward the nearest temporary fort, built for the removal process, their prisoners slept on the ground unprotected from the elements. Their collection finally large enough, the soldiers herded the Cherokees to the nearest fort to await removal to Tennessee’s Ross Landing (now Chattanooga) or to Gunter’s Landing. On June 6, 1838, Scott’s men, again at gunpoint, forced the first 800 Cherokees onto flimsy flatboats to cross the Tennessee River and begin their march to Oklahoma. Another 876 Cherokees followed in mid-June, 1,072 a few days later.
Because a record-breaking drought made river travel impossible, Scott’s order to stop removal forced thousands of Cherokees in the forts and camps to cope with hunger, military brutality, and disease. Dr. Daniel Butler, camp doctor, estimated that 2,000 Cherokees died before travel resumed on September 1. On December 12, 1838, the final Cherokee detachment crossed the Tennessee River. Traveling with a group of 1,118 people departing in early
November, Dr. Butler estimated that . . . between four thousand and forty-six hundred died in the camps or on the trail.
From what must have been overwhelming possibilities, Ms. Rozema gleaned Cherokee, Protestor, and Military voices that clearly define all aspects of the removal.
I Hope My Bones Will Not be Deserted by You (1821 and 1829), the first chapter, includes the poignant speech of Cherokee Elder Womankiller, over 80 years old, urging tribal approval of a law sentencing to death Cherokees selling their land: My Children, Permit me to call you so as I am an old man, and has [sic] lived a long time, watching the well being of this Nation. I love your lives, and wish our people to increase on the land of our fathers. Womankiller assures them that elders long gone would have supported a law that . . . will not kill the innocent but the guilty. He acknowledges that his audience would never willingly desert his grave, but . . . I am indeed told that the Government of the U States will spoil their treaties with us and sink our National Council under their feet. It may be so, but it shall not be with our consent, or by the misconduct of our people. . . . My feeble limits will not allow me to stand longer.
Protestor Reverend Daniel Butrick, a missionary assigned to the Cherokees twenty years before Jackson’s bill, speaks in A Year of Spiritual Darkness (June and December 1838), excerpts from his journals. From their mission in Brainerd, Tennessee, Rev. Butrick and his wife visited the camps to help reunite families, to battle rampant disease (including dysentery and consumption), and to protest military brutality. He reports that the Cherokee . . . were obliged to live very much like brute animals; and during their travels were obliged at night to lie down on the naked ground, in the open air, exposed to wind and rain, and herd together, men, women and children, like droves of hogs, and in this way, many are hastening to a premature grave.
Crossings at Ross Landing were equally brutal: The first company sent down the river . . . were, it appears, literally crammed into . . . a flat bottom boat, 100 feet long, 20 feet wide, and two stories high, fastened to an old steam boat. This was so filled that the timbers began to crack and give way, and the boat was on the point of sinking. . . . Who would think of crowding men, women and children, sick and well . . . together . . . with little if any more room or accommodations than would be allowed to swine taken to market?
In early November, Rev. Butrick and his wife emigrated to Oklahoma with 1,029 Cherokee people. After the harrowing Ross Landing crossing, they embarked on the northern route through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas. Deep snow across the states and ice on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers halted all travel: In all these detachments, comprising about 8,000 souls, there is now a vast amount of sickness, and many deaths. Six have died within a short time in Maj. [James] Brown’s company [the detachment immediately ahead of Butrick] and in this detachment . . . there are more or less affected with sickness in almost every tent; and yet all are houseless and homeless in a strange land, and in a cold region exposed to weather almost unknown in their native country. But they are prisoners. His faith wavering, Butrick rails against the United States Government: For what crime . . . was this whole nation doomed to this perpetual death? This almost unheard of suffering?
That this book would have a surprise ending seemed unlikely, but what a jolt! If Not Rejoicing, At Least in Comfort, excerpts from General Scott’s memoirs, portray him as a loving Moses shepherding his adoring followers to utopia. He condescends to acknowledge that The Cherokee were an interesting people – the greater number of Christians, and many as civilized as their neighbors of the white race. Most of the Georgians, half of his army, vowed . . . never to return without having killed at least one Indian because . . . hereditary animosity caused the Georgians to forget, or, at least, to deny, that a Cherokee was a human being. Since seven of every ten Georgians are Christian ministers, Scott expects the Christian element on both sides to prevail in goodwill and kindness.
Scott’s General Orders or the Address to the Troops command . . . every possible kindness, compatible with the necessity of removal . . . so they will flock to us for food. Kindness failing, they will definitely come . . . if we get possession of the women and children first, or first capture the men, then, in either case, the outstanding members of the same families will readily come in on the assurance of forgiveness and kind treatment. (Many Cherokee families never reunited.) In Ms. Rozema’s Appendix 2, Scott’s complete General Orders indicates what else is . . . compatible with the necessity of removal: Corn, oats, fodder and other forage, also beef cattle, belonging to the Indians to be removed, will be taken possession of by the proper departments of the Staff, as wanted, for the regular consumption of the Army.
In extracts from his address to the . . . Cherokee people remaining in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama . . . Scott promises that, within a month, all remaining Cherokees will be . . . in motion to join their brethren in the far west. Deaths and bloodshed will be entirely their fault: Think of this my Cherokee Brethren! I am an old warrior, and have been present at many a scene of slaughter, but spare me, I beseech you, the horror of witnessing the destruction of the Cherokees. Furthermore, Cherokees voluntarily leaving for Ross Landing . . . will find food for all . . . and . . . in comfort be transported to your new homes according to the terms of the treaty.
Scott lauds the Georgians who . . . distinguished themselves by their humanity and tenderness and himself, because In a few days, without shedding a drop of blood . . . the Indians of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee were collected into a camp twelve miles long and four miles wide . . . that is well placed by water and shade. Scott admits that the three June detachments are suffering from the drought, but the people in his camps are content and healthy because he . . . caused the few sick to be well attended by good physicians. Finally, an into-the-sunset Western ending . . . he [referring to himself] followed up the movement nearly to the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi, where he gave his parting blessing to a people who had long shared his affectionate cares. He has reason to believe that, on the whole, their condition has been improved by transportation.
That chapter, Reading Friends, had me checking the cover to confirm that I was still reading the correct book. That Scott’s self-glorifying memoirs referred to the same genocide that Womankiller predicted and sent Rev. Butrick into unholy wrath was beyond my comprehension. I muttered deprecations – I’m not yet a professional historian like Ms. Rozema – through the previous chapters, but nothing impressed on me the greedy despotism of Jackson’s government and the Cherokee’s torment and torture as did Scott’s glib perspective.
As I said before, Ms. Rozema chose her voices well.
Ms. Rozema’s previous Cherokee books are: Footsteps of the Cherokee: A Guide to the Eastern Homelands of the Cherokee Nation (1995), recipient of the Award of Merit from the Tennessee Historical Commissions, and Cherokee Voices: Early Accounts of Cherokee Life in the East (2002). She is working on her Ph. D. dissertation at the University of Tennessee, in Knoxville entitled, Coveted Lands: Transportation, Agriculture, and Mining Before and After Cherokee Removal. An accomplished photographer, she has been published in Birds and Bloom, Southern Living, and Blue Ridge Country. For more background and to view her photos, please visit: VickiRozema.com