What’s being done to others, we once did to our own.

On the Trail of Tears with their homeland behind them. Painting by Jeanne Bridges.
One last look back on the Trail of Tears. They would never see their homeland, the land of their fathers, again. Painting by Jeanne Bridges.

We see unrest around the world. Families are torn apart. Families die. It is so sad, and we grieve daily. How could anyone be so callous as to rob a people of its dignity and its heritage.

The guilty must have no souls.

They must be dogs.

But look no farther than our own past. We were just as guilty. And with guilt comes the shame. The following an excerpt from my book, Trail of Broken Promises.

***

The Cherokees made one last valiant, though futile, effort to remain in their homeland. On March 10, l838, a courier from the nation, exhausted after a punishing ride through the snows of Virginia, arrived in Washington with a message of protest for John Ross to deliver to Congress. It said, in part:

The cup of hope is dashed from our lips, our prospects are dark with horror . . . Are we to be hunted through the mountains, like wild beasts, and our women, our children, our aged, our sick, to be dragged from their homes like culprits and packed on board loathsome boats, for transportation to a sickly clime? Already are we thronged with armed men; forts, camps, and military posts of every grade already occupy our whole country. With us, it is a season of alarm and apprehension . . . Our only fortress is the justice of our cause . . . We never can assent to that compact; nor can we believe that the United States are bound, in honor or in justice, to execute on us its degrading and ruinous provisions . . . With trembling solicitude and anxiety, we most humbly and respectfully ask, will you hear us? Will you shield us from the horrors of the threatened storm?  Will you sustain the hopes we have rested on the public faith, the honor, the justice, of your mighty empire?

The appeal was more than one hundred pages long. It bore 15,665 signatures, the mark of every man, woman, and child still sequestered within the Cherokee Nation. Congress, far removed from the removal process, disregarded the memorial altogether, charging that most of the signatures – especially those of the children – were forgeries.

On May 10, the order came, spreading through Georgia like wildfire – and just as ruinous.  It warned, “before another moon passes every Cherokee . . . must be in motion to join his brethren in the far west.”

Stockades were nailed into the dirt, and just as the Indians had feared, troops began to hunt the Cherokees down like wild beasts, herding them at bayonet point toward the concentration camps, beating anyone who fought back, letting those too ill to walk simply die where they fell. The Mission Journal at Brainerd recorded:

We were disturbed by the arrival of a company of soldiers with 200 poor prisoners, Indians, soaked through by the rain, whom they drove through the Chickamauga River before them like cattle . . . It was pitiful to see the poor folks, many old and sick, many little children, many with heavy packs on their backs, and all utterly exhausted. In the confusion some had left behind their children, who chanced not to be at home; other children had run away from their parents in terror.

 ABaptist missionary, Evan Jones, remembered:  “Multitudes were allowed no time to take anything with them, except the clothes they had on. Well-furnished houses were left a prey to plunderers who, like hungry wolves, follow in the train of captors.  These wretches rifle the houses, strip the helpless unoffending owners of all they have on earth.”

In reality, they had nothing at all left in a nation that had risen, become proud, then crumbled beneath the footsteps of greed.  It was, as Evan Jones wrote, “the work of war in time of peace.”

Tsali and his family escaped and found refuge in the Great Smoky Mountains. Others followed his path, and they ate roots and berries to stay alive on the land they would not leave. General Scott, embarrassed by their flight and freedom, sent a white trader into the mountains to reason with Tsali.

  The general was not an unscrupulous man. If Tsali, his brother, and three sons came out of hiding and surrendered, he promised, the military would leave the other refugees alone. 

They did. 

But the military promptly lined the offenders up by the side of the road and shot them down with a firing squad.

On June 17, General Charles Floyd of the Georgia militia proudly wrote his governor, “Sir:  I have the pleasure to inform your excellency that I am now fully convinced there is not an Indian within the limits of my command.”

A month later, John Ross journeyed home from Washington and found there was no home – just an abandoned nation and fourteen thousand people stuffed inside horrid wooden stockades.

His people had become as animals. Before the drought and the pestilence of that long, hot summer had ended, disease and fever – measles, whooping cough, and dysentery – would take two thousand lives. As the missionary Daniel Butrick scribbled in his journal, the imprisonment had been “a most expensive and painful way of putting these poor people to death.”

A drizzling rain chilled the October morning as thirteen Cherokee parties lined up their wagons along the road. John Burnett, an army private, would recall: “I saw them loaded like cattle or sheep into six hundred and forty-five wagons and started toward the west . . . Chief Ross led in prayer and when the bugle sounded and the wagons started rolling many of the children . . . waved their little hands goodbye to their mountain homes.”

They rode, they walked, and they tamed the rapids of the rivers in flatboats. The weather grew hot, and the water dried up around them. A child would be born and a child would die. For many, the promised land became a grave beside the trail where they cried.

A stranger watched the misplaced and burdened Indians trudge past him, and he wrote:

Even aged females, apparently ready to drop into the grave were traveling . . . on the sometimes frozen ground, and sometimes muddy streets, with no covering for their feet except what nature had given them . . . We learned from the inhabitants on the road where the Indians passed, they buried fourteen or fifteen at every stopping place . . . [a young mother] could only carry her dying child in her arms a few miles farther, and then she must stop . . . and consign her much loved babe to the cold ground, and that too without pomp or ceremony . . . I turned from the sight . . . and wept like childhood.

In Congress, the president of the United States, Martin Van Buren, read a glowing message:

It affords me sincere pleasure to be able to apprise you of the entire removal of the Cherokee Nation of Indians to their new homes west of the Mississippi . . . They had been treated with kind and grateful feelings . . . not only without violence, but with very proper regard for the interests of the people.

Private Burnett could spin a different tale:

Many of these helpless people did not have blankets and many of them had been driven from their homes barefooted. They had to sleep in the wagons and on the ground without fire. And I have known as many as twenty-two of them to die in one night of pneumonia due to ill treatment, cold, and exposure.

***

Will history every stop repeating itself?

Not as long as there is good and evil.

And evil always seems to win.

 

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    History does repeat itself. And sometimes we were the bad guys. We are angry at what is happening in countries all over the world. We should also stop and be angry at what our government did to Native Americas. It is a stain of shame that will never be washed away.

    • Darlene Jones

      We should be angry at what our governments do to us in our own countries, not just point fingers at others. As for history repeating itself … well, I don’t think humans will ever learn.

      • Caleb Pirtle

        Humans never have, Darlene. Greed is a terrible vice.

  • jack43

    Parse your sentence carefully, Caleb. “…and be angry at what our government did…” I never wronged a Native American, did you? No, I don’t think so. But our government did. Yes, we are supposed to be a government of, by, and for the people. So, how can we separate ourselves from our government? We can’t. Sadly, it has separated itself from us. Still, in its defense, one can only be just in their own time. That is, we can’t hold ourselves or our government guilty for crimes committed by those in the past. That is why I focus on the present and there’s plenty of blame to keep us occupied in that.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Amen on all points, Jack. We always we think we are the good guys. Then the policies of our government prove otherwise. And we feel left out in the cold. Researching the Trail of Tears was one of the saddest chapters in my writing experience.

  • Laurie J. White

    Caleb,
    What a powerful summary of the history. Thanks so much!

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I appreciate your stopping by. It was the trail where we all cried.

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