'Trail of Tears' a grim chapter in history

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 17, 2011

By Rodney Cress
For the Salisbury Post
“If you think you can trust your government, just ask an Indian” is a quote that certainly had meaning to the Cherokee of North Carolina. The 1,200-mile “death march” of 1838 was filled with humiliation and suffering for the Indians and left a black mark on American history.
The Cherokee downfall came when trying to hold out against white encroachment upon their lands. This was made inevitable by the arrival of Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto, in 1540, and the European settlers who followed. But it was not until 1815, with the discovery of gold on their land, that the Cherokees’ doom was sealed. A young Indian boy placed a gold nugget on the desk of a trader in exchange for goods. This single act of innocence led to the downfall of the Indians. With the discovery of gold, the white men moved quickly to force the Indians from their land.
From 1790 until the 1820s, the U.S. government had generally regarded Indians as foreign nations, signing treaties with Indian tribes as they would have done with foreign powers. But some politicians questioned the legality of a sovereign and independent nation existing within one of the states.
Gen. Andrew Jackson, the future president, believed in the 1820s that Indians were subjects of the United States, not foreign powers, and that decisions about land ownership and other negotiations should operate under that assumption. Jackson, who was admitted to the Rowan County bar on Nov. 6, 1787, had long wanted to remove American Indians west of the Mississippi. When he became president in 1829, he pushed for Indian removal to become official U.S. policy.
In his first inaugural address he promised, “It will be my sincere and constant desire to observe toward the Indian tribes within our limits a just and liberal policy, and to give that humane and considerate attention to their rights and their wants which is consistent with the habits of our Government and the feelings of our people.” But his first annual message to Congress made clear that his “liberal policy” would centered on removal of Indian people from the states.
Finally, after years of bickering, it was agreed the Cherokee should be paid $5 million for their land. In 1836, tension between Cherokees in the southeastern U.S. and white settlers grew. It was then the Treaty of New Echota was adopted, calling for the forcible removal of Cherokees to the western Indian Territory. Gen. 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, and troops herded the Cherokee into them. Several other tribes also were removed, including the Creek, Seminole and Choctaw.
Soldiers who were sent into the Smoky Mountain country witnessed the execution of the most brutal order in the history of American warfare. Helpless Cherokees were arrested and dragged from their homes and driven at bayonet point into the stockades. In the freezing rain on an October morning, they were loaded like cattle into 645 wagons and started toward the west. There was death every day. One observer reported that the Cherokee buried 14 or 15 of their people at every stopping place. A once proud nation, uprooted and dispossessed, traveled for six long, bitter months in the winter of 1838-39. It’s estimated that 4,000 Cherokees — about one person out of every four — died on the forced march. On March 24, 1839, the last detachments arrived in the west. Some of them had left their homeland on Sept. 20, 1838. No one knows exactly how many died during the journey. The trip was especially hard on infants, children and the elderly. The U.S. government never paid the $5 million promised to the Cherokees in the Treaty of New Echota.
There were some exceptions to removal. Perhaps 100 Cherokees evaded the U.S. soldiers. Other Cherokees who lived on private, individually owned lands were not subject to removal. In North Carolina, about 400 Cherokees, known as the Oconaluftee Cherokee, lived on land in the Great Smoky Mountains owned by a white man named William Holland Thomas (who had been adopted by Cherokees as a boy), and were thus not subject to removal. Two hundred Cherokee from the Nantahala area were allowed to stay and assist the U.S. Army. These became the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. Research through landowners had shown that more than a dozen Cherokee migrated down to Rowan County and worked on a farm off the upper end of Woodleaf Road. They were exempt from the march. In the 1960s, I sometimes rode my bike at Rowan Mills and located a small Indian burial ground beside a small creek. I plan to research this area, which is now covered with heavy underbrush.
The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail commemorates the removal of the Cherokee and the paths that 17 Cherokee detachments followed westward.
The trail encompasses about 2,200 miles of land and water routes, traverses portions of nine states and is under the control of the National Park Service.
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Rodney Cress lives in Salisbury. Contact him at rcress@carolina.rr.com