25 November 2015

The Trail of Tears

by Brian Thornton

 A few years back I wrote a book called The Book of Bastards. The following piece on the Trail of Tears was originally intended for that book, but since it centered around a specific incident, rather than around the actions of an individual, it didn't really work thematically. Lately there's been a lot of talk amongst a number of individuals campaigning for the U.S. presidency about registering Muslims, limiting immigration, and basically treating an ethnic and religious minority as second class citizens. 

We've been here before.  

In light of these emerging and troubling facts, I've decided to include my piece on the scar of Cherokee Removal here, since it's about settlers' interactions with Native Americans, and I a descendant of both white southern settlers and displaced Cherokees, am thankful this holiday notions such as "Indian Removal" quite rightly seem unspeakably barbaric to our modern sensibilities.

 Here's hoping they always will. Happy Thanksgiving to all of you and all of yours!

So imagine that you’re a member of one of the tribes of Native Americans that lived in the eastern part of North America when European settlers first landed. Further imagine that instead of fighting the encroaching Europeans, you embraced their technological advances, their way of life, their concepts of God, even of having your own alphabet.

What if, in other words, you did what few if any other tribes tried to do: you tried to straddle a middle ground between your own indigenous culture while adopting what you and the other members of your tribe judged to be the best aspects of European culture? Surely the Europeans, especially those so eager to convert the “heathens” native to the continent, would be pleased and accept you and be impressed by your efforts to both become part of the new country they were building and yet still not lose the distinctiveness of your native traditions, right?

Not if you were the Cherokee Indians of North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.
Cherokee Chief John Ross

The Cherokees did it all: they dressed like the whites, they farmed like the whites, lived in frame clapboard houses like the whites, even bought and owned black slaves to help them bring in cash crops like the whites.

And in the end, none of it mattered.


Because the Cherokees had the bad grace to live on land where gold was discovered in the late 1820s. After that it was only a matter of time before the Cherokees, as had their neighbors the Creeks, Choctaws and Chickasaws before them, were pushed off their land.

Chief Justice John Marshall, who wrote the majority opinion
But the Cherokees had learned much in their study of the ins and outs of white culture. Like any good American who felt they were being treated unfairly, they got lawyers and filed law suits. When the state of Georgia tried to force a cession treaty on them where they “voluntarily” surrendered their lands in the southern Appalachian Mountains, the Cherokees sued. The case, known as Worcester v. Georgia, contested the sovereignty of an individual state with regard to either policing or parceling out Cherokee land, which by treaty right was considered sovereign territory.

This was tied up in court for years, until the Supreme Court heard the case and in 1832 ruled against the state and established as settled law the matter of whether Indians had legal rights to both occupy and control their own land. Several other court victories reinforcing the legal rights of Indians to their treaty lands followed.

Can't take him off of the twenty dollar bill quick enough!
In the end it was all for naught. The United States government is separated into three branches, and while the court system has every obligation to rule on and establish the laws, it is the job of the Legislative branch (Congress) to make appropriate laws in the first place, and of the Executive to enforce said laws. Neither the Congress nor the President (in this case Andrew Jackson, a man who initially made his reputation fighting tribes such as the Creek Confederacy as a general of Tennessee volunteer troops) lifted a finger to halt Cherokee removal.

Jackson is reputed to have said: “Mr. [U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice] Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” He said no such thing. Instead he noted that “the decision of the Supreme Court has fell still born, and they find that they cannot coerce Georgia to yield to its mandate.”

The end result was the forced removal of most of the Cherokee Nation from their ancestral lands beginning in 1838 (some residual tribal members still live in the region, including a group living on a special reservation in western North Carolina). The route these two large groups of Cherokees followed westward through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri into what is now Oklahoma became known in the Cherokee language as “nu na hi du na tlo hi lu i,” which translates as “the Trail Where They Cried.”

More than 4,000 of the 13,000 Cherokees who made the journey perished on the trail; some were infected with smallpox picked up from used blankets that were given to them by a Tennessee sanatorium that had recently suffered an outbreak of this disease against which the Indians had no immunity.

Truly a dark and ignoble chapter in the history of this country–one that continues to be a cautionary tale for successive generations to this very day.

Kinda puts the likes of Donald Trump and his "Muslim Registration" notions into a crystal clear light, doesn't it? Can't say it couldn't happen here, after all.

Because it happened before.

And we all know that "registration" is usually just the first step down a slippery slope toward what in the future will likely be branded a "cautionary tale."

Food for thought.

Happy Thanksgiving.


  1. A good and timely piece.

  2. Choctaw and Chickasaw (enrolled Choctaw here): Thank you!! Also, I will add that before all this happened, the men of every one of those later-removed tribes joined Andrew Jackson to fight the British in the war of 1812 because he promised to protect their lands from the locals and states in return. At the time, he made it clear their presence and arms turned the tide for his battles. But of course his promise vanished. When he broke his word, his close military friend Sam Houston was openly furious. Whatever else he might have been or done, Jackson showed himself to be a double-crossing coward who gave in to the racist states rather than honor his pledge to men who took up arms to support his cause.

  3. Excellent piece. The sad truth is that most of the Europeans who came to this country (the French were largely an exception) were determined to eradicate/exterminate all the native inhabitants so that they could get the land and the wealth. (And we're still trying; the reservations are pretty appalling.) And each successive wave of immigrants tries to block the next wave.

    BTW, Anonymous - Jackson was a racist, pure and simple. He owned slaves - as many as 400 at one time. He believed the Native Americans were inherently inferior - he fought the Creeks and the Seminoles, so why wouldn't he remove the Cherokee, too? “My original convictions upon this subject have been confirmed by the course of events for several years, and experience is every day adding to their strength. That those tribes cannot exist surrounded by our settlements and in continual contact with our citizens is certain. They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.” Andrew Jackson.

  4. Eve, you are right Jackson was a racist. I think the sting is in the betrayal of the agreement. Sometimes when you are faced with an impossible situation, you make a deal with the devil to try and protect your family. When the devil acts true to form, it's no consolation. It compounds the injustice of what was a no-win situation from the beginning, to realize others simply schemed to milk what they could get out of it -- out of you and your families -- for themselves before you went down in flames "anyway."

  5. White supremacists believe that their "race" is superior to the other races. Take blacks, for example. Are we superior to them morally? The holocaust, slavery, treatment of the native Americans tells us otherwise. Physically? A look at our athletics, Olympics again debunks this. (Jesse Owens gave Hitler nightmares). Mentally? MLK jr, Bunche, Carver, (I will not include Carson), and whether you agree with his politics or not, Obama to name just a few. How many more would there be if educational opportunities were equal?
    So what is left to base this "superior" claim on?
    I wasn't aware that Jackson was a racist. Either I slept through that in History class or, more likely, it is not part of the curriculum.
    Thanks for a very educational piece.

  6. I actually have a page about Jackson and slavery: http://pres-slaves.zohosites.com/andrew-jackson.html While 12 presidents owned slaves at some point during their lives, he was the only one who made his living as a slavetrader for part of it. As Lincoln noted, many slaveowners considered slavetrading so despicable they wouldn't even shake the hand of a slave trader when doing business with one.

  7. The one thing we mustn’t forget is that has warned us. He’s said that under him, we’d come to do the unthinkable, the unspeakable, that which was unimaginable.

    Brian, like you, I’m part Indian and part not. Jackson signed the land grant to my ancestors on my mother’s side. My beef is with Lord De La Warr… sent to the new land with a mandate to wipe out the First Nations… and we name a state after him.

    Thanks, Brian.

  8. Thanks,Janice, Anonymous, Eve, Herschel and Leigh for posting. Eve, not surprised by anything you've written here about AJ. To give him minimal credit, my understanding of his attitude toward even allied Indians was that he believed the deportation was the only way to save them from extinction. FWIW.

    Rob is quite dead on about Jackson's attitudes toward slave-trading, and about the attitudes amongst the majority of slave owners in the South about the sale of slaves and those trafficked in their misery being at odds with Jackson's own ideas (read: "I started out impoverished immigrant, and orphaned at a young age, Life has been brutal to me, so whatever I need do to protect and avance the interests of Me and Mine is justified, especially out here on the frontier...").

    Leigh, interesting that you should mention that son of a bitch De La Warr. His is the very first entry in my book, THE BOOK OF BASTARDS. I've pasted it in below.

  9. 1. Lord De La Warr and Jamestown: or “How to steal land from the Indians and keep it ‘Legal’”

    (1607- )

    “A more damned crew hell never vomited.”

    — Virginia Company treasurer George Sandys on the quality of the settlers at Jamestown in 1623

    History teaches us that one of the most time-honored manners in which to acquire property is to simply take it from others. Depending on who is telling the story, this is usually described as either “conquest” or as “theft.” Thus it seems fitting that the initial chapter of a book documenting corrupt practices in America kicks off with a discussion of land-theft on this continent.

    Let’s begin with the “Irish tactics” of Lord De La Warr. During the first three years of its existence, England’s first New World colony at Jamestown saw all but sixty of its original settlers die as a result of a combination of disease, starvation, and increasing Indian attacks.

    Only the timely arrival of our first bastard; newly-appointed governor Thomas West, Lord De La Warr with provisions and more settlers stopped the original colonists from abandoning the site.

    [sidebar] Bastard Background

    In the centuries before Columbus Native Americans acted pretty much as other semi-sedentary cultures did. They fought over the best land, just like the Celts and the Romans and the Aryans and the Persians in the other hemisphere. So by the time Europeans began to explore the Americas human beings had been taking hunting grounds from each other for millennia. When the first English settlers landed at Jamestown in Virginia in 1607 they fit right in to this established tradition. These first settlers weren’t actually settlers. Most of the five-hundred or so men (no women) who came to the New World were so-called “gentlemen,” second sons (if that) of landed aristocrats. In reality this bunch of lazy, mean-spirited bastards were only interested in finding gold as the Spanish had in such abundance in Mexico and Peru. These first English settlers were brutal, ignorant and land-hungry; contemptuous of the “inferior” Indians. The Indians for their part returned the favor. You can guess what happened next.

    [end sidebar]

    Lord De La Warr proved to be Jamestown’s salvation, but there were heavy costs involved, and most of them were borne by the surrounding Native American tribes. A veteran of England’s on-going battles with the Irish, De La Warr employed the tactics he’d learned there against the Powhatans and the other local Algonquian tribes. These included raids on Indian towns, stealing crops, burning cornfields; all tactics the Indians themselves employed in their wars with the English and with each other.

    It was a scene that replayed itself out over and over again along the American frontier over most of the next three centuries. In this, our initial look at “bastards” in American history, we can find plenty to dislike about the prime movers on both sides of this struggle.

    It is worth noting though that the man who started the trend was De La Warr, the English lord and military man. In one of history’s ironies De La Warr failed to profit from his ruthlessness in securing the future of both the Virginia Colony and British claims in North America.

    His mission of saving the Jamestown Colony from extinction accomplished, he passed on his office as governor and set sail for England in 1618. He died during the return voyage, and no one is quite sure what became of his body.

    “And here in Florida, Virginia, New-England, and Cannada, is more land than all the people in Christendome can manure, and yet more to spare than all the natives of those Countries can use and cultivate. The natives are only too happy to share: If this be not a reason sufficient to such tender consciences; for a copper kettle and a few toyes, as beads and hatchets, they will sell you a whole Country.”

    -- Captain John Smith

  10. Thank you, particularly, for the map!

    While I enjoyed it for its own sake, being a map-lover (cartographile???)it was also nice to see the physical depiction of the route followed by my ancestors among the Choctaw and Chickasaw. I too am "Indian and not."

    I wonder if you and Leigh experience what I have: Younger people are almost always surprised to learn I'm part American Indian, but many older folks that sit and talk with me will often wind up asking: "You look like you've got some Indian in you?" An interesting difference (imho) between generations, and perhaps between the ways they view the world.



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