One hundred and seventy five years ago today, thousands of Cherokee men, women, and children trudged through the bitter cold winter toward land designated by the United States as the Indian Territory.
The Cherokee march, part of the government's forced removal of the Seminole, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Creek from the southeastern United States, was the last of the forced removals put in motion by the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
Some parts of the story of the Cherokee's Trail of Tears, as the marches came to be called, is known by many Chattanoogans. Ross's Landing, Brown's Tavern, the Spring Frog Cabin, The Passage and the Brainerd Mission Cemetery all remind us of what happened when greed defeated common humanity.
Much of the story of the people whose lives were so radically altered during the Age of Jackson, however, remains unknown.
Over the next several months, this column will illuminate some of these dark corners of our history. While far from exhaustive, these stories will provide a broad understanding of the Cherokee people and the struggle for sovereignty that unfolded between 1684 and 1838.
According to tribal tradition, the ancestors of the Cherokee who walked or floated the trail west in 1838 migrated south from the Ohio River valley in ancient times. Little is known about their early history. Despite the absence of written records, oral traditions kept alive many stories that provided the base for a sense of Cherokee culture and created a sense of singularity among a people who called themselves the Principle People.
English colonists made the first written descriptions of the Cherokee people, who lived in the upper Piedmont and mountains of South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia at the end of the 17th century. To the colonists, it was an alien world that bore little resemblance to their own habits and culture.
The Cherokee's homeland, these Englishmen came to learn, consisted of four chiefdoms in what now is western North Carolina, South Carolina and East Tennessee. The homeland contained 50 or 60 towns, each surrounded by a large territory claimed as hunting grounds. Together, these hunting grounds included much of present day Tennessee, much of South Carolina, the western portion of North Carolina, and portions of Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama and Georgia.
Cherokee women farmed the land along the many creeks and rivers that ran through their homeland. Cherokee men stalked prey in the vast hunting grounds. Their lives depended on the environment and maintaining a careful balance of all things: farming balanced hunting; women balanced men; plants balanced animals.
Keeping the balance assured harmony and peace; upsetting it led to disaster. Everyday responsibilities, defined along lines of gender, contributed to this sense of order. Men made war, and served as political leaders. Women cooked and, in politics, made recommendations to council meetings and decided the fate of war captives.
These broad commonalities obscured tremendous variety among the Cherokee. They spoke a language of Iroquois origin, a legacy of their time in the north. Yet the language was not a unified one and the dialects spoken in each of the four areas were so different that Cherokees from one region had difficulty understanding Cherokees from another.
In politics, each Cherokee town had its own council. All members of the tribe, men and women, could participate in its discussions. Decisions were reached by building consensus, a process of talking and persuading until there was general agreement. In this system, there was little coordination between the four chiefdoms, except occasionally in times of crisis.
Cherokee life was organized around family and clan relationships. Cherokees traced their lineage through their mothers. Married men lived with their wives' families and clan. Clan members considered themselves as brothers and sisters and did not marry each other. At a practical level, the intermarriage between clans helped reduce rivalries among towns.
Despite the increasing presence of English traders after 1684 and an ever more complicated exchange of cloth, tools, guns and ammunition for animal skins, the Cherokee held fast to their traditions and culture.
Over the next nine decades, however, great changes took place among the Cherokee as they adapted to new realities and created new ways to adjust to new conditions yet retain their own sense of themselves as Cherokee.
Dr. Daryl Black is social and cultural historian of the 18th and 19th century United States. He is currently Executive Director of the Chattanooga History Center. For more visit chattahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.