(Editor's note: Last in a series)
Principal Cherokee Chief John Ross had tried to save his people from removal but, while he failed in that endeavor, he was somewhat successful in negotiating the terms of the forced removal. After extensive meetings with Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett and minor adjustments in the agreement, the secretary felt that he had accomplished what no other governmental official had been able to secure — John Ross's agreement that the Cherokee people would leave their Eastern lands and travel to lands in the Oklahoma territory.
Poinsett's notes hint that he felt this "agreement" lessened the government's responsibility for the anguish being exhibited by the Cherokee and the criticism lobbied against the removal as a "cruel and unusual" punishment on a people who had shared in the young nation's history since the 1790s. Poinsett assured Ross that the Cherokee would be allowed to organize their own movement to the territory in a self-governed and humane process.
Unfortunately, Poinsett's letter to Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott, addressing the new terms, did not reach the general in time to prevent a different type of removal. By May 23, 1838, the general arrived in New Echota and, within three days, the roundups began with two regiments of Georgia infantry clearing one farm at a time as they moved northward through Cherokee lands. As the troops approached each homestead, they encircled the house so that no one was able to flee and spread the alarm. Each family was allowed to take with them only what they as a family could easily carry. Each house and remaining contents would become the property of Georgians who purchased the homestead as a part of the land lottery.
The promises of a self-governed migration to Oklahoma had gone awry. Even more shocking were the specifics of the forced removal. Years later, Rebecca Neugin, a child at the time of the removal, would write about her family's experience, noting "they drove us out of our house to join other prisoners in a stockade." She recounted that her father wanted to fight the soldiers but that her mother "told him that the soldiers would kill him if he did."
A white engineer who was part of a survey team planning a new road near New Echota mentioned in his notes that friends had expressed concern about his job among the Cherokee. "We never think of the subject the Cherokees are a peaceable, inoffensive people."
If the removal itself was not horrific enough, civilians often followed the soldiers and looted the graves, having heard that the custom was to bury family members with jewelry and other valuable artifacts. What option did "peaceable" Cherokee families have against armed soldiers and greedy civilians who did not consider them to be citizens? The answer seemed obvious to the men, women and children herded into the wooden stockades.
It is a story of perspective that covers memories of the stockades and encampments from the north bank of the Tennessee River across from Chattanooga to the western lands in North Carolina. Those who did not inhabit them recalled them as more humane.
Scott wrote that the encampment near Calhoun, Tennessee, was a lovely, shady spot near the river even though the Cherokees often appeared to be "sullen." One of the local missionaries perhaps more accurately described the Cherokee as "prisoners" who had been torn from their homes and now resided in poverty. The fact that Chief John Ross was in route from Washington, D.C., to organize the removal was unknown to Scott until after the Cherokees had been gathered into the camps. Poinsett's letter finally arrived, much too late.
Upon arrival at Red Clay, Ross attempted to enforce the agreement he had hammered out with Poinsett but there was no undoing what had happened in his absence. The principal chief turned his attention to creating the most hospitable path possible for his people, many of whom were now weakened, malnourished and devastated at the loss of home and personal property.
For Chief John Ross, the trail would end in Oklahoma, where he would continue to serve his people for almost 30 years. However, along that trail, he would bury his beloved wife, Elizabeth [Quatie], and hundreds of his Cherokee family; those memories would haunt him for the remainder of his life.
The Cherokee Removal remains a part of our nation's collective conscience. And, like Chief Ross, we remain haunted by the choices made and the actions taken.
Linda Moss Mines is the Chattanooga-Hamilton County historian, a member of the Tennessee Historical Commission and regent, Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR.